Wealth vs. Consumerism: The Trini Migrant Cycle
Remember when the school bell used to ring and your primary school principal led you in a hearty rendition of “The Pledge”, as you promised “to dedicate (your) life to the service of God and (your) country”? But perhaps such seeds of national loyalty were being counteracted by family members’ coaxes that you were just too bright or talented to stay in Trinidad and Tobago.
Many youngsters who show promise are told that maximizing your potential requires migration (usually to the US). But what are they taught about success? The type that lets other people know you’re living the good life, once you’ve settled in nicely. Well that kind of success equals partaking in the niceties commonly associated with a prosperous, American lifestyle, and sending money home so that your loved ones can have some semblance of the same. This cycle has been ongoing for many years.
The World Bank tells us that in 2010, Trinis living abroad sent US$109 million in remittances back home. But in the absence of concrete figures, we are left to guess how much (or rather, how little) of these monies are being invested, targeted towards enterprise development or used to jumpstart small businesses. I’d venture to guess that we wear much of this money on our backs, admire it on our feet, and dare others to mash it, build it and coat it in a unique shade of Berger paint.
The genesis of this practice is easily traceable. Since the 1950s, life overseas has held the promise of employment that had slipped from Trinbagonians’ grasp after the decline of the agriculture industry. Such patterns of migration persist. In fact, the US Department of Commerce reported that as of 2010, Trinbago ranked 39th on the list of the top 50 countries with visitors to the US, with a jump from 118,336 in 2002 to 136,628 in 2010.
After Trinbagonians ‘go foreign’, and do like the Jeffersons, they are naturally expected to join the ranks of persons who send remittances and accoutrements to the island. They send home the fruits of a superior life – Bounty paper towels, Irish Spring soap, and Nike sneakers (or whatever else they like).. When they make their ceremonious entrance in December (because Trini Christmas is de best), their suitcases are bursting at the seams with Ralph Lauren, Lacoste and Nike apparel, sending the message to friends and family that they are thriving. These items, with their all too identifiable American smell, and at one-third of HiLo’s and Gulf City Mall’s prices, make the statement that “life nice”.
Then, we internalize. We form a visual of the immigrant success story that speaks less of wealth, and moreso of lots and lots of things. And when a mother, living abroad, calls and gives her son the Western Union confirmation number to go cash in, a money market fund is likely the last thing on his mind.
We are allowing McWorld – popular consumer culture – to be the death of us. Monies that can serve as economic stimuli are being spent so that we can flaunt our status as “Little New York”.
Even banks, the very institutions that can market beneficial, financial services to persons who receive remittances, are failing us. Republic Bank’s RS TEEN network is supposed to teach Right Start account holders about the value of money. Ironically, however, you open the website and see the phrase “plenty swag”. Young savers’ incentives for joining are “hook ups and discounts from stores” – a common, promotional tactic.
The website also showcases teenagers donned in hooded sweaters and winter jackets, even though Trinidad and Tobago couldn’t possibly be closer to the equator. That a prominent bank cannot recognize (or ignores for the sake of profits) the inherent contradiction in luring savers with an opportunity to spend those very savings (and it’s possible that teens may well spend it on expensive clothes and winter jackets) means that this institution knows how much teens glorify the consumption culture.
But to wholly blame such institutions is to ignore personal responsibility. By and large, Trinbagonians look to the Government to improve the nation’s economy. To say that we are in dire need of a shift in this mentality is not saying enough. Each citizen must realize that the populace holds the power to increase the standard of living, and remain aware that consumerism will not make us any less of a third-world nation. A Hilux van will not speak of luxury, if it’s being driven on potholed streets.
If we had comparative studies in primary schools, this would eliminate the mysticism surrounding life abroad, and foster a sense of nationalism in children. Much of what young, Trinbagonian students know about “The Promised Land” is a BET-generated farce. If children understood the history of migration and its truths, they would be less likely to view the United States as the seat of milk and honey. If parents practise financial prudence and pass it on to their children, young people would learn, early on, that it’s important to balance the desire for “nice things” with an understanding of wealth generation.
Trinidad and Tobago has never been, and will never be the United States of America (feel free to be OK with that thought). And if we continue to import and absorb mass consumerism patterns that we believe label us as successful, it will only be to our detriment. Perhaps it’s time we create our own portrait of success that need not prescribe to an American aesthetic – one that focuses on our wellbeing, the inheritances of our future, Trinbagonian grandchildren, and dare I say, “the honour and glory of (our) country”.
Image credit: jttbigsmile.blogspot.com