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Foreigners

Please have two seats since there are two of you. Now we are nicely arranged. I’m sorry we have to be divided like this, me on this side of the plastic partition and you on the other side. This is supposed to protect me from harm, even though they took away your bags and ran scanners down your persons the moment you were allowed to enter the unremarkable premises of the American Consulate. Admit it—it’s better in here than the disorderly mess of Karachi outside. It makes me miss the green, dust-free land of my birth: Riverdale, U.S.A.

I hope you didn’t take that personally. Kindly put your passports, bank statements, visa applications, photos, birth certificates, marriage certificate, and proof of house-ownership over here.

Husband and wife, I see. Married for—hmm, here’s my calculator, forty-three years. That is a long time. How have things been? Any rocky moments? Any scars from words that left wounds? I saw how you pulled the chair out for her, sir. I saw you hand him his glasses, ma’am. Is this what love can look like in old age? Gallantry, dispensing of medicine, helping with the other’s failing faculties? Perhaps we will save that discussion for another day.

Sir, would you please write your name down on this piece of paper? Bader. Oh, am I saying it wrong? Budder? Close enough, you say. Now please write it in your own native script on the same piece of paper, thank you. Please use a tissue to wipe the sweat off your forehead. Would you also write yours both ways, ma’am? Ameenah. You look pleased that I got it right. Look at the smooth curves and dips in the letters of your own language. Positively poetic. I will keep this paper for my records.

I see you have been to the United States of America once before. Why on earth would you want to visit the same place twice? You say it’s to see your daughter, whom you love dearly. Why is that? No, not why you love her. That is an unfathomable emotion of magnificent proportions, I’m sure. I wouldn’t know because my wife and I cannot have children. What I want to know is, why do you want to travel to see her? Oh, it’s because she’s about to have her second baby, you say. You don’t have to look embarrassed by your bounties, ma’am, unless you think you got them at my expense. Did you? I thought not. In that case, I’m happy for you and your family. We all have our purposes on earth. Your daughter’s is to fill it with humans. Mine is to interview visa applicants.

How long are you planning on staying with her? Three long months, you say. Your eager smile gives away that you cannot wait to cook for her and clean for her and look after her children. Does she stick out in her odd clothes in her adopted land? Does she make mistakes in her pronunciation? Are her r’s smooth and thick like a twelve-dollar kale smoothie? Is her house full of the smell of fried onions? The cook we have here makes our kitchen smell like that sometimes. It reminds me of my mother. Her meals were filling, but not very tasty. Oh, your daughter has assimilated fully, you say. She lives in a house in the suburbs, bakes for block parties, and has coffee with the mothers from her son’s preschool. Now you are pushing a picture toward me, through the narrow space between us, of a young lady who looks nothing like you. Your daughter, I presume? She wraps her faith around her head in a different fashion than yours, ma’am. Does that worry you? Has she lost her way? You say she doesn’t discuss her choices with you. You say she proudly represents her religion in interfaith meetings in her city, and helps raise money for churches in need of repair. My mother was not a regular church-goer. She asked me if there were Christian churches here in Karachi, and I told her that there must be because I remembered reading about them once, and that last Christmas I saw a skinny, brown Santa in a mall near our neighborhood.

And what is your daughter’s name? Nora. Why, that’s a name you’ll find in the Book of Baby Names in my house. It sits on my wife’s bedside table. You must speak closer to the partition, sir. She changed her name from Noreen to Nora? Your wife is frowning, sir, and putting her hand on top of yours to make you stop talking. I’d like to hear from her, if you don’t mind. You are upset that she discarded the name her grandmother had chosen for her, ma’am? If it makes you feel better, it matters not a whit what your child calls herself out of insecurity, because to the American public she looks nothing like a Nora. Now I’d like you to write down her name here on this piece of paper, both ways. Thank you. I will keep this paper and her photo for my records.

Please wipe off your look of alarm and stop digging your fingers into your husband’s arm. This is merely common procedure.

