The Midwest


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Rawalpini, Pakistan, circa 2003

By Shaun Ilahi

The Midwest is vast with lush fields and breathtaking skies. I have now lived in the Midwest for a third of my life and have seen the social landscape broaden. Prior to coming here, I lived in the Middle East and South Asia. When I first arrived in Nebraska in the late 1990s, Midwestern society had not seen significant exposure to foreign cultures. But with the advent of the information age and current events, that changed.

I consistently encounter many fascinating people here and have developed meaningful and lasting relationships that deepen my roots in the Midwest. In the process, I have had many entertaining conversations about my upbringing. Many of these conversations quickly led to questions of where I am from or, more precisely, where I lived before coming to the Midwest. I would reply, “Pahk-istan,” with the first and second syllable pronounced with a soft British A or “ah” sound. My pronunciation confused many people.

When I first arrived in Nebraska, I had a conversation at the campus food court with another college student. We talked about traveling, and she said that she had never left the United States but would love to travel abroad. When I told her that I used to live in Pakistan, she replied that she loved that place and had a great time when she was there. A little confused, I asked her what she enjoyed about the place. She spoke glowingly about the beautiful buildings and the people. She insisted she would try to go visit again the following year. Before I could clarify the misunderstanding, she got up and said she had to run but wanted to get some recommendations of what to do next time she was in Boston.

That was in 1999. Because of encounters like that, I soon learned to start pronouncing Pakistan as “PACK-istan” with a hard A. The unnatural pronunciation and slight contortion of the mouth helped to alleviate much confusion. As foreign as it sounded exiting my mouth, the translation connected with the locals.

These days, with the events that tend to dominate the news, it is hard to confuse Pakistan and Boston. In addition, as the Midwestern demographic has changed, my original pronunciation of Pakistan has returned. It also helps that our president’s enunciation of the country is correct.

There are other words that have created some comical lost-in-translation moments. Once background information is established, conversations usually turn to cuisine. With more Asian restaurants opening up in the Midwest, people have become acquainted with and taken a liking to the aromatic flavors of South Asian cuisine, particularly the bread, naan. The pronunciation of naan, similar to Pakistan, is spoken with a soft A. When I frequented South Asian restaurants early on here, I would order for the table because of my familiarity with the foreign-sounding words. But over time, my colleagues have started to take the initiative to order their entrees with proper pronunciations.

A couple of months ago I had a chance encounter with a photojournalist at a local Omaha coffee shop. Near the end of our conversation, she asked where I was from. Taking a roundabout approach, I asked her if she knew where Uzbekistan was located. She looked at me and with the correct pronunciation said, “It’s close to Pakistan… isn’t it?” I was surprised. As she got up to leave, she pointed across the street to a South Asian restaurant and said with the softest A, “You should try the naan over there. It’s quite lovely.”

Immigration in Nebraska