What It Means To Be A Guyanese Emigrant

If yuh nah get wing, nah ah guh a bird sport.

That’s a good old-fashioned Guyanese proverb for you. I heard it all through my school days and plenty often after, and in all those years it fell on deaf ears. Like many of my generation, I was educated in the British system of things and raised by at least one parent who had been educated outside of Guyana and so slangs and creole language were completely lost on me. We spoke proper English in my house, particularly at the dining table and especially around my mother. It was only long after leaving my homeland that I came across that saying again, in a magazine and with it, the meaning that had eluded me for all my childhood.

It means that if you do not belong somewhere, then you should not go there.

If you know anything about Guyanese you would immediately find that saying ironic and humorous. There are approximately 700,000 people living in Guyana today. Rumor has it that more than another 700,000 Guyanese live all over the world, scattered across the many continents.

I am one of them.

I am a first generation Guyanese living in Trinidad and Tobago for the past decade as a CARICOM Resident. While I did not venture very far from home and while I know Guyanese living in Hong Kong, Botswana, India and Australia, and while this little twin-isle Republic shares many of the same cultural, historical and climatic features of my home, I am still an immigrant here.

I did not like that word, immigrant.

Once it only had meaning through the VSO and Peace Corp and YCG friends that I’d made while living in Guyana. I listened intently, though numbly, to their conversations about cultural gaps and the feelings of disillusion that came with leaving their homes and living, even for a brief time in another country. They spoke of these feelings with such passion, with such genuine concern and with a sort of ache in their eyes that meant nothing to me in those days. They spoke of Guyana as poor and tragic and while she was those things, I felt the urge to defend her to these foreigners. They also said things like, “The people are so genuine. So kind. So warm.” Sometimes it made me proud. At others, it felt like they were patting us on the heads like children. I sat in judgment of these strangers to my homeland, these people with their first-world ideas come to save us from our downtrodden-ness. But some of them were my friends. I loved some of these people and so I felt torn between their words and their love for me. I did not understand because I was young. And because I had never been an immigrant.

It was not long after moving to Trinidad that my eyes began to ache with the same disconnect and my voice quivered when I had something to say about politicians and the country’s economy. I did not say things like, “It’s my right to vote,” or “I’m Trini to de bone.” I’d stand silent for that line in the song at Carnival, with my hips still swaying because the songs were in my bones but the lyrics were not for me. I ate doubles on the roadsides and licked the chow from my finger tips like a Trini would, savoring every last drop of sauce but I was not a Trinidadian. I was an immigrant and that was a state of limbo that sometimes stole the words (or the pepper sauce) right off the lips. It made me crack awkward and self-deprecating jokes like “What are three words in Guyanese: Ail (oil), Arange (orange) and Ambrella (umbrella)” – words I’d never spoken as a Guyanese until I started telling that joke here in Trinidad, a way of ‘taking front’ after having had that famous question thrown down at my feet, the ultimate mockery of my Guyanese heritage, “How do you guys say it? Sea wAAAll?”

You see, as a Guyanese, it had been hammered home all my life that our country was poor. Our politicians were corrupt. Our economy was struggling. Our government was socialist. Our language was inept. And so, like many others, I developed a keen sense of inadequacy. I had not traveled. I probably wouldn’t be granted a visa even if I wanted to travel. If I did travel, chances were that immigration would profile me as a drug trafficker or a potential flight risk. I became, like many of my fellow Guyanese, the pack mule that carried the weight of an entire nation’s perceived inferiority tightly wrapped around my twenty-year old spine.

So when I moved to Trinidad, with all those chips on my shoulders, I walked down the streets hunched under their burdens. I applied for my CARICOM Residence, was granted it, opened my own company here, and promptly proceeded to loathe home as was the suitable thing to do when living off of another country’s grace. It seemed like gratitude, to me. It seemed like loyalty to a place that had afforded me an education, a career and more than my fair share of comforts and social opportunities. It seemed only right but it was terribly wrong.

And it was not enough. That word immigrant still festered inside me, sat with me in my office and took showers with me in the evenings and it didn’t matter how hard I scrubbed or how long I stood under that scalding water. I could not wash away the fact that my passport still said Guyanese. The immigration officers still treated me like a criminal. A co-worker once said to my boyfriend that he should be careful about dating me because it was her opinion that Guyanese were not good people. The humiliation was always front and centre and so I began to hate the word immigrant.

