By Janis Prince Inniss
The year I started high school, my family moved from a city in Guyana, to the capital, Georgetown. I remember that we often had no running water on the second floor of our home—the dwelling floor. The lower floor was a car porch and laundry area.
At right is a picture of the house taken many years after I lived there, but it looks a lot as I remember it. There was no enclosed area on the ground floor when I lived there though.
This means that showers were rare, or maybe even non-existent. Not that this entitled us to have poor hygiene. On the contrary, it simply meant that showering came with a built in workout: We would fetch buckets of water from the pipe downstairs and have a “bucket bath”. This required special skill as the water was usually very cold because there were no hot water pipes. My strategy was to moisten a washcloth, add soap to it, wash my body with the cloth, and then quickly rinse with the freezing water. Sometimes, Mum would add some boiling water to my bucket to take the chill off which meant a more leisurely rinse.
The first high school I attended was called Queens College and it was in Georgetown, Guyana. I loved my high school. In fact, years later, I chose my college based on that name and attended Queens College, City University of New York. (Obviously, I was lucky that this bizarre method of choosing an institute of higher education netted me a fine one.) The
number of international alumni organizations that have sprung up for Queens College
suggest that my love for it isn’t unique. For example, there is a South Florida Alumni chapter (here is their Facebook page), a New York alumni chapter, one in the United Kingdom, and a chapter in Toronto. Considered the top school in the country for decades, QC produced many who have met great success in their careers. Of the few people I kept tabs on, I know that my class of fewer than 30 students produced at least two Ph.Ds, an engineer, a physician and a host of other professionals.
In either my first or second year at my beloved Queens College—the one in Guyana—I was sent to participate in mass games. Have you ever heard of mass games before? I hadn’t either, until then. According to Wikipedia the definition of mass games is:
a form of performing arts or gymnastics in which large numbers of performers take part in a highly regimented performance that emphasizes group dynamics rather than individual prowess. Because of the vast scale of the performance, with often tens of thousands of performers, mass games are performed in stadiums, often accompanied by a background of card-turners occupying the seats on the opposite side from the viewers. Mass games are typically used to emphasize themes of political propaganda.
Today, this description of mass games sounds about right to me. But at the time, I had no idea what was going on other than I had to spend hours out of my school day at a stadium practicing mass games. As I recall, I spent lots of time waiting around to be trained by the first Koreans I had ever seen. And my role, I think, was to turn pages in a large book. I remember at least one scene was that of our Prime Minister’s face—himself a QC graduate. I don’t remember how long the rehearsals for mass games continued, but I do recall that the color of my skin under my stud earring was significantly lighter than the highly tanned skin elsewhere on my face by the end of it.
Here, I’ve described
but two aspects of my life in Guyana
Bathing without running water and spending time away from my favorite school
preparing for mass games.
None of these
were concerns for me as a child; in fact, I have very fond memories of growing
up in Guyana
But think of how these experiences might seem to a concerned parent. The parent
might worry that it’s hard for the child to maintain good hygiene and worry that
the child is not spending each school day being educated. The child might not
notice difficulties with obtaining basic food items like flour, milk, rice, and
regular power outages, but most parents would.
Some of these parents end up emigrating to a
more prosperous country that offers more opportunities for their children.
What are your predictions about the number or portion of foreign born people living in the U.S. today? I look forward to the answer from this year’s census (discussed here by Karen Sternheimer). What we know from the last census is that there were 28.4 million foreign-born people estimated to be living in the U.S. and that they represented about 10.4 percent of the U.S. population. Many predict that immigration reform will be the next issue U.S. politicians address.
Now, as in years past, much of the public discourse around immigration features rhetoric about “people coming to take away/over my schools/money/housing”; in other words many think about the factors that continue to pull or draw immigrants to the U.S. I offer a slice of life from a somewhat recent immigrant for you to consider some of the factors that push migration. What weight, if any, should the issues raised by stories such this, have on the subject of immigration?