Monday, March 23, 2015

[Resident][Alien] - An introspective on the isolation of the expat

By Torsdag ©

From Merriam-Webster:
Res-i-dent: adjective
                   : living in a particular place usually for a long period of time.
Alien: adjective
          : not familiar or like things you have known : different from what you are used to
          : from another country
          : belonging or relating to another person, place, or thing : strange

Resident alien is an oxymoron.

If you resided in a neighbourhood ‘for a long period of time’, would you consider yourself an unfamiliar? Would you not consider yourself ‘belonging to that area’?

The birth of the expat.

He or she come a foreign bright eyed and bushy tailed. Some to join family already here, some to go to college, some to join the workforce in various career stages. Some come as a result of legit marriages; some, arranged.  Some come young, middle aged, and even old - responding to the call of children who now live abroad. No matter what the reason, we all come looking for the ‘better life’ that exists here.  For that is what we are told to look for and what is reinforced by our homeland.   

“Jamaica is too small for me.”
“There are no opportunities there”
“Go a foreign and mek something of yourself.”
“Go to foreign for a better life. Nuttn nah gwaan here.”
“When I left Jamaica I was 16 years old.  When the plane was in the sky I prayed for the plane to drop out of the sky if for any reason it had to turn back.”

Generation after generation is fed this tripe.  The young are groomed to go a foreign.  Unschooled youth are groomed to become farmworkers. Those who flunk out of high school are trained to become hotel workers to go a foreign. The end goal is just foreign, foreign, foreign.

Shell dung logic
Read the full article, from, here:

So forgive the sense of achievement felt when yardie finally reach foreign and turn expat.  Away from the bogeymen: hard-life, diminished-opportunity and nuttn-nah-gwaan.

Away from family
Away from friends
Away from the known and familiar
Away from a support structure.
Away from being a first class citizen
Away from easily accessed outlets of relaxation
Away from the beach and warm weather
Away from familiar foods
Away from being known.
Away from belonging.

But it takes awhile to realise this. The first few years are exhilarating as well as stressful, but filled with hope as we sally forth to pursue the dream of making it big then going home to retire even bigger.  Big house, big car, big cheque from foreign.  Or, to make it big in industry here in 10-15 years, then go home to set ourselves up in some whiz bang self-starter endeavor, complete with photo and Gleaner/Observer op.  Or, to get degreed here and go home and ease into a corner office, bypassing the UWI/UTech/NCU graduate solely because of our foreign degree. As time passes on and we are subsumed by the foreign culture, the mind bends more and more toward home. You have a clarifying moment while stuck on the train or in traffic and realise that after all these years you’re not really fitting into your alien state.  You begin to assess the validity of the ‘go a foreign for a better life’ that you have been fed. Is it true? Is this really a ’better life’?  Am I to thank God that we are the lucky ones…the ones who live a foreign; and not the ones back home who we pack barrel and send down mobile phone for?

Did someone sell us a bill of goods?

Are all of us expats as prosperous as we were promised we would be? Or are many of us just ordinary working stiffs in capitalist foreign, fighting for a seat at the table?  Would some of us been better off staying home? Will some of us be better off returning home?

                "Uh-uh! Come back to what?!  It hard out here enuh!”
                “Boy, it rough out here…”

So lamented, as they simultaneously conclude a multi $000 home renovation, or buy an old house in a tony neighbourhood, knock it down flat and build a palace behind a motorised gate.  Yes, life is indeed rough.  To hear some speak, you’d think they put the ‘H’ in “hard life”.  Who’s buying the plethora of U$D million houses listed on,,

Over in foreign we work hard day in, day out despite having a ‘good’ job, yet we’re oftentimes barely ahead of the game.  Some of us emigrate as professionals and end up here with menial jobs.  Slinging a mop with a teaching degree and a DipEd from UWI. Not everybody is a big shot a foreign. Compound this with the fact that as racially the vast majority of us from home are in the minority in foreign: second class citizens with fewer opportunities and not yet equal—worse if you’re a black man: the lowest rung of foreign society. Maybe we have been here for years and still haven’t afforded a house. We lease into perpetuity and/or bounce the dimly lit, musty, basement apartment for that’s all we can afford. (What is more alien than living sub terra?)