Your forms indicate that you also have a son. And where does he live, if I may ask? You understand that I can, of course, ask you this, or any other question at all, because it’s one of the powers given to me. I can also use any tone I like. That is also one of my powers. He has been in London since he was twenty-five years old? London, U.K., or London, U.S.A.? It is imperative that you are specific about these things. London, England? He left his bank job to write about cars in a magazine? You are pursing your lips, sir. I will note that down right here on my legal pad. Perhaps I should enter it into my computer, but there doesn’t seem to be a field on the form in which to register your disapproval. Then again, I do prefer the feel of the movement of an expensive nib over heavy grammage paper. Just between you and me, they have the best stationery here. I’ve never seen anything like it—not in any other place I’ve worked before. What was my last place of employment? Oh, ma’am, you cannot ask me that. Only I get to ask you things about your life, your opinions, your choices, your past, your future, and your food preferences. You understand, it’s just the nature of my job. Sir, you need not glare at your wife like that, she hasn’t done anything to jeopardize your chances for visa approval. She only asked out of maternal curiosity, something my own dear mother possessed a lot of until she passed away last year. I got the news over the phone. You do not need to say you’re sorry.

You have visited your son once. How did that go? He took you to Paris, you say. How terribly generous of him. Did you go there in the spring? Did you have to avert your eyes many times? Is your son single? Oh, he got married last year. Congratulations. You do not look pleased about that. May I say that your soured look adds years to your face, ma’am? He got married to a foreigner, you say. A white girl. Does she not come under the umbrella of the Abrahamic faiths? Is she not equipped with a good moral compass? That does not matter, you say. Did your son and this girl he fell in love with seek premarital counseling? Did they discuss religious and cultural boundaries, children of varying hues, the difficulty of trying forever to stand on the narrow strip of common ground between them? You say you showed him pictures of nice, sensible girls from your own country, and he rejected all of them. You are worried that the white girl’s way of cooking a curry is too different from yours. Please write down the names of your son and daughter-in-law here, from left to right, then from right to left. Mm-oh-sin. You see how I slowed down there to catch that tricky h sound. Emma. That is a wholesome name. How shrunken it looks in your script. I shall keep this paper for my records.

It says here that you first went to the U.S. three years ago. When you were in the plane, did you feel an indescribable closeness with fellow passengers who looked and sounded like you? Did you, in certain moments during the journey, think that you were all flying to save relationships with your children? After you entered the airport together, did your brown skins dilute until you were scattered specks among lighter shades? Did you and your husband have to hold each other’s hands to reassure yourselves of your legitimate existences? Was the effort to speak in English too much to bear? You kept slipping into your mother tongue, you say. That must have resulted in some confusion and mild terror. Did Americans sound just like they do on TV shows? Do I look like a person from a sitcom?

You say you really like my country, sir. Yes, it is a beautiful place, for the most part. Yes, the malls are big and the roads are wide and there is law and order, for the most part. The lawns have sprinklers, and fair-skinned children who are the picture of health ride their bicycles after school. And there is food, yes, so much food. You were impressed by how people didn’t give your foreign outfits a second glance? Being politely ignored can be a comfort sometimes, I agree. You say that you found yourself pleasantly unafraid when going to your place of worship. You found Americans most kind when your daughter asked for help with the car when it broke down on the way to the mosque. When you reached there, did you and others like you congregate like lost birds? Did you seek out histories similar to yours in the lines of other faces? Did you warm your hands in theirs and they in yours as you exchanged names of cities you were from? Did the aching muscle of your tongue relax as it stretched itself into familiar words?

Can you please write, in your own pretty letters, “How do you do?” and the answer to that, “I am fine, thank you!”? Yes, I have tried to learn to say these sounds, but the “ha” sticks in my throat and I cannot say “kha” without sounding like I need respiratory assistance. Oh, you are pointing at your throat, ma’am. Now you sound like you are choking. Sir, please pat your wife on her back just in case. Thank you.

