December 8, 2006 lia

Easy isn’t a place on this Earth

A “better life” is not necessarily geographic or across the Atlantic Ocean.

I come from North America, a continent whose current shape was built on immigration. When my family arrived in America from a refugee camp in Eastern Europe, the “American Dream” of coming to a young country, working hard, and making a good life for one’s self was still viable within a generation.

The world is a very different place now. The middle class has been filled and the only vacancies left are at the foot of the social ladder. People who were doctors and university professors in their home countries come to North America and are the lucky ones if they find work as taxi drivers or janitors. For people who come from situations where their basic security as human beings was being comprised – coming from war-torn countries, desperate poverty, political prisoners – immigration may be a necessary transition for them. But for people who live a secure, safe, and relatively comfortable life in their home countries, who hope to immigrate for an imagined “better” life abroad, I hope to un-veil some of the realities you should expect if you were to go to the North American countries of the United States of America or Canada.

Every country seems to suffer from youth unemployment these days, and North Americans seem to be dealing with this problem by spending their 20s in universities rather than learning a trade and being almost immediately employable. People who are competing for white collar jobs are extremely educated in North America, and you will find that many North Americans who sell shoes and serve food have Bachelor degrees and even Master’s degrees sometimes. Arriving immigrants have to compete for good jobs with people who: (1) are experts at local social and cultural norms; (2) have an average of 2 years more education than their job requires; (3) speak the local language with perfect clarity; and (4) have more connections to the higher rungs of the social ladder. Many immigrants feel they need to lower their salary demands just to compete in the North American job market, adding to the existing financial obstacles that they had not anticipated, but that come with life in highly developed countries.

The cost of living

Highly developed countries are nice places to live because people spend most of their money on them. In Ghana, most people’s income goes towards food. In North America, someone who earns a decent wage of $40 000 per year will pay roughly half of that to taxes. Rent in major cities usually costs another half of your monthly income. In the winter, your heating bill can cost as much as half of your rent. That leaves about $80/week for food, entertainment, clothes, and lifestyle. That’s $11/day. A coffee costs $2, a very cheap lunch is $5, and a Guinness is about $8, not including taxes and tipping your waiter. When you add all the costs of living, at the end of the month you won’t have enough money to access the lifestyle you came to North America for. The lifestyle you seek will still be some distance away.

It’s not an easy life. I have a friend who is a European-Canadian with an English name who has a Master’s degree in the fastest growing field in the UK. He went to London equipped with all of these assets and, after struggling for 8 months, has decided to go back to Canada so that he can enjoy a proper meal and have enough money to have some sort of lifestyle.

The social ladder

A person’s lifestyle largely depends on the context they live in. In peaceful countries like Ghana, where the most basic human needs are generally provided for, the bulk of society has a relatively comfortable lifestyle. The lifestyles of my work colleagues here in Ghana are roughly comparable to the lifestyles of my work colleagues in North America. They live in houses, some of them have cars, they can feed their families and take care of some desperate relatives, but can’t afford too much travel. How we judge ourselves is always relative to where we place this bar of what we consider to be “normal”.

My mother once said that when she was growing up in America in the 1950s, they had nothing compared to what children in America have today. But since everyone was under these same circumstances, they didn’t feel like they had anything less than what was needed, and everyone was happy. A child today with the same standard of living as my mother in the 1950s would be considered deprived and would feel ashamed of their few possessions, being aware of the many possessions their classmates have. The norm of what we “need” is now higher, but we certainly don’t consider ourselves as being any happier. After providing for basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, and security, possessing a higher standard of living has no ceiling – both the developed and the developing world keeps “needing” more things, and I hate to think how much plastic will be wasted just so that children in 20 years can keep pace with their friends.

When immigrants come from a comfortable lifestyle in their home country to a new life in North America, they loose their standing as being in the same financial condition as everyone else. Immigrants often work more hours, do much more labour-intensive work than they are accustomed to, and at the end of the day all their struggles still result in a lower than “normal” standing on the social ladder. Immigrants may need to struggle like this for an entire generation before attaining “normal” standing in their new country. The only respite from this cycle is when they can send their surplus $50 per month (about 500 000 cedis) back home so that somewhere, someone can benefit from their labours. Many Ghanaians who live abroad don’t come back because they can’t afford the plane ticket.

People work hard all over the world. Immigrants who have been very successful in their new countries worked very hard to get there – they were innovative, smart, entrepreneurial types who probably struggled for years before reaching any success. Easy is not a place on this Earth. You can’t get a visa there and making friends with foreigners won’t buy it for you either. Foreigners may seem rich to you while in Ghana, but most of us have a comparable life in our home countries to yours here in Ghana. It’s only when we take our currency across the border into countries with weaker currencies that we can feel big about ourselves.

That’s something that’s very un-fair. Currencies and passports from the “developed” world can get you into most countries in the world while currencies and passports from the “developing” world cannot. When one country’s economy is stronger than another, the stronger economy country does not want everyone to flood into the country and burst their economy, so they limit the access of people from poorer economies to come to their country. People from the world’s strongest economies pose little threat because they are un-likely to want to work in a country with a weaker economy than their home country. We are welcomed with open arms into most countries because we come to spend our money, not to earn money that would otherwise be earned by a local national. But currencies fluctuate, economies grow, and new resources can suddenly become extremely valuable on world markets, changing people’s access to the rest of the world.

You may still want to experience all of this yourself, and maybe your immigrant experience would be different than what I have just described, but I think it’s important to leave with appropriate expectations. Ghana is a peaceful, friendly country, where people enjoy more personal security than many places in the developed world — for many people, it’s already an easier and better life than the one they would lead somewhere else away from their family and support network.