Pakistan: Lessons in Story-Telling and Micro-Politics

I arrived in Pakistan about a week ago, but the stark realities of every day life here still leave me awe struck. I arrived last Saturday to find myself behind the Dutch field hockey team, all of us waiting for our foreign passports to get stamped for approval. While many others with a foreign passport were directed to a second line, for those not as privileged as a celebrity sports team, I used my American accent and the “I’m a US citizen” card to stick to the shorter, faster line. It’s unsettling to practice an authority that was won for you by others over years of political and economic success, providing you a power that you rarely use. But then again, I was on standing a line to get through customs, and maybe I’m overanalyzing theories on neo-imperialism.

The family that I stay with here is also very protective. They live in a well off neighborhood of Lahore, but still maintain a sense of fear and paranoia of Pakistan’s state of criminality. I’ve heard countless stories, sometimes as minor as maids stealing jewelry to worse, more deadly schemes staged by some house cooks. “Your uncle was at a wedding where the groom didn’t show up. He was kidnapped as he was walking out of the cake shop before his reception. God only knows how he managed to make it back from wherever he was left to die”, my Aunt told me. It’s good that I’m hearing these stories while I’m also reading The Black Swan, a book on human perception and probability. Essentially, what the book explains is that our sense of risk is distorted by sensationalism of “black swans”, events that we otherwise would never have expected but rationalize into our framework by ascribing illogical causes.

I think that sensationalism is an excellent way to describe Pakistani culture. With a developing media culture, Pakistanis are glued to their news channels to get the 24 hour coverage of bombs and guns, a new form of entertainment perpetuated by cohesion within social circles. What’s left are relationships that are developed through the entertainment of story telling, fear mongering, depression. Is it possible that the narratives spun through cohesion creates fixed roles for people to fill, some choosing to play the part of complacent bystanders, others that of the corrupt politician, and some the role of the criminal.

But this sad state of things is once again dependent on the structures that bind you. I’m here interning for an energy project finance law firm and a public policy research team. While in these environments, I’m free from the anxiety that’s ever present in my host family’s home. The people that I’m surrounded by at my internships seem much more relaxed and when conversations do dwell on Pakistan’s many crises, they leave a sense of rationalization, distance, and yet so much more depth.

I find the function of politically charged conversations interesting. I hold a strong belief in the impact that micro-politics have on social norms, all vague terms soon to be explained. I think that instead of finding ourselves frustrated with distant concepts like corruption and criminality, perhaps we should focus on the impact that the conversation has on our values. For example, a friend and I were having a conversation on Pakistan’s apparent corruption and I felt that my friend’s contextualization of the practice slightly legitimized it. I immediately felt obliged to voice my intolerance towards such “practicality”, demonstrating how such a personal conversation can turn into a vehicle for the development of social norms. Sometimes labeling our society into a government and the people makes us forget that we too are part of the public.

Winding Down At Oxford

It’s my second to last week at Oxford and the reflections are pouring in. I still remember the zero week, also known as Fresher’s week, where first year students and visiting students go through various orientation programs. The experience was much more independent compared to Customs week; you didn’t have a specific set of orienteers that showed you around, played games, and what not (not that I’m nostalgic for any of that or anything). Instead a group of four students had a College Mom and a College Dad, both of whom were expected to answer any of your questions and maybe meet up with all four at some point. I sense that my voice is beginning to sound whiny so I’ll stop my description, lest my bitterness over nothing comparing to Customs Week seep deeper into this post.

But time’s flown by, like I said, I’m wrapping up, with only two more essays to go before I’ve finished all my work related obligations. I do have some lectures to finish up with, but other than that, I’m twenty pages away from winter break, which lasts 6 weeks. Interestingly, in the past 6 weeks, I’ve written eleven 10-page pagers, along with a presentation as part of a symposium on social insurance. The amount of work that I’ve gotten through still surprises me, compared with the amount that I’ve written in the past two years. I find the Oxford tutorial system very effective at helping students develop not only a deep understanding of the material they read but also a voice to speak about it.

Speaking of developing a voice, I’ve decided to start writing a blog on energy and the environment. A few months ago, I would have been averse to the idea of researching a topic independently and then writing a post on my research, but because of my adjustment to Oxford’s emphasis on essay writing, I’ve found it much easier to explore a topic that I’m very passionate about. I became interested in energy over the summer while interning at De Lage Landen, a vendor finance firm, where I research the natural gas market. The experience was eye opening, bringing me to the realization that I really don’t know much about such pressing issues such as the energy industry or climate change. What I did realize, however, is that these are fields that I would like to participate in, contribute to, create solutions for.

I’ve been especially motivated by my time here, from taking a Public Economics course, which has taught me the potential that economics has to solve the challenges that governments face, as well as from the ambitious environment that surrounds me. For example, last week I saw Elon Musk, an innovative entrepreneur who’s pioneered in the industries of space travel and electric cars. Hearing Musk talk about the steps he took through his education, business experience, and fund raising to build a rocket is ridiculous, amazing. Hearing him say that he wants to retire to Mars, speaking about energy sustainability as not only a priority, but also a potential social norm, all of this isn’t part of an outlook that you’re used to and so when visionaries jar you into perspective, you appreciate it.

If you’d like to follow my other blog on energy and the environment, here’s a link: explainingenergy.blogspot.com

An Oxford Choice

It was a choice, I chose to sit in this café, inside an art museum, and I chose to write this post in the middle of the afternoon. On my way here, after having been inspired from the sight of the café’s storefront below my window, I had to walk three minutes in a roundabout way through Pembroke (my college at Oxford), the streets, and past my window again, to get to where I am now. I had many other locations to choose from on my way here, the first of which was the quad in my college, surrounded by seventeenth century, castle-like dining halls, churches, and dormitories. I could have taken a turn to the right, instead of going straight, and I would have ended up in Christ Church (another Oxford college), walking past its commanding clock tower (which, at night, adds an especially eerie tone to St. Aldate’s otherwise quiet street) and into its meadows, filled with cows, horses, and storks. I could have even continued straight, not taking the left past my window, and ended up on corn market street, a market as old as Oxford itself was established, full of the excitement that it attracted because of its many one legged and magical street performers.

