April 19, 2010

Putting a Face on Immigration

new janis 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?


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It was very interesting to hear about your adventures as you grew up. I really enjoyed hearing that even though you and your family did not have enough money to have running water through the whole house and the running water that you did have was not hot that you still took the initiative to have good hygiene. I thought it was amazing that you took the advantage of your schooling and education in high school but also after graduation as well. You seem to have a lot of dedication to you and your mass games that you talked about. Your story is very inspiring and could help others that might not have the best material things in life that it doesn't matter and to keep on working towards what they want in life.

Useful information, many thanks to the author. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and good luck!

I like that you pointed out that we should consider the push as well as the pull factors. Migration has a huge effect on the demography of a place and we should consider all aspects of it, not just the ones that pertain to us.

It’s easier to work towards your own interests than working together as a group to solve a problem. It's even harder to unite other countries with different global agendas towards a common goal.

There's a lot of thought provoking video clips regarding complexity and how global problems become almost impossible to solve on a Facebook community page

Why do we have a tendency to fight one another when we know sharing results in the most optimum outcome for everyone? Why does our biology cause us to hurt the ones we love, hoard resources and compete with one another?

Heres the link to the video

Apparently, our biology determines how we react with the rest of society.

The individual is smart and insightful.

Humans in groups are dumb, act under peer pressure and towards social conformity.

Without great leadership, people in groups are stupid, violent, competitive and selfish. And only if those groups of people are listening to good advice from their leaders or role models.

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