FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Qasim Ahmad knew in high school that he wanted to join the Army. He was so certain of his decision that he didn’t wait for a recruiter to find him. When he turned 18, he walked into a recruiter’s office in D.C. and signed up.
“It was between the Army or the Marine Corps and I just thought that the Army offered the most in terms of schools and opportunities to individual Soldiers,” he said.
Ahmad, now Pfc. Ahmad, is a forward observer in 3rd Brigade Combat Team, a job he enjoys because there are so few of them, he said.
While on post, he feels like an ordinary part of everyday operations and fits in just like everyone else, Ahmad said.
On the civilian side of life, however, he has at times had a different experience because of his heritage – Ahmad is an American Soldier who was born in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month during which their rich cultural backgrounds are celebrated and whose history and unique contributions to the United States are recognized.
Those contributions span the entire spectrum between technological feats and the arts, including business owners, entrepreneurs, culinary experts, as well as renowned actors, actresses and filmmakers and even the vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris.
Military service is no exception, and Ahmad, assigned to 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), shared some of the struggles and delights of being Pakistani American he feels highlight the duality that comes with belonging to two different cultures.
Pakistan: Quick facts
Pakistan is located in southern Asia and bound by Iran to the west, Afghanistan to the northwest and north, China to the northeast, and India to the east and southeast. The coast of the Arabian Sea forms its southern border.
It is a Muslim nation of about 216 million people, the official languages are Urdu and English and the national sport is, surprise – hockey.
Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan is not located in the Middle East and the people there do not speak Arabic. Urdu is actually closer linguistically to Farsi, spoken in Iran.
Culture faux pas
Ahmad and his Family moved to D.C. in October 2009, a move that came with a few comical culture clashes in the sphere of social norms.
One of the biggest social differences he learned was encompassed in the unspoken rules around visiting others, in particular the habit of calling ahead rather than showing up unannounced.
“The biggest thing was just that, in Pakistan people would just show up to your house,” he said with a grin. “Like Family members, random friends, they would just knock on your door and you’d invite them in for a cup of tea. Over here you have to plan for everything. You can’t just show up at people’s houses here and be like ‘hey man I just got off work, want to hang out?’ That’s pretty normal there.”
In addition to learning what was acceptable and what wasn’t in his new home, Ahmad realized over time that people did not associate his birthplace with Asia.
“I was taking a test in Virginia and I was just checking a box and people were like “you’re Asian? Why are you checking the Asian box?” There’s no other box for me to check,” he said with a laugh.
It is also not uncommon for people to be shocked that he doesn’t speak Arabic or learn that the geographical layout of Pakistan isn’t what they assume it is, Ahmad said.
“I think people have seen too many movies and stuff and think it’s sandy and a desert,” he said. “It’s more like how the humidity is here during the summer.”
While it’s true that Pakistan has desert areas, it is not one large desert. It is made up of a coast, forests, plains and some of the most well-known mountain ranges on the entire Asian continent, including the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. The south Asian country also is home to the second highest mountain peak in the world, K2.
Ahmad said if people are interested in learning about Pakistan and Pakistani culture, they shouldn’t rely solely on the media, and instead recommended watching travel shows produced by people who have actually been there and explored it.
“If you just watch travel shows about places, they seem a lot different than they appear in the media and the news,” he said, adding this is true of any place, including the United States.
There is value in relying on personal experience and research rather than presumption, he said, using the American South as an example.
“You know how some people see some states and think, well that’s just sweet tea and fried chicken,” Ahmad said. “Obviously, there’s sweet tea and fried chicken there, but once you actually go there, there’s more to it. I feel like it’s the same thing there, you’ve got to see it and do your own research.”
Misconceptions aside, Ahmad hopes people will want to explore more of his culture through its food.
“I always encourage people to try the food,” he said. “People are always ready to jump on thinking that it’s the same in all the area, but I feel like the area has very diverse food.”
Dishes he suggests are chicken biryani, kebabs, haleem and dhal, dishes that are common in both Pakistani and Indian cuisine alike with an emphasis on lentils. Pakistani dishes lean more towards the spicier side of gastronomy because they often include spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, chili powder, allspice and turmeric.
Tea is another important aspect of Pakistani life. And though Ahmad hasn’t sat down for tea in a while, it’s something he remembers doing often in Islamabad.
“We like drinking tea all the time, I feel like that’s a thing,” he said. “We do it three or four times a day,” adding he likes pouring a healthy amount of milk and sugar into his cup.
A linguistic peculiarity in talking about tea here in the U.S. is that the Urdu word for tea is “chai,” and when people talk about it here, they are referring to a specific type of tea and not the tea itself.
“When people tell me they’re drinking ‘chai tea’ they’re literally saying they’re drinking ‘tea tea,’” Ahmad said.
Growing up in the U.S.
Ahmad’s experience in the U.S. and the Army has been positive, he said. He really likes the South, and Charleston, South Carolina, is one of his favorite places because of its beaches.
“I feel like the South is a really nice region in my opinion,” he said. “People are nice and there’s mom and pop stores everywhere.”
And the U.S. Army is where Ahmad feels he is most allowed to be the sum of his identity – a child born in Islamabad, raised by Pakistani parents in Washington, D.C., with the best of both worlds and who is most importantly, American.
Ahmad’s experience as a Soldier has been one in which he feels he is just like everyone else, and though his upbringing and country of origin make him unique, being Pakistani hasn’t raised any eyebrows or been a factor to set him apart. And the idea that this could be a problem for him here at Fort Campbell is a myth he wants to dispel.
“We’re all just here to do a job,” Ahmad said, adding the Army is a diverse place where he can just be himself – an American Soldier serving his country.