Home is where I’m alienated*

Pakistani flour mill workers recovering from a near-fatal lung infection due to poor occupational health and safety conditions, West Ham Hospital, 1960s (Source: Qureshi 2012, p. 7)

To be transnational has become rather fashionable: never before in human history have so many people been on the move, airfares have never been so cheap, new communication technologies have never been so, well, new, and space and time have never been so compressed. As a result, migrants are no longer just ‘migrants’ but have become ‘transnationals’ maintaining links between their country of origin, their current country, and, not unusually, other countries where they have spent time.

The cool imagery of the new transnationalism is sometimes ruptured by analysts pointing out how class and race constrain or enable different forms of transnationalism. However, even critical accounts such as these are usually based in generic embodiments of ‘black’ vs. ‘white’ or ‘Asian’ vs. ‘Western.’ By contrast, few commentators – whether academic or not – bother to look at actual bodies on the move.

A fascinating ethnography with chronically ill working-class men from Pakistan in London (Qureshi 2012) is an excellent attempt to correct this situation. Qureshi starts with the observation that, according to the literature, Pakistanis in Britain have

developed a ‘transnational ethnic world’ that is continually reproduced through longdistance phone calls, frequent return visits and holidays, the consumption of circulating goods and media products, exchanges of gifts, philanthropic investments in schools, hospitals and humanitarian projects in Pakistan and so forth (Qureshi 2012, p. 2).

Descriptions of a British-Pakistani transnational world such as these are based on normalized assumptions of healthy, materially secure migrants whose first priority is their cultural and ethnic identity. The chronically ill men the researcher encountered in East London told a different story, a story where their ailing bodies tied them to London.

The post-war manufacturing boom in Britain was to a considerable degree made possible by the labour of commonwealth migrants. After 15-20 years of hard ‘back-breaking’ manual labour, many of these men found their health deteriorating at exactly the time when the manufacturing base started to disappear in the 1980s. With their bodies no longer able to do hard manual labour and their education insufficient for ‘light’ office jobs, many of them have been unemployed ever since.

Benefits-dependent, these men have for more than two decades been made to feel superfluous and useless. The fact that their labour (migration) cost them their health has ironically meant that they are neither here nor there. Their lack of financial resources has tied them to London and has made practices of transnationalism difficult: for instance, ‘cheap’ airfares are not ‘cheap’ to them but involve years of budgeting ahead and borrowing; their disability coupled with the fact that Pakistanis back home see them as ‘rich’ and expect bribes and presents at every turn, makes movement in Pakistan difficult and unpleasant for them; and, phone cards, the so-called ‘social glue’ of transnationalism, have to be carefully rationed.

Not only do they find it difficult to maintain transnational ties with Pakistan. Sometimes, actually severing those ties is their only way to stay afloat: for many of them, selling ancestral land titles in Pakistan or houses they might have built there during better times is their way to cope with unexpected larger expenses such as home renovations.

Qureshi’s interlocutors are predictably bitter about their experiences: they feel they had given their youth and health to Britain, that Britain had aged them prematurely but does not allow them to age well. One man said:

I used to keep very well you know, I was doing a good job. You can’t even imagine. I have a younger brother here, he was younger than me by 13 years but when we sat together, people used to think I was the younger one. Before I came to this country, from ’75 to ’90 I never used to go to the doctor, never ever to the hospital. But now I’m just a big mareez [patient]. (Qureshi 2012, p. 13)

It is not only their failing health and financial precariousness that they feel bitter about but also the way in which they have been treated by ‘the system’: the legal-medical apparatus through which they continually have to prove their disability and ill-health in order to be entitled to benefits while simultaneously finding that the same system has been slow to attend to their medical needs and has often exacerbated their condition through long waiting times or malpractice.

Interestingly, they do not attribute the ‘miscommunication’ they experienced in their encounters with medical practitioners to language difficulties or cultural differences, as is often assumed in the literature on intercultural health communication, but to racial and class discrimination. They see doctors taking sides with the state and with employers rather than with patients and feel that doctors’ priorities often are to save money rather than to heal.

The people we meet in Qureshi’s work are not cool transnationals belonging to two places but bitter patients who are alienated from two places. As such,

the men’s life histories serve to critique scholarly accounts of ‘space–time compression’ that privilege migrants’ cross-border mobility and exclude the slower paced and more localized lives of migrants who might be bound by material circumstance to one place, or to a stretching out of time in the present. (Qureshi 2012, p. 16f.)


*With a tip of the hat to Said, whose title ‘Wo ich sterbe ist meine Fremde’ I have been trying to translate/imitate.