The Great Recession circa  2007-2011 was our very own FINSAC a foreign.  Whilst the homeland was worried about tourist arrivals and remittances, expats lost homes, livelihoods, college savings, retirement savings, relationships even.  We lost our rung on the ladder of success.  Knocked right down like a player in a game of snakes and ladders.  At the bottom of the ladder, many of us found ourselves --15-20 years into a 40-year career-- having to start over in a brute of an economy, only to be told that we were obsolete.  After bouts of long-term unemployment (> 6 months) and settling for lesser paying jobs (the lucky ones) we start scrambling to play catch-up, little realising how very difficult a thing it is to do.  Scrambling to take care of family, scrambling to juggle the bills, scrambling to claw back some college savings, scrambling to secure a now unsure retirement.

And scrambling to pack the barrel.

For if it was hard over here during the Recession, it was harder in Jamaica. Lawd Whoii! It is ALWAYS harder in Jamaica, it seems. That’s the default position, espoused by even the well off and rich.


We are agog when we visit home.  We walk around with heads shaking from side to side taking in the ubiquitous Audis, the Christian Louboutins, the Gucci, BMW X6’s, M.A.C. counters, aforementioned U$D million homes, Hennessey drinking, Fashion Night Out-ing, flash-mob pop-up Dîner en Blanc soiree-ing, iPad, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy everything flashing lifestyle belie the suffering-hard-life-send-a-money-nuh lament that we expats know by heart.  Mek me ask you supn? Where exactly is ‘foreign’?  Over here or back home?? 

Some get busted:

From the Jamaica Gleaner

After working for a year to save up and enjoy 7 – 10 day vacation back home, we return to slog away at our 1,2,3(?) jobs, tracking through snow and ice (what is more alien than snow?!)  so we can afford to vacation at home again…next year. 

And start packing the barrel from now.

All while those ‘left behind’ in hard life not-foreign party and Hennessey their way to prosperity.

Someone sold us a bill of goods.

The feeling of isolation rears its ugly head as soon as we step off the plane in foreign.  It’s often accompanied with ambivalence as you’re also relieved that nobody’s greeting you with a smile and a stretched out hand anymore. And you’ll miss the shoes idle cousin Jerry begged off your feet when you saw him knocking about aunt Ida’s shop. Wutliss lout. 50-yo and refuse to work.

You return to the everyday struggle of earning an income, putting food on the table, minding family.  Some of us are working hard at the ‘under the table’ jobs because, despite amnesty after amnesty, papers still ‘not straight’.  “But one day I will make it and go home to retire,” they lie awake thinking in their basement rental, having bought into the lie that we must return in a blaze of glory.  Large and largesse: big house (with pool), big car, big monthly cheque from foreign. “But I can’t go home until I have made it or ‘set up myself’. I’ll be a laughing stock.” A circumstance that becomes more and more daunting as he or she hasn’t seen home since arriving illegally some 20-30 years ago.

In our isolation, we try to create a home away from home, the results being as authentic as the world in The Truman Show.  Some of us live in communities where other expats reside, yet we slowly realise that adapting to life in foreign means not having time for anyone. We go to the farmer’s market to buy ox-tail and boxes of frozen, green meat, square crusted patty and frowzy smelling tin ackee to try assuage the homesickness. We host stage shows billing obscure singjays and artistes.  All of it remains alien and rings not quite true.

Red Lyte?? Ras Kokay??  Who now??
After living abroad for many years and rarely, if ever feeling a sense of belonging, you nurture the idea that home is where you belong. But many are often surprised and dismayed by realizing that they may also be aliens as well when they’re back home. Many think the clock stops once they walk across the tarmac to board the plane and starts again when they go back for a visit. It doesn’t. Time passes at home same as it does everywhere else. People change, society changes, the country changes. The change is more evident the longer one stays away. The uncanny feeling of living an anaphasic existence settles in.  Like a movie playing with the voice track on a 7-second time lag.

