The Missing Generation
Earlier in this blog (March 18th) I talked about how we Jamaicans have exported our Creative Class, and did so unwittingly.
I was watching a small part of the very funny movie -- Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, John Amos and others. John Amos, as the father, was telling his daughter that he "just didn't want her to have to go through the struggles that he and her mother went through."
That struck a chord with me for some reason, as I recently heard an interesting fact from a good friend. He said, that of the 85 alums in his 1982(?) class at Campion College (arguably the school with the best academic results here in Jamaica) there are only 4 remaining living in Jamaica
That took my breath away.
He went on to explain that our parents' generation did an excellent job of equating migration with a better life in the mind of our own generation. While the vast majority of them had never lived in the US for extended periods, they determined that it had to be better than living here in Jamaica with its violent crime, poverty and high tax rates.
This was once a widespread sentiment. In the 1970's, when the country's middle class lost confidence in the government and the economy, fear led to a disruptive migration that the country is still reeling from to this day. Flights to Toronto, New York and Miami were filled with Jamaicans eager to leave with a bad taste in their mouth about their homeland.
Some of them are still bad-mouthing Jamaica to this day.
When they left, many in my parents generation were able to move up in many ways, as those that left created "holes" or opportunities behind them. A resident of Cherry Gardens (an upscale, middle class community) sold his house for a song, and a family was able to move into a house that they never could afford. A manager at a bank abandoned her job, allowing a younger person to be promoted. A doctor closed his practice, and turned his patients over to another physician who instantly doubled his practice.
My parents benefited from these changes, and our family lead by 2 teachers was able to move into the solid middle-middle class.
By contrast, many who left were unable to recapture what they once had, at least not immediately. Storied abounded of doctors working as janitors, and bank managers on welfare. Gradually, I am sure, most made it by working very, very hard in a country that probably surprised most Jamaicans with the degree of racism and alienation they found everywhere from their workplace to their neghbourhoods.
Incidentally, when I arrived at a US university in 1984 I was amazed at how much Jamaicans who had recently left Jamaica talked about the racism they felt they were encountering on a daily basis (more on this is some future blog.) It was taught to them by their parents, and their peers.
Apart from a small minority, most of the middle class Jamaicans who remained at home had probably at some point entertained the idea of leaving. Some actually left and came back. Others got visas they never used. All who remained were encouraged by those who left to leave before it got too late, and only a small minority refused to even consider migrating.
But, it seems in retrospect, they still wanted the best for their children and that meant going abroad.
For some of those remaining, it meant sending the children abroad to study -- at the very least. For others it meant sending them abroad to live. I imagine that most ended up at some point in between, knowing that a better education was available and half-hoping that their children would be so successful so quickly that they could live anywhere they wanted.
After all, with a lot of money, you could get a nice place up in Jack's Hill with a security guard and a dog and be more or less safe, and with enough money in US accounts, they could live any lifestyle they wanted.
The end-result, however, is that very few Jamaicans return home, mostly because it is so very hard to get to that point of success. The deal is: return when you are a big success and have fully "set yourself" up. So, no-one does.
While the conversation for sending one's children abroad to study or to live, is strong and vibrant, the conversation about returning home before the fortune is made is weak or non-existent.
Yet, there are a number of powerful reasons for Jamaicans to return, before they have "made it."
One is to raise children. The fact is, a child raised in the US is more likely to become completely Black American than anything else. Some Jamaicans try to remedy that outcome by sending the child to live in Jamaica with the grandparents and attend school, because the overwhelming sentiment is that Jamaicans want to give their children some semblance of the upbringing that they had (which looked a LOT better when viewed from afar.)
The second reason is to re-unite the family. My parents' generation has rapidly become the generation of "absentee grandchildren. " In other words, they are unable to participate in the lives of their family, and to give their newest offspring one of the benefits that they had growing up -- a close, nuclear family. Instead, they have a family flung to the far reaches of the earth, with grandchildren that they hardly know, and may never ever come to know well.
The third reason is that there are opportunities in Jamaica that are just unavailable in North America for reasons related to race and ethnicity. I see this clearly in doctors and other professionals who migrate and then must go through the painful process of re-qualifying themselves.
The fourth reason is probably the most powerful one, and is the one that brought me back (against the tide.) Ultimately, each person must answer the question about the purpose of their life for themselves, and it strikes me that people who work and live in Jamaica are no unhappier or more depressed than those working and living in ANY city I have visited in the world. I believe that the Jamaicans who left in the 1970's might relate to what I am saying here.
Back then, migration was meant to be THE answer.
But at the end of the day, in 2006, some 30 years later... is the Jamaican who fled the country in 1976 to live in Toronto, happier living and working there than their counterparts who remained?
For the most part, I would think that they would say... no. They are not necessarily unhappier, (although I once spent a very depressing winter in Toronto) but I think they would not say that they are happier either. I imagine that many of them are looking at what happened in Jamaica after they left and asking themselves if they made the right decisions.
As one gets older, the question of life purpose becomes more important, and I believe that if Jamaica did not have the crime problem it has, we would see a tremendous influx of returning Jamaicans, now retired. Is the purpose of one's life to get as much stuff as possible -- if so living in America is the best place on earth to live a bling bling lifestyle on almost every level. Alternately, is the purpose something to do with family? Or is it about making a difference? Or is it even about finding the most comfortable life possible?
Answering that question is critical in determining life-changing choices, such as whether to migrate to another country -- which happens to be one that virtually every Jamaican makes, or hopes to make.
For my parents' generation, I think that they are now faced with an unintended consequence. I cannot think that my parents intended for my sister to live in South Africa with her family, yet that was one possible logical outcome of sending her to college in Pennsylvania, where she met a Ghanaian and migrated to Africa. For them, spending time with the grandkids involves spending thousands of dollars, and only occurs infrequently.
As I look around Kingston, they are not alone. The majority of their friends have their children abroad, and now that the grandchildren are being born, they are experiencing a separation that they never intended to create.
While this is a bit sad, the good news is that we can all start a new conversation for returning to live in Jamaica, and come up with our own four reasons as to why it is a good idea to reunite our families. Also, we probably should not be so ready to encourage our children to migrate, selling them on the idea that happiness lies across the border. Instead, we might encourage them to stay true to their life purpose, and have that be the guiding light.
Perhaps, the struggles that they went through when they were younger were not so bad, and are actually part of becoming adult, and are necessary for one's children to come into their own. The struggle is necessary to be profoundly happy, in the sense that happiness in the long term has more to do with fulfilling life's calling, than it does in owning a big house or new car.