Hate is a dreadful emotion. To hate anything is to deprive one’s self of any beauty that thing may possess. Worst of all was that I was hating myself. It didn’t seem so at the time, but every innocent Guyanese joke filleted me, took skin off my back. Every adventure to a foreign place was tarred with the brush of shame. I had become a victim of self-loathing and it took me years to recognize the disadvantage that I had set for myself. Not only had I empowered the handful of genuinely discriminating people (and there were hardly any really) but I had disempowered myself. I found it hard to think of my beautiful home without resentment and I found it harder to think of Trinidad without desperation. It felt like being lost in an endless ocean of loneliness. In the end, my friends retrieved me from the waters of my own discontent. Trinidadian friends, to boot. People I had gathered along the way like beautiful sea shells you couldn’t help but put in your pocket, and they had gathered me, strangers who didn’t care that I was Guyanese. People who teased me out of love, not mockery, and called me their official adopted Trini. People who considered me family.

They made it acceptable for me to be both from one place and still belong to another. They introduced me to people as Guyanese, as Trinidadian, as smart, as talented, as a good person. And over time, I found myself feeling less like someone from a place and more simply, just someone. It drew to my attention that to some extent acceptance is something we bring to ourselves but it is also something we build from others. It made me kinder to strangers and eager to share myself with them in the hope that something in my struggle could something in theirs.

It has been more than a decade for us, Trinidad and I, and like every long-term relationship, we’ve had our falling-outs, our tiffs, our love-hate-on-again-off-again-sometimes-I-miss-my-ex-and-sometimes-you’re-the-best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me moments. But now that I’m older and wiser, now that I’ve dated others, like Canada, England, India, now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I have perspective. I have seen the world, at least some small portion of it and now I know that every place has her shortcomings and that every home has her beauty.

That old schoolyard, Guyanese proverb isn’t about not going to new places. It’s about a feeling of belonging, and while I may never truly belong to any one place completely, ever again, I have made wonderful friends of every nationality, I have fallen madly in love more than once, I have seen remarkable places and done phenomenal things and it all belongs to me and I, to them, like Trinidad and like Guyana. I am an immigrant and that means that I have stretched my wings and gone to new places.

I am, more importantly however, a permanent resident of the human race and no matter where I go, I’d like to think that I will always belong.

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65 thoughts on “What It Means To Be A Guyanese Emigrant

  1. What a fantastic post – I couldn’t stop reading! Beautifully written and shared with such transparency. Living overseas myself I can relate to some of the things you shared, and I laughed at the way you described living overseas as dating around. Thank you – look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 1 person

      • As I read this, I felt you were speaking for the 700,000 overseas. I totally get this, and feel many of the feelings you expressed, I am an American citizen,with American children and am a Grandma, but I have that Guyanese hole that may never be filled. I somehow pray that racism which continues to rule Guyana, hinders the advancement and return of many, to enjoy and contribute to the development of such a beautiful country.

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      • I think, at least for me, moving back to Guyana after living away for so long feels like another transplantation. We are like trees sometimes, digging our roots into a place. For many it may be more than just the hindrances of home, it may be that we have embedded ourselves within another life so completely. But yes, it is like you say, a vast part of ourselves always feels a longing for home. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Wendy.

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  2. Great work ! I Enjoyed reading this post, it’s short and dynamic. Living outside of Guyana is very challenging especially when personal growth is hard to measure.

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    • And yet living outside of Guyana (like stepping out of a comfort zone) has facilitated much personal growth. Challenges make us stronger, I estimate. But yes, it is particularly hard to measure and that is part of the difficulty. You are absolutely correct!

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  3. Absolutely fabulous post. Well expressed. I left Guyana when I was 1 and now live in the UK, when I go “back home” I feel like an immigrant in my own town! Nonetheless I get on with it.

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    • I’ve been gone for a few years and when I return home, more and more so, I feel like the foreigner. But, friends keep me grounded. It’s like you say, we just get on with it.

      Cheers!

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  4. This was really nicely written and I understand ever aspect of it. Even though I’ve returned to Guyana, I still feel like an outsider sometimes. It’s such a love/hate relationship more love than hate tho. I read your posts every now and then and they are always well written but this one is my favourite.

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    • Aaww Angie. That means a lot!

      The longer I stay away from home, the more distant I become from her. But like you say – there’s still so much love for the place.

      I’ve wanted to write this post for so long, but being honest is a scary thing. You guys have made me feel so overjoyed that I did take that leap!

      Thank you.

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  5. Pingback: What It Means To Be A Guyanese Emigrant | The Big Big TANGENT

  6. Very rarely do I read blogs, especially those that are a bit on the long side 😉 . This, however, is really beautiful Tricia and was worth every minute of my time. I’ve been to Guyana more than once; I was invited by Trini friends who were staying in Guyana for work. I have heard all the ‘not-so-nice stories’ about Guyana, but I have also seen the beauty that exists there as well.

