One of the stereotypes that young, college students and graduates in Pakistan wield around and agree on is how Americans can be so stupid. They’re too wrapped up in their nice, first-world lives with automatic cars and blue nail polish and have absolutely no clue about what’s going on in the rest of the world and the many people who live in shacks with tin roofs or the diversity that exists in countries they have simply labeled with one photograph, maybe of a starved African child or a woman in a veil.
Well, if you ever came to the school of social work, your comfortable cloak of righteousness would be ripped off within minutes.
Two things that I have realized about myself: I’m not as liberal as I had imagined about people’s freedom to live and do as they please. Neither am I as compassionate as I have been trying to be all my life. I’ve met Americans (albeit mostly females) who have travelled all over the world, worked in orphanages in India and clinics in Kenya – when they were in their teens! I think back to how hard it was to get students in my university to volunteer for two hours a week at a place barely 20 minutes away.
Not only have they already gone to the underprivileged countries, they plan to go back. They’ve learnt the languages, the food, the culture and brought it back with them. It is impressive and I hereby take my half-baked stereotypes and bury them in a deep, deep hole. Then I take off my hat to them and hope that I can cultivate a passion to help and to grow as a person like them.
“What if they need something at night?” the curly-haired 17-year old looks up incredulously at the four other young women clustered in a group in the dinghy office. The yellow light casts pale shadows around the posters on the wall, the dusty pedestal fan sleeping in the corner. It is almost eight pm and time for the volunteers at the orphanage to head back to their dorms on the second floor.
But tonight there seems to be problem.
“I think at least five of the kids have the flu,” continued the girl, “they might get choked up or scared or something in the night. I think we should maybe spend the night with them in their dorm.”
“Uhh and catch the flu? I don’t think so! We just got here and it would not help to fall sick so soon!” the other volunteers seemed to be in synch.
The curly-haired girl stared at them and stuck out her lips indignantly. Fine. “Well, I’m going to stay there.”
The fans turn slowly on the ceiling and the girls whisper, the rustling of sheets and intermittent coughing and sneezing is not like the steady hum of air-conditioning that you can easily fall asleep to. But when her eyes flutter open, the girl realizes she had managed to slip into unconsciousness.
“Excuse me.” There is a small child standing right by her bedside, looking at her from the gray shadows of the corner.
After making sure her heart was still where it was supposed to be, she sat up and squinted at the small person. “Are you okay?”
The child sniffled, tears and flu make for a sad combination so the 17-year-old curly-haired girl makes room for the child on her bed, hands her a few tissues and introduces her to fairies that live in trees that have white bark all the way from the tips of the branches to the tips of their roots. Water, cough syrup and two more stories later, the child is led back into her own bed and by the time the young American girl is ready to fall asleep, she feels a telltale itch in her nose and scratch in her throat. But the warmth in her heart overshadows the flu premonitions and she slips into the sweet dreams of idealism.