Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Game of Chickens

In between all the visits with family, I’ve also managed to get some shopping done. I had already received my assignment from Saeeda, and in return for being allowed to take this week off by myself to visit Pakistan, I was to bring back some things that are hard to find Stateside. As part of the treasure hunt that I’ve been on, I’ve had to survive the daily Dance with Death that is Karachi traffic.

I’ve realized that I no longer have the stomach for the game of chicken that takes place on the roads. Basically, the larger or faster the moving body, the more legitimate its claim to the “right of way.” Throw in a transportation infrastructure that is not built to handle the daily volume of traffic, and ignite it with ridiculously poor planning (intersecting thoroughfares with no exits) and you have the explosive mess that is Karachi traffic.

The irony is that this is the city where I first learned to drive, but I now cringe in the passenger seat when the driver takes actions considered basic Driving Commandments of Karachi: “Thou shalt never give way”; “Thou shalt take the color of the traffic light as a suggestion only”; “If the shortest distance between your current location and your destination requires driving into oncoming traffic, thou shalt do so” and so on.

What I found myself amazed by on this trip was the ability of the people to defy the laws of Physics and squeeze multiple cars into a lane already choked off by double-parked cars and motorcycles (normal in high traffic shopping areas). I’d be sitting in the passenger seat, watching an oncoming SUV bear down on us on a strip of roadway that in no way could accommodate our two cars, and yet somehow my dad and the SUV would create space without hitting each other or the aforementioned double-parked vehicles. This phenomenon has definitely given me greater appreciation for the amount of elbow room we enjoy in the US, and of the fact that laws of Physics are just a relative thing.

The aforementioned narrow lane full of double-parked cars. It was here that my car faced off against the world's largest SUV, and both of us squeezed by each other by the skin of our teeth.

Monday, June 3, 2013


It was with some trepidation that I set out on Monday. I was going to be visiting family that I hadn’t seen in a really long time. What would they look like? Would we have anything to talk about? The weather did not help.  It’s 104 degrees with 47% humidity - weather that will bake you while making you feel that you are drowning. And the roads, though a little better than what I remember, still feel like you’re traversing a moonscape in certain parts of town.

Still, all of this was forgotten with the very first visit to my cousin’s home – a small apartment in a densely populated area of Karachi (not that there are many sparsely populated parts of Karachi). I hadn’t seen him or his kids in eight years, but it felt like I had just been there a few months back. There was backslapping and joking. Shock on my part at how much older my nephews and nieces had become. Disappointment on my cousin’s part that my wife and munchkins were not with us. But in all, a great reunion.

And this same story played out over and over again, at every home that we visited. There would be a look of surprise on the part of the host (social visits here are usually unannounced, and no one in my family knew that I would be visiting Pakistan), then there would be hugs all around, some initial small talk, and very soon we’d be gossiping as if we had just seen each other a few weeks back.

The day was long as we wrapped up our last visit, but it has been fulfilling.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at my childhood home, which my parents recently sold and are now temporarily occupying as renters. I was afraid that in the last eight years all signs of familiarity would have vanished, and that I would struggle to remember the way things were. Today, however, was my first day home, and it has been such a pleasant experience. Everything is just as I remember, with a few minor variations in furniture, or in the configuration of the potted plants, or perhaps in the pictures of the grandkids that are on the walls.

My room is the same as it was from when I first moved away to go to college in the US. There is the picture from when I was in 3rd grade and which my parents still insist on keeping. The medal I won in my school’s art competition in 1985 still hangs on the wall, clearly inscribed with the words “The Sports Shop” in case I needed to recall where the medal was purchased. There is also the random 500 piece puzzle that I put together as a child, which my father decided needed to be framed and hung for display to all. Mercifully, my parents replaced my furniture with something a little more mature.

The funny thing is that I instinctively knew how to turn the door knob just so to prevent it from coming off the door, or which power switch controlled which light and in what sequence I liked to turn things on. I knew which curtain to keep open to allow in the best daylight into the room without making the room too hot. And I remembered the secret closet hiding place I used in my teen years, and which I was smart enough to empty out a long time ago.

Since my parents just recently sold the house, they are still working on disposing of much of the junk that has accumulated over the course of several decades. What is left for sale includes toys that I used to play with. The Lego sets, the puzzles, my magician’s kits, as well as some ancient electronics that are still fully functional. It was this last that I am going to have to figure out how to take back to the US with me, as I’m sure that these are now vintage and would fetch a smart price if I were to try and sell them.

Meeting Khursheed, our butler-driver-handyman-chef all-in-one was fun too. He hasn’t aged or changed, but was offended that I didn’t bring the wife and kids, especially since he has not met the latter yet. Soon, I promised him.

Between the slow return to familiar surroundings, exploring the neighborhood by foot, and eating fresh desi food, my first day back has been an amazing experience, and one that I so badly wish I could have shared with Saeeda. Still, I’m excited for the rest of the week, when we begin visiting family.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Going Home

It’s been eight years, which is far too long. Eight years since I’ve been back to Pakistan. Eight years since I’ve visited my extended family. It’s funny though, because even that term – extended family – has no meaning for the people of that region. There is no such thing as “extended” because you’re always just “family”. So to have been away for eight years is entirely too long, but I’m headed home now.

