By Younas Chaudhary
On a sunny day in November 1973, the Sahiwal (Montgomery) railway station in Pakistan was unusually packed. Around 25 of my family members had arrived to send me and my wife off to Canada. I was 21, about to fly Saath Samundar Par (“over the seven seas” in Punjabi) for good!
“I don’t think he will ever come back…this could be his last journey,” said the locals. Going to the West in the early seventies was like reaching for the moon!
Decades later, I often think back about my last journey, flying away from where I was raised, in a remote village in Pakistan with dirt roads, far away to an unknown future, in the distant country of Canada.
My folks had been preparing for my departure for months in advance. Shortly before boarding the train to Karachi, my father gave me $30. He had gone to a special bank to get the Pakistani rupees converted into dollars and told me to put them in a separate, safe pocket. I was told not to spend it until I reached my destination in Edmonton, and that was all I had in my possession when I first landed in Canada in 1973.
Before I left for this long journey, my mother had not slept properly for several days, and my father was also worried that I was leaving for a distant land. We had many close relatives camp at our home for several days in advance to see us off. In our family of six at that time, two were already leaving, and my parents were sad that their son was departing for greener pastures.
As the train pulled out of the station, I could see the somber look on my parents’ faces: my mother and younger sister were particularly sad. My mother hugged me several times before I left. I was sad to see them in that condition, though at the same time I was happy to seek a better future.
Next, I headed for my first-ever journey on an airplane, and as soon as I boarded the Air France flight from Karachi, there was an odd and different smell, a smell so different from the poor, parched village that I had come from. The food was mostly European, which I had a hard time eating—I kept hoping to see some pita bread, achar (spicy pickles), and curry, but they never came!
Our first stop was in Paris, and my trip to the bathroom became an adventure in itself. I had never seen a western-style toilet in my life, and I was confused. “How do I sit on this thing?” I was used to pit latrines, and this new style toilet looked odd to me, and it took me some time to figure it out!
Montreal was my first port of entry into Canada, and there a smiling immigration officer welcomed us. Our final destination was Edmonton, which made for a very long journey in those days. I was amazed to see from my airplane window so many star-like structures down below as the plane began its final descent around dusk. It was a surreal change from the view in my barren and wide-open hometown landscape, where I had only seen stars high above us in the wide-open sky.
My arrival in Edmonton was a huge culture shock for me as I saw different kinds of buildings, wooden homes, and so many white people all around! I had hardly ever seen a white person in Sahiwal and had never seen one in my village in Pakistan in the seventies; and if one ever did come to my city, he was always an object of curiosity for everyone on the city streets. The locals would flock around a white person, look in bewilderment at his brown or blonde hair, his blue eyes, and his white skin—because they had simply never seen someone with such colors before.
It took me some time to adjust to this Western culture. I loved how the seasons changed in Pakistan, and I missed the simple people that I had left behind. I missed my daily ritual of helping prepare the hookah for my grandma in the morning, lunch time, and dinner, and feeding the buffalo every day who provided milk, butter and lassi for our family.
I still remember the sight of my grandmother coming out of her room and finding a warm place to sit in front of the morning sun, with lots of sunlight where she could position her charpai, a traditional wooden bed used across South Asia. Soon others would join in and sit on their charpais gossiping, sitting, or standing around talking.
In an open friendly space like that, locals would spend a lot of time together every day, interacting with one another. They all openly shared stories every day of their current issues at home, in-law complaints, relatives’ issues, marriage issues, children’s issues, love affairs, past love affairs, impending tragedies, projections for land sales, bossiness issues, and so on—all the many things that impacted their daily lives.
Luckily, in those days, we never needed help from psychiatrists, therapists, or other mental health practitioners due to this close daily social interaction where everyone looked out for one another.
Looking back, here are a few lessons about my roots that I learned from my first trip to Canada:
1. Our origin, childhood culture, and roots matter, because they shape us as human beings, and we should be proud of them.
2. When you emigrate to a new culture, you can assimilate and learn from and about that culture but be sure to keep yours at the same time.
3. Every human being has a heritage that is uniquely his/her own and should be rightfully be respected.
4. Learning about different cultures and languages broadens all our horizons and makes us think broadly of life’s daily challenges.
5. Never forget the roots from which you came.
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