I went out to dinner a few weeks back with: my boss, P; his friend, F, a Pakistani fund manager; and F’s wife, J, an attorney, to F’s favorite restaurant: Madangsui in K-town. While F fussed over my dietary quirks [steakatarian = pescetarian but with steak in lieu of pesce] and I tried to placate him by ordering kimchi and tofu soup, drinks and tiny dishes began to materialize on our table. We all sampled the 20% ABV sake and passed around the banchan while inquiring about the kids, relating Hurricane Sandy stories [F, J and kids live in Short Hills, an upscale NJ suburban town, and had lost power for a week]. After a few rounds of sake and assorted kimchi, we were teased with the arrival of lettuce wraps, scallions and chili paste, whose vehicles still grilled in the pit between us.
I was already getting full but cracked an egg into my spicy soup anyway, mainly out of obligation, knowing I’d barely be able to make a dent in it with everything else on the table to cover. We drank our beer and wine and discussed the future of college, all agreeing that fewer people would go to college in the years to come. Many are priced out of it, but even for those who can afford it, the return is no longer always worth the investment. Vocational schools used to be looked down upon, but many of the skills are sought after and pay well [though barriers to entry like county-by-county licensing, may make it more trouble than it’s worth for many]. Not that anything but university would have been an option for me or F, whose Indian and Pakistani families would never have approved; my sister’s profession as a lawyer and my lack of graduate degree are barely tolerated. I think some of the reason for the rise in college attendance rates in recent decades may be due to a demographic shift in the 1970s and 1980s when many south Asians began to immigrate here. We subcontinentals are snobs: no vocational school or even community college for us. My sister went to Northwestern; F & J’s daughter is in her sophomore year at my alma mater, NYU. Now it could be considered more fashionable, if not always more cost-effective, to seek alternatives to traditional higher education like this suggests. [Or one could just be a smug autodidact — not that my boss is, but he did go to India and Sri Lanka in his youth and introduced me to this clip]
My boss says he actually spoke like that while at school.
Then F, who has an undergraduate degree in Engineering [and an MBA, of course], and my boss, who has his doctorate in Chemistry, swapped tales of schoolboy lab antics while J’s and my eyes glazed over. We caught each other and raised our glasses, letting them get it out of their system.
F ordered yet another round of pickle and spice and started another lab story, of when he was at university in Karachi. At this time, he told us, it was standard practice for students to carry rags around with them and soak them in water periodically throughout the day to have at the ready. Student protesters standing on the roof of the school would throw rocks at the tanks rolling down the street past them. The closed windows of the lab were thick and tinted, so the students couldn’t see in or out, but F said they could still hear the tanks outside. The last day he attended class in Karachi, a gas canister was thrown through the window of the lab, which not even water-soaked rags could counter in an enclosed space. F said it was chaos: students were panicking, shoving for the exit. He decided then that he would continue his university education in the United States or not at all. As he finished his story, we saw J smile and shake her head in amazement: it turns out she had never heard the story of how her husband came to attend school here.
The ribeye and pork short rib done cooking, we were finally able to deck our heretofore naked lettuce wraps as F continued his views on Pakistan. He knows many who remain there, enjoying their comfortable lives with generators and safe [and uninterrupted] water supply while the people that serve them continue to go without. F can see why Pakistanis are inclined toward the more tangible presence of the Taliban rather than that of the far-away United States. He foresees a revolution of the have-nots in Pakistan as well as in India. Despite India’s incredibly corrupt bureaucracy and poverty, I didn’t agree with F as I see an emerging middle class, increasing FDI and more comforts enjoyed by more people each time I visit [except for beds and pillows for rich and poor alike, which still feel like they are literally stuffed with rocks or pebbles — Sealy’s and Serta, I see a market there for you]. India’s tensions appear to me to be along more religious, ethnic, or even lingual lines [check out the specifications of matrimonial ads], rather than economic. The country had also united just the week before, Watchmen-style, rejoicing at the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving perpetrator of the November 2008 attacks on multiple locations in Mumbai. The bleeding heart part of me was disgusted by the pictures of Indians hanging effigies of Kasab in celebration; the human part of me with relatives who were living in Mumbai at the time and were under lockdown [thankfully safe, but still trapped in their homes] for two days, felt that justice had perhaps been served. And justice in the legal sense as well, unlike the assassination of Osama bin Laden last year.
Though beyond full at this point, we all kept picking at the food in front of us and continued talking. There were probably hungry patrons waiting for our table while we lingered over tangy orange slices and segued into US foreign policy overall and Obama’s re-election, which no one at the table felt particularly strongly about. P, an at best tepid Obama supporter, and I brought up our issues with his administration’s policy on drones and assassinations of foreigners as well as US citizens on foreign soil, a policy many Obama supporters are either unaware of or willfully ignore. We all agreed that if this were the policy of a Republican administration, there would be outrage and protests. Overall, F appears to be an isolationist as he thinks the US always ends up doing more harm than good; my boss and I, while not hawks in the slightest, could envision instances where US intervention might be warranted. The debate never turned ugly or spiteful, always remaining a spirited discussion unlike most I have with people my own age. We agreed to disagree, decided we needed to stop eating and finally head home. We stood up and waddled to the door, already making plans for our next outing.