House of Exile
My address is Oliver Ave, Oakland CA 94605; I welcome cash, money orders, credit cards and flowers. Do not send ill will or personal problems—we strive to get our troubles locally. Several years ago, for example, an elderly woman in my neighborhood, who might be en route to hell, called the Oakland authorities and claimed I (of all people) was raising chickens in my backyard– something that immigrants and rural folks have been known to do. These days, I get my eggs from the supermarket just like everybody else.
Chickens are not welcome in Oakland. Neither are goats, roosters, ducks and pigs–the very creatures that remind me of home. Chickens played an important role in "Operation Breadbasket" –my ambitious project to become somewhat self-sufficient in food production. Besides chickens, Operation Breadbasket also called for growing organic vegetables and raising New Zealand rabbits for meat.
But "Operation Breadbasket" was about more than just food. Deep down, I think, I was trying to reconnect with my Caribbean roots. Chickens strut in and out of backyards back home, without a care in the world. And one of the things I miss the most about home is the sound of roosters crowing. Shouldn’t all beings awaken to this concert of nature?
My neighbors don’t seem to think so. We live on the same block but in different worlds, and sometimes these worlds collide. And when one isn't clashing on the outside, one clashes on the inside –often it's rooted in nostalgia but sometimes it's prompted by plain old guilt.
"When are you coming back to live?" asked the mother of a close friend the last time I went home to visit. "Are you going to stay away while outsiders come in and take over the island?" She wasn't joking; she was visibly upset and wanted an answer.
This badgering went on for several minutes. I felt like I and other expatriates were being blamed for the islands' woes. I didn't know what to say. "I'll be back," I finally said sheepishly. But honestly –I don't know when. I'm married, and I have a family. When making decisions I have to think about the welfare of five people. Maybe I'll return to live when I retire or when the kids are in college, I sometimes tell myself.
Nostalgia, however, has to be weighed against economic, political, social and cultural realities, and sometimes the realities conspire against you. The Virgin Islands are in dire economic straights, salaries are low and we have mounting social problems just like anywhere else. Yet I still feel the ancestral pull....and the years passing.
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