This is a new series in which you help me not be a dum-dum about America.
Gary was “born, bred, and baked in Trinidad,” and became an American citizen in 2009. Now he lives in Boston with his wife and two daughters. I loved hearing about his decision to become an American, and how he assimilated into New England. I am so inspired by his perspective, that I kind of want to be Gary! (This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.)
Why did you choose America?
I actually had to pause and think about this question a bit. I always wanted to come to America, to experience living here. My grandparents immigrated to the US around the time I was born (1970), and most of their children went with them. My mother was one of the two who stayed in Trinidad—both she and her sister had already married and were starting to have kids. As a result, my mom, my sister and I would visit my grandparents and my aunts, uncles and cousins in New York often (for a lower-middle class family in the 70s, that meant “once every two or three years”), and they would come visit us back home.
There was always a mystique about “living in America,” despite what I know now to be the massive struggles they all went through to assimilate. For example, my grandparents, who’d had pretty decent lives in Trinidad (my grandfather was a musician, and my grandmother was a teacher), struggled to lay down roots in New York, working in jobs that they had little experience in. My grandmother went back to school and became a nurse, and my grandfather worked at Pan Am.
Both my uncles were immediately shipped off to Vietnam almost as soon as they arrived. Both came back, but they were irrevocably changed. One uncle flew planes and helicopters and had been shot down a couple of times. He came back quieter and more reticent, from what I understand. The other uncle came back more affected. My guess is that he would have been diagnosed with PTSD today. His marriage fell apart, and from what I gather he had issues with his family for some years after that.
All to say that whenever I’d go visit my family, there was always a busy-ness, a “we’re doing something here,” about them, that I grew to appreciate. Home back then was more laid back, much more easy-going—and a lot less crime ridden than it is now. I never got a sense of urgency from folks back home, which is both a good and bad thing.
And then, of course, there was the wide-eyed wonder that came with visiting the malls, amusement parks, and other places that a child in the West Indies had no exposure to. I remember visiting the Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. It blew me away—how high the damn thing was! And I remember going to the supermarket with my aunt. Like many a foreigner to these shores, I was blown away by the sheer volume of choice people have here. The bread aisle alone! How did people ever choose?
It’s a helluva thing to come from a small country with a million people and walk around Manhattan. A hell of a thing.
What did kids do where you grew up?
We played. A lot. There was no such thing as a “play date.” That term still gets on my nerves when I hear it. Since when did kids need scheduled playtime? What, they have to fit sticking pieces of paper onto other pieces of paper between a management meeting and a lunch presentation? I used to make kites out of old newspaper or tissue paper, which was known as kite paper, not tissue paper and paste made from flour. I’d play cricket and football (“soccer,” to the uninformed) with the other kids on my street, pretty much every day. I’d yell out that I was going to such-and-such’s house, and then go. I’d walk there, or ride my bike. Usually walk. And I read, a lot—more than the average kid, I think. I always had my head in a book as a kid. My mom’s response to my whining about having “nothing to do” was, “Well, go find something to do.” So I did.
So that early exposure to the US shaped why you wanted to come here?
Yes. I wanted to come for college, but was too damn lazy to actually give a crap about the SATs, which would have been my ticket to a scholarship to a US school. Plus, I had a free ride to the University of the West Indies as a result of doing well in high school, so I took the path of least resistance. I already had a fully paid scholarship there from doing well at A Levels (I was what’s called an “Island Scholar”), so I just didn’t work at it then. I was 18 and stupid. In other words, I was 18.
But once I graduated from college, I set my sights on getting an MBA, thinking that I needed something to differentiate me from the thousands of others coming out of UWI with similar degrees.
Was the job market super competitive once you got out of UWI? Just curious as to how you went from “path of least resistance” to grad school!
When I got out of UWI, the unemployment rate in Trinidad for college grads was over 20%, close to 25%. (When people in this country wring their hands over a 9% unemployment rate, half of me wants to scream, “Quit your whining!”)
I went back to Trinidad and sat on my ass for the next nine months, looking for a job. I ended up heading to Barbados for what still is the worst job I’ve ever held. Lasted five months. But that’s not what pushed me to go to grad school. I just looked around, and saw a bunch of people in the same situation as me, and I kept hearing my mom in my head! Her mantra was, “No education is wasted.” My mother pounded the idea into our heads that we would go to school, as far as we could, from an early age. Whenever I’d question what I was doing, she’d always reply, “No education is wasted.”
