Pakistan’s toxic relationship with the English language
I expect that all Pakistani citizens, and their relatives in Birmingham, have seen the video of two Islamabadi cafe owners publicly mocking their manager for not speaking proper English. I also expect the owners in question to have retired to their respective safe places, in the reassuring company of their English-speaking friends and Punjabi-speaking servants, wondering aloud why the peasants are rioting on social media.
And I have good reasons to expect both, because of the speed with which the video has gone viral, and the infuriatingly ignorant non-apology issued by the cafe in response to the controversy.
The cringe-worthy video features two bored women apparently entertaining themselves through some tone-deaf banter with the café’s manager. The manager, their own employee of nine years, is asked to demonstrate his English language skills on camera. They poke fun at the visibly uncomfortable employee.
The most egregious and often overlooked aspect of the video is the irrelevant remark about the employee being paid “a very good salary”; snidely implying that the worker doesn’t deserve as much because his English language skills are not up to a desired standard.
Instead of issuing a sincere apology, the cafe replied that it was “saddened and appalled” by the reaction, and that they are not required to defend themselves as kind employers. They gave the public a clichéd non-apology that instead sounds more like – We’re sorry you cretins went ahead and got yourselves hurt by something totally non-problematic that we did. And the statement ends with phoney platitudes about being “proud Pakistanis” and loving our language and culture.
This is my humble and probably unwelcome attempt to explain to the Islamabadi elite what makes the Pakistani public so “reactive” to such content. And no, it’s not just the patriarchy, if that's your first and only guess.
Almost every Pakistani, including myself (despite being privileged enough to know how to speak English adequately), has been made to feel like an alien in our own country for not speaking the language of our colonisers. We’re a nation left marinating in shame over our skin tone, local traditions, and stagnant languages; and we’re done pinching one another for not knowing whether the word ‘embarassing’ has one ‘s’ or two.
And then comes your oh-so-innocent ‘banter’ and ‘gup shup’, belittling your employee for not speaking a foreign language well-enough despite clearly putting in some commendable effort. What you see as ‘banter’, is what Pakistani see as toxic obsession with a colonial language that separates the upper class from everyone else. It’s a status identifier, not a neutral skill. Most worryingly, this is a skill that goes hand-in-hand with privilege; with the education system divided neatly along class lines between English-medium and Urdu-medium.
Islamabad, a mostly-affluent city with its frequent flirtations with foreign visitors, is particularly insensitive to this divide. This is, after all, a city that pushes hard against its ‘kachi abadi problem’, and a populace that grimaces at ‘Pindi boys’ daring to enjoy a different city of their own country.
It’s no surprise that Islamabad has spawned a number of eateries that appropriate the aesthetic of ‘desi-ness’ or ‘paindu-ness’, while remaining proudly Eurocentric in character.
And on top of this unchecked neocolonial love affair, comes another cringey video about upper class people laughing at a working-class man for not speaking English properly. How the cafe found this reaction “appalling” and not painfully obvious, speaks to their ignorance of their own culture: which they “love”, allegedly.
I do not wish ill on this cafe, and I most certainly do not want to fan the flames sending inappropriately hateful comments their way. But I would urge this café’s owners to reflect on this unfortunate debacle, and their unsavory attitude towards the working class as well as our local languages.