For many years, foreigners like Chinese and Brazilians have been coming to Guyana to set up businesses and to make lives for themselves. Many Guyanese have silently observed them; some welcome them, while with others, the xenophobia is constant. Some have expressed concerns because they believe the migrants contribute nothing to our culture, do not support us as a people and send their profits back to their homelands.
Naturally, migrants come with their languages and customs. On occasions, we are honoured to experience snippets of their culture, whether it be through their cuisine, music, visual arts or theatre.
Recently, I was in the presence of three Brazilians who operate a business here. While they conversed in their native language, I was reminded about what a disadvantage being monolingual can be. I thought about the pros and cons of having foreigners here; what they can bring to improve Guyanese life as well as if we would be better or worse off if they were all to leave.
In a recent conversation, an acquaintance argued that the Chinese are helping many Guyanese because their merchandise is affordable, particularly their clothing. While I do not shop at Chinese stores because I have found that their products are often of a substandard quality, the acquaintance mentioned that from their observations, the quality has been improving.
The Chinese also own numerous restaurants and many Guyanese love to indulge in their cuisine. One is certain to find Chinese restaurants in most communities in this country. I recall my first trip to Black Bush Polder years ago; driving down the long dirt road to get to the community, a few of us joked about the fact that although Black Bush Polder was so remote, we were quite certain there would be a Chinese restaurant there. We had a good laugh when we were proven right. I have often wondered how they manage to find some remote locations.
While in some instances many restaurants may have been deemed unsanitary because people would have had experiences like finding objects and parts of creatures like cockroaches in their food, Chinese restaurants generally thrive here. A good example of Guyanese love for Chinese food is the practice of taking the food overseas. When many Guyanese are visiting, migrating or returning to the North America and Europe, relatives would request boxes of Chinese food. Naturally, the food would be frozen. I am quite sure that many non-nationals would find this practice peculiar. Even I find it peculiar. But it is true that the Chinese food in Guyana is somehow more appealing than that of many other places from my experience and one cannot fault Guyanese abroad for craving it.
As for the Brazilians, some of them also own restaurants though not as many as the Chinese. Some are also into mining. The beauty industry is also a profitable market for them and you would of course be aware of the involvement of some in the adult entertainment industry here.
I am not opposed to foreigners coming to make life here as long as they are not harming the society, but many Guyanese believe that they should not be so easily welcomed. But how can we complain when we are an example of a country with a large number of its citizens now residing overseas? Most of us have relatives and friends who live overseas. Many migrated in search of a better life. People are still migrating daily.
With the development of the oil industry, migrants will flood our country. Most Guyanese are not yet qualified for many jobs that will be available in the oil industry and others will come simply in search of a better life. Many believe that within the next decade Guyana will be one of the leading countries in the Caribbean.
So, will xenophobia increase or decrease? And who are xenophobes more likely to show contempt for? Presently, it is easy to use the Chinese immigrants as an example because yes, it is true that they largely do not participate in local culture. There are also instances when some have treated locals with contempt.
I must note, however, that often when foreigners like Americans or Europeans—many who might not have much respect for us or even like us—arrive, some of our people are eager to please them like well-trained puppets of the former colonizers.
With 83,000 square miles and a population of less than a million, certainly there is room for a population increase here. But will it benefit or place us at a disadvantage? Do we try to fix our issues with governance and basic necessities like the power supply before we open ourselves to welcoming more foreigners? Well, it may take a new generation to fix our governance issues and without foreigners there would be no oil industry, for example. I know there are those who would not mind if the oil industry did not become a reality amidst concerns about the agreements government would have made that seem not to be in the best interest of the Guyanese people, the sordid history of companies such as Exxon Mobil, and how the oil industry can possibly harm the environment.
However, if we begin to purposefully engage foreigners who come here, by seeking to learn from them and vice versa, many positives can emerge. Many Guyanese are not bilingual and therefore we can benefit by learning the languages of foreigners. I am a firm believer in multi-cultural societies because as people we can learn much from each other and are more in harmony with each other when we open our minds and embrace the differences. We will always be stronger as a collective than if we stand alone.
We must condition our minds for what has already started happening. Some believe that Guyanese are not adaptable. But Guyanese have migrated to other countries and have excelled because they had to adapt. If we are concerned about the influx of foreigners, then we should be equally concerned with our citizens constantly migrating. But for those of us who are open to welcoming the world here, we must be sure to stand our ground. We cannot let migrants control us. We cannot let them take the bulk of our resources while our people suffer. We cannot sit by and watch others rape our country and do or say nothing. We have a voice as Guyanese. While we can go to other countries and adapt and excel, we are often not in leadership or taking their best resources. We should be first to benefit here, and we deserve the best of what this land has to offer.