Alien in the homeland where one is not quite resident.  Expat finds he or she is just someone who ‘live a foreign’ and send home barrel. You become a non-person.  No longer ‘Jamaican’, you’re ‘Jamaican-born’.  You are a source from which to obtain money and cell phone and tablet.  Heck, you might not be able to stand the hot climate there anymore. You feel less of a connection to the crass, bling, self-centered, flossy-flossy emergent culture.  And even more isolated as the society of which you were once a part no longer exists. What you imagine it would be like is incongruent to what it actually is like. Keep your opinion die-as-poorer…you don’t live here.  Just send the remittances.

A fixed aberrant lens is used to view both sides. On one side, expats exercise their ‘Jamaicanness’ and read the online papers/listen to online radio/watch tv, etc online religiously in an effort to maintain some connectedness. Expats can recite the news and current affairs at home more than anybody who lives there. Looking through the lens from that vantage point, we see images of success.  We read write-ups of ‘successful’ people,,,even if all they have done is register a business, draft a business plan, set up a shell website, printed  off some cards and look good on camera.   We see all this as we slave away at our jobs, wondering why we don’t have a full page feature in the WSJ for making ‘brand manager’.  Conversely, looking through the front of the same aberrant lens, Homeland sees us living wealthy, carefree, money on trees, yellow brick road, Lexus driving foreign lives. Neither side gets an in-focus view of the real picture.

Long term feelings of isolation and alienness often leave expats with feelings that they don’t quite understand and wrongfully attribute to dissatisfaction with home life, work life, dissatisfaction with self: what am I doing? Why haven’t I achieved my goals? Why am I a loser?  For those of us whose families emigrated along with us, the sense of isolation is not so bad. But, for others who came over solo, or with a few family members who are now scattered, the absence of a society with a support structure to help with kids, watch your house when you’re away, help celebrate life achievements, honour and celebrate your holidays and kick back on the weekend increases overall stress and a sense of aloneness. Even in the midst of your own family under your own roof of your hermetically sealed house, you feel alone. Spouses, who may or may not be expats themselves, may not share your sentiment. Our outlook on life and our values seem strange to children and spouses. They can’t relate. Especially children born here and thus ‘assimilated’ into foreign society.  Twice as feisty and half as resilient as their back-a-yard counterpart, you beat your head against the wall to get through to them, to no avail. Exhausted, you shake your head and walk off…to work, to do the laundry, get groceries, whatever.  Compartmentalise and find a way to live with the disconnect.  Keep thoughts to yourself and find a way to cope.  Get back to the business of juggling the vicissitudes of this odd, anaphasic life.  Smile, while your insides macerate.

Depression and anxiety, hypertension and other stress-related maladies manifest themselves.  We skype home for a pick me up and hear family and friends sprinting up the career ladder (oh so there IS opportunity in Jamaica!), buying homes, paying off mortgages, growing lucrative businesses…they cut the convo short as they are just about to head over to the annual peas soup get-together at Christmastime or the annual New Year’s Day mannish water drink-up.  You take all this in as you eat your greek yoghurt at your desk on Boxing Day where you are working-working-working (as it’s not a public holiday here), all the while feeling left out and wishing you were back home to partake. 

One day we look in the mirror and scarce recognise the old person staring back at us.

Under the best of circumstances, if there were ever a demographic in society prone to isolation, it’s the elderly. The words “elderly” and “shut-in” go hand-in-hand like “escallion” and “thyme”. What is life like for an elderly expat?

After years and years of hard work they often find they can hardly afford healthcare.  Medicare is not enough.  Medicaid is for the poor and to access it means getting rid of your assets. All you’ve worked to achieve for the past 50 years. The still illegal expats --and there are more than a few – are at best, only afforded indigent care. Reduce oneself to nothing to get Medicaid (sell house, empty bank account, etc), or have something to show for a life lived, but not be able to afford a homecare nurse to help bathe you and fix you a meal. Catch 22. 

Well, what about your children?

Foreign is huge. People move to other states.  Children move away, far away sometimes, and are in no position to help. Even children who are nearby may find it difficult, juggling their own lives and livelihoods – work children, their own illnesses perhaps? Day after day you remain in your home alone and lonely.  Crying to God to take you home. 

