We went to do a job, but got stuck: some thoughts on Caribbean migration

I wouldn’t take issue with any particular view of how Jamaicans view the British (or more precisely, the English). Annie Paul, a good social observer living in Jamaica, wrote in The Guardian a couple of years ago about how warmly Jamaica embraced members of the Royal Family, and that this suggested a greater willingness to stay as they are and not go all Republican.

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I was glad I came across that article as I searched for ‘What Jamaicans think about the British’. My mind had drifted back some 50 years. Then, views of the British were largely formed out of the experience of their being colonial masters. What most people saw was the ruling classes, or at least those who could be trusted to administer in the Monarch’s name. Most islanders never got to see the other sides of Britain, except those who had had time serving in the military or been on a cargo ship or maybe represented their island in some international sporting event. Mass migration changed that.

Caribbean people got to see the British for what they were. That didn’t stop us carrying still the stereotypes of English people; likewise, they did not drop their stereotypes of us.

Many of those who’d ventured to Britain before the mass migration from the 1950s, had come into the rarified air of higher learning–universities, law schools–and the better aspects of medical facilities as represented by teaching hospitals. So, they carried a view of Britain that was in some ways better, but also worse: it offered insight into a world that was not that common for many Caribbean people, but also pitted the ‘visitors’ into a world that was generally more tolerant for having been places exposed to foreigners for a long period.

Anyway, the arriving Caribbeans had to deal with ‘negative’ facts like whether the British really all had bad teeth, never stopped drinking tea, never bathed or only rarely, all ate fish and chips, etc. The ‘positives’ included the reputation for being welcoming, a general attitude that was not overtly aggressive, fairness, etc.

Many people were not ready to have their stereotypes challenged and also found themselves in situations and locations where the local norm was not necessarily reflective of a wider experience. However, with many people tending to cluster in areas, those circumstances when repeated seemed like the national norm. For example, most people when faced with a large influx of new people tend to be more challenged than if only having to deal with ‘ones or twos’. That goes to the experiences some had because they found themselves ‘isolated’ in rural settings, and were not in the denser and more competitive environment offered by many inner urban areas.

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It also took Caribbean people a long time to figure out what they represented to the hosts and what they could offer that was different. I’m not saying that other migrants came with a plan, but if your group comes and fills certain slots it’s hard to convince people that you can do otherwise. So, many unskilled labourers filling jobs in factories and in public services makes it hard to convince people that you have a wider contribution to make. Over time, as talents develop, that picture can and does change. So, the athletic prowess of the region started to come to the fore, and despite years of prejudice, rose to the surface and now seems like a given, and people of Caribbean origin are now so implanted in a range of national sports as to feed the well-known stereotypes about our athleticism.

We still as a group of migrants need to figure out why we’ve not breached other walls, such as in a range of businesses that we know are well stocked with talent in the region. But, little inroads are being made.

Whether Caribbean people like the British a lot is not really a good question. We’ve lived with them a long time and we’ve seen some of their good and some of their bad. They’re the devil we know. We have lots of association and much in common. We’ve also managed to become some of them, so it’s ranging into deep psychological territory if we want to say that ‘our’ British and ‘their’ British are to be liked or not. Tricky, innit?

Are you still here? Being an immigrant and overstaying the welcome

You have to pardon me if I hark back often in coming days to the immigrant experience in Britain: it’s an inevitable result of going to London on a visit. Today, what struck me was the simple point that many hosts can take visitors, but are always worried that they overstay the welcome.

I think that few of us who have stayed with friends or relatives for any length of time have not heard something like “Don’t you think it’s time for you to be moving on, now?” The intention may never be malicious, but it marks that your stay was only viewed as temporary and you were tolerated on that basis.

The idea of ‘having your home back’ is not odd, either. You’ve built and shaped it to your tastes and you like it the way that it is. Other people and their ways can just keep themselves in other places.

That’s essentially why people feel awkward to the point of hostile when immigrants start to make the place like their home, by bringing in trappings that make them feel comfortable–itself, a very natural thing to do, like walking with your own pillows and blankets.

Many immigrants have been assaulted with “Why don’t you go back where you came from?”, which is a statement, not a question. Of course, those who look or act like foreigners to the host, but were born and raised in the country, will feel more than a little slight. I love the sight and sound of the girl with Indian parents who speaks with such a deep and strong Glaswegian accent, who’d answer something like “Back to the Gorbals?”

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Along with the hosts’ desire to get rid of the guests is the latter’s hope to get away. But, that part is complicated. What if the ‘guest house’ is nicer than home? It’s easy to see, for instance, why people who came from places with civil turmoil, or natural disasters, or poor economic situations would want to stay longer in places that did not have that, even if the people you meet hate you. Then, your visitors also start to put down roots, even if not intended. Stay more than a few days and need to move around? You start thinking about your routes and your patterns of travel. You start to meet people again and they start to make you like ‘fixtures’, and so on it goes.

Sometime this week, I hope to get to an exhibition about the ‘staying power’ of immigrants in the UK. It should be fascinating.

As I walked through one of my old neighbourhoods in London yesterday, I was not expecting to see anyone I knew. I was young back then and I expect many have moved out and also age has changed them dramatically. Men and women I saw could easily have been babies when I was a teenager. But, social shifts have also happened that are very dramatic. In streets that had few cars, I now saw every kerb filled with a vehicle, and many of them were not ‘old bangers’. No, I just wanted to get my feel and then leave.

I’m staying as a guest in a home, and I asked my daughter if we should tidy up. “Not if it means disturbing anything,” she replied. In other words, get comfortable only so far and no further. Migrants often never get that memo.

The whole process of social integration is very complex, and it not only involves hosts and guests, but also involves how new guests and old guests get on with each other and with the host, and many other permutations of social interaction. It involves the tangible and visible, as well as the subtle and hidden.

IMG_0940It involves who gets other support, and who is left to find their own way. People talk about integration and assimilation as if they are natural and simple. How many people really get along with those whom they call family and friends? Answer that then move on to how strangers are supposed to just get along.