By Nabeeha Chaudhary, M.A. student.
Insight from Washington D.C., U.S.A.
Guess what I did for my birthday this year? Courtesy of the Jackson School (JSIS) and the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), I received an all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C., an opportunity to participate in a conference on “Diversity in International Affairs,” and a chance to meet some great students and professionals working on fascinating projects around the world.
It was my first time in D.C. and I was a bit worried about navigating my way through a new city, especially since I had an appointment to meet with a JSIS alum at the Chamber of Commerce within an hour after my plane landed. Navigation turned out to be pretty easy—a little thanks to the fact that most U.S. downtowns follow a similar pattern (and some thanks to Google of course). D.C. seemed similar to most American cities on the surface but I know from experience that real differences between cities begin to stand out once you start living in one longer than a few weeks. Cultural differences, especially, are not a monopoly of foreign countries but are very much present within countries as well.
On this trip I got my first dose of East Coast versus West Coast office culture starting from the minute I began debating what would be appropriate to wear. Kelly Voss, from JSIS Career Services, helped by making the difference much easier to understand when she told me, “Cardigans are the blazers of the West Coast!” As one speaker after another at the conference stressed the importance of having more diversity in the workforce I looked around at the audience and smiled. In spite of small differences in dressing, there was an overall uniformity of sorts—the dominating business culture at work, which also extends to other parts of the world partly as a result of colonization and globalization.
A girl with the same last name as mine (but spelled differently) came up to me and asked if I was from Pakistan. Surprised, I said yes and asked her how she knew. She stated as a matter of fact, “Oh that’s how the Pakistanis usually spell Chaudhary. In Bangladesh we use a ‘w’ instead.” I was just as fascinated by this little tip as I had once been when someone told me that one way to tell if a woman was Indian and not Pakistani was by the design of her shalwar! My years living in South Asia, or studying it, had never provided me with these interesting bits of information. I guess many such distinctions and markers become more relevant when one is outside one’s own country.
Whenever we meet new people, especially at events like conferences, we end up representing our schools/organizations to some extent. In addition to that, those of us who have grown up abroad tend to be representatives of our respective countries too, whether it be in the way we conduct ourselves–defying or reinforcing stereotypes– or in the form of direct questions people ask about our country’s culture, politics, geography and so on. I always enjoy talking to people about Pakistan and the more I am asked to describe it the more I become aware of how hard it is to explain seemingly simple things, like “what an average meal is like” or “what people do for fun,” simply because often there is so much socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity even within a country that it is not easy to pinpoint an “average.”
Coming back to D.C.—walking around the city I did some typical touristy stuff, I met up with old friends, and I ended up having to wait to cross the road till President Obama’s cavalcade passed by on the way to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. As people around me took out their phones to make videos, I grumbled to my friend about how I felt like I was back in Pakistan with the road blocked for some VIP. Granted that this was a much quicker and more efficient process but, at the end of the day, it only reminded me that no matter where you go in the world some things never change.
Nabeeha Chaudhary is an M.A. student in the South Asian Studies department in the Jackson School. She grew up in Lahore and Karachi and studied at the University of Karachi for more than two years before transferring to Miami University where she completed her B.A. in English Literature. Her current research interests revolve around Media, Education, and Gender Disparities in South Asia with a focus on Pakistan.
Nabeeha wrote a previous blog post for JSIS Correspondence about being in Karachi to visit friends and family and to collect material for her M.A. project on the representation of women in Pakistani television serials.