Has your daughter ever left the comfort of her home to make a trip back here? Once, you say, two years ago. She had a big red suitcase and half of it was full of gifts, you recall fondly. Sweaters and shirts for her father, shoes and scarves for her mother. A new watch and a bottle of perfume each. She once said that the heat and the chaos in the city of her birth were stifling her. Perhaps she really meant your home but kept that thought locked up. Perhaps she was reminded of things she’d rather forget. When my wife and I go back, we’ll leave behind here things we’d rather not remember. No, ma’am, I cannot disclose to you where in the States we will return to. I must remind you that I’m the only one allowed to ask questions here. I shall make a note of your interest in my future whereabouts. Please wipe off your look of alarm and stop digging your fingers into your husband’s arm. This is merely common procedure.

I must commend you on your neat handwriting. You say you filled out both applications all by yourself, sir. Did your wife not fill her own form? Oh, she signed her name in her own hand, you say. Could you not trust her to not make mistakes? Did you stand behind her, breathing down her neck, to make sure her trembling signature was on the line? My wife writes letters every day. There are piles of them on a corner of our table, waiting to be sent. And she has beautiful handwriting too. I think she writes to old school friends, and to people who have moved away. For a while, she wrote to my mother and my mother wrote back. I did not read those letters. When we spend time together, we talk about the parks we will visit and the wildlife we’ll see and the food we’d like to eat in each state back home.

How long has it been since you last saw your son? He visited here with his wife a few months ago, you say. Is she very terribly obviously British? Did she at all try to soften her clipped accent when talking to you? Was she willing to stand by your son through thick and thin, in a way that was worthy of a love song from the West? Was she unnerved by the calls to prayer five times a day? You say she managed to learn a few words in your language, and wear the clothes you grudgingly bought for her. You say you held your breath and watched her face the whole time she was in your home. You are looking old again, ma’am. When you waved good-bye to your son at the airport, did your heart turn over in your chest? Did you stay awake that night wondering if you’d waved to her too? Was your last thought, before sleep came, of their possible children? You say you have already picked out their names in your head.

You know that you will not understand what your grandchildren will say, and they will not understand your nostalgia, your sentimentality, your wrinkled wish to hear them talk in your native tongue.

My wife says she would like our child—should we miraculously be blessed with one—to have many children. Sometimes I worry that I don’t want a child as much as she does anymore. She wears long shirts and loose pants and sits in meditation. My mother took to wearing floral blouses when she moved to Florida. It’s what everyone wore there, she said.

I see you own a house here. Is that the place where everything started going wrong with your children, even as they were driven to private schools and back by their chauffeurs? Did you not read the works of great writers from your part of the world to them when they were young? Did you not teach them nuance, syntax, and semantics? You are looking rueful about missed opportunities. I shall make a note of that. You say it is your husband’s fault because he installed cable TV. Your daughter learned how to say “yeah” and that there were places in the world with no clamor and humidity, and your son learned that he needed pocket money. Sir, please do not shush your wife. Everything is relevant.

Is your house big and empty now? You say the last time it was full was at your daughter’s wedding after which she flew far, far away. Do you have servants to dust all the unused furniture? Do you keep your valuables in the bank? Do you faithfully pay your taxes?

Now, you must answer me truthfully. Remember, if you lie, I will find out. Have you ever been involved in any extreme religious activities? Does your faith not waver? Do you really believe? Do you hold yourself accountable for your sins and mistakes? You say your husband doesn’t always say his prayers. Sir, you must understand that this causes your wife pain. Ma’am, don’t nag your husband. You wouldn’t like to lose him. My wife has a collection of staggeringly beautiful rosaries. She cleans them once a week, then puts them back. I don’t know, maybe the colors are spiritual enough for her. Once I held a blue one, but felt nothing.

Do you wear comfortable shoes when traveling? You understand that it is best not to look too different. When walking outside, it is better to talk about the weather, your grandchildren, what you’d like for lunch. It is better to speak in English, no matter how broken. You’re always finger-printed at the airport, you say? That is just part of normal procedure, sir. We all take our shoes and belts off, we all put our hands up in the air and turn ourselves around. Once I was stuck behind a young couple trying to fold their baby’s stroller so it could go on the scanner belt. The baby was squalling and the mother looked terrible and the father was muttering. So you see, sir, you cannot really complain.