The not uncommon end result is the nursing home. Assisted living/nursing home/rehab is not cheap in foreign. The average facility that the average expat ends up in is a dreary, warehouse-y, cold, pissy-smelling, glum place filled with sad, disconnected, joyless old faces attached to old, weary bodies parked aimlessly about the place. Enhoused in spaces that poorly mimic home, the plug in fireplaces, plastic flowers and beat up furniture just don’t quite convince.  For in Capitalist foreign, the dirty little secret is that one is of value only so long as he/she can produce, produce, produce. Beyond that you are a burden to the state. And don’t fool yourself, in this golden stage of life, living off fixed-income (ie, retirement money) ‘loved ones’ from back home are still stretching forth their hands for barrel.

“Fifty years now dem a stretch out them hand…when dem a go stop beg and start mind themselves?”

Beginning to see who the ‘go a foreign for a better life’ argument actually benefits?  Remittances top U$D2.06 billion per anum…to a country that produces little.

Man-a-yard logic
from the Jamaica Gleaner
"Audley Shaw, the opposition spokesman on finance,...said the economy could benefit from greater remittance inflow if the measure was successfully implemented." Read the full article here:

The long years of working 2-3 jobs are behind. Thoughts of returning home have long taken on the texture of a faded cloth.  Memories of life there in one’s youth no longer seems more imagined than real.  Years of working hard and chasing a dream that perhaps never existed yield the reward of an uneventful death and a cobbled up service in a two-bit funeral home—maybe at a cut rate since Aunty and the owner are good friends so she can get the family a discount.  After all the years working, you can’t afford to bury yourself.  More plastic flowers, dreadful keyboard organ music on a loop and affected condolences from the stranger-owners of the funeral home who are "sorry for your loss" (and no, the brass plate easel with the tatty poster sized picture of the owners cannot be removed from the reception hall to accommodate an extra table for the post service repast).

While family and friends (?) celebrate your life (for no one grieves for the dead anymore), your remains are ushered to the crematory where you will be physically reduced to ashes and spaded into an affordable urn.  Your corporeal body no longer transitioning is now set to reside in a permanent state of resident alienness.

Someone sold us a bill of goods.

If someone wanted to sell you the notion that life at home may be hard, but that you would be able to buy a house, just not one as big as the rich man’s on the hill, and not as soon as you’d like to; that you could have a fruitful career wherein you’d probably see the direct effects of your role in nation-building, just maybe not get paid in 6-figure USD, but you’d have twice as much vacation days as in foreign; that you’d have help raising your children and they would  go to good schools and not have to pass through metal detectors and thugs to get to class; that you would be a member of a real community, a neighbourhood in the true sense of the word. Where you know who lives across from you, beside you and down the road from you; that you’d be able to afford to destress and relax via a weekend in the country; that you’d eat fresher, non-GMO foods that would greatly benefit your long-term health.

If someone told you that you could live a fuller, more robust life versus one of merely existing, maybe you wouldn’t live as long:  3-5-7 years fewer perhaps, but that would also mean 3-5-7 years of not being drugged up and listlessly warehoused in a pissy nursing home until you expire.  Instead, you would age in place at home in familiar surroundings with affordable round-the-clock attendants and family. And that when you die, you’d get a big turnout of family and friends ushering you on ‘to your reward’ and drinking a whites and killing a goat as they mourn your passing and give thanks for your life. If someone told you you could achieve that, versus going to foreign to join an uncertain rat – race as 1 of an obscure 300 million participants with no guaranteed outcome of success and prosperity, versus being one of < 3 million with a medium- longshot…;  If someone tried to sell you that notion,

Would you buy it?


Post Script:  Much has been said of the brain drain experienced by Jamaica, especially in the late 70’s.  Many brilliant minds left to ‘go a foreign’, never to return. Their contributions enrich their adopted societies, while ours back home flounder.  Back home seems to be satisfied with the mediocre accomplishments of satraps.  Peruse the leading papers and (God forbid) Twitter and you’ll see the only intelligent thought seems to emanate from the older generation. The younger is caught up in the washover gold and rhinestone world of Western Union/MoneyGram/barrel and bling/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook lifestyle.  It seems sufficient accompaniment to the 1% growth and slow underdevelopment Jamaica has experienced for decades now.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read... I'm from Calgary, Canada and have worked with a couple of "expats" from Jamaica...