December dinner parties are a time for meeting recent migrants. On their first “homeland” visits after “settling” in a new first world. This year I began to notice a different type of migrant at these events. They scare me. More I think about who they are and what they left behind, the fear tightens.
They left for a LOWER quality of life. In Sri Lanka they already had things “normal” migrants hope their kids will one day achieve. It is the ultimate contradiction of migration motives. So why did they leave? I feel I should not have tried to answer that question.
Consider what they left behind. Jumping off the upper rungs of corporate and professional ladders to start at the bottom in a new country. Or abandoning local careers cultivated with years of diligent focus. They left behind large houses with servants for cramped apartments. Pulled the kids out of “good” Colombo schools. Swapped chauffeured cars for battered Fords or