From Pakistan to the United States – Huma Affan

A forward on Huma Affan’s story by her daughter, Nabeeha Affan.

“I think it often surprises people how different growing up is when your parents are immigrants. Because I was born in the United States and have lived here my entire life, I often find it difficult to imagine my parents life in Pakistan. As children of immigrants, we hope our parents understand that we may have different values from them. And, as our parents, they hope that these values do not intrude on the culture and traditions that have been passed down for generations. The emergence of advanced technologies as well as the difference in where we were raised has contributed to a great generational divide between children of immigrants and their parents. Growing up with this divide is often strenuous, especially when you are a minority. However, we also grow up knowing that our parents sacrificed so much for us and that they love us despite these differences.”

I came to know Huma Affan because she is the mother of my high school friend, Nabeeha. Throughout the years, Huma has always greeted me graciously with a warm smile, a hug, delicious food, and told me that I can call her “Auntie Huma,” the Pakistani equivalent to the American “Mrs. Affan.” I was so grateful when Auntie Huma shared her story with me about coming to the United States in the 1990s, her experiences of culture shock, the difficulties of raising native-born American children to understand their Pakistani culture, and her dream of starting a retirement home for Pakistanis in Western Pennsylvania. 

Having grown up in a family that valued education for all of the children, Auntie Huma explained that “my father had a passion that we should all study.” Her siblings went to college for economics, organic chemistry, and engineering. Auntie Huma herself received bachelors degrees in economics and psychology. However, she did not continue to get a Masters degree while in Pakistan because “there were a lot of political riots at that time. When I was first going to the university, lots of people were out and they were burning tires and burning buses because of the political situation at that time.” While she was still in school, on July 5th, 1977, “Bhutto was deposed in a military coup by his appointed army chief Zia-ul-Haq, before being controversially tried and executed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1979 for authorising the murder of a political opponent. After Bhutto’s execution, “Pakistan was under dictatorship. Zia ul-Haq became president afterwards, declaring Sharia law.” (As reference, Sharia law is a form of religious law derived from the religious tenets of Islam). Auntie Huma recalled how this dramatic change in leadership affected her own life. “I still remember that I was doing my bachelors in college and we were suddenly told to wear a veil, cover ourselves, and that we, the women, were not supposed to walk just by themselves. Beforehand, it was not like that in Pakistan ever. As soon as Zia al-Haq came, he tried to make all of the Islamic leaders happy by bringing Islamic law.” In everyday Pakistani life, “even on the TV, no songs were allowed. Even if there is a romantic drama, or any boy or girl are sitting together, they have to sit apart. No series can show a boy and girl together.”

Stunning images capture Karachi's beauty - Pakistan - DAWN.COM
The city of Karachi, Pakistan where Auntie Huma attended university

Additionally, she reflected how “if you were against Zia al-Haq, you had to pay the price. So people were quiet but people were still protesting.” However, even if one was innocent, the government could create “any false accusation” to imprison dissenting citizens. 

In 1992, Auntie Huma was married to her husband, Affan. She explained to me how she was married in an arranged marriage, but clearly stated that “my parents asked me first. It’s not that they imposed this on me.” Since the idea of an arranged marriage was somewhat foreign to me, she elaborated. “In our culture, arranged marriages are very common. When I got married to Affan, we had never seen each other before. We talked on the phone once when he was in America and I was in Pakistan. When I got married, I signed the paper, and I went to his home with a long veil on my head, and that was the first time we saw each other. It was very scary for me because I was very much attached to and very much loved by my family. Then suddenly I was going to a stranger’s house, and I was supposed to have my whole life with him. I had no idea what kind of a person he was, I didn’t even know how he looked. I had seen his pictures and he saw mine, but that was it.”

Although Auntie Huma considered herself “ very modern” and thought that she would “find somebody of my own,” she explained to me that “ I couldn’t find anybody. Maybe we were not intermingling that much or maybe it was because I was studying at a women’s college. I just didn’t get the opportunity to meet somebody.” Auntie Huma has happily been married for nearly thirty years, and doesn’t regret her decision at all. 

Aside from some apprehension about her marriage in the United States, Auntie Huma “was not expecting it to be a totally different world than what I was in.” The first “cultural shock” she experienced in the United States “was the weather. I came to Chicago, and I never had that cold of an experience in my life.” In addition, she was amazed by “the tall beautiful buildings.” She loved the city, recalling “ I still remember I wrote a long letter to my Dad telling him that I have to take my head out of the window to see how tall the buildings were. And I loved how beautiful it was, how modern it was, and how clean it was.” 

It was less than a decade after she arrived in the United States that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. Auntie Huma never experienced any racism herself, but stated that “after 9/11, things changed. There was a lot of tension. We were not feeling comfortable going out. Nobody did anything to me or said anything to me, my husband, or my kids, but racism was affecting everybody at that time. We were told not to talk politics on the phone because all of our phones were tapped. That was the rumor at least.” Auntie Huma stated that she and her family “were the lucky ones.” 

However, Auntie Huma never considered returning back to Pakistan. She “ thought no, my kids were born here. It’s their country. I’m not leaving their country, and because of them America will know that not all the Muslims are terrorists. Many of our friends are doctors, engineers, or professors. They have worked so hard and given so much to the community. After a few years, America will realize it’s not the religion that is bad, it’s the people that are bad. Terrorists do all these things in the name of religion, which has nothing to do with it. Religion teaches us love, take care of your neighbors, and respect each other. No religion tells people to kill others.”

Auntie Huma recognizes that her children are very different from her culturally because they grew up as American children, but she gives them immense credit for navigating both their American and Pakistani identities. She and her husband have sometimes struggled with cultural differences between their societal upbringing and that of their children. One issue that still arises are sleepovers. Auntie Huma said that “when I was growing up, as soon as the sun sets, we have to be home. That was the rule of my house. There was not even a question of sleeping over. There was no such thing.” However, in the United States, sleepovers are a common thing amongst friends. Nabeeha Affan, Auntie Huma’s daughter, remarked that “the divide between immigrants and their children’s generation is very large.” Nabeeha described how her life has consisted of trying to find that middle ground where both she and her parents “can be somewhat satisfied.” Auntie Huma told me that this divide between parents and children is “the tragedy of our generation. She also cited social media as a dividing factor between parents and their kids. She said, “I don’t have any regrets of moving here, but I do blame social media for making it so difficult for all the parents of any origin. Even in Pakistan, things are different and culture is modernizing.” What surprised me most was when she said, “moving to the USA was not as challenging as coping with social media. The internet connection has brought the people together, but sadly at the same time it has disconnected the kids from their parents.” Huma said that she and her husband “see that our kids are growing away from us just because we tell them ‘no.’ We are saying no because of our culture and the restrictions in our religion that they don’t understand.” However, she told me that “they do face choices and they try their best to choose the right path, though at times it’s not easy in this society.” Like many parents, she faced a common dilemma. “If I say ‘yes,’ then I will be the cool-modern Mom.”

In addition to issues like sleepovers, Auntie Huma told me that “when I came to America, that’s when I learned that the kids don’t take care of their own parents here.” In Pakistan, everyone lives together for generations. “In our religion, we believe that if you are taking care of your mother, it’s a direct flight to heaven. Even if you have done wrong things.” Since all of her children are now going to college, she has found herself thinking about where she and her husband will live once they grow older. She told me that “when I consider myself going to a senior place, the thing I worry about is the food, the culture, the clothing, the TV, the music, the call to prayer, and my language. Those kinds of things.” Personally, I had never thought about how senior care places in the United States are inherently American. When you picture a retirement home, stereotypically people play BINGO, have their rooms covered with decorations for American and Christian holidays, and spend time watching famous American movies together. Auntie Huma raised a valid point. It would be a huge shock, especially at an older age, to be submerged in an environment that was so culturally different from what you were used to. She told me that “at my old age, I will want peace. So if I’m dying, I will do so in my own culture.” After retirement, “my goal is that I will start a senior home for Pakistani parents where I will have my Azan, my own food, and where all of the kids like Nabeeha (first-generation Americans) will not feel bad that they’re making their parents go to a senior place because they will have their own culture with them. That is my real big dream.”

Auntie Huma Affan has truly explained how complex migrant identity can be for migrants themselves, but also for their children as they navigate between two different cultures. A mother of three beautiful and successful children, Auntie Huma has not only overcome the challenge of migration, but excelled as an exemplary mother and community member in the United States. It is my hope that her dream of starting her own Pakistani senior care place comes to fruition.

The Affan family celebrating Eid Mubarak in June of 2018

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