We Live In A “Melting Pot”, But What Are We Cooking?

Melting Pot by Liezl le Roux, South Africa, 2015

Having grown up in Trinidad and Tobago my entire life, I’ve often heard people saying that we live in a “melting pot” — “we” being Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean islands. A melting pot of: people, cultures and religions. Each one uniquely contributing towards the rich diversity of the region. And I won’t lie, this made me feel good. Knowing that I was a part of this “melting pot” with everyone else, especially those who I didn’t know that lived on the opposite side of the country, or those who lived on another island hundred of miles away, made me feel proud. It was like flicking on a light switch of national and regional pride.

However, as the years passed by and I got older, that pride dwindled away bit by bit. The light bulb that used to light up whenever I heard someone speak about the “melting pot” had eventually stopped lighting and I never bothered to fix it. I never got a good enough reason why I should and if I’m being honest, I still don’t have one. Instead, I have a few reasons why we should rethink the idea of a “melting pot” altogether and ask ourselves the question, “if we are a ‘melting pot’, what exactly are we cooking?”

The first thing we must realize, is that if we are to be considered a “melting pot”, then there must be ingredients used for cooking and they must have been acquired from somewhere.

You can’t cook what you don’t have. So the logical thing to do is to ask where did the ingredients come from? Because it has already long been established by our elders that we are the ingredients. So where did we come from? You see, in South Trinidad where I grew up, there are people who we like to refer to as “characters”. Individuals who stand out from everyone else, albeit not for good reasons. Some of them relish in stealing other people’s produce to either use for themselves and their own families and friends, or to sell it to others in the neighborhood under the guise that they grew it in their own backyards. Whichever way, the fact is that the produce is obtained through illicit means and used for personal gain at the expense of the original owners. Does this sound familiar? Well it should, because that’s how most of us got here — through illicit means and at the cost of not just stripping away what belonged to someplace else, but at the cost of the quality of the ingredients themselves. We are the ingredients that were looted from someone else’s backyards — if not literally, then at least symbolically.

The second thing that needs to be considered if we want to hold fast to the notion of the “melting pot”, is the process that all ingredients must undergo in being prepared for the final dish, regardless of what that dish is.

To do this, there are several routes that I can take, two of which are: the one that got us here — which is British colonialism — or a fairly modern one, that is, one we’ve adapted for ourselves — the education system of Trinidad and Tobago. In the interest of appeasing some critics who might argue that colonialism and its effects are things of the distant past, I’ll go with the latter. It’s something we all pass through at some point. An education system that is for the most part, free, even up to the tertiary level, yet it still exacts a hefty price from every one of its students — the freedom to think and act for ourselves. I’m including myself in that category, having just finished my Bachelor’s degree at The University of Trinidad and Tobago.

Everything we are taught are actually patterns of thought and behavior. We aren’t taught to do anything for ourselves. We are taught that we must speak “properly” in Trinidadian Standard English, despite already having a fully formed language known as Trinidadian English Creole at our disposal. We are taught how to think and how to respond to questions in the classroom and in an exam room, but if we don’t respond with exactly “what is expected” when the time comes, then we are most likely not smart and we risk being left behind by the system that’s supposedly there to assist us. We are also openly shown that the sciences are the best subjects to pursue and everything else such as the humanities, or performing arts are secondary — unless there’s a local school festival, or a local school competition. Then we could risk going back to our roots to help our schools “look good”. If you disagree with me, tell me how many schools in Trinidad and Tobago have non-science classes as the first class in Forms Four to Six.

Side note — doesn’t this seem like colonialism all over again? Being put into a system where you have no control; a system that tells you your way isn’t good enough, so here’s a “better way” to do it? This begs the question, is colonialism really a thing of “the distant past” as I mentioned earlier? Or has the old god just reincarnated into a different body?

Nevertheless, it’s time for the third and final stage. It’s time to cook. All the ingredients have been gathered and thoroughly prepared, so it’s time to get the “melting pot” started. But wait. What are we cooking again? I honestly don’t know. Let’s see what we’ve got. We have: some ingredients from Africa, some ingredients from India and they’ve been processed by the education system, but I don’t seem to get what we’re cooking. No matter how much I look at it from a national, or regional viewpoint, I can’t understand the final dish that the “melting pot” is cooking. And to be frank, it doesn’t surprise me.

We’ve been more infatuated for so long with the idea of the “melting pot”, than the fact that the “melting pot” actually has a purpose — to cook somthing of value.

Let me explain. In one of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night, there is a character whose name is Duke Orsino. Throughout the play, he tries to win the love of another character, Lady Olivia, but miserably fails. In an analysis of the play, one of the arguments that is commonly borught forward regarding this is that Orsino was more in love with the idea of love itself, rather than Lady Olivia. If we look around in the: streets, places of work, educational institutions and even religious places of worship, this very infatuation isn’t hard to see. Poeple are confused. A lot of them are tired and they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know the purpose of the “melting pot” and the part they play. But they do know that they live in a “melting pot”, right?

Hopefully one day we’ll know the what we’re cooking in this “melting pot”. Until then, I suggest we start rethinking it.

I possess a degree in Linguistics and Literature and I write about all things life.

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