And It Wasn’t a Bad Decision
The crux of it, the hindsight thesis, is that my wife and I took our two young, innocent, American and Americanized children to a place of violence. Did we know? There’s a yes and no answer to that question. But yeah, we knew what was happening in Pakistan before we went.
We’d accepted teaching positions at the Lahore American School, in Lahore, Pakistan. This was January 2007, for jobs beginning in August of 2008. Our children were in 3rd and 6th grades when we left Florida, with everything we owned in nine duffel bags. The boy, 8 years old, had one suitcase dedicated entirely to Legos.
Had it been just my wife and I, none of this would matter. You should do what you want with your own life. But your kids? That’s different. When we accepted the jobs, Pakistan was on the mend. Elections were scheduled, bombings were limited to the Tribal Regions bordering Afghanistan. Relations with India were thawing.
Then in February of 2007, before we’d even left, it all fell apart. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. The Taliban began bombing cities. Riots. Extremism.
Still, we’d signed contracts and given notice to our schools. And everyone in Lahore kept re-assuring us that the threat we saw on the news was not the reality on the ground.
Which turned out to be a yes and no answer too.
There’s 2 questions in my mind about taking one’s children into danger:
1. Is it really dangerous? That is to say, when we think of danger, does our love and care for our children — our ability to imagine our lives should they be harmed, if we find ourselves actually responsible for harming them, that impossible-to-escape regret — does that concern elevate or inflate danger beyond its reasonable expectation?
and 2: Is danger actually good for them?
Not merely the danger of whatever the media throws up about a country like Pakistan: radicalized Muslims, random violence, anti-Americanism, kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.
But other dangers endemic to Third World countries: disease, absence of immediate medical care in an emergency, bad water or food, dysentery, head lice, poisoning. Leprosy! Radicalization, lost in a foreign place, unimaginably horrible public toilets. Suspicious characters, strange insects, unusual diseases.
One strange aspect of this, one essential aspect too, is that writing about it here, for an American audience, makes the whole thing sound adventurous and exotic or terrifying. But it was none of those things in the moment. It was simply our day to day life.
People back home would ask us how safe our American school was, given that the country seemed rabidly anti-American and the school was called The Lahore American School.
‘We’re very safe!’ I often said. ‘We have machine guns on the roof!’
And armed guards in the hallways, policemen outside the walls. We lived in the Cantonment Zone, where the Pakistani Army had barracks and all the retired Generals lived, so the army was quite literally everywhere. Someone checked under your car with a mirror for bombs when you entered the McDonald’s Drive-Thru or grocery store parking lot.
Danger is often simply the unknown. Try as I might to explain that Pakistan wasn’t dangerous, I really can’t. There were bombings, regular school closings, nearby suicide attacks. One fall term we missed close to four weeks of classes because elsewhere in the country the Taliban had begun attacking schools with suicide bombers. None of these things were ever directed at us, but close enough.
Some weeks after we moved, I’d wake up at 2 a.m. in a kind of blind panic, asking what we’d done, imagining the guilt and regret and sheer unbearable grief should the kids come to harm because we’d brought them to Pakistan. But by morning, we’d be back to normal and off to work and none of that terror would seem real.
My wife actually had the opposite experience. A perennial insomniac and worrier in the safe arms of America’s abundance, she found the actualization of all her vague and shapeless fears to be reassuring. She slept, finally, like a baby in Pakistan.
But we also rarely felt in genuine immediate danger. Even when roused to action — to stay home or leave a restaurant or modify our travel routes — we rarely believed we were truly threatened.
Nonetheless, Osama Bin Laden was killed while we were in Pakistan, in Abbottabad, a city some 150 miles north of Lahore. (My wife wanted us to drive up there and get our Christmas picture taken outside the infamous wall; I demurred.) Malala Youssef was shot while we were there. Pakistani Jihadists attacked Mumbai. The list is long.
There’s always a calculus you’re making as a parent, balancing unknowns with knowns, measuring your own happiness against that of the kids, present sacrifices to future gain, distant dangers and nearby ones, the cost of security against the rewards of risk. If danger were always the main concern, one would keep their kids locked up inside, and even then there would be threats and harm aplenty.
