Monday, January 15, 2007

An Afternoon With Yahya


The middle of an academic's long winter break is the perfect time to be saddled with irritating errands. In this case, I had been commissioned to stay home on a Friday afternoon so a SatTV (fake name) technician could fix the problems we've been having with our Hindi-language channels.

SatTV is essentially a hive of incompetent technicians. A previous technician had come a month earlier. He spent five minutes looking around, cursed the installation guy that had preceded him, and declared there was nothing he could do. Though Yahya too would also accomplish nothing in the three hours he spent in my house, he was at least more interesting to talk to.

When he told me his name, I said, "oh, like the famous Pakistani general" (fortunately, I did not say "dictator"). He was impressed, it seemed, by my knowledge of history, and it started us on a good footing. He said he was from Sialkot, and industrial town in a Punjabi speaking area. Yahya himself was Punjabi, though to my relief he seemed perfectly happy to speak in English -- his English was confident and effective, though lacking in the grammatical niceties that come with years of English-medium schooling. To begin with, he came to the U.S. fifteen years ago, to work as a chef. Yes, a chef: he said he had studied at a culinary institute in Lahore, and then worked as an executive chef at a "five star hotel" there before coming to Philadelphia with his wife.

He said he steadily worked his way up to executive chef at some posh French and Italian restaurants in Philly itself -- I knew their names -- at which point I started to wonder whether he might not be pulling my leg. I tried drawing him out a little about his approach to cooking, and he said just enough to convince me that he wasn't entirely BSing me, but not enough for me to quite believe that he'd really been the head chef at the places he named. Eventually, he tried to open his own restaurant -- an Italian place, of all things -- but it failed ("why you got a Pakistani chef for Italian food? It don't make no sense"). He kept on laying it on: he talked about real estate investments he'd made, and described a pattern of heavy borrowing that struck me as ingenious, and perhaps a bit nuts. It was the opposite of everyone I knew from my parents' generation: instead of saving every penny, Yahya had put himself up to his ears in debt in order to make things happen financially. It sounded like he'd succeeded, though there was always the nagging question: if he's done so well with real estate, why is he here, fixing my Satellite TV?

Yahya said that since he'd left he hadn't ever gone back to Pakistan, which seemed sad, though it also made a certain kind of sense given the kinds of jobs he's had (very little paid leave). He said he's just been too busy with work, and things in Pakistan are messy. And anyway, his kids (teenagers) have absolutely no interest in going to go sit in his family's house in Sialkot for a month or two. I tried to convince him that he should take them anyways, but perhaps with a difference: take them to Pakistan as tourists, and travel to the country's most interesting places. As we talked about other ways people might stay connected to home (movies, literature, current events), I increasingly got the sense that for Yahya and his family, Pakistan is essentially in the past; the links have been allowed to wither. It made me wonder about his kids -- how could they really understand their parents without seeing where they came from?

In the end the various tests he'd been running to make our Hindi channels work properly on both TVs failed. He shrugged, and apologetically noted that, while the main satellite (standard US programming) gives a very good signal, SatTV's international channels come from a recently-acquired satellite whose signal is often a little dicey. It struck me as a good metaphor: home is a signal you can't always get. If it comes in, great, but if not, what can you do, really?


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