Coming to America: A West Indian’s Guide

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I moved from Trinidad and Tobago to New York City in the summer of 2013. When I settled into my new environment, I quickly learned it was nothing like I had imagined. Thankfully, I overcame the worst of the culture shock and found my footing.


Here are a few tips I can share from my experiences. Hopefully they will help ease your transition.

1. Brace yourself, because everything will not go as planned.

My New York City spot was a mess when I moved in, and I was much farther away from the trains than I had been led to believe. Also, I knew nothing about the city’s rodent problems or that living in an apartment meant I would hear the sounds my neighbors made.

The point here is to set aside Sex and the City dreams. What you saw on television or witnessed during short visits to America probably will not be the reality of the situation. So hope for the best and prepare yourself for the worst. Also, invest in some earplugs.

2. Learn how to get around.

Unless you plan to stay in your apartment all day, you will need to learn how to navigate your new environment. That means figuring out the bus schedule, the train system, taxi routes, bike paths or roadways.

If you are too shy to ask questions, get a map of the bus routes or train lines. Even better, download several nifty apps for your phone, such as Embark NYC (for New York residents), Transit and HopStop to help you properly plan your trips.

Also, do not forget to locate the essentials—Laundromats, gyms, hospitals, ATMs, police stations, grocery stores—and, if you have not fully gotten accustomed to paying bills online, a check-cashing outlet. Of course, a good barber or hairdresser is also important.


3. Understand that culture shock is normal.

Trinidad is a warm island with only two seasons: rainy and dry. There is no winter, spring, summer or fall, and our coldest nights match the average summer highs on the American East Coast.


Even colder than the air are the people. Neighbors do not greet me with the latest gossip from around the block. Add that to the fact that everybody seems completely wrapped up in racial tensions that simply do not exist in my country, and I feel left out.

That is culture shock I endure, and it has been the root of several dark days for me. What helps is knowing I am not alone in that struggle and that those feelings are quite common.


The trick is to express your emotions. If you do not understand something, ask a question. If someone offends you or your culture, let that person know. Most important, talk to other immigrants about their own experiences because they may have valuable wisdom to offer.

4. Seek the familiar.

The most valuable store in my neighborhood is the West Indian market, which is managed by Korean people, but that is beside the point. That is where I buy ground provisions, pimento peppers, Crix crackers, salt fish, smoked herring and mauby.


It is important to find cultural enclaves within which you can feel close to home and free to express yourself—whether those spots are bars that serve your favorite brand of Jamaican rum or a roti shop run by Trinidadians.

Just hearing accents similar to your own and being around people who understand you will help improve your mood. There is nothing more enjoyable than speaking Creole without needing to repeat or explain every word.


5. Be open to new experiences.

As much as we all feel comfortable being surrounded by people who look and/or sound like us, remember why you moved to America. For me, it was to see a different part of the world and enjoy experiences that simply are not available back in Trinidad.


This country is much bigger than all of ours combined, so take the time to explore it while you have the chance. Go sightseeing, ride the trains or buses to random locations on the map, try new foods and have fun.

Most important, make new connections. Other than the occasional racist or mentally ill person, there is no harm in making friends and going on a few dates. Forge lasting connections with individuals who can help expand your horizons.


6. Avoid overspending.

Do not let price tags fool you. America is expensive. It is easy to forget the exchange rates between our home countries and the States, but the good folks at the bank surely will not.


Even if you have a good-paying job, keep an eye on your savings because they will get depleted quickly if you stray far beyond your budget. Set clear spending goals and stay within your limits.

7. Cook your own food.

The best way to save money and create a safe space is to cook your own food. I cook large spreads at least twice a week, and everything on the menu is a reflection of my Trinidadian heritage. That makes me feel at home, and I get to save a lot of money in the process.


Additionally, home-cooked food is often healthier than what you will find at fast-food restaurants. Remember, those 15 minutes waiting on Popeyes chicken will need to be followed by an extra hour of cardio it you want to fit into that carnival costume next year.

8. Keep in touch with home.

The Caribbean is slowly catching up with American technology, and it has never been as easy as it is today to stay connected to our home countries. Social media, online streaming and a range of apps have literally made keeping in touch as simple as a quick click.


I use Viber and Whatsapp to contact my family back in Trinidad. To follow the news, I monitor broadcast media on Twitter and Facebook and read newspapers online. That way I am never disconnected from my people.

It is so important to keep your people close, because you never know when you will return home, and you need to be up-to-date on all the latest news and, of course, gossip.


9. Hold on to your culture.

Trying to fit in and adapt to your new environment will require some compromises. You may not be able to cook smoked herring as often as you would like because the smell bothers your roommates or neighbors. Your new friends might reject your parang music playlist at Christmastime and force you to endure only American holiday “classics.”


Do not give in to peer pressure and cultural erasure. Find ways to keep your culture alive within you and in your personal spaces.

Moreover, never lose your accent. I am constantly been teased by Americans for my strong Trinidadian accent, but I refuse to replace it with a foreign twang. Our accents make us stand out, and remind people that we come from a region of rich culture.


10. Beware of reverse culture shock.

So you have settled into America and gotten into a rhythm that works for you, but you want to return home. However, from the moment you arrive in your country’s airport, it feels as though you have been sent back in time.


Reverse culture shock is a real phenomenon that can happen after you have been away from your native environment for an extended period of time. It actually affected me in 2014 when I visited Trinidad and everything looked strangely smaller, and the people were oddly relaxed compared with the bustling crowds of New York City.

That feeling is normal. You just need time to readjust because the problem is not that your country has changed; you have. This does not mean that you should abandon everything you learned during your time in America. Instead, see how you can apply your broadened perspectives to your native land without being a snob about it, of course.


Trent Jones is an editorial fellow at The Root. He also produces a daily video commentary called #Trents2Cents. Follow him on Twitter.