A work conference in Turkey provided the best excuse possible to take some vacation and book a four hour onward flight to Pakistan. So here I am, on the plane, about to land in Karachi. I’ve barely slept in the last week because of work and travel, but I’m still strangely alert and excited, even by the small stuff. Such as the all-Urdu chatter in the plane, reminding me of a language that I barely speak now. Or the uniquely desi (but inexplicable) need for my fellow passengers to immediately open the overhead bins the moment the plane lands, despite the seat belt sign or the fact that we have to continue taxiing for another 15 minutes. Or the uniquely desi aversion to deodorant, a fact that I am reminded of as my eyes tear up and my nose hairs begin to singe once the pilot turns off the air conditioning. But then the plane doors open and the line starts inching slowly forward, and all is forgotten.

Because I’m home.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Product differentiation vampires

Nuha came down with a fever yesterday evening.  Ever since we had the scare of our lives last year when she went into febrile seizures, we've been apprehensive whenever her temperature rises.  Today there were a few instances when it hit 103 degrees, so Saeeda made the call and I took her into urgent care.

There wasn't anything to worry about - the doctor found a mild infection that needed an antibiotic, so I decided to pick up the prescription at at the nearby Walgreens.  It was while the pharmacist was completing the transaction there that he asked me a question I was not prepared for.

"Would you like that flavored?" he asked.

Puzzled look on Faisal's face. We're talking about antibiotics, not lattes, right?

"Uh.  Is that an option?"

"Sure - we can make it cherry or strawberry flavored."

Cool, I thought.  I wish this had been around back when I was a child and my mother was shoving the world's worst tasting concoctions down my throat.  Back then, you measured the potency of a medicine by how badly it burned your throat as it went down.  The more gag-inducing the medicine, the more likely it was to annihilate whatever was bothering you.

"Um, ok, sure," I said.

"That'll be $2.99 extra."

And just like that, it was oh hell no time.  First of all, I was annoyed that some executive thought it cool to make flavoring an option for children's medicine rather than keep it standard and making life easier for parents all over the world.  Second, the economist in me was annoyed that Walgreen's expected me to believe that adding a spritz of flavoring could possibly cost almost $3 extra for a generic medicine that didn't cost that much to begin with.  Finally, I was incensed that this whole idea was a play on a vulnerable parent's susceptibility at a time when sick children were likely to be waiting at home.

I decided to decline the offer for a tastier antibiotic, and mentally made a note to never become a product differentiation vampire as a marketer myself.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Housework x10

People told me that having a second child would more than double the work for us.  That the second child would create one of the toughest transitions I would experience as a parent.  I listened politely, because I didn't entirely believe them.  And for the most part, I feel that I was right - yes there's more work to do in the two weeks since Ziyad made his entrance, but it's no tougher a transition than when we had our first.  What has broadsided me is the amount of housework.

All my wife and I do now is pick-up stuff and put it back in its place.  We turn around, and our entire universe is instantly thrown into chaos.  So back we go again, redressing naked dolls, replacing refrigerator magnets (why do we have so many?), and re-organizing the DVD shelf (why does my Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Xbox game have a copy of the Potty Power: How to Train your Toddler in 5 Easy Days DVD?). We're in hell, assigned the Sysiphean task of rolling the proverbial boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back on us.  And Hades (our daughter) mocks us.  You see, the corollary to having a second child is that one of us can no longer clean up while the other distracts the cause of the mess.  We are now constantly busy and distracted - while one of us tends to a chore, the other is busy with Ziyad.  Which means that Nuha has the run of the house.

Used to be a time when if there was silence my wife and I would breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that either a) Nuha was asleep, or b) she was keeping herself busy with her toys.  Now, when there is silence, it is cause for immediate alarm and a reason for the Khan household to move immediately to code blue.

Nuha left to her own for 10 minutes as I clean dishes:

The tormentor, mocking me (hint: I'm the one in my undershirt, dishtowel on my shoulder, and a haggard look on my face):

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two weeks later

So Ziyad has been home now for two weeks now, and it's amazing the transformation that has taken place in such a short period of time.  For one, he is a better feeder than his older sister ever was at this age, which means that he is filling out his newborn clothes at a rapid pace.  Nuha was a tiny baby for a long time - Ziyad is adding heft quickly.

I'm not sure why I thought child number two would provide us with the same experience as the first one, but already the differences are starting to make themselves clear.  Ziyad is a mellow baby, crying occasionally, but mostly only for food.  Putting him to sleep isn't hard, whereas Nuha required all sorts of rocking and walking.  Our parenting style has changed too, from the classic over-attention and fussing to a more relaxed "he'll be fine" attitude.  I remember how when Nuha was born Saeeda would hang at the edge of our bed all night long, drifting asleep for 5 minutes before darting awake to see if Nuha was ok.  Now Saeeda's reaction is to feed Ziyad, putting him to sleep, and slap me awake if Ziyad starts to cry so that I can do diaper changes/swaddling/rocking to sleep.  This whole having to parent thing is a lot of work.

I'm going to find out more, I guess, as my paternity leave started on Monday.  That day was fine, as Nuha was in daycare.  Tuesday, however, was not so smooth - elder sister was home, had the run of the house, and decided that having mom and dad's attention diverted away from her is not that cool a thing.  Lots of throwing things, screaming, and generally pushing boundaries.  By the end I was exhausted, as I was tasked with keeping Nuha away from Saeeda and the baby.  I might have to rethink growing the family to five kids.