Education was to be my ticket to do things that my peers couldn’t or wouldn’t. Plus I come from a long line of educators. In the 50s and 60s, when my parents came of age, education was the ticket to the middle class for dark-skinned people in Trinidad. Black people didn’t own many businesses—at that point, they were only a few generations removed from being free labor on plantations. My great grandmother was born a slave, and I imagine the rest of my family of that era—the black ones, anyway—were the same. Education was the way that people who looked like my parents elevated their social status. Education, formal or informal, and a quest for knowledge, has always driven me. Got my 41 year old ass back in school to do this PhD thing.
So, I actually worked to get into a school in the US, worked to qualify for a scholarship. There was no way I was leaving the Caribbean without one—we didn’t have anything close to grad school money. Took me three years of applying and getting rejected, but eventually the stars aligned. Ended up with a Fulbright scholarship, and I chose Babson College in Wellesley, and I left in 1995.
I returned to Trinidad in 1998 to fulfill a contractual obligation from my scholarship. But by then, I’d had a taste of what life was like outside of Trinidad, and I liked it. While I was in America, I worked at a small consulting company after I graduated with my MBA in 1997. (You can work in the US on a student visa for a year to 18 months after you graduate, and I took advantage of that opportunity.)
In America, my ideas were valued; it was expected that I’d voice my opinions, and I was given the chance to follow through on them. Back home, doing that exact same thing often led to a “put in my place” experience. I didn’t have enough gray hairs, or family in powerful positions, or decades of experience in the company, so the attitude was: who the hell did I think I was, wanting to do things differently? It felt like everyone I knew was trying to keep their crappy office job in the oil, banking, accounting, or insurance businesses, and I didn’t want the jobs people with bachelor degrees and no family connections were getting.
Back in Trinidad, I was incredibly frustrated, and unhappy. My mother, within six months of my arrival back in Trinidad, told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get my ass out of there if I was to be happy. And so I did. My former employer (at the consulting company in the US) offered me my job back in the US, and I was on a plane almost as soon as I could. Been here ever since.
Love your Mom! It must have been hard to say goodbye to you! (Also you must have been a superstar at work.)
Yeah, my mom’s my hero. She sacrificed pretty much everything to send my sister and me to school. Just puts her head down and quietly does what needs to be done. As for being a superstar? I don’t think I was. I was lucky—I found a good company that fit me. That doesn’t happen that often.
What was it like learning to live in the US?
It took some getting used to. I remember the first time the temperature fell below 50 degrees; I wore a huge black down-filled jacket to class, much to the amusement of my classmates.
I went through a long period of learning the norms and customs of this country, and of the area in which I lived. (New England, just like other large areas in this country, has its own idiosyncrasies and customs that require getting used to.) I would say things that, in Trinidad, would not be considered offensive or upsetting, but here, you could be admonished at best, ostracized at worst.
For one, the N-word is said in Trinidad with much regularity and without the stigma it carries in this country. I like to think I’ve matured enough to eradicate the N-word from my vocabulary. I don’t say it, at all, not even when I go back to Trinidad. Same with the C-word. Here, it’s a huge deal to be called that. People want to fight if they get called that. Back home, that cuss is thrown about as often as “jackass.”
Another time, I was dating this woman who was neither skinny nor fat: curvy. Which I like. Anyway, I made the mistake of describing her figure, which I absolutely loved, as “thick.” Where I come from, that wasn’t a big deal at all. She, though? Wasn’t pleased. At all.
Oh no! I can only imagine. How did you learn the norms?
Just from being here, and living here, and not quite getting it and making some mistakes as I went along. See the above points as examples. I’ve never felt bad about making a mistake in that realm. I do something, and I learn from it. No education is wasted, you know? But Americans surprise me all the time. Pajama Jeans. The Snuggie. Sarah Palin. That exercise thing that looks like you’re jerking yourself off. These things surprise me.
Ha. What else was challenging about the US?
I experienced racism for the first time—not virulent, violent racism, and I learned over time that those instances were the exception rather than the norm, but they were there nonetheless.
