The screening of “Pakistani Students- Learning and sharing in the USA” started in typical Pakistani fashion—slightly late and with an audience engrossed in gossip rather than the event itself.
However, as soon the documentary started playing, the audience pulled itself together and listened intently to the extremely brief introductory speeches by US Embassy staffers and Dawn News North’s Editor Mubashir Zaidi.
Aired at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, the documentary, produced by Dawn News and presented by Tahir Sherazi, was a Pakistani production, with the state department helping the channel pick universities where students could be accessed easily.
With a focus on the exposure that Pakistani students in America receive, and that which their American counterparts get from having young minds from the much maligned South Asian country around them, the documentary showed that misconceptions and generalisations are a two-way street.
Where a young American student was surprised that Pakistan had paved streets and restaurants, a Pakistani student was “in shock” to find that an American mother actually cared enough about her daughter to help her move into her dorm room.
Students from either country readily admitted knowing little to nothing about their opposites’ societies and had ridiculous misconceptions about each other. It is problems such as these that the documentary and the entire student exchange programme aim to address.
Diverse cultures can only learn of each other through exposure and immersion. The news will always be bad, because that is what sells. As one American student complained, all he knew of Pakistan was the bombings and Taliban being reported about in the news, while the true picture is much broader, but is never seen on TV.
However, the consensus between the students was that “they shouldn’t be upset if we don’t know more, they should help us learn.”
About 45 universities were covered for the documentary, with students from Waziristan, Tharparkar, Lakki Marwat, Peshawar and Lahore featuring heavily.
Students also spoke of the differences in teaching methodology, universally acknowledging the benefits of research-oriented teaching in the US, versus the Pakistani method of handing students everything on a plate. A professor also highlighted how the relationship between students and teachers in the US is open, with teachers being very approachable, while in Pakistan it seems based on fear, like that “between man and god”.
Students also appreciated the independence in US society and focus on self-sustenance. One student admitted he never realised how having others around to cook and clean eases life in general.
Irfanullah from Lakki Marwat has polio. While a hurdle in his own country, he was full of praise for US schools, saying they make it a point to enable the disabled. “I never felt disabled here.”
Some students did have complaints about the difficulty in finding Halal food, with many forced to go vegan, but as far as complaints about “bland” food went, the ingenious few figured out how to make chaats out of salad.
Segments also focused on religious freedom in the US, which a Pakistani boy called “a reality”, while highlighting how accepting of different faiths people on campus were. Social etiquette and manners were also highlighted, with one noting how people would hold the door open for the person behind them.
Eventually, what stood out were two comments that were repeated in different forms.
“The best way to end stereotypes is interaction. Students are the future, and if given the opportunity, they not only can, but will break these barriers,” said an American professor, while an American student said of his Pakistani classmates, “We are all the same people in the end. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, we must make the world a better place.”
US Deputy Chief of Mission Ambassador Richard Hoagland, Cultural Attaché Brent Beemer Assistant Cultural Affairs Attaché Jaime Martin, and Assistant Information Officer Mike Kiel spoke .
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2012.
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