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.