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Uncomfortable In America, Young Immigrant Says Goodbye


Switching gears, now, to another hot-button issue in American life, which is immigration. For generations, immigrants have come to the U.S. with a dream of a better life. Sometimes, that dream does not turn into a reality. And while most of the political conversation around immigration these days has to do with people who want to stay and can't, or trying to force people to leave who came here without proper papers, writer Tiffany Drayton flipped the script on that story.

When she felt her American dream wasn't working out, she decided to go back to Trinidad, which her parents had left when she was 4. She wrote about her experience for Salon.com recently, in a piece called "Goodbye to My American Dream." And she's with us now from Trinidad to tell us more. Tiffany, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

TIFFANIE DRAYTON: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now you wrote in your piece that when you told people you were going to go back to Trinidad - this is right after your graduation - you said you assumed they assumed that there was some romance gone wrong, and you write that, in a way, there was. You were, quote, running away from heartbreak. You write, quote, my relationship with the United States was the most tumultuous I've ever had, a country I loved and believed in did not love me back. What do you mean by that?

DRAYTON: Well, that was really a spillover of so many emotions and feelings I was feeling at the particular moment. Particularly, my experiences as a black woman, and how a lot of times, you really feel like you don't have a place and you're not accepted in the place that you've called home for so long. And at the end of the day, home is probably one of the most important places you can have in your identity, in your life. And for me, I felt, I am not accepted here, and it was really heartbreaking, I suppose.

MARTIN: You say that you weren't accepted here, but you know, you did well in high school, you went to a prestigious college, the New School in New York. A lot of people would say you were.

DRAYTON: Well, those people are looking at the surface level, which is the, quote-unquote, success of an individual. And I don't base my life on these successes, although I am proud of them. What I base my life on is connections to individuals, connections to communities, connections to the greater society, and that's where you feel that disconnectedness or you feel not a part of something.

MARTIN: You write in the piece that it wasn't just the racism, and you give, you know, the kinds of examples of - not, you know, the nooses hanging in your locker kind of racism...

DRAYTON: Right. Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...But the kind of day-to-day drip, drip, drip of - kind of, disrespect that I think a lot of people will either relate to and understand, or just find, you know, not important. But you also say that you felt like you just weren't being heard.


MARTIN: I do wonder, though, how much of your sense of being unheard has to do with being an immigrant, being of color, and how much has to do with being young.

DRAYTON: I would say that I've witnessed, in my own personal experience - because, as you said, I come from a school environment, specifically a university environment, that's relatively prestigious. I would sit in a classroom of children who were white, who were the same age. They're my peers.

We're in our early 20s, and they have a much easier time getting things published that are about their particular issues because it's for the greater America, for the white America, and many more people can kind of sort of relate to it.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting 'cause your story raises a lot of the interesting questions that we don't talk about very often in this country, which is the difference between being a minority in a majority white country, and then being colonized. I mean, people often talk about a number of countries with the colonial imprint as having similar racial issues. But you're saying, it's different, right?

DRAYTON: Of course.

MARTIN: So why is it better?

DRAYTON: You're going from an environment where you are completely surrounded by individuals who look at you as, "the other," to some degree because if you are a successful individual, you will, more than likely, be one of the only people that are black in your environment.

Somewhere like the Caribbean or, for example, the country that I live in, I'm very aware that there are all of these issues that go along with colonialism and, again, capitalism. But at the same time, we, as a nation, have a population of black people that are very well-to-do. We have a population of black people who are poor. You end up being across the spectrum as a people. So no matter where you look, nobody is going to be surprised to see a black president. It's not going to be, hoorah, there is a black president. It's going to be, there is another black president.

MARTIN: But your parents left, 'cause at the time, clearly, they felt the opportunities weren't there. What's different now?

DRAYTON: My mother decided to leave Trinidad, not for economic reasons, but for personal reasons, and a lot of people misconstrue those. People may seek other lands for opportunities, but people have no idea why. It's not because they come from poorer backgrounds, necessarily.

Quite frankly, most of the time when you see people go to America, those people are not the poorest people of the country that they're leaving. They're some of the more well-to-do people of the country, or else they wouldn't even be able to get a visa to go to America. They wouldn't be going America for an education.

MARTIN: Well, but to that end though, one of the other points that you make in your piece is that - and I think that the data bears this out - I mean, that recent college graduates, like yourself, have been having a very difficult time in this economy, and that there's been a wave of reverse migration...

DRAYTON: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...To places like Brazil, to places like Mexico. I mean, a lot of the professionals I know who are Brazilian have all left, or they're looking for ways to go back and forth. Yeah?

DRAYTON: Yeah. I mean, there's not a lot of incentive anymore because - at least there was a monetary gain at some point, but now you're saying, OK, our economy, we're not even going to give you a job. And you still have to sacrifice your culture, your existence that you're connected to. I mean, there's a lot of things that you're asking people to sacrifice for no return. I have a lot of friends who are returning to Nigeria or returning to Ethiopia. A lot of my friends have stayed in New York as well, and at the end of the day, we're all just trying to survive, so.

MARTIN: So the million-dollar question, is it better? Yeah, is it better?

DRAYTON: Is my life better? Oh, I will admit that I cannot complain about it. And I will - there's another side to the coin. Never have I said that I do not appreciate every single opportunity I've had as a result of being associated with America or spending the majority of my life in America because my mother sought opportunities for us in that country that were not easy to come by, but were still present.

And we took advantage of those opportunities, and we're able to now return to our country as educated people. But I will say that I am thankful for those opportunities and for my life that now allows me to lead a life here, comfortably.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted.

DRAYTON: Definitely, definitely. Matter of fact, I would invite all of you down for Carnival, so you can see what Trinidad is about.

MARTIN: Tiffany Drayton is a New School graduate and a writer. Her piece "Goodbye to My American Dream" ran recently in Salon.com. We caught up with her via Skype in Trinidad, where she lives now. Tiffany Drayton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DRAYTON: Thank you for having me again. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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