ResearchBlogging.org QURESHI, KAVERI (2012). Pakistani labour migration and masculinity: industrial working life, the body and transnationalism Global networks DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0374.2012.00362.x

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Alia Amir

    Dear Ingrid, Thank you for writing about Pakistani Diaspora community in Britain and introducing the work of Qureshi.This is an amazing post with insightful analyses. As you have written that few researchers look at the actual bodies on the move, definitely this is a pioneering work in the field of transnationalism and its complexities.
    As a second generation Pakistani expatriate, this blog post is close to my heart as well 🙂

  • It is true that there is a lot of celebratory academic work/discourse (dare I say rhetoric?) out there about transnationals, transnationalism, the whole TRANS discourse, as in if only we could just transcend the current backwardness (especially nationalism), then we’d suddenly be in a hierarchy-free utopia, where, of course, we’d all speak English 😉

    And it is important to draw attention, scholarly, and critical, to those who are not enjoying the privilege of transnational identity, living, etc., as Quereshi clearly does.

    On the other hand, as critical as I am of un-critical celebration of transnational identity, the whole TRANS-everything discourse, and the lack of attention to the ways in which cultural, economic and educational privilege come so crucially into play in terms of people being able to enjoy the fruits of the “trans” or not, I also find it very appealing, and, frankly, agree with the criticisms of nationalism as largely backward, imprisoning, etc. And I know I’m not alone, in particular when it comes to others who, like me, are among the culturally and educationally privileged global academic elite, in sharing this view.

    I think the “trans” can stand as a laudable ideal, but we also must never lose sight of the fact that, in the end, there is never a total, and complete transcendence from the messy, unequal, contested web of human social life in which we’re all enmeshed.

  • I don’t know what I am. I had a French father, a German mother, my parents communicated in Esperanto, then I lived in England, then in Australia. I spent my holidays with people from many different countries speaking Esperanto. I spent one year learning Japanese at Macquarie uni, I tend to forget my French and German, but English is still foreign to me, especially the spoken English. I’ve written a little book for children Foreign languages: what they don’t often tell you. When I have time, I’ll certainly read some more of your articles.

  • Khan

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thanks very much for the wonderful analysis showing the implications of labour migration from Pakistan to UK as way to bring the issue of transnationalism. “The effects of labour migration from Pakistan” (Ballard 1989: 112) is largely a Marxist perspective/ account of the migration. Ballard makes two factual observations in this essay: (A) that the remittances sent by overseas Pakistani labour is perhaps the greatest source of GDP (which is probably still the case) (B) the parts of rural Pakistani from where heavy overseas migration has taken place are now effectively rich but these resources/ remittances are not fed into the local economic system to generate to cultivate benefits.
    Let me share my personal account/experiences of visiting several times a village/town situated right against the Indian boarder in the southern tip of Azad Kashmir, called Mirpur. The labour migration to UK started from the job search of peasants of this region as though terrain conditions and poor economic activity forced men to seek job outside Mirpur. Ballord notes that it began with Mirpuris (people of Mirpur) taking jobs as stokers on board British streamers sailing out of Bombay at the turn of the century and it was ex-seamen who were drafted to work in munitions factories in Birmingam and Bradford during the Second World War. These were the pioneers who began the migration from Mirpur to UK.
    When you visit the area now, you immediately notice the material manifestation of transmigration at different levels: gadgetry, dress, sports instruments and frequent reference to English cuisine, important places and events in the interaction of those who have not been there yet. The major current pattern of migration is through marrying a relative. The diaspora take it as their moral duty to marry their off springs back home to make migration possible. The families of Mirpur who I have met personally show very interesting literacy practices: their second or third generation born, brought up and schooled in the UK speak like other people born there but their literacy abilities/practices are very at a pretty low level than the average white people of their social economic background. Perhaps as a result of it most of the Mirpuris are employed in lower tiers of the current British economy. When they come back to Pakistan usually on a short visit, they often find it useless to spend their remittances in the local economy. Naturally in a country where power cut-off is eight hours every day on end and 35,000 people have lost their lives in last two days, who is going to invest in local economy.
    As a result, the remittances have led to superficial prosperity of migrant families but have not boosted the local economy in any ways. One important beneficiary of such massive transaction is the superstructure: people in government who get paid the interest over such transactions. The peasant remains peasant.

    Ballard, R. (1989) Effects of labour migration from Pakistan. In sociology of “Developing societies” South Asia (eds.) Alavi and Harriss.

  • Khan

    Dear Ingrid,

    I forgot to mention the current work in the area of labour migration from Pakistan to UK. It is a doctoral research being carried by a colleague, Anthony Capstick at lancaster University. In his ethnography of migration. Capstick is looking at the literacy practices of the second generation Pakistani Mirpuri settled in UK. He was here in Pakistan for year to do the ethnography in Mirpur and he is currently analysing his data. He also gave an excellent paper in Karachi based on his initial findings. We had some very good discussions on e-seminar on your work as he read the transcript of it and was sorry that that he missed it.

    Best wishes,


  • Pingback: Fascinating new ethnography of British-Pakistani transnationals in London | CLERA blog()