Kristina Martin* is an exceptionally pretty girl with long, dark, curly hair, huge brown eyes, and sun-bronzed skin. She has just finished her final year at university and has returned to her island home of Jamaica. Sipping a beer at a bar overlooking the city harbour, Jamaica’s lush green mountains towering behind her, Kristina is the textbook picture of a mixed-race Caribbean girl. “So what are you going to do now?” I ask her. “Oh,” she shrugs, “Not sure. Work a bit. Go back to school in a bit. Thinking about medicine. You know, still figuring it out.” There is nothing unusual about her answer, not for her age group or nationality – except for the fact that she has said it in a perfect, unwavering British accent.
Kristina is one of the many examples of an all-too-common phenomenon on the island today, an indirect consequence of Jamaica’s declining economic power. Once known as the crown jewel of the Caribbean, Jamaica has been ravaged by poverty for decades. Though the idyllic north coast, nourished by a steady influx of tourists, has remained relatively utopian, the trading south coast has slowly buckled under the weight of economic hardship. The once-pristine downtown area is now a cluster of dilapidated buildings and blocked roads, with desperate vendors lining the sidewalks. Beggars can be found on every street corner and every day brings news of bloodshed in the city’s ghettos. Kingston is now considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, its residents ironically boasting of their city being a global murder capital.
Many middle-class parents have reacted to Jamaica’s decline by sending their children to other countries to be educated. But tough economic times in the rest of the world leave many without jobs at the end of their college careers and, with most recent graduates still too young to consider marriage, many end up exactly where they started: at home and unemployed. They do not differ much from the rest of the youth in Jamaica, except for the key fact that spending such a significant amount of time overseas has caused a slow but thorough leaching of their cultural heritage. They grow up in a foreign education system, absorbing foreign media and foreign music, learning foreign expressions, and developing their strongest formative relationships with men and women from other countries. Some, through a combination frequent trips home and strong ties to family, manage to keep a foot in both worlds. Many, however, return ‘white’ – a term used disparagingly, in reference to the fact that middle-class children tend to live and study in first world countries with largely Caucasian populations. In a country still stinging from colonist rule, this is an especially bitter insult, as it brands Jamaican citizens with the identity of those who historically enslaved them.
“Jamaica has a very unique culture, it’s what we’re known for,” explains Kristina. “The music, the dancing, everything. Being ‘Jamaican’ is cool, it’s a badge of honour. It means you live here and you suffer here, and I think when you run away to other countries, you kinda lose the right to it.” She pauses for a moment, thinking. “I can kind of understand it.”
Indeed, Jamaica’s culture is neither gentle nor subtle. From the musical rhythm of the speech to the national pastimes and the food, everything is packed with a distinct flavour. The local politicians are known by first names, as are the radio and TV celebrities. It is an island that has worked hard to shut out the forces of globalization and to remain true to itself. And so, the loss of national identity is both acute and painful. As Kristina explains it, she grew up on the island and felt like everyone else. She knew the schools, the streets, the jokes, and the people. Spending Saturday afternoons climbing mango trees and growing up on the same folk stories, she felt as Jamaican as her peers, and others accepted her as such. “Walking anywhere, we were bound to bump into somebody we knew. It’s a small city, haha – we’re all stumbling over each other all the time. Most of the time you can tell who’s from here and who’s not just by looking.”
Yet despite her strong sense of community, Kristina admits that she was glad for the opportunity to study abroad. As in many developing countries, the youth of Jamaica grow up exposed to a harsh reality normally withheld from others of their age. After all, there is a limit to what parents can hide from their children. And so even the most fortunate of children in Jamaica witness firsthand extreme poverty, with aluminium shacks lining the roads and tattered, barefoot beggars on every corner, some drug addicts, some homeless and some only children themselves. While the violence is mainly limited to gang warfare, the daily reports of grisly murders, kidnappings, and sexual assaults filter through the radios and televisions. The chance to live abroad, therefore, was seen as a chance to escape a country for which many saw no future. For years, it was a reliable system. Hard work, good luck, and forward thinking meant that one’s children had the opportunity to make lives for themselves elsewhere.
The changes in the last few years stem from the global recession. Powerful enough to cripple even first world economies, it has had a particularly hard impact on immigrants to these countries. Whereas once an education abroad would lead to a career abroad, with a family and relationships to follow, this is no longer a possibility. With jobs scarce, it is too expensive (or in the case of the United Kingdom, prohibited) for a foreigner to maintain a life unemployed in a foreign country. And with anti-immigration sentiment heating up in response to the troubled economic climate, it is often no longer comfortable, even if feasible.
“And when you come back, you’ve lost most of it,” says Kristina. “Out of touch with your friends, you haven’t built a network, which is so important on a small island. You’re out of touch with the politics; you can’t remember where some things are or the prices or anything. It was like moving to a new country all over again. I even lost my accent.” Kristina stops to take a sip of her beer. “It would be easier, I guess, if you ever really fit into the other countries as well. But you don’t, you’re never really American or British or whatever, and you remember that when you’re forced out.”
Kristina and many others like her find themselves back home for an indefinite period of time. Some are trying to find work, searching for jobs both overseas and at home. Like many graduates, they are trying to find any exit from the postgraduate limbo. But they face the additional challenge of a period of reimmersion into a country that, to an extent, believes they have betrayed it. When asked how she now responds when people ask her where she’s from, Kristina pauses. “I still say I’m Jamaican,” she says, and then adds with a sad half-smile. “But then I always make sure to add, ‘but I’d more say I’m confused.”
*Name changed at request.
Finalist in Matador’s Glimpse Competition, 2012