I chose to sit in a relatively low-key café precisely because of the balance that it brought in the face of such an otherwise overwhelming experience. My day was exciting enough to tone it down, I thought, having spent my morning studying consulting cases, preparing for possible internship interviews, and then going to a lecture by one of the UK’s top labor economists on the difficulties that econometricians face when studying the labor supply. On my way back, listening to a podcast by Harvard’s Occupy Movement on the origins of the UK’s monetary system, I walked past High Street’s stunning medieval architecture, the very beauty that power built, the very power that my podcast chastised. I arrived in my room once again, exhausted, and once again, overwhelmed; being an economist, I naturally asked myself how I could optimize my five hour block of time before class started again. This race to occupy myself was motivated by what everyone has told me, and what I’ve experienced myself, that there’s always something interesting happening at Oxford. You could go to a talk (I signed up to see entrepreneur Elon Musk tomorrow night), you could get in touch with other ambitious students (I scheduled a coffee for Friday with a Rhodes Scholar), or you could go to career events (I already attended the recruiting events held by some of the world’s leading international banks). Not to say that I thought that I’d done it all, but peeling away my jacket and jumping into bed, I did feel that my choice to rest for a bit wouldn’t be undermining the incredible opportunity that studying at Oxford provided.

Surprisingly, it feels that way sometimes. There have been too many days that I would find myself short on time, wishing for the very five hour break that I had now, to finish an essay on the US’s trade deficit in 1970, to attend a lecture by the founder of the Oxford Martin School, to read up on South Asia’s energy crisis. Today, when my break suddenly appeared at an inopportune time, as they so often do, I found myself feeling guilty and paralyzed, scrambling to find a use for it. Having napped with the hope that I would wake up realizing that I had something important left on my to do list, and a metaphorically blank list in front of me, I finally came to terms with the relaxed trajectory that my day was taking, and chose to find myself in a café for the rest of the afternoon.

 

As a Haverford Economics Major

As an economics major, math and statistical analysis both have strong applications to my greater academic experience. I began my day by attending my Real Analysis class and learned how to rigorously prove integration. Although it may come across as nerdy and strange, this process brought much excitement to my morning, demonstrating my ability to not only comprehend but, also, reproduce the proof of an advanced mathematical concept. The next class was Econometrics, a course that attempts to test hypothesis about the relationship between two variables. That morning, we derived the appropriate test for a sample of data that an economist would not have the necessary statistics for. The conclusion was that by manipulating results, economists may understand their data relative to confidence levels. Finally, my day ended with a class on Differential Equations, a course on the manipulation of functions that detail the movement of higher order relationships. An example of this would be looking at population growth; economists may create a formula to find population levels by observing the growth rates in population.

What I most valued from this day was learning the dynamic nature of learning at Haverford. When people hear me say that I am an economics major, the usual reaction is always surprise. I think that there definitely exists a negative connotation associated with economics, viewed as something that promotes self-interest, money-making and the antithesis of liberal arts. I think that this snapshot at my day demonstrates that these assumptions are far from the truth. What becomes clear is that my education has been enhanced by my major, combining all of my interests into one direction. I have always been good at mathematical and social analysis. I see economics as the cross roads of these skills, quantifying social phenomena through the observation of markets and services. I truly look forward to the next two years in order to find myself in this field of study.

Leadership Retreat Reflections

The Pendle Hill staff was happy to have hosted Haverford’s leadership retreat because they witnessed the rare occurrence of a group of students smiling as they entered their halls, genuinely asking “how are you” to the hosts and residents. This was one of many reminders throughout the day of what it meant to be a Haverford student. One of the most often repeated ones at the retreat was that only Haverford students would spend their last day of break at a series of workshops on restorative justice, that we would engage with a panel of mediators in order to learn from them and that we would continue the conversations started at Pendle Hill even when we settled into our dorms.

One of the first activities we engaged in was to write about ourselves on strips of paper and link everyone’s strips into a chain. The finished chain was laid down in the middle of the room, serving as the physical manifestation of our thoughts at the beginning of the retreat. Following this brief moment, we transitioned into a panel discussion, concerning the history, challenges and prospects of the fields of restorative justice and mediation. Following a lunch break, we began to discuss conflict mediation techniques and closed the day off with a final question-answer discussion. Throughout this entire process, the chain still lay on the floor, forcing students to reflect on who they were several hours earlier and what condition they were leaving in.

Restorative justice was described as a perspective that looks at crime through an uncommon lens. Instead of categorizing people as victims and offenders, the restorative justice process attempts to engage parties involved in an incident to meet each others needs. Instead of valuing laws and technicalities, restorative justice values trust, community and respect. I soon began to realize why Haverford chose this subject as the topic of its retreat.

I couldn’t help but relate some of the material we were learning about new forms of mediation to what I had been taught about the criminal justice system. I couldn’t help but reflect on how frustrating it must be for reform advocates to have to deal with an apathetic and complacent society. While flaws in our criminal justice system appear well publicized throughout the media, the lack of an advertised alternative seems to pull people towards pessimism. Moreover, I believe the process for getting reform through bureaucracy is not well known; the height of people’s known political action is a vote on a ballot. I can only hope that people stop feeling obliged to simplified and inefficient systems of justice and begin to move towards more effective ones.