I had only turned nine when I came here with my mum; American schools would have me for 12 more years. By the end of it how Caribbean would I be? By Caribbean, I mean, how much would I adhere to our way of children being eternally obligated to fulfill their parents’ definition of success. Hint: it’s not public service, fame or good name.
Success, to most Caribbean immigrants (perhaps all immigrants?) is measured in $$ or ££. Develop Haiti goes against my immigrant imperative to, no matter what, build wealth for self and family. Public service is a luxury, a side-gig perhaps but, not the goal of a professional life.
I’ve struggled ever since I came to this country with how much to throw off my mum’s expectations and pursue my own path, which has always led to teaching low income kids and adults or journalism for minority, poor or immigrant communities. Mum’s expectations are not just her own; they are borne of the village or, the poor and somewhat closed and protected rural community in which she grew up.
No matter that most of “the village” long since scattered to England, Canada and the US. Its former residents maintain the culture by still mentally ticking off how well each other’s children–and therefore each other–are doing. And my mum is no exception from that peer pressure… to measure success by how faithfully the child nurtures the hearth. I could be wrong but I sense this expectation is especially particular to the Caribbean mother.
Which child is helping their parents to build a big house back home? Which child is proving the parent’s sacrifice worthy by becoming a lawyer, doctor or banker? Or, just by making big money? I don’t care that America has had me for more than 20 years–enough time to start thinking it’s okay to ship your parent to an old age home–it’s hard to unhook yourself from certain obligations of your parent culture.
So for most of my life I’ve stopped-and-started. I’ve been thinking long and (too) hard about failing my mum by not doing what other immigrants do: suck it up and make money. I wasn’t sent to private schools to come out and do what I wanted. Americans do that. And while I may be American on the street, at home, I’m definitely Bajan.
(I loved Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones because it so honestly captured some Bajan immigrants’ hunger for ‘makin’ it’ in America.)
I thought of this pressure, a lot of it self-imposed, while stretching today after my run at a track near my home. On the walk there, I had another phone meeting about Develop Haiti, which has consumed most of my time for the last six weeks and is set to continue doing so for the near future. While stretching on the shoulder of the track I watched the other immigrants on the fields.
Behind me: either Trinidadian or Guyanese Indians playing cricket; on the main soccer pitch, in red uniforms, black West Indians, mostly Jamaicans judging by the accents; on the far pitch, another cricket match of either Trinidadian or Guyanese Indians. If they’re like me, they like this track because the wide open space, easy breeze (even if from the 10-lane highway), plentiful grass and sing-song accents remind them of Sunday cricket, weekend picnics and beach fêtes “back home.”
Back home. Twenty years in America and I still say things like, “back home.” But I don’t really know what that means. Barbados is and isn’t my home. America is and isn’t my home, too.
So it’s odd that sitting in a place that I love because it reminds me of “back home” I decide that my true home isn’t really that place. Because of mum’s decision to emigrate when I was a child, we couldn’t possibly have the same definition of home. I can’t be expected to feel the same bond as she to “the village.” After coming to America as a child, I can’t possibly be expected to do what the average immigrant does, or be how the average immigrant is.
My home is the in-between space, however undefined. Deciding to finally accept and embrace my outsider-insider status comes just as I’m creating Develop Haiti, which both takes me back into Caribbean diaspora and out of it into the also familiar worlds of the London School of Economics, international development, the World Bank and the homes of monied and well-intentioned American humanitarians.
That can’t be a coincidence.