When making the rapid shift to Pasadena, I began a list of the replacements we’d have to uncover. And now that we’re here, the list has grown:
Salon for pedicure
Desi salon for waxing & threading
Printer cartridge replacement shop
Desi shop for toor daal
Larger quest for community, personal and professional
And I still haven’t discovered a halal meat shop that sells goat cut just the way I like!
Even though Pasadena is a small town, its proximity to Los Angeles and border-less connections to nearby townships means that one has a range of markets where different purchases can be made. Closeby are the usual Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other grocery stores, but thanks to recommendations from fellow parents, one morning we walk over to Pasadena Certified Farmer’s Market that’s set up each Saturday in the parking lot of the nearby high school. There, we purchase okra, tomatoes and grapes.
Another afternoon, we venture into a Super King and find a range of fruits, vegetables and daals/lentils, even though the market caters largely to Spanish-speaking residents. In a conversation with a friend, we learn that the “international store” is run by an Armenian family, a community that is visible throughout Pasadena and nearby Glendale.
One afternoon, we wander into Ranch 99 that caters to the Chinese-speaking community. We are hungry, so we order a Chinese shrimp tempura roll that’s prepared and served much like a Mexican burrito. Only $3.50, the roll is delicious, giving us the energy to wait in line to pay for the snapper we find.
Each morning, stepping out – rather than driving – for my daily walk is refreshing. In most places where I’ve lived (Karachi, Austin, Houston) I’ve usually driven and parked at a spot before starting my walk. But in Pasadena, our condo is next to Victory Park, a green space next to a high school that’s surrounded by football and soccer fields and a baseball stadium.
Temperatures are cool in the mornings, so after dropping Minal to school, I step out to walk; the ritual helps me stay centered as our family deals with transition. My trails takes me through Victory Park to another nearby park Eaton Sunnyslope. After circling residential streets, I return toward our “home”.
As I walk, I’m struck by the respect drivers offer pedestrians. I don’t need to wait for cars to slow down before crossing. Instead, the moment I stride forward, cars obey the yellow sign placed in the middle of the street and halt. (A side note: I’m still adjusting to Minal’s school, where middle and high school students cross a main road without the assistance of crossing guards.)
At the edge of Victory Park is a community center, a volleyball court, swings and a play area. In sharp contrast stand the fenced-off building and parking lot of a US Marines battalion center, an unexpected addition to a park area that attracts dozens of families and students each night. As I walk on the cement trail between the headquarters and the high school parking lot, I catch sight of parked camouflage Hummers and small tanks. But in the distance, always, to offer perspective and beauty is the San Gabriel mountain range that has recently been designated a national monument.
While visiting a local bank, I catch sight of a wall filled with drawings by children. Each poster is a reminder of history; this one is a remembrance of the farm workers movement.
We have to pay the city of Pasadena to obtain a parking permit, so the company that moved our belongings from Houston Pasadena can deposit our pods on our street. Though we manage without our boxes and furniture for a week, we are relieved once the pods are delivered. I call a moving company to get help moving our boxes and furniture into the condo that we rent.
The next morning, two young men – Aziz and Andray from Uzbekistan and Russia – arrive at the door. They spend two hours clambering up the stairs with our boxes, Minal’s treasure chest, and other random pieces of furniture.
“I have a college degree,” Aziz tells me. “But it is not recognized here. So, I work full-time moving furniture.” He nods toward Andray. “He is in the same situation.”
This evening, a day later, we move and unpack some boxes and set up the dining room table. René works on his schedule, Minal tackles homework, while her cat offers company.
By sheer coincidence, we find a public school in Pasadena that is much like Minal’s Houston school – the program is International Baccalaureate and also offers a Spanish-English dual language stream. I drop her off in the morning. She lugs a heavy backpack, but seems calm and ready for new adventure.
As I walk out of the building, I notice how curling flags drop from the circular verandah and that the Pakistani flag dangles from one entrance. I wonder if during the course of her day Minal will hear a conversation that India is celebrating its Independence Day today and that Pakistan’s was yesterday.
Packing and dismantling objects that we have collected for decades is more exhausting than I envisioned. In the past, I have either packed a suitcase and flown, or thrown my belongings in a car and driven – though the last time René and I moved within Houston, we had acquired enough furniture and had to hire movers. Still, at the end of the day when we moved from our party-house on Charleston Street, I placed baby Minal and our cat in my car, along with pillows, sheets, towels and drove to the house we purchased on Jefferson Street, where all our belongings were assembled and boxes needed unpacking.
