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The Immigrant’s Dilemma: When Home Is Neither Where You Are Nor Where You Left It

When I moved to America in 2015, it was hardly what I would call a foreign country. I had been visiting America for Christmas and summer breaks since I was nine years old. In university, when everyone went home after sitting exams, I hopped on the first flight to Atlanta to see my mother. During that time, I lived in Jamaica for seven months and spent the remaining five in Atlanta, every year.

American culture is fairly constant, but Jamaican culture is not. Whenever I was away from America for a long period of time, returning to old habits was easy. After a few months in America, it always felt like I had to spend another few months trying to catch up with everything that happened in Jamaica in the comparatively short time I was away. Imagine living elsewhere for half a decade.

Jamaican Culture Shock

When I went home in 2018, it had been three and a half years since I last set foot in Jamaica. Somehow, I re-assimilated so quickly that strangers never guessed I had been living overseas. My aunt joked that I sounded more Jamaican in that week than I ever did in the 25 years Jamaica had been my primary home. I guess homesickness can do that to you.

Even so, I certainly had my fair share of culture shock. Jamaica’s inflation rate is insane, especially when you consider how quickly the JMD devalues against the USD. When I saw the prices of food in the supermarket, I wanted to gouge my eyes out. Ramen was four times what I paid for it here. Gas-station wine there was twice the price of decent supermarket wine here.

But, not all changes were bad. The dreaded six-hour drive from Kingston to MoBay was now only four hours because we had a brand-new highway. My friends who had been struggling to get a foothold in their careers when I left were now thriving. Minus the economy, it was like visiting Jamaica 2.0. Even so, there was a sense of loss of the Jamaica I had left behind.

Jamaican Cultural Disconnect

When you are Jamaican, you are born with an inherent pride in your country. That light only grows the farther away from home you go. One reason for that is Jamaicans are everywhere. Americans can claim the same, but Americans are First Worlders with a population of more than 328 million people. Jamaica is an island with a population of less than three million people.

We travel and move around so much that researchers believe there are likely as many Jamaicans living overseas as there are on the island. I encounter my culture everywhere I go in the world. From hearing Shaggy at the hotel in the Maldives to meeting another Jamaican while hiding from a bear in Alaska.

In spite of this, after five years of living away from my island, I am learning to accept that one day, I will be too far removed from it to be a True Yaadie. I already can’t keep up with the music. Next, it will be the newest colloquial terms that fly over my head. One day, I may not even realize we have elections coming up.

American Cultural Disconnect

The interesting thing is that drifting further away from my birth country has not brought me closer to America. I do love this country and I am grateful for all the opportunities it has provided me with. However, Americans have made it difficult to embrace it in the way I would have liked.

In Jamaica, we are always eager to meet people halfway with their cultural differences. For better or worse, Jamaicans love “foreign things” — including the people. Here, Americans want immediate assimilation. My wasband would shout at me that he didn’t care how it was done in Jamaica. I was in America now and I should do it the American way.

To make matters worse, for some immigrants, being told to go back to our home countries is more than just a racist punchline. It’s often a genuine threat. One story that stays with me is of an incident where ICE detained an American-born marine of Guatemalan descent and marked him for deportation. He had both his I.D. and his passport on his person when he was arrested.

ICE detained him for three days. He was freed only after his mother hired an immigration lawyer to come to his defence. The City Commission in Grand Rapids will now pay him $190,000 for the incident. Imagine the pressure immigrants face when we know, even a generation later, the stain of immigration stays with us.

Intracultural Identity

Though I have called America home for half a decade, my citizenship is not a year old. I am still acclimatising to what it means to be a citizen in what still feels, very much, like someone else’s country. Maybe in 10 years, I may look back at these reflections and struggle to remember what this cultural limbo felt like. But, for now, it is my everyday reality.

I was born and raised on the most beautiful rock in the Caribbean Sea and it will always be my home. There is no forgetting or downplaying the cultural background in which I developed for the first 25 years of my life. But that Jamaica is long gone. In another five years, this Jamaica may become as foreign to me as America was when I visited for the first time.

Therein lies the cultural dilemma many immigrants face. In just a few years, the countries we leave behind are hardly recognizable, but our new countrymen have yet to recognize us as one of their own. Thus, for a time, we may find that home is neither where we are nor where we left it.

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