Too foreign for home? Back to life in T&T

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At the age of 17, I remember turning the pages of countless New York college brochures on my mother’s office table. While flipping through the pages, I came across a film and television programme, which caught my attention, and soon after I began applying to various colleges throughout New York City.

The plan was simple: four years of college, and then return to Trinidad and Tobago. Well, things didn’t exactly go according to plan.

I started dating, grew into independence and was enjoying city life so much, that I stayed much longer than four years. Still, by the eleventh year in NYC, I knew in my heart I was not happy. So, it was homeward bound for Trinidad and Tobago.

It wasn’t too hard a decision – the US economy was crap already, and I wasn’t inspired to write or make films in New York (shocking I know). I missed my family and friends, I was unhappy in my relationship, and I was unfulfilled in my job. I needed to heal my soul, and return to my island – my Trinidad, so I did.

After the first three months or so, I knew Trinidad had definitely changed since secondary school days. Carnival is, well quite frankly, no longer a ‘local thing’. You literally have to save about TT$10,000 to have the full experience of Carnival nowadays (that would cover the costume in a popular big band all-inclusive, of course, about two all-inclusive fetes, three smaller fetes, some ‘knock-about’ money, and throw in about three hot outfits for the season). So poor little me, who used to visit and bode well on US$200 during Carnival, had to ‘suck salt’ this time ’round.

When you have lived 11 years outside an island, it shows. I was constantly saying, “Hi, and you are?” I had no clue who ‘Kes the Band’ was! Are they Trinidadian? People looked at me like I was off or something. Besides Kes, I had never heard of Nadia Batson, or Zan, and had never been to the club 51 Degrees. People… I barely knew Port-of Spain! And I grew up here for 19 years. I was a real foreigner and it showed. Things that were once familiar were now alien. Perhaps the numerous condos that suddenly appeared in West Moorings, and behind Roxy were confusing the once familiar landscape.

I got a job at a local retail store, and got my first dose of being the “foreign chick”.

People would ask, “You from America?”

“Nah, you not from Trinidad; you don’t sound Trini at all!” they would say.

Every day, like clockwork, someone would ask me where I am from. They’d even imitate how I pronounced certain words. I’ll admit, I started to feel self-conscious. Ironically, my Trini accent was mocked in New York as much as my American accent was mocked by some people here in Trinidad.

The accent thing I took in stride, but then, things started to get nasty. Co-workers would make fun of me for being creative with my outfits for work. One girl grabbed me and took me to a corner of the store. She looked at me with wild eyes asking incredulously, “Why are you wearing leggings to work?” I looked at my black leggings and black baby tee, cinched with a red belt and red converse sneakers.

“I thought it was ok?” I said.

“They are going to be upset with you,” she said to me, giving me a look of disapproval. “You can’t wear that to work. The managers are going to write you up.”

I wasted no time going to the manager and asking if my outfit was offensive. She looked me over, and quickly said no.

The teasing just got worse. I felt alienated for being and sounding different. I’d cry in the employee bathroom just to relieve the stress of being singled out (better to cry there than to smack the shit out of the ignorant fools).

I knew that I loved my country, and I was determined to succeed in Trinidad. After all, I experienced far, far worse in the States. I’ve survived being grabbed by a crackhead in Brooklyn, assaulted by two men in an elevator on my college campus, and getting evicted from my apartment – twice! Surely some petty jealousy at a store wouldn’t destroy me.

There were many things to adjust to here in Trinidad. One was the lack of places to lime. At first glance, clubbing or restaurants are pretty much it in terms of entertainment. Then I did my own research and discovered that every day there is something to do in Trinidad, from sightseeing to hiking and tours. So, I’m finding new ways to increase my entertainment options.

Dating is a challenge for me here as well. Guys would ask for my number and then suddenly disappear. One guy friend told me that I intimidate them. They see how ambitious I am and run for the hills. I don’t even want to tell you how annoyed that comment made me feel. It took about 15 months of bad dates before I met someone who I can be myself with. Ironically, he left Trinidad in his late teens, lived in the States and has returned home. Somehow dating him is easier, since we have that understanding of that ‘strange accent’ issue and feeling sometimes that you just don’t fit in.

You know, I don’t think I can ever become completely re-immersed into Trini culture. My experiences, and my travels have influenced who I am today, and I’m okay with that. Come to think of it, the experiences and travels have made me appreciate Trinidad’s unique beauty and tranquility, which I couldn’t quite find anywhere else. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of OZ once said, “There’s no place like home” (Warts and all!).

 

Karen Francisco

Karen 'Phoenix' Francisco is many things. A writer, singer, songwriter, actress, filmmaker, image consultant, and motivational speaker. Back in Trinidad since leaving New York City where she earned her Bachelors Degree in Film Production and Screenwriting at Brooklyn College, you can always find her at any popular karaoke/open mic, singing her butt off.

5 Comments

  1. Onya West

    August 10, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Excellent article, Karen!
    Your story strikes a chord with many Trinis who are some version of a freshwater. Maybe you don’t have to wait in the Caricom line because you were born abroad or you have been away so long that might as well have a US passport. The point is that as more people get the opportunity to travel and repatriate, Trinidad and Trinidadians are going to change. Hopefully for the good because we can get a bad case of foreignitis. In the end I think that workmate was trying to find something to put you down about but your love for Trinidad and focus on making the country a better place will shine through and above that pettiness. Congrats on finding a companion who understands you.

  2. Karen Francisco

    kfrancisco

    August 10, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Thank you Onya!
    Trinidad is my first love– will always be dear to my heart. But I love to travel and I believe everyone should experience it– whether it takes you to Antarctica or just to Tobago– your life is enhanced by the things that you learn from your experiences.

    You learn to appreciate your creature comforts a whole lot more, or you discover that chinese food in China is your favourite food– but you’d never have these experiences unless you go beyond your comfort zone.
    Ultimately I wanted people to see that the Trinidadian is not one cookie cutter persona. We are spanish speaking, hindi-speaking, African Sha-mans, Syrian business owners, Creole fashionistas and English expatriates or German permanent residents that reside in and out of this colourful twin isles of Trinidad and Tobago. No matter where I finally reside– in my heart, I am a Trinidadian….

  3. Desiree Seebaran

    dseebaran

    August 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Happens to all of us. I just went Jamaica for three years and came back feeling like an alien to all I’d grown up with. It gets better as you learn your boundaries and keep the haters outta your space.

  4. Safi

    September 23, 2010 at 7:52 am

    I lived in London for over a year, and when I came back home I didn’t have the same experience of feeling alienated. I think it’s because i immersed myself in Trinidad while I was in London. I constantly streamed local radio and TV and was in CONSTANT contact with my Trinidad friends. Sometimes I knew some things going on in Trinidad before my friends in Trinidad did. Plus I limes a lot with Trinis in London because one of my best friends was there with me. Don’t get me wrong, i FULLY experienced life in London: pubs/ clubs/ sites etc but it was like i was living two places at the same time! :) When I returned to London for a vacation, once again it was like returning home. I was completely comfortable.

  5. Solange

    September 27, 2010 at 6:56 am

    I feel like this everytime I go home. Its like I dont belong here in the States or there in Trinidad. But I know where I belong I belong in me. Thanks

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