Shifting to Pasadena, California requires a different focus. My friend Anita Wadhwa comes over and forces me to shed more than two-thirds of the books I’ve been collecting. I comply, remembering the books that I found in February on my Karachi bookshelves, the ones had wrapped in brown paper twenty-five years ago and shipped at book-rate from South Hadley to Karachi after finishing college. Those books I donated to one of my mother’s friends who runs a literacy center. In Houston now, I pile the publications in boxes, reassured by friends, who tell me they will take the boxes to a second-hand bookstore and not just toss the boxes in recycling bins.
My mother is already in Houston – she arrived a week earlier even though I told her I didn’t need her help. She knows better. She packs our boxes even as I race to meetings where VBB creates a transition plan on how I will run the organization from afar. One night, Dean Liscum and Michael Stravato drop by and pack visual art and electronics, while Katy Fenton helps by picking pizza for Minal and her friends, who find nooks where they play together as if nothing around them is changing. Another night, Yolanda Alvarado and Carmen Peña Abrego throw a party, inviting random friends – many are left out. I can’t even begin to make a list of all my Houston friends.
On our second last day in Houston (for now), my friend and furniture designer Helmut Ehrmann comes over to dismantle the coffee table he designed for my May 2015 What Is Home? production. Later that evening, more friends – Oskar Sonnen, Marina Tristán, Christa Forster – arrive to help me sort through personal objects: which belongings can be tossed and which ones are attached to memories that must be preserved. At the end of the process, we sit down to eat our last meal prepared by Ammi at our Jefferson home.
a selfie by Christa
The evening before we leave, my friend Jacsun Shah cooks a special meal for us while Jaspal Sublok throws a small going away party. Our house has already been packed up, and everything we own will arrive in Pasadena ten days later, stuffed in two relo-cubes.
The day we fly out, I intend to take Uber to the airport because we have so much luggage, but when my friend Oui Chatwara S. Duran hears my plan, she laughs and tells me that I can’t pay money to fly out of Houston. Lauren Zentz chimes in that she will help. Oskar offers to assist since my mother will also need a ride; she flies to Boston just 20 minutes after our airplane takes off.
This time I don’t run into any friends installing art at Hobby, as I did the last time we flew out from Hobby. Holding our cat in a collapsible carrier, Minal, Ammi, and I pass through security. On the opposite side of the security zig-zag markers, Oskar, Oui, and Albert wave, making Ammi and me feel as if we’ve stepped back in time and are flying out of Karachi in the days when the entire family loaded into several cars and caravaned to the airport.
Before we walk through the tunnel, I wave back. I’m not saying goodbye because I don’t know how to leave.
Minal and Nora staring out of the airplane window
The flight that Minal and I take from LAX to Houston Hobby is delayed and lands at two in the morning. After collecting our baggage, we walk out into the steamy night to catch a taxi – I haven’t asked any friends to pick us up in the middle of the night, though if we were landing in Karachi – where most international flights land in Karachi between eleven at night and six in the morning – we would request that a family member pick us up.
But this morning is not Karachi. We are in Houston.
The taxi driver is a grumpy man from Nigeria. “You are my first customers,” he tells us. “I’ve been sitting and waiting since 8 pm!”
When I give him our address, he asks for direction. “I’m not used to driving to your neighborhood,” he says. “Most people who take taxis go to North Houston or to the Galleria.”
I ask him to turn on Broadway to get to the freeway, but he responds: “We cannot go down Broadway! Too dangerous. Too many bad people there. All these black men – they are robbers. If we stop at a traffic light, they will hold out a gun and take all your possessions.”
Minal pushes closer to me. We reach our house at 3:30 am.
- * *
A few weeks later, I have a different conversation with a rental car agency driver. He’s taking me to the rental agency, so I can have a vehicle to drive in Houston while my car is being shipped to Los Angeles.
“Do you know Mr. Khan?” is the first thing the driver asks me.
“Which Mr. Khan?”
“The one who’s been in the news.”
“No, I don’t know that Mr. Khan,” I respond. “But I’m glad people are paying attention. I can’t believe Donald Trump said what he did.”