But few people willingly, knowingly put their kids into harm’s way. To do so is actually a crime. We put our kids in danger unknowingly or unwittingly or unavoidably. Sometimes we just don’t know and must take a chance. Most often we ‘think’ we aren’t putting them in danger, or we do everything we can to mitigate what might otherwise be out of our control. We put helmets on them when they bike. We strap in the seatbelt. We close up the cupboards of bleach, put bars on the bed so they don’t fall, cover the pool.
But in hindsight, it’s hard to know how many of these normal calculations apply to us. We knew Pakistan was dangerous, could have canceled our contracts. No real harm would have been done but cost, money, opportunity.
But we went. We stayed.
There were benefits to living in Pakistan that far outweighed the risks (so long as those risks never became reality, of course). Danger and discomfort are often inseparable. For us, the inescapable discomfort of living overseas, in a 3rd world country, is what helped nurture our kids’ character. It gave them compassion for the less fortunate, exposed them to other lives and other views, reinforced our own good fortune. Danger made us stronger as a family, dependent upon each other. At ease together.
Danger gave us things as a family that we might not have found any other way. Given the life choices my wife and I have made — to be schoolteachers, to follow middle-class paths of steady paychecks, safety of its own kind, security of its own kind — we have chosen paths that would have made it almost impossible to provide our children with the kinds of life experiences and exposure that would have been more affordable had we more to afford.
There are of course other dangers. Dangers to staying. Less obvious dangers, of too much freedom and choice. Dangers of lassitude, luxury, license. These were some of the ‘dangers’ we actually attempted to escape by going overseas.
In the years we were there, Pakistan consistently made the top 10 lists of ‘Most Dangerous Countries’ — often the top 3 — after places in which actual wars were taking place, such as Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan (and where there were no international schools). We often laughed, perhaps a bit nervously, about those lists.
We then moved to Dubai, which regularly makes the top 3 list of Safest Places in the World.
We liked Pakistan more.
We preferred Pakistan in no small part because the security and luxury of Dubai created other pressures. The social and academic pressures of The American School of Dubai were immeasurably more intense than Lahore. The luxury was curiously flattening, somehow less exotic, the place less special than one caught up in revolution.
And what about our kids? Are they now fantastically centered, highly productive, academic and social superstars? Are they, in hindsight or foresight or whatever, perhaps predictably different than they might have been had we stayed in our safe American suburb?
Truthfully? I’m not even sure it mattered. They are now, at 21 and 25, pretty normal as these things go. Average young Americans. Both struggled with college, but are slowly, now, sorting things out. They have relationships, part-time jobs, and so on. But they’ve neither thrown us any great tragedy nor reached some fantastic success. They neither regret our choice to move overseas, nor wish we’d stayed behind.
It’s easy to argue that the Number 1 job of a parent is to keep his kids safe. To keep them from harm. That everything else is survivable or out of his control. And yet that charge, compelled as it is by anticipation and prediction, and spurred into regret through hindsight, becomes impossible.
Because ultimately the world is dangerous. Harm will come. Unpredictably, and to a near infinite depth of severity and complexity, but it will come.
And isn’t everything a risk? A sacrifice? A potential for tragedy? I tell myself that our sensitive oldest child would have been absolutely destroyed by the American middle-school experience, that our son’s lackluster high school academics would have left him bereft of anything but the video games he was most passionate about wherever we found ourselves. But I really don’t know, because those were not the choices we made.
Wherever you are, there’s often a sense of danger around one’s kids. It’s not as if we felt no danger when we lived in the quiet suburbs in a small American town. We worried about bicycle helmets, accidental drownings or poisonings, bad food, stray dogs, bullies, random violence, car crashes.
Hindsight, of course, is better than 2020. Hindsight creates the future you live in today, whether it’s true or not, regardless of whether your understanding of the past is accurate or not. Had something happened to our children, I’d not be writing this essay. I’d be writing a tragic one, about being foolish and blind. I’d probably not be writing at all.
But I am writing it, and I’m grateful both for taking that step into a storm, and appreciative of the experiences it brought.