Why do you think you should be given the visas? Is it really right to encourage this system of borders, of suspicion? Shouldn’t we all be one big family on earth? You look unsure about the right answer to this one. Well, I, for one, like everything to be in its own tidy little space. My black socks, blue socks, and gray socks have their own compartments. They do not mingle and do not get lost. I believe we’re of the same mind there, you and I. I shall make a note of that.

You say you miss your daughter and grandchildren terribly, even the as-yet-unborn one. Does your daughter send you flowers on your birthday, or at least a special message on the phone? She takes out time for you every Friday, I see. In what language does she bring up past grievances? Your relationship is improving with the passage of time, you say. I hope she knows that you are already old, and your fingers tremble a little, and your hair under your scarf is very gray.

Do you have health insurance? Have you imagined having a heart attack in a foreign country? Have you planned the necessary conversations in multiple languages, in such a scenario? Do you think your son and his wife will take the first flight out to see you? Would they remember the words of the prayers that would have to be said? It would be a glorious thing if you caused the whole family to be reunited on American soil. A departure that would stay in the hearts long after you’re gone. You look pale, sir. I don’t fear death myself, though I would prefer an instant one, and I would prefer to have it in the U.S. It would mean less paperwork for my wife.

I don’t know what to make of my wife’s choices in clothes and the glittering rosaries and the drifty look on her face. They all confuse me. Sometimes I think I made a mistake bringing us here. But the good news is that, in a couple of months, we pack up and go back to the States. My term here is almost at an end. It will be nice to be home again, where addresses have zip codes and kids sell lemonade and there’s baseball on TV, even though I do not like baseball.

When you have been away for too long, do you miss the names of your streets? Do you look at clear skies and miss the fumes and the smells and the sheer noise of this city? Do you miss walking to the mosque with other retired men? Is it too quiet for you in the homes of your children sometimes because they are inexplicably busy? Do you follow the news from home? You are always “up-to-date,” as you say. I suppose you would like to move out of your country, this country, wouldn’t you? Your children enjoy first-world comforts—why not make your own twilight years easy? You could find a section of a city where others like you live, largely out of sight. My mother gave up on the cold Chicago winters after her second husband died. When she got to Florida, she said she should’ve gone there sooner.

She worried about my safety when I told her that I was moving all the way here, said she was sure to see my face on TV one of these days, dead in a bomb explosion. She slipped on a bar of soap in the shower and died. Do you use antislip mats? You must. Tell your daughter and your son to use them, as well as their spouses. Even the ones you don’t like.

You say you would really rather continue living here than anywhere else. I see you are shrugging your shoulders and smiling in a self-conscious way. There is no need to be embarrassed, sir. We can’t help our preference for the place we’d rather be when watching TV in the evening. And if we’re lucky, that’s where we get to be buried.

I think my mother liked Florida. She made eight new friends in her first month there. She never had cholesterol problems, or blood pressure problems. She had a loud voice. She might have been singing when she slipped and fell and died. I only ever saw her condo in a picture she sent me. She was standing in front of it in a pink and green shirt. No, you may not ask what her name was. Look how the sun has slipped lower in the sky and made the room’s fluorescent lights brighter. Your skin and lips appear dry through the Plexiglas. Is that why you take off your glasses and rub your eyes, sir?

When I am back where I come from, will my wife and I look at the news on the TV and exclaim, “We know that place!”? Will the colors on the screen remind her briefly of her rosaries, tossed somewhere among a jumble of other things she doesn’t need, in the room she had started to paint baby blue but stopped?

And when you are back here where you come from, will you wonder out loud several times a day about how the taxi cabs look so different, yet they all drive the same way? Will you hope the phone rings, so you can tell this to your son or daughter? Will you eat your food with your fingers and I with a spoon? Will you remember that the s is silent in “Illinois,” and will I forget the word for horse in your language? Will I remember that one evening when I sat working late, a janitor bought me a samosa and a Pepsi? Will you remember the lady in your daughter’s neighborhood who welcomed you with a plate of peanut butter cookies? If we see each other again, on whose land will it be?