The driver laughs. “Don’t even get me started on Mr. Trump! But “Mr. Khan… I helped him run for elections. He didn’t win, though.”
I turn to look at the driver. “The Mr. Khan in the news is not the same as the Mr. Khan, who ran for elections in Houston.”
“Really?” the driver responds. “I thought they were the same!”
“Khan is a popular name among Pakistanis and Afghans,” I say.
At Houston’s Hobby Airport, as René, Minal and I walk toward our gate, I catch sight of glass art that has been installed. Fuchsia glass streaked with yellow and purple stands out as sun rays pour through the west. I text my friend Jimmy Castillo, who works with the Houston Art Alliance’s public art department to him the name of the artist whose work is installed.
Within seconds, Jimmy’s response pops up on my phone: “Gordon Huether. Based on aerial photos of the Houston area. Are you at Hobby? I’m here working
When I ask him where he is, he texts back: I’m near the security checkpoint installing a suspended
I return toward the security gate and catch sight of Jimmy talking to workers as they plan the installation. Jimmy and I talk for a short while before I have to hurry to my departure gate – I’m flying to Los Angeles for a family wedding – and he has to return to work.
Walking away from Jimmy, I realize that as my family explores the possibility of living in Pasadena, California where René has just been offered a job, I will not bump into friends installing art at LAX. If we make the shift, I will have to stay a while before I find my groove in LA’s arts community.
Since I met Azeb in October 2015, I have enjoyed her ability to share stories and make us laugh. Last fall, we sat over several delicious meals at Lucy’s Ethiopian Restaurant as I collected material for a story that appears in the New York Times Magazine’s Lives column: “A Delicate Matter in the Examination room.”
Azeb’s story reminds us of the humor that can arise during translation, while underscoring the need for languages to adapt to medicine and science.
I’ve been using this aluminum foil for many years. Today, as the box catches light on the kitchen table, I stop chopping onions to stare at the slogan since 1947. I am struck by how reference to that year – 1947 – can have only one meaning for those of us with roots in South Asia.
Another storm strikes the city, and many nearby parts of the state receive as many as 16 inches of rain over a two hour period. But in Houston, shortly after sunset, the sun breaks out once the deluge ends. Braving high water, we head toward Uchi’s to celebrate the end of yet another school year.
Above: a swollen Buffalo Bayou two days after another “100 Year Flood”
Four days after another “100 Year Flood” hit Houston, city residents are questioning the definition of 100 Year Floods and 500 Year Floods, especially since flooding occurs every few years. In his 2015 Texas Monthly essay The Problems With 100-Year Floods” John Loma Novax argues that the very definition is deceptive since the city experiences flooding often. Some citizens, who have formed a group, Residents Against Flooding, are stating that city officials are partly responsible since developers are permitted to “use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do” (Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council., Houston Chronicle, April 19, 2016).
In the meantime, René’s school flooded again, the second time in less than a year, and many are wondering why HISD – that owns vast amounts of land throughout Houston – cannot find another space to better serve the needs of a small campus that enrolls immigrant and refugee youth.
Today is Earth Day and the sun is out. Rising water has largely receded, even though once again, lives have been lost and countless homes damaged. This city will rebuild, but few have confidence that steps will be taken to prevent future flooding, which will occur soon – and not after a 100 year gap.
In the meantime, as Rina Chandran at the Wire reminds us, today is also the third anniversary of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza collapse when 1,135 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured.
Yesterday I stopped by the University of Houston to witness eL Seed work on his mural installation as part of the Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent festival. As he worked high above ground, students performed dance in front of the Social Work building.
Two years ago when eL Seed flew to Houston to examine possible spaces to install his work, I chatted with him about “home” while driving him around Houston.
Now the CounterCurrent festival is in its fourth day, and in just a few hours, I’ll be speaking at a CounterCurrent panel, Home Improvement: Recreational Resistance.
An ammunition store in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood
Since I’ve been back in Houston, Minal and three of her classmates have been working on an International Baccalaureate (IB) project called Guns Be Gone. The project is in response to a recently-passed Texas law that allows individuals to openly carry weapons in public spaces. The “open-carry” law was discussed in Houston’s independent School District, and weapons can now be carried into school parking lots right up to building entrances. Further, starting August 1, 2016, public universities will be required to allow “concealed carry” on their campuses.
