America, a shining beacon of hope and opportunity around the globe. A country where you can enter with just a suitcase, no money and in a matter of years—if you work hard—can have money, education and a home. The roads are broad and plenty there. A place awashed with more opportunities than most countries. A place where one can finish college in their twilight years. These were some of the stories I heard about America as a boy living in Jamaica where, though freedom abode, opportunity was scarce. These stories were told to us by our neighbours, our relatives and friends who visited America on temporary working visas, who lived there or have visited as tourists.
I believed every one of them. How could I not? They were repeated by everyone and reinforced by what I saw on TV since I was 5 years old. Star-Trek, Knight Rider, Dallas, McGyver, Hawaii 5.0, The Cosbys, Living Color, 227, Living Color, Starsky and Hutch, Moesha and Friends—not in that order. Although I hated Friends, I got the point. No other country has managed to market itself since the end of the second world war as masterfully as America. I was always and am always proud to be Jamaican. Yet still, once I understood how thin my margin for error was, I believed myself to be bigger than one island and finding my way to America would give me the launching pad needed to rocket into the stratosphere in search of my dreams.
My parents made preparations for a life in America before I was old enough to take note. I was only 3 when they began the process. They never spoke a word of their intentions to me until the mail man left me with a large brown envelope and I opened it up. I was 12 years old at the time and in my first year of high school. I had a career as a soldier in the Jamaica Defence Force squarely in mind. From there, I planned to position myself to leave the island. By the time I was 13, we were granted entry into the U.S. It was challenging in the beginning, I was a teenager who just left his friends, his house, tropical weather and his dog, Milo, behind. In time, I schooled myself on the American society and how best to navigate the moving variables of race, religious beliefs, culture and national origin on my way to success. I even had to learn an entire measurement system and how to spell. I grew tired of losing points in junior high for writing “cheque” instead of “check”. Do not get me started on my English teacher telling me that I should use “bi-weekly” instead of “fortnight” because…“when in Rome”.