Categorized | Culture

A Little Bit of Karachi in El Cerrito


Ordering his chai tea latte in the El Cerrito Barnes and Nobles, Nabeel Awan sports a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie as he checks text messages on his phone from his friends. On this rainy Saturday evening, Awan could be mistaken for any other typical American single 27-year old man relaxing on a weekend.

But the texts that he exchanges are not about the night’s parties, girls or the next NFL football game. Instead, Awan and his Pakistani friends are talking about the great non-American pastime. They are furiously commenting on the day’s heated cricket tournament played in Fremont. Awan, captain of his team, explains that their opponents had to forfeit because of late players but still forced Awan’s team to play a match.

Playing cricket for Awan and his Pakistani teammates is like breathing. “You can’t grow up in Pakistan or India without playing the game daily,” says Awan. Once he migrated here, Awan, like many other young South Asian men, found existing cricket leagues based in Fremont. Every Saturday there are matches, which bring Pakistani and Indian from all corners of the Bay Area, from Richmond to Hayward to San Jose. For Awan, every Saturday is a taste of his home country.

Seven years ago, a month after September 11, 2001, Awan landed in America for the first time at San Francisco International Airport. And he braced himself for the worst. Before traveling to America, a long-time friend from Pakistan who lived in New York tried to convince Awan to stay home. He warned that the mood of America had become increasingly anti-Muslim. In fact, Awan’s friend had quit his job and planned to return to Pakistan.

But coming to America was Awan’s destiny. “We always knew we would come here,” says Awan as he reflects back on how his family made it all the way from Karachi, Pakistan to El Cerrito, California.

The Awan family spent several years in the late 1980s in Dubai seeking work. But when job offers looked bleak, Awan’s father called upon a friend already working in the East Bay in hopes of better opportunities. With a position secure through his friend, Awan’s father left for America in 1990. Without any family support in Dubai, Awan’s mother and his older brother and younger sister packed up everything they had and moved back to Karachi, where his mother’s family lived.

For the next 11 years, Awan’s father worked as a manager of a cab company here in El Cerrito, but the wages were not enough. To support the three children and herself, Awan’s mother was forced to work full-time in Karachi, an uncommon and difficult feat for a woman in Pakistan at the time. As Awan looks back he admits that he never appreciated what his mother did for them in all those years in Karachi. “We were so naughty and she had to put up with us and support us,” says Awan.

Nike. Disneyland. Video games. Those are the words Awan associated with America when he was young. As he grew older, Awan began to ponder how he would make a life and a career across the world. What kind of job would he have? What kind of friends would he make? Although this country seemed far off to Awan at the time, there was no question that he would also come here – it was just a matter of when.

That day came sometime in late 2001 when Awan’s father, with some help from friends in Pakistan, finally completed the necessary legal paperwork. Awan’s older brother went first and the rest of the family followed a few months later.

On October 10, 2001 Awan stepped out of the San Francisco Airport and readied himself. All the warnings of Muslim hatred were running over and over in his head. “I thought that everyone would stare at us and start to make faces,” says Awan.

But in fact, it was quite opposite. As his mother, sister and Awan stood on the curb with their entire Karachi life packed into six suitcases, not one person stared at them. In fact, even when Awan asked for instructions on how to hail a cab in his thick, rough English, nobody laughed, as he thought they would. Awan’s fears were quelled and he thought America could not be that bad after all.

The family moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Pinole for the next two years. Awan’s father had fallen ill and was contemplating retirement with the arrival of his sons. The first and only priority for Awan and his brother was to get jobs. Having finished an architectural degree in Karachi, Awan had thought to pursue a similar career in the States. But those hopes were quickly replaced by a necessity to find anything that paid.

Having a considerable background in computers through college courses, Awan was hired by a local Pakistani man in El Cerrito to repair them. Although skilled in computers, Awan lacked the understanding of American business. When a customer came to Awan with a small problem such as replacing a simple card, he did not ask for a payment. “I thought why should I charge for something so simple,” Awan says.

Awan lost that job quickly but soon found himself under the wing of another Pakistani businessman from Richmond who owned several restaurants in the East Bay. The owner had been in Awan’s shoes 30 years earlier so he made it a point to help young Pakistani men like Awan become successful.

Awan began working at a Richmond Wienerschnitzel, a fast food chain, and began to learn the ropes of working in the restaurant business. Awan admits to being a bit hot headed when he first started working and jumping to the defensive when people would try to correct his mistakes. “I thought why are other employees telling me what to do,” says Awan. But the owner taught him “to analyze people and situations properly before acting.” Once he did this, Awan became receptive to criticism and felt much more confident in dealing with his co-workers and customers.

During this time, the Awan family moved from Pinole to El Cerrito in 2003. While low crime rate and quality real estate were attractions for the Awan family, the location was the biggest pull. Berkeley holds one of the largest Pakistani populations in the Bay Area. Solano Avenue in Albany houses an Islamic Community Center and a mosque stands in Richmond. El Cerrito brought the Awan family closer to bits of home.

Today, as Awan comfortably sips his latte, all those years of pondering in Pakistan seem far off. Awan found the answers to his own questions of what he could make of his life and career in this country. He now manages the Richmond Wienerschnitizel restaurant and will soon be managing an Indian restaurant in Fremont.

Awan was also able to find a sense of his own community with other young Pakistani immigrants. Besides the weekly cricket rendezvous, if Awan has a craving for Indian food, wants to discuss the latest Pakistan news headline or even curse in his native Urdu, his Pakistani friends are the first ones to call.

Ironically, while Awan enjoys embracing his culture in this new adopted country, his future plans do not include returning to his home country. “It’s too different now. And I just love the Bay Area,” says Awan. He wants of life what most anybody does: a good job and a good home, and he wants to make it happen in the Bay Area.

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