While our family hasn’t seen any change in Houston’s public landscape since open-carry went into effect, we have certainly seen many signs in restaurants, shops and museums forbidding weapons on their premises (see below).
In response to these new laws, Minal and her classmates visited the University of Houston campus for their IB project, where they interviewed faculty and staff members and passed out surveys; they also conducted surveys at their school.
Last week, alongside their fifth grade classmates, they presented their findings at a formal school presentation. Majority of the people they surveyed were opposed to “open-carry” as well as “concealed-carry” (phrases I’d never heard till this year), but according to their findings, university students were largely in support of weapons – both concealed and open.
After watching Minal’s team and other groups in action, I pondered over how – though I grew up in a politicized family – I was in college before I studied contemporary issues with the kind of focus and consciousness that Minal and her classmates displayed.
A scene from Karachi’s Zamzama Street – one not too different from ammunition stores visible around Texas
Two images from a wall created by VASL, a Karachi-based arts collective, for a project called I Am Karachi. The project’s Walls for Peace initiative aims to replace “negative and politically charged graffiti covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values such as peace, tolerance and diversity… The target is to undertake 100 negative graffiti covered walls at a time from across Karachi and convert them into 100 Walls of peace and art.”
Back in 2010, I participated in the first Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), and this year, I am back for the seventh annual festival that has surged from 10,000 audience members (the first year) to more than 70,000 this year. Today, VBB launched the first two volumes of our Borderlines publications, with a panel that featured readings by contributors Tehmina Ahmed, Naila Mahmood and Noor Zaheer and myself. The session was moderated by Ghazi Salahuddin.
I read an excerpt from my memoir, one that appeared in Houston Chronicle’s Gray Matters; only when I began reading, did I appreciate how many family members and family friends joined us for the session.
Tehmina and Naila’s readings were perfect as was Noor Zaheer and Ghazi Salahuddin’s last-minute participation. The discussion was rich, and the documentation by photographer Akbar Baloch made the morning even more memorable.
The rest of the festival was packed with exciting panels and readings. For a full list, please visit the KLF website.
(left) A packed session with writer Laxmi Narayan Tripathi; (right) guards patrolling the grounds.
Watts Towers; photo by Minal
René, Minal and I make a trek to Watts, one of LA’s oldest neighborhoods, where we manage to catch sunset at Watts Towers (Simon Rodia, the artist who created the structure, called the work “Nuestro Pueblo”). Though the towers are lower than they appear in photographs, I’m still stunned by how one man – using found objects (glass, bottle-tops, steel, scrap metal etc.) – created these structures over a span of thirty years. Rodia’s house no longer exists but one of the arches (see photo below) marks what was once the entrance to his home.
Though I’m generally drawn to art that has direct relationship to social justice issues – such as Tropical America (1932) by David Alfaro Siqueiros that I experience thanks to my friend Veronica Reyes – I still appreciate the creation Rodia’s installation. As we peer at the mosaic through the fences, I’m reminded of Houston’s Orange Show and the Beer Can House.
On our second day in Los Angeles, René, Minal and I wake up early, so we can get to Disneyland before a crowd builds up. However, the battle to enter the amusement park without struggle is a lost cause. We have long waits at the entrance tunnel, at the park’s train shuttle, and at the park’s entrance gate. Even when inside, we face 90-minute lines that wrap around entrances to rides.
By the end of the day, exhausted from weaving between throngs of adults and children, René and I ponder over whether the experience was worth our time and money. We drive away from the park in agreement that Minal can now say she’s been to to Disneyland in its original format. In January 2016, one section of the park will be closed off so the amusement park’s Star Wars section can be further developed, and old sections of the park will be permanently removed.
As the bank teller processes my check, she asks: “You have a show tomorrow, don’t you?”
I look up from my phone, noticing her face for the first time. “Yes. We do. Are you on VBB’s mailing list?”
She nods. “I came to the show you did on the eastside. About women and Planned Parenthood. I’ve followed your work ever since.”
I have talked to this teller before. This time, I take her name, and thank her for following the work that I do through VBB. Even though the issues we explored through Women Under Siege – religious extremism and the impact on women’s lives – were frightening, I’m glad that the art we created three years ago still resonates with her.
And driving away, I marvel at how in just the space of a month I’ve had two conversations with young women of color in different parts of Houston, and they have talked with me about Planned Parenthood.