Australia has made me soft. That’s the first thing I realised when I got out of the airport in Karachi. See, I immigrated to Australia from Pakistan in 2012. And not just anywhere in Pakistan: Karachi, a city of more than 24 million. That’s the entire population of Australia, plus at least a quarter of New Zealand, all in one city. People standing next to you, people standing in front of you, people standing behind you, people climbing over you, crawling under you, people trying to burrow into every orifice. Everything you say is drowned out by people saying other things; everything you smell is layered with the smell of people. It’s all you can do not to taste people inadvertently.
I came from that to Australia, where there’s hardly anyone anywhere. Especially WA, which is huge and vast and spread out and has about as many people in it as were at my last family gathering. WA is so empty, that when I heard people say ‘Fuck off, we’re full’, I thought they were being ironic. And then I moved to Northam, where there is the same number of people as there were working in my Karachi office building. I spent a week walking around with my arms spread wide, just because I could.
Then the silence settled in. There’s not much noise in Northam. Even Perth at its loudest is a murmur compared to the cacophony that is Karachi’s ambient noise – and I’ve been to Northbridge on a Saturday night. Soon, I was enjoying the peace and quiet, skipping down empty streets, and generally luxuriating in the tranquillity of it all. Three years later, I’m thinking the traffic in Morley is frightening, Northam’s getting too crowded because an Indian family moved in four streets away, and Australia’s ruined because of the $7 GP co-payment.
Then I went back to Karachi for a week. The moment I stepped out of the airport, I was assaulted by the profusion of humanity. It got worse when I sat in the car. I’ve been driving since I was 16 (officially, in case my mother reads this) and Karachi driving was something I excelled at. It’s not the same as driving in Perth. In Perth, you have to do things like use the indicator when you switch lanes, stop at stop signs, obey the speed limit. In Karachi, your job is to stay alive. That’s it. The only instruction my father gave me when I started driving was: “Everyone else will try to kill you. Don’t let them.” Best damn advice I ever got. The moment I pulled out of the parking lot, every car, bus, taxi, rickshaw, donkey cart, motorcycle, and pedestrian took aim and charged. Before I left for Australia, my reflexes were honed to Blind Cat Ninja efficiency. I could weave through traffic like a hornet on a pheromone trail and stare down buses laden with scowling extras from all the Mad Max movies combined. This time, the first car that honked at me, I shrieked, dived into the back seat, and began sucking my thumb while chanting: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”.
I complained about the noise, got migraines from all the carbon monoxide inhaled before breakfast, and prepared to see my dead grandparents each time someone approached me. The food burned a hole in my intestines, a thick coat of dust and grime plastered my lungs, and I think I grew hair on my back somehow. I swear it wasn’t there before I went to Karachi for the week. All of a sudden, I found I was missing Northam. As anyone from Northam will angrily attest, I’ve made a comedy career out of criticising the small town. In those seven days in Karachi, I realised that at some point I’d stopped being Homo Urbanus, and become Homo Rus Ruris: a human evolved (or devolved) to be comfortable only in rural settings.
The difference between Northam and Karachi became more evident when I compared newspaper headlines. The Karachi paper read: “Police Commissioner shot at. 4 killed.” The Northam weekly paper said: “Patients at Midland clinic complain about lack of free parking”.
When I described my travails to people, they were – understandably – unsympathetic. The common response was, “But you’ve only been gone three years!” And it was a fair reaction. How, in three years, had I changed so much? In 1998, I left Pakistan for college in America and returned four years later with the same hardened edges and survival instincts. Now I was a quivering mess. The difference, I realised, lay with Northam itself. Rural WA experiences time altogether differently. Things are slower, more relaxed. Three Northam years are basically five human years, and at least seven Karachi years. The pace in Karachi is just too fast to compare. When I left Perth Airport on my return, the drive home took an hour and a half, mostly on empty country highway. I rolled the window down, sang into the silence, and drove at a leisurely pace. Yes, Australia’s made me soft. But I think I’m grateful for it.