If it’s not too upsetting, do you mind telling me about those experiences?
I was called a nigger with malice for the first time within a week of my arrival here—and it still is the one and only time that happened. I was walking with a friend of mine, who was here studying as well, and some young white guys passed in a car. The car slowed down, and one of them stuck his head out and yelled it, and then the car drove off. I remember being really surprised. Was he talking about me? Or my friend? It was only when I had a chance to think about it later that it got me angry. I knew the connotations of the word in this country, and to be called that was dehumanizing.
Then there was the woman who admitted to dating me solely for the “experience” of sleeping with a black man. I guess she wanted to see if it was different. She wouldn’t introduce me to any members of her family. And there were comments I’d hear while in business school when we’d be discussing a case win which the protagonist was black. Stupid, annoying shit.
I remember walking into a restaurant in Arkansas and feeling like I was in a movie. Literally, the music stopped (an elderly couple had been playing bluegrass), and everyone stared at me the entire time I was there. I think that the guy I was traveling with–a ‘good old boy’ sales rep for my client company–might have been showing me that I was on his turf. I wanted to get out of there really badly, because everything on the menu was fried to within an inch of its life.
And, of course, I’ve been subject to what I sometimes think is the quintessential black-man experience in these United States: DWB, or Driving While Black. Cops in New York pulled me over once—they said I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I was, and said so. The guy leaned in and said, “Boy, we can do this easy, or we can do this hard. Your choice.” I kept my mouth shut, and kept my hands on the wheel. It was only after the very Caucasian husband of the woman I was driving with, who I was following to get to their house, explained to the officers that I was “legit,” that they let me go. Of the few instances of racism I’ve experienced, that one stands out the most.
I want to make it clear, though, these have been exceptions to the rule. I’ve been here 15 of the last 17 years, and 99.99% of the encounters I’ve had have not been like this. I actually expected it to happen more when I decided to come here.
It’s interesting to come from a place where everyone looks like you, to one where you look very different to most people.
Wow. I’m sorry you had to experience that! Sounds like Trinidad is relatively homogenous. Is that right?
Trinidad actually isn’t homogenous at all—not by a long shot. Most people there are dark skinned, but come from different backgrounds and heritages. It used to be a British (and Spanish, and French) colony, so there is a slave past. People like me, of African descent, account for 40% of the population.
When slavery was abolished, Indians (as in, “from India,” not native peoples) were brought to work the sugar plantations, and now people descended from Indian indentured laborers account for another 40%. The remaining 20% is a mishmash of European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and indigenous peoples. There is a lot of race-mixing where I come from—to find someone with no other race in their ancestry is rare. Still, most people are brown-skinned, so I grew up around people who looked like me.
Did you feel like you stood out in the US?
Yes, I did. Still do. If my skin color doesn’t differentiate me in many situations, my accent does. I’m very aware when I’m the only person of color in a room or situation. I always note it. It’s not a huge deal for me most times, though. I think coming from a place where I developed a strong sense of who I was and where I came from made being a minority easier. I didn’t struggle to find an identity; I already had one. I identify as a Trinidadian before I identify as “black,” despite what most in this country will label me with. Coming from Trinidad has defined who I am much more than being black.
(That said, I get really pissed off when African Americans hint—and in some instances, say right out—that I am “not black enough,” because my history and background is not a “black American” one. As though African Americans held the monopoly on the black experience. That shit really annoys me.)
Was there an aha moment, of like, “I’m so American now!”
No, not really. I was just living my life when I became a citizen. I remember we had to coordinate getting one kid to day care so that my wife and our then six-month old could get down to Faneuil Hall in Boston for the swearing in ceremony. The two of them, and my wife’s parents came. The judge who swore us in—a few hundred of us became citizens in that ceremony—exhorted us to do our civic duty once we had become citizens.
You know when I felt like an American, when my “aha” moment was? When I voted in an election here for the first time. I missed the 2008 presidential election by a year, and really, really wished I could have voted then. I voted in the Massachusetts senatorial election—the one to fill the seat left by Ted Kennedy—and in the 2010 mid-terms. I felt like I was contributing. It felt good.
Part Two will appear tomorrow.