    As I get older, I continue to realise how insensitive the human race can be. It’s something that bothers me almost daily. Sometimes a little bit of sensitivity could make the difference between life and death (I define death here as the end of life and also, the point where we stop living).

    I feel very encouraged by what you have written. You have grown tremendously since I first met you. Like the poui, I pray that you would continue to blossom. Both in and out of season.

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    • Oh wow. This was so lovely. And coming from you especially, Ms. Edwards, it has simply MADE my day.

      You’ve been one of those people who helped my journey, especially at the beginning. So many hugs.

      Thank you so, so much.

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  7. Wow! A very well written piece. I think most Guyanese that have ventured out to other parts of the world can relate. Well said.

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    • Thank you Jordana. I think that is exactly where the idea started from, to write this piece. I met an American woman who had just moved here, while out one night two weeks ago. She resonated with many of the same challenges that I was facing. It seems that it is a sort of universal experience and so I am so happy that so many are relating.

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  8. well done….the way in which this piece is written is not short of reality….it expresses the feelings of many people who have ventured outside their homeland like myself. I believe you touch on the mixed emotions we all feel for a sense of identity but best of all you pull it together and close with what is most important and the thing everyone can most certainly identify with – the Human Race.

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    • Thank you Lavern. I think that the most important part of it all, identity-wise, is that leaving one place to be somewhere else doesn’t mean that you give one up for the other. We just make more room. I have met so many beautiful friends here and in other places too, as I’m sure that you have as well, that it seems about right to say that we belong to a Human Race. I’m so happy that you enjoyed.

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Tricia & related to much of it…without a doubt the challenges of being an immigrant (I also dislike that word) makes you a stronger person…excellent work

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    • Thank you so much, Jill. I never expected to touch so many people with this piece. It seems we are all living the same life, even in little bits. I hope that your adventures have been enjoyable too, though. Cheers and thanks again, for the kind words.

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  10. Oh my, very interesting, yes I can relate to all of this, I still feel I do not belong, I was always seeking to find my own people, culture, heritage, for me it goes back to the 60’s when I immigrated to the US and never looked back. I am a mixture of Portuguese and Indian. and for many years was identified as every other race but what I am. But thru all I am successful.

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  11. There are feelings and experiences expressed here that so many of us can relate to and its really nice to have them described so honestly and beautifully. What a well written piece!

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    • It seems so amazing to have so many people relate to something that felt so uniquely mine. It makes me feel like someone turned the light on somewhere. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jamie. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment too.

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  12. Love the article…it’s a start of a healthy debate. And as you mentioned the song “Trini to the bone”….I always remember this piece of lyric from one of our calypso competitions that says…I’m not a Caribbean man I’m a born South American, stop tantalizing me giving me false identity”…that comes to mind every time someone asks me where in the Caribbean I’m from. Great work! keep it going.

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    • But the adventures surely out weight so many other things. And I know you’re having adventures. Thanks Cesco and I do think that home can genuinely be as simple as where the heart is.

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  13. I thoroughly enjoyed this Tricia. Would love to read more.

    The irony of Trinidad sometimes is that you can even feel displaced here although your passport says Trinidad and Tobago. Trini’s need to do some “house-keeping”… and quick before this spreads and we lose the Caribbean entirely to cable TV.

    I love your wholehearted feelings, great job Trish.

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    • Thanks so much Orlando.

      I’ve had many people say this to me about so many different places. We seem to spend so much time forming cliches and stereotyping one another. Every little bit of kindness seems to be invaluable now.

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  14. This beautifully written piece resonated with me having left Guyana at 19 years of age. I have lived abroad both in Caribbean countries and for the last 20 years in Canada. Now in my 70’s I am filled with nostalgia and remembering the beautiful childhood in my homeland.

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    • It’s so wonderful that you say this. For many years I’ve been caught up with making a life for myself in Trinidad. I do love it here. But more and more, especially recently, I’ve been remembering my childhood in Guyana. It is staunched in green and filled with creeks and wild things.

      Oh the sweet feeling of loving places dearly…

      Thank you so much Ann!

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  15. Well written article. All those are my sentiments too…I am a guyanese canadian…after 40 years…I get very emotional..I can’t listen to “not a blade of grass” without bursting into tears…It bad.

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  16. Tricia I thoroughly enjoyed this article and can identified with most of what you have written, I have lived in the UK for over 40 years, I thought that I was the only one who felt out of place whenever I return home, but you have explained everything – on my next trip, I will just enjoy what I can and ignore the rest, at the same time hoping that one day all the 6+ nations in Guyana come together in harmony.

