I’d like to tell you an immigrant story—not my own, which is pretty banal, but a far more interesting one.
My husband’s grand-uncle left Jamaica, bound for Britain, to sign up with the RAF in 1942. He served as a morse code operator, and also flew in reconnaissance missions during the war. Wanting to study medicine, he applied for and was accepted to Glasgow University, but the RAF refused to de-mob him, and by the time he was released from duty he’d lost his place.
Moving to Glasgow anyway, he met his eventual wife—a white Scotswoman—but faced the disapproval of both her parents and even the pastor of the church they started attending together.
After they married, and were looking at properties to purchase, he would see a listing for a house he thought might be suitable, and go to look at it. Over and over, when he went to look at the houses, he was told they suddenly were no longer for sale. His estate agent finally told him not to go, but to send his wife instead, and that was how they eventually managed to purchase a home.
While he still intended to study medicine, he had to work to support his family and save up to be able to go back to school. When a minister told him there was a dearth of Religious Education teachers, and there were grants available for that course of study, he decided to become a teacher instead.
Graduating as a mature student, he started his successful teaching career, eventually becoming the first black headteacher in Scotland.
I share Mr. Carl Vaughan’s story, not just because it is one of success against the odds, and in the face of intense opposition, but as a way to say, there are as many immigrant stories as there are immigrants.
Some leave their homeland in search of a better life, new horizons, or advancements unavailable in their home country. Others, like Mr. Vaughan and later the Windrush Generation, seek to serve. In 1796, Jamaican Maroons were deported to Nova Scotia, Canada, as part of a treaty with the British. They didn’t stay long, and were relocated to Sierra Leone thereafter. Men and women from Jamaica helped build the Panama Canal.
We Yaardies (Jamaicans) are pretty much everywhere! My ex-mother-in-law even tells the story of being on Malta and finding a Jamaican waiter in the Chinese restaurant where they stopped to have lunch.
My story is far more prosaic than any of the above.
I guess you could call me a double immigrant, really. Just over seventeen years ago, I left Jamaica and traveled to Canada and then, four years ago, I took a leap of faith and moved to Florida.
Neither move was easy. Both had to be carefully considered. But, in both cases, I think the right decision was made, considering the particular time of my life.
Thankfully, I was old enough, and had travelled enough, to know there was no ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ awaiting me in North America. I’d find no streets paved with gold. Instead, I expected that hard work and a willingness to fit in—without losing my innate Jamaican character—would carry me through.
Yet, even so braced and determined, there was no way to anticipate the myriad little ways that being an ‘outsider’ would hinder, annoy, and on occasion anger me.
But remember what I said in my last piece about if ‘yuh want good, yuh nose haffi run‘ (success often comes at a painful price, which has to be paid)? Well, here’s another Jamaicanism for you—When trouble tek yuh, pickney shut fit yuh (When trouble takes you, a child’s shirt will fit you; meaning, if things are hard, you make do with whatever you have to get through it.)
And that’s what I did.
But I did it with the conscious decision not to change the way I spoke, or to lose sight of my roots. Sometimes I think I’m even more in tune with my Jamaican origins since I left the island. There’s something about being far from home, living in places where hardly anyone understands the way I grew up, my idioms, or outlook, that has somehow solidified my very Jamaican-ness.
It’s a lonely feeling, leaving your country. Being apart from the places and people that helped shape and mold you, and supported you through your life. Physical distance from the familiar also sometimes leads to emotional distance from friends and family too.
Jamaicans might say, Yuh gone too far from yuh navel-string (You’ve gone too far away from your umbilical cord,) harking back to the tradition of burying a baby’s umbilical cord and planting a tree with it, signifying a connection to the land that can never be severed. No matter who you have around you, the separation from the place of your heart changes you—sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
Because I didn’t know or understand some of the things happening around me, I became more cautious. When people laughed at me for my ignorance of things they took for granted because they grew up with them, I learned to hold my temper. Being unable to get a job in my field, and take whatever I could get, made me humble. Having people assume things about me once they heard my accent made me stronger—and I figured out how to get my own back with a smile.
Of everything I’ve been up until this point in life, I can’t help thinking that being an immigrant has had one of the biggest impacts on my life.
It permeates every facet of who I am now, and I see things through its filter.
When I write, it’s almost always about people searching for belonging; for home. It can be emotional home, or a sense of family, or just someone who wants to learn about them and, in understanding, love them unconditionally.
This is a direct result of feeling adrift, different, misunderstood, underestimated. Of sometimes feeling inadequate, often homesick, and imbued with a heart-and-soul deep yearning for times gone, or friends missed.
I’ve learned to use all these feelings and emotions when I write, seasoning my books not just with Jamaican spice, but also the salt left by tears of separation and longing.
And this journey hasn’t been all bad—not at all! I’ve made great friends along the way, who appreciate my alternate views, or ‘outsider’ insights. My family of the heart has grown, and enriched me with their acceptance and love.
There are days when I think I’d like to be able to live in even more places, just for the wonderful experience of broadening my understanding of the world even more.
The life of an immigrant isn’t for the faint of heart, but there are rewards—both tangible and intangible—both for those who move to new places, and those already there.