Mark Twain said: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it solely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
As I type this words on a plane back to Kingston, I am struck by how true these words are, and how easily they are forgotten.
This is my first trip outside of the Caribbean in a year, which makes this the longest span of time I have spent outside North America since I was 18 years old.
It wasn't planned -- elections, a hurricane and generally poor business conditions in Jamaica have conspired to keep me grounded for some time.
So, coming back to America for the past three days has been an eye-opener.
What struck me most of all coming off the plane into Miami airport was how a reminder of why the thought of living permanently in the U.S. only once crossed my mind in 20 years of living there.
As I walked from Terminal E up to the post office and Bank of America branch on the 4th floor, I was amazed at the people I walked past, and how dis-connected they were from each other. It brought back vivid memories of my first few months in America, as a college student, when I quickly learned that this was not what I was used to.
The difference in culture is difficult to explain in words, but there is something that happens when a few million people live on an island separated from other countries by an expensive airfare. There is an unspoken and very powerful assumption that exists between people in Jamaica -- that we belong in each other's lives.
Also, we take this belonging very seriously.
My wife complains that she cannot go anywhere in Jamaica wearing anything that she want without being noticed, recognized and silently and deliberately scrutinized. Also, it is now impossible for her to run for an hour without seeing people she knows, or who know her. Strangers have commented on the fact that they haven't seen her in a while... while she cannot recall ever seeing their faces.
I have mentioned the silent eye-contact and survey that takes place at a Jamaican traffic-light... the quick search for who I know, who else is here, how everyone is doing.
Part of it all has to do with sheer size. A place like Miami airport has thousands of people passing through it each day. It's simply impossible to try to make eye-contact with more than a few people in the typical day with so many people coming and going.
I remember learning not to try to hold on to people after moving to the U.S. After all, the chances were good that I would never see them again.
In Jamaica, the opposite is true. Even a casual encounter has the very opposite assumption. Behind every meeting there is a very different assumption: "This is just the beginning."
And that's part of why living in America felt so "foreign" to me.
I never ever intended to stay more than 5 years, and left Jamaica knowing I'd be back. Apart from one very short period of time, I never contemplated staying and living in that country permanently.
I always knew there was someplace better, but not in terms that people typically measure, such as the absence of crime, or the presence of material wealth.
Instead, I knew there was somewhere I belonged, and around me all I could see were people who didn't belong to each other, and that this was a fundamental way of being.
In the news this past week there was the story of a Jamaican woman living in New York died after lying on the floor unattended for over an hour. People walked by, and in true New York style, they kept to themselves, allowing her to pass away quietly in the corner of a waiting room.
Those of us who have lived in the U.S. can understand how this could happen, and even empathize with the need to follow on of the early lessons that everyone learns upon migrating... to "stay out of trouble."
There is a reasons we Jamaicans call America "farrin" and it's not in terms of day-to-day danger from criminals. It's just that our background tells us that there is a very different way to relate
to people that is so rich, warm and expansive that tourists and expats who fall in love with Jamaica talk about it all the time... "the people...!"
I simply found that even after 20 years I could not make the necessary transition to "become Yankee" the way others from Jamaica were able to. I kept my accent, with some adjustments in order to be understood, kept on thinking about moving home and kept telling anyone who would listen that I was moving home to live
at some point.
Jamaica remained the focus of my attention, and I just could not lose myself in American culture the way a good immigrant should.
The other day a Jamaican living in the U.S. asked me why I came home after 20 years away, and all I could tell them was "I never really left."
P.S. On a side note, some say that our high crime rate comes from our tendency to be connected to each other, and from our propensity to take everything personally and seriously... interesting.
Labels: Ja culture