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  17. Sums it up for me…38 years in the US, but I cherish, remember and miss every day of my childhood in lovely Guyana… Last two paragraphs is my life too 🙂

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  18. “I am, more importantly however, a permanent resident of the human race and no matter where I go, I’d like to think that I will always belong.”
    Wise words to end this honest and, at times, soul tearing piece on how leaving the old country is only really accomplished physically. I know this ache intimately that you write about Tricia “…my eyes began to ache with the same disconnect …”. I became very familiar with this constant feeling of ‘ache’ during the 31 years that have passed since I left Guyana. Then one day this spring, a Facebook friend and ex- British Guianaian introduced her circle of diaspora friends to a Welsh word that finally allowed me to breath in and out more freely. Hiraeth.
    Wikipedia says it has no direct English translation and that the University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. Describing hiraeth as a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.
    I connect better with The Urban Dictionary that says: Hiraeth is a longing for one’s homeland, but it’s not mere homesickness. It’s an expression of the bond one feels with one’s home country when one is away from it. “As soon as I step over the border into Wales my hiraeth evaporates. I am home.”
    This poem by Tim Davis makes an attempt at defining it.
    Hiraeth (©Tim Davis, 2007)
    Hiraeth is a Cymraeg (Welsh) word which doesn’t translate well into English. It is a deep longing for home. This poem makes an attempt at defining it. It is pronounced with two syllables. The first is like the English here except that the r is stronger. The second syllable is like how a mathematician would pronounce i-th as in the ith row of a matrix. You could also say eye-th.
    With a last name of Davis, it should be no surprise that my Davis ancestor was born in Wales in the early 1600’s. I found this out several years after writing this poem. The westward theme is in the poem because going home to Cymru (Wales) means traveling west (from, say, England).
    Hiraeth beckons with wordless call,
    Hear, my soul, with heart enthrall’d.
    Hiraeth whispers while earth I roam;
    Here I wait the call “come home.”

    Like seagull cry, like sea borne wind,
    That speak with words beyond my ken,
    A longing deep with words unsaid,
    Calls a wanderer home instead.

    I heed your call, Hiraeth, I come
    On westward path to hearth and home.
    My path leads on to western shore,
    My heart tells me there is yet more.

    Within my ears the sea air sighs;
    The sunset glow, it fills my eyes.
    I stand at edge of sea and earth,
    My bare feet washed in gentle surf.

    Hiraeth’s longing to call me on,
    Here, on shore, in setting sun.
    Hiraeth calls past sunset fire,

    http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~davis/Poetry/hiraeth.html

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  19. I read this article from beginning to end. It reminded me of Derek Walcott’s remark at the televised US Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976 – “The naturalization of the Carribbean immigrant is a lifelong experience”. Having lived almost forty years in the US after this gem of wisdom, I have come to realize that perhaps this is true of any immigrant. I like you, have met some truly beautiful Trinidadian souls, and these are the folks I will remember with all the other beautiful persons I know. You need not let anyone make you feel self-conscious about being Guyanese. Most of the Guyanese I know feel very secure about who they are, and this is infuriatingly disconcerting to the many insecure folks in any society. Beautiful article, very thought-provoking.

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  20. Oops! Mr. Tim Davis is due an apology for me misrepresenting his beautiful work. I inadvertently omitted the last line of his poem. Many thanks to Deen for noticing. I wonder how long it would have taken me to ‘see’ it myself. Here is the omitted line and sorry Tim:
    “Look beyond, come far higher!”

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  21. Pingback: Poui Season | Guyana Then And Now

  22. I left Guyana in 1969 as a young girl of 12…bound for Trinidad then onto to Canada which was to become my new country.
    For years I longed to go home but never knew where home was… Trinidad gave me a home to some extent but I am still ” de Guyanese ghurl.”
    I experience the picong from my Trini friends but I give as good as I get (with much love for them)
    In Guyana I am thought of as a Trini and in Trinidad a Guyanese..alas I am a Canadian citizen..
    I have since rekindled my love for Guyana even though it froth with problems.
    I try to tell my Trini friends that Georgetown is not all of Guyana and the land is abound with beauty once they are prepared to be adventurous.
    As you, I have travelled the world as we all seem to be the lost tribes of Israel..
    I have to admit I love hearing the Guyanese accent whether its broken English or the Polished Guyanese accent.
    so as they say “Yuh gah fuh tek duh!
    Thank you for your article my Uncle Joe from the Berbice would say
    “Yuh hit de nail right pon de head!”
    Thank You.

    Like

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