Pack, Unpack

With the school year so quickly coming to a close, I find my mind already beginning to pack up in my mind. I’ve thought briefly about the prospect of moving out of my room, trying to decide which things could even go one of these weekends and make the final move a little easier. Questions about the next step, the next place, the next home, have all started to seep into to my mind, swirling around my head at night when it’s time to be sleeping. I’ve started to begin the mental preparation that comes with packing up, pulling in the loose ends and getting ready to eventually pick up and go.

Packing has become almost second nature to me. Only a few months after I was born, my parents were packing up the things that they would take with them as they headed out to Pakistan, twenty years ago. We were always packing. When I went into boarding in sixth grade, packing suddenly became something that I had to deal with alone, joining all the other elementary kids doing the same. My mum would send me a packing list of what I should be bringing home for breaks, and slowly I would work my way through it, making sure not to forget anything I might need. Usually I would wait until the evening before we headed down the hill to the airport, before I would decide to suddenly throw everything together. That way I wouldn’t be needing things that were already packed. That was my excuse, at least. I can’t say that our houseparents were all too pleased with this method of packing, but it was pretty standard for most of us.

After a year or two, I didn’t need the lists anymore. It became pretty routine. Now, in college, I have a mental list of the essentials and I tend to leave my packing till the hour before I head to my grandparents’ house for the weekend, usually throwing my toothbrush and toothpaste on top just a few minutes before the bag is zipped up and I’m out the door and down the stairs. My bag seems to get a little bit lighter every time I travel. I’ve slowly learned not to take things like that extra pair of jeans or t-shirt that I’m not going end up wearing anyway. Travelling makes you realise how heavy your things become, so you learn pretty quickly to shed any weight you can.

Unpacking however, has been different. In high school I would come home to Hyderabad on school breaks for a couple weeks and decide to leave all my things in my suitcase. My mum would always tell me to unpack my things into the dresser and kind of “settle in”, but that never made sense to me. Why unpack a suitcase that was just going to get packed again in two weeks? Instead I would just slide the whole thing under my bed, so I could pull it out any time, get things out of it, and slide it back under — nicely out of the way. Only a day or two later, I would come into my room to find that my mum had unpacked everything into the dresser and the closet. “It’ll make you feel more at home,” she would always say. I would always argue, but I knew she was right. It did. Unpacking makes you feel at home.

Over the past two summers between my years of college I pretty much lived out of a suitcase for the entire time. I would pack my suitcase to go for two weeks at a time on a travelling construction crew, staying in hotels while we were away. When I came home I would stay at my uncle and aunt’s house, where I didn’t usually bother unpacking, since either I was about to go out on the road again, or if I was working in town, I would soon be packing to go stay with my grandparents for a weekend here and there. And of course, when I was visiting family in Pakistan, it was much of the same. I think my first summer I had four or five t-shirts that I cycled through my entire time in Red Deer: two blue, two green, one grey. I’m an extremely varied and exciting person, as you can tell. I’m sure people wondered if I actually even owned any more shirts. I just told myself that no one paid enough attention to realise that they kept seeing the same five t-shirts every time they saw me.

I have gotten a little better at unpacking though. Near the end of the summer I did eventually unpack into the dresser in my room in the basement of my uncle and aunt’s house, and made myself feel a little more at home. However I still find it hard to get passed the dilemma of whether it’s really worth unpacking, when in a few days or weeks I find myself putting everything back into my suitcase again. And this feeling doesn’t just end with packing “things” in a suitcase.

One of the first questions I faced coming to Canada in 2011 was: how much do I unpack? I was heading into Bible school in Saskatchewan, and everything was new. I knew I was only going to be there for eight months, and I knew I probably wouldn’t keep up ties with most people after the year was over, since I would be heading to Alberta, to a new college, in a new place, and would have to make new friends. I’ve heard, and witnessed in my life, that friendships with missionary kids tend to take on two forms, which I described to my roommate like this: “Either missionary kids go really deep really fast and drown a person, or they decide that that person isn’t even worth investing in anyway, since they’ll be gone before they know it.” That has characterised so much of my life. I feel like I’m constantly making that call, and sometimes I fear I lose some friendships along the way. It’s just that MKs say so many good-byes, again and again, and again. They know people don’t stick around forever, or that they themselves won’t, and they want to get the most out of the short time that they know the person — in an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Thankfully I have eventually learned to handle friendships a little less intensely. I’ve learned to accept that every friend doesn’t have to be my best friend, and that, just because I may not see a person again, my friendship isn’t worthless.

I’ve always a question of how much I unpack. Do I let myself get settled, put down some roots, make friends, and enjoy a place? Or do I keep the roots short and thin to make sure they rip off easily the next time I have to pick up and leave? In this last month of school, I find myself beginning to make those little incisions around the roots, beginning to get ready for that moment when I’ll have to pull away from the things, places, and people that have been a part of my life for the last two years. I’m beginning to edge toward the door and put on my shoes and coat, so that all that’s left at the end will be to say a quick good-bye and disappear behind a closed door. That’s life.

