The morning after the election, tired and a little dejected, I stood with five Indians and four Pakistanis inside the Tampa International Airport, seeing them back off to Washington, DC. When I signed up for this, I didn't know what to expect. What I didn't expect was what two of them said to me: "you have changed my entire view of your country."
I didn't know how to react. So I cried.
I've started and trashed this piece four or five times. Chalk some of it to post election exhaustion -- for the better part of 18 months, I've been engaged in what became the most competitive Congressional and the most competitive Governor's race in the country. Mostly, like my trip to Asia last winter, I walked away from this experience more unsure of the world than ever before -- but in a good way. I write to process information, and this is one I haven't been able to fully process. Even as I finish this, I find it hard to put to words.
As my friends know, last December, I spent nearly three weeks in Southeast Asia as part of a delegation of Americans visiting the Philippines and Malaysia. That experience was nothing short of life changing. You can find my writings from that trip on this site.
As a result of that trip, the organization that arranged my Asia delegation, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, asked if I would host a group of foreigners in Florida to observe the US elections. Despite it being a fairly hectic time, saying yes was the least I could do in appreciation for the opportunity the organization gave me -- plus in reality, the last 72 hours of an election for a guy like me is mostly about conference calls and riding out the anxiety in an office. Conference calls in a van with 9 strangers was a welcome relief from sitting in an office.
When I said yes to hosting, I reached out to my host in Malaysia, the treasure to world humanity known as Jack Lim. Besides some very good advice, Jack said that he got far more out of hosting than the delegates got from their trips.
I was assigned a delegation from Pakistan and India, to arrive on Halloween and stay through the Wednesday after the election. The goal of the trip, from my perspective, was twofold: give them an introduction to American-style elections, as well as give them a chance to experience some ole fashion US culture, and interact with everyday Tampa area residents.
The agenda was packed, from attending a Tampa Bay Lightning game, to church at a historically African American parish, an Orlando rally with President Clinton, dinner with local Indian and Pakistani Americans, and even a lunch in downtown Lakeland with former Senator and ACYPL alum Paula Dockery. They got a good taste of Florida.
The Indian delegation was made up entirely of young elected officials. They came from far reaching corners of the country. The Pakistani delegation was comprised of leaders working around government. At first, the two country delegations were polite to eachother, but largely separate, as the tensions between the two nations are well documented. The two groups kept to themselves, riding in separate busses, sitting at separate tables, and generally keeping to themselves. Over time, walls came down, and everyone grew close. That's the goal of these trips - expand cultural understanding and build bridges that become lifelong relationships.
The Indian delegation was a ton of fun. All young electeds, all heading off to do great things in their country, and all who will be lifelong friends. I can't wait to visit them in their country soon -- and I will talk them in a separate post.
But in this post, I will focus on the Pakistani piece of the puzzle.
So how do we think of Pakistan?
Failed state. Extremists. Terrorists. Fanatical. Unsafe. Unstable. Backwards. Radical. Untrustworthy.
For me, the only human perspective I had previously of Pakistan was through a fellow from graduate school at FSU. He was thoughtful, moderate, bright and bullish on his country. He suggested I visit. That seemed a bit crazy, plus maybe he was the exception. He didn't fit the frame. All I know is I had a lot of questions.
Again, unlike the Indian delegation, the Pakistani delegation was entirely made up of people outside of elected office. Asif is a journalist who covers their Parliament and the Pakistani Defense Department (how's that for a beat), Saubana works for an anti-corruption agency, Adnan is deeply involved in the energy industry and Nisar works for an NGO that encourages civic engagement and fair elections.
On the second night of the trip, inside a luxury box at a Tampa Bay Lightning game, we started talking. First it was me: why is there religious extremism, why should we trust your government, and why the hatred of the west....then it was them: drone strikes, the sense that the invastion of Iraq was rooted in religion, and their view that the US only wants to use Pakistan, not help it. It wasn't until the last two minutes that I even knew the score of the game.
The conversation continued -- in the minivan we drove around Tampa and Orlando, outside of a primarily African American church on Sunday morning, and even over absurdly spicy Indian food late the eve of the election. And what became apparent - most of our mutual preconceived notions of the other's country were based in narratives rooted in just parts of the truth. And just like my friend from college, I found them each to be thoughftul, moderate, and driven to create a different future for their nation. We frequently didn't agree, but that was ok.
Around the third day, one of the delegates said to me "you just need to come see for yourself." My response: "is it safe for a guy like me" was met with pretty quick disdain. As a late friend of mine once told me after spending a significant amount of time in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, that their culture treats invited guests like family -- which extends to their security-- and that he always felt comfortable with friends there. After realizing the error of my response, I said "of course." They would have never said "come" if they felt it was unsafe, anymore than they'd put their own brother at risk.
Don't get me wrong, Pakistan has a long ways to go. There are places that are ungoverned, where extremism thrives and where threats to America clearly exist. Corruption is far too prevalent. Infrastructure is crumbling (they kept commenting on the quality of our roads). The government there frequently is a total disservice to it's citizens.
Each of the delegates had a job that challenges the existing power structure, meaning their decision to work in the arena has a different kind of risk than my decision to do so here. When I do something people don't like, I get to deal with the peanut gallery. When my friend Asif writes a story that pushes a boundary, his potential consequences are far severe than some snarky remarks in the comments section of a website. There they have real threats, threats a government often can't protect them from. I'd like to think I would have the courage to do what they think is normal, but I don't know that I do.
But for all of the country's severe and very real problems -- and frankly, for all of the suspicion of the US that admittedly exists within broad strokes of the Pakistani population, I know I am guilty of viewing the nation of people there through an unfair lens. The truth is, the people I met live just like we do: trying to keep a job, pay bills, give their kids a better life, while improving their community. The terrorism that struck the historic Wagah border crossing during their trip here offended them as much as it did the rest of humanity. It's easy to forget that in the frame that we view that part of the world. We are very much in this together.
I was totally unprepared to be embraced completely as family by four strangers from a country that we know almost nothing about, each of whom put down their earlier notions of America to spend time here, and approached their time in this country with open minds and open ears. Just like my Malaysian friend Jack told me would happen, I know for a fact their impact on me was far more profound than any impact I had on them.
So yes, I will absolutely be taking them up on their invitation. In fact, I can't wait. I'd go tomorrow if I could (as I've since learned, getting a Pakistan visa is a several month proposition - so it won't be tomorrow!). And I will ask them to come here to visit again.
And to my Indian friends - I will be writing about -- and coming to visit you too!