Braving Burgeristan

Emaan Majed took her time making sense of Pakistan's urban elite as she moved into its habitat

Braving Burgeristan
Having grown up in the US, with the bulk of my cultural exposure coming from B4U Bollywood marathons and the occasional Atif Aslam concert I was dragged to, I was a bit lacking in slang when I first moved to Lahore. So it was that my third day of uni found me sitting on a bench outside the college canteen with a friend, who, after having seen my disastrous attempt to tell “gyaara” from “baara” earlier on, was stifling laughter.

“You,” she said, jabbing a finger in my chest, “are such a burger.”

“You want a burger?” I replied, confused. “We, like, just ordered a pizza.”

“No, you idiot. I mean you are one. You know, it’s like an insult. Slang. Rich kids, kids who live in Defense, kids who like burgers.”

“But - doesn’t everyone like burgers?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

“That’s not what it - no,” she said, exasperated, and went on to explain the concept to me.

Upon reflection, I had to agree this was a reasonable label for someone like me. It seemed a natural metamorphosis: that I should go from ABCD to Burger. So I set upon a journey to understand my new, pre-assigned identity, and what it meant in this cultural context. Due to being shell-shocked and somewhat traumatised by the transatlantic move, I was relieved to find early friends who spoke in English – sparing me from trotting out my still-pathetic Urdu. I made fast friends with the English-speaking girls (my first mistake), and before long became immersed in a world that, while nice enough from the outside, would turn out to be unlike anything I ever expected: the Wacky World of the Burger Bachae.

The Burger Bachae ate at Mall One every Friday, ritually, and pretended not to hear my suggestions that maybe this time we could eat at some place cheaper. Their activities and conversations stagnated in a hopelessly circular fashion: clothes, food, clothes, food, clothes, boys, food. For the boys, it differed slightly to pay heed to their competing masculinities: cars, food, bachiyan, cars, food, bachiyan, daddy’s business. Many a lunch at a fancy eatery I spent, smiling politely and telepathically willing the fork to rise from the table and gouge my eyes out. As time went on, I learned that the Burger Bachae were preternaturally gifted; they had incredible talents. They could actually make bunking a lecture seem like a bad idea. As one held a vicelike grip on my arm and talked about Elan’s latest collection for the entire hour missed, it made me think longingly of hearing about Lac Operon receptors in the stuffy lecture room instead.

The Burger Bachae were obsessed with their own wealth, and often, would talk of nothing else. It seemed that their parent’s money and status was – quite pathetically – their strongest identity. On a range of other topics they didn’t have much to say: Homeless people were “annoying” or alternatively, “Sad, but what do they expect from us? Why don’t they just get jobs?”.
In time, though I disliked the Burger Bachae, I came to realise it was not entirely their fault, in the way that Trump's psychosis is not entirely his fault

Corruption was an example of how backward this country was, because everyone was corrupt here (just not their parents or anyone they knew). Often – like a well-known editor recently assigned his own hashtag – they presented an inoffensively liberal front to the foreign world, talking to white friends about how sad it was that poverty was so prevalent in Pakistan, while maintaining quite the opposite smug-landlord persona in private. At one megacorp-sponsored event that I attended with the Burger Bachae, a famous fruit was being honored at a famous hotel, and in the very back of the room a group of recalcitrant fruit farmers had been rounded up as a part of the show – a bizarre blend of corporatism which sought to wipe out and incapacitate such people and guilt which was assuaged by bringing them into the back of the event as a zoo-like spectacle.

The Burger Bachae talked often, in private gatherings, of the middle-class and snarkily remarked on their Urdu accents and lack of branded clothing or – most scandalous of all – rip-off branded clothing. I mean, didn’t they know the crucial difference between one identical Louis Vuitton bag and the other was that one was at Liberty for Rs. 2,000, and the other some sucker’s dad had paid $ 600 for? So gauche. Anyone who looked middle class or dark was a paindoo, and was laughed at for probably being jealous of the Burger Bachae and having an inferiority complex. In truth, it was the Burger Bachae who were more complexed than I had previously thought it was possible for humans to be complexed. Pakistani people were “savages”. Everything here was “uncivilised”. It was so unlike The West, where people were “proper”. I hoped they were buying copious amounts of their Fair & Lovely, because they needed skin a lot lighter than that to pull off their impression of a 1858 British Colonel.

In a phenomenon that belied the fact that many chose voluntarily to live here, the Burger Bachae hated this country even more than they hated their mothers. They were, on occasion, willing to engage with their own culture, but only as long as Khaadi was selling it. Do you bring your toothpaste from America? They would ask me. I get it shipped - the Pakistani kind is so low quality. Do you get your jewelry from America? The Pakistani kind is so lame. Do you get your toilet paper from America? Occasionally I wanted to ask if they brought their excrement from America, too. The Burger Bachae seemed to be low-level horrified by my refusal to validate their absurd standards and I suspect that they only excused it on the basis of my being, technically, more foreign than them. In this sphere of mandatory Levis and and only eating ice cream at Baskin Robbins as a moral standard, connection to “abroad” was – instead of a happenstance – a bonafide personality trait. They had tried so hard to emulate the Americans in TV shows; not understanding that in many parts of this “civilised” world they admired, their elitist attitudes and casual classism would be desperately uncool.

Theirs was a surreal, grotesque world; I felt as though I’d been horribly miscast in a Dominick Dunne novel. Any minute, I expected to round the corner and see some Upper East Side dame crying over her late husband’s affair with the secretary; though instead it would be a Bahria Town auntie crying over the insult of an Arain family having the gall to send a rishta proposal. I had been raised in a middle class family in the suburbs. Some of my friends had been richer, some of them poorer, but none of them (unlike these Burger Bachae) had been turds about it.

In time, though I disliked the Burger Bachae, I came to realise it was not entirely their fault, in the way that Trump’s psychosis is not entirely his fault – the man is clearly beyond help. This gilded, fragile psyche they inhibited had been passed down to them and it was all they knew. The Burger Bachae were the offspring of the Pepsi Parents. They had been taught a rigid moral code: spend. And part two: condescend.

They were part of a growing class in Pakistan that, in response to the mass inequality around them, became ever more snooty rich people. The Burger Bachae could not see their own wealth as luck, and likely coming off the backs of poorer people, but instead saw it as their birthright and God-given right. Perhaps knowing instinctively how undeserved it was, they clung to it even stronger as a marker of their identity and determiner of social stratifications.

They were defined, centrally, by three things: 1) A belief that money, and the status that it brought, was the singular good and goal in life. 2) A belief that the system that placed them at the top had no fixable flaws, and any cognitive dissonance at seeing beggars or the lower class – “those” people – could be assuaged by zakat. 3) A refusal to see poorer people as even remotely human. As their fathers ran coal factories creating smog in the air and their families caused income to be concentrated more and more at the top, they lamented how perhaps if the poor were not so ignorant, lacking in class or backward, this society would not be in such a bad spot.

In any case, my personal adventure into their neuroses had come to an end. I was finding I quite liked chapli kebab, and the company of people whose personalities did not resemble billionaire Bond villains. After a year in Pakistan, it had become clear; Big Macs and beef tenderloin sliders though I might enjoy, this was not my kind of burger.