When travel is a huge part of your life, packing and unpacking become second nature. But it’s always hard to know if we should let our roots grow and go through the pain of slashing them when it’s time to go, or if we should try to make the job at the end a little easier — a little less painful. Thankfully I’ve still managed to unpack during my two years here. I’ve managed to make good friends, that I imagine will continue, though they will probably be different. I’ve let myself enjoy things and invest in people and places, but I know I’ll pay a price soon. Before long I’ll be packing myself back into my suitcase. There will always be pain involved with packing up, but it doesn’t make it less worthwhile to unpack. On this, my Mummy is right. It’s taken me a while to learn that, in all aspects of life, but I am learning, slowly. And I’m encouraged by the fact that if we are rooted in Christ and not people, we’ll always have something to hold onto when everything else has to be ripped away. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). So pack, and unpack — it’s worth it; but cling the whole while to the Anchor that will not change, will not leave and will not fail.

Fitted Bed Sheets


I had the opportunity to go on a youth retreat this past weekend with my church youth group. After sitting on the noise-filled bus for nearly three hours, we finally arrived at the camp where we would be staying. That evening, after more noise and activity, the three boys in my room got their beds ready to sleep on. “What’s this?” one of the boys asked, as he started to unfold a fitted bed sheet he had pulled from his bag, holding it from his fingers as if it was a banana peel he had picked up off the ground. Another boy, obviously well schooled in his sheet classification, knew a fitted sheet from a t-shirt and was proceeding to pull it over his bed. Putting one corner just over the mattress, he would move to the other side, pulling the sheet off of where he had just put it in the process. Another, on the top bunk, was having the same trouble. Barely laying the sheet over the corner of the bed, he would then expect it to stay there as he pulled the remainder of the sheet over the far side of the mattress. Apparently, putting fitted bed sheets on a bed isn’t common junior-high-boy knowledge.Thankfully, a couple tips and a helpful hand later, I did manage to show them how putting the corner of the bed sheet under the corner of the mattress would stop the sheet from popping off the bed again and again.

I moved into a boarding school in sixth grade. Fitted sheets? No problem. I did start struggle later on in my years, as my sheets began to shrink with years of washes. This only got harder as my boarding school mattresses were eventually replaced by the larger, thicker mattresses I experienced once I got to Canada. Fitted sheets were quite normal, and I quickly got used to making up my bed, again and again. I’m thankful for my years in boarding. It’s experiences like these, watching anxious boys crawl into foreign beds that make me realise what a blessing it was. I understand. I understand what it’s like to be in a strange room. I forget sometimes, that not every junior high boy moves into a new room, with a new room mate, and has to try to fall asleep on a new bed each year. In boarding, life would hit the reset button again every few months, as my siblings and I would readjust to our beds at home for a couple weeks over break. Then we would be back to school again. The strange beds became familiar — the familiar became strange. And I would find myself lying awake in the dark, trying to drown out the silence of the fan that wasn’t turning above my head. Silence is one of the hardest sounds to ignore.

I don’t mean to make my experiences sound all rosy. Boarding had it’s downsides too. There aren’t many better ways to learn how much you dislike about people than having to live with them year after year. However, before long, the rough edges of my own selfishness did start to wear down. They had to — since they were constantly scraping into someone else and their selfishness corners. Thankfully God works in these years of friction, ensuring the little pieces that are chipped away simply smooth the edges, rather than leave gaping holes of trauma and bitterness. I’m thankful. I’m thankful that my parents were willing to let go when I asked. I’m thankful that I had friends who cared about me, and who made my experience a valuable one. I’m thankful God orchestrated good things out of what could have so easily become a mess. On top of all this, I’m thankful I know what a fitted sheet is and how to put it on a bed. I still may not know how to fold one, but not everyone is perfect. I’ll save that magical skill for the mothers of us silly boys.

Culture Shock

Prior to returning to Canada, I often viewed the term ‘culture shock’ with some degree of skepticism. When here on furlough, people in Canada would always ask me if I experienced ‘culture shock’ when I went to Pakistan, to which I would always answer truthfully, “no.” Having grown up in Pakistan, I simply imagined culture shock as a show of cultural weakness. Culture shock was when people would become overwhelmed with ideas and practices so different from their own, and would find themselves sitting in the shelter of some home, under a fan, unable to take a step out of their door because of the unaccustomed heat. It wasn’t until I actually read some of the symptoms of culture shock that I realized I had experienced the exact same thing, and continue to go through it at different times in my life.

Reading through symptoms such as boredom, withdrawal, homesickness, irritability, anger and disgust, suddenly so many of my feelings during my first year in Canada began to make sense. Very rarely was I overwhelmed by a culture that I didn’t expect. Canadian culture was relatively known to me. I had been back at different times in my childhood to visit relatives, and even went to school in Ontario for a couple short periods of time. I certainly knew what I was going back to, but simply knowing didn’t make the ‘going back’ any easier. I found I had little patience for aspects of life or culture in Canada that went so much against what I was used to. I hated the stress that was put on individualism, where people pass each other in cars, ignore each other on the streets, and try as hard as they can not to impede on anyone else’s personal space. Whatever happened to squeezing through a crowd in order to go where you wanted? What happened to the sounds, smells and colours that were supposed to fill the outside air? Life in Canada seems so much more antiseptic, cold, and and unfriendly.

I would find myself constantly comparing my life as it had been in Pakistan with what it had become here, in Canada. Canada was always worse, of course. I would feel lost at times, but somehow it was Canada’s fault. I felt alone, or that I couldn’t relate to other people now and then, but I always told myself it was their fault – they were so different, so Canadian, so bland, just like potatoes. I hardly ever make potatoes for myself here, for exactly the same reasons: they are so common, ordinary and banal. I have them everywhere I go – why make them myself? I always make rice. Perhaps I do this partly out of protest and a sense of nostalgia – as another way to remind myself that my eating habits aren’t ‘Canadian’. But at the same time, I do it because I love it. I love that it’s not Canadian and that people don’t eat it all the time here – so I do.

I always felt like a stranger in Canada, though no one around me could tell from the way I looked. Being born a Canadian, with Canadian parents, there’s little I can do about the fact that I look caucasian. Canadians still treat me like a Canadian, which I am not. Worse still are the internationals, who treat me like Canadians as well, not realizing that my own life and experiences are probably very close to their own, and that I might be going through the very same struggles that they are. Often I’ve wished I looked more like a stranger outwardly, so that at least people would treat me the way that I felt about myself. It’s hard when your skin says you should fit in, but your heart and all that’s in it won’t let you.

I hated that everything was clean here. At times I would have to hold back the urge to throw garbage on the ground out of spite for Canada and its perfectness. Cars here weren’t covered in scratches and held together with tape or odd parts. Everything was different. I resisted being Canadian. I didn’t want to be one, and I didn’t want to become like one. I fought the natural tendency to adapt and assimilate, because I wanted to stay the way I was – I didn’t want to fit in. As I made friends and found myself out with them, stopping in at a Tim Hortons, or going sledding in the winter, I would catch myself enjoying normal things and getting used to life in Canada. However, I didn’t actually want to become accustomed to it all. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be Pakistani.

In some ways things haven’t changed. I still hate aspects of Canadian culture that revolve around things like materialism, individualism or selfishness. I still feel that I’ll never be Canadian, but I realize that I’ll never really be Pakistani either. I’ve come to enjoy many things about Canada, and I appreciate my friends and the fun we have. People are people, no matter where they are. I certainly don’t want my life here in Canada to last forever, but I appreciate it for what it is, and I am glad for it during the time that I am here. I suppose a big part of this was realizing that the Canadian and the Pakistani in me don’t have to be at war. I can find aggravating aspects in both cultures and choose to leave them behind, and I can find the parts of each culture that are precious and valuable and choose hold on to them in my life. I don’t have to be one or the other – because I’m not. I’ll always be a little mixed up over who I am, where I belong, or what my culture is, but I suppose that is really my culture after all: that of a third culture kid. I’m always too much at home to be a stranger and too much a stranger to be at home.

Fragile Places

Some places seem to be much more fragile than others. This summer, I had the opportunity to go and help out at a Bible camp just for a couple of weeks, to help as a cabin leader. At the start of the week, kids would pile into the camp with their parents, some nervous, some excited to get to know each other and enjoy the games and many excitements of camp. And for the whole week, I would find myself extremely busy and happy spending time with the nine twelve-year-olds in my cabin, counsellors, and all the other kids running around the camp as well. Doing devotions, praying together, eating together and playing games together, we soon got to know each other very well, and before long we felt like a little family – the nine boys, myself and my junior counsellor.

However, before long, the week came to a close. The kids packed up and got ready to home. Dirty clothes and numerous little injuries told the story of all the fun they had. The night before the boys had to leave, some talked about how they wanted to come back next year and do the same thing – that we should all come back next year and be together again. I was happy to hear that they enjoyed it, and to hear them long for a ‘repeat’ in a way, but I knew the truth – that this week could never be repeated again. Camp is a fragile place. It lasts for a week, and in that week there’s an amazing mix of kids and counsellors, which makes the whole time so worthwhile. But this mix of kids and counsellors and experiences can’t last forever, and it can never happen again. It just won’t. Never again will all the same kids be together, with all the same counsellors and be able to enjoy being together all over again. That’s life.

MCS, my old boarding school, is a fragile place. I can remember in my final year of high school, lying in bed, thinking about the changes that would take place when graduation day came. Never again could I walk through these halls I knew to find the same friends in the same rooms. Never again would I take my toothbrush at bedtime and seek out the company of the guys in my class while I brushed – to sit on their beds and try to talk through the toothpaste to them. We would all be replaced. Soon these rooms would be someone else’s, or they would be left empty – as they have been. Some of us might come back and visit and, by chance, may even be together at the same time, and be able to re-live some shadow of our experiences in high school, but it would never be the same.

Some places are solid. Like a tree or house – even the school building we spent so many years in, these places stay more or less the same. Of course, there are always changes. Trees grow bigger, houses change – but they are still there, they continue on. You can climb a tree you climbed in your youth and sit on the same branch, and look out to the same view and, for the most part, it can be the same.

Camp and boarding school are like grenades. All the fragments and particles share space and memories together for moment in time, but when their time is up, the pin is pulled and all the pieces explode across the world – blown into a million tiny shards. Exciting. Painful. Never again can they be put back together. Never again can they be the same.

However, this doesn’t make the fragile places less precious. I really hope my feelings are never mistaken for bitterness or anger, because it’s not like that at all. These places are still so valuable, and the experiences and memories don’t lose their meaning because of the violent separation involved. But I know that some places and experiences will never be the same. One might gather a few fragments to piece together something that looks similar, and bears some semblance of the original object, but still, everything has changed.
These are the fragile places.

An Evening in Karachi

Thinking back on the past few weeks and my time in Pakistan, I hardly know how to relate the mix of emotions that seem to wrestle around in my heart. I can clearly remember the drive to the airport on my last day, squeezed into a small white taxi with my brother, watching the Murree hills fade away from me. Lush trees were soon replaced by sparser shrubs, the cool mountain air grew hot, and my shirt began to stick to back. I watched as I was taken away, feeling like a banished criminal, being led from the place I wanted to stay. I know that it was me who decided when to leave, and when my flight would be, but somehow it felt forced, like a sentence carried out routinely. Like visiting hours were over.

As I sat on the plane, surrounded by Pakistanis, I remembered the joy I felt when I had taken this same flight coming to Pakistan, and the anticipation with which I watched out the windows to see the small houses with flat roofs and little Japanese vehicles that dotted the airport tarmac. Now I thought of the airports in Canada, where clean Fords drove around, pulling the long baggage trains toward the plane, and not a plastic bag was to be found on the grass around the runway. Something about Canada always seems to be a little too clean – antiseptic maybe.

I had a pleasant surprise the evening of my flight as my brother and I landed in Karachi, and rode a shuttle to the nearby airport hotel. Thinking we were heading straight out of the country, I had forgotten that we would be spending the night here, and that my time in Pakistan was not quite over yet. Instead, I gazed out the window at the silhouettes of trees and buildings as the air of a Karachi night blew warm in my face – enjoying Pakistan for a short while longer. I hadn’t even planned to be down in the Sindh, and then, unexpectedly there, I felt I couldn’t have left without being there first. I felt as though, in some ways, I hadn’t truly been to Pakistan without being in Karachi, with its lights, its memories, and bustle of activity.

Our hotel seemed like an oasis. It was surprisingly enjoyable, ignoring the not-so-clean looking sheets, and the cockroaches that skittered across the floor (thankfully they were only small ones – much better than the huge ones we sometimes found in our bathroom in the Sindh. The ones that would take a few good smacks to kill, and that would then wiggle their massive legs feverishly until you had washed them down into the toilet in the ground).

Once at the hotel, my brother and I made our way to the restaurant for a buffet of various Pakistani food. It was evident that I would be given ample opportunities to enjoy the little things of Pakistan for just one more night, and I made the most of it, with rice, vegetables, chicken and roti. After the meal, my brother and I, tired as we were, made our way around the compound, following the signs to tour the games room, the work-out room, and even a swimming pool, which was closed for the night. We managed to pull ourselves up high enough up to wall to peer over at the still water in the pool. I texted my Mum that evening and told her we had decided not to go to Canada quite yet, and that instead we would enjoy the hotel for a few more days, and give ourselves time to enjoy the pool and the other facilities. If only it had been true.

After our explorations of the hotel were complete, my brother and I returned to the room for cool showers. The water was soothing, as I let the cold water rinse off the sweat that stuck to my clothes. I lay damp in my bed, staring up at the roof, listening to the sound of the water as my brother showered. Again, questions and emotions poured into my head. This time I closed my eyes, and prayed aloud instead – going before the one Person that I knew would stay with me, that has a plan for me, and that will give a purpose to each morning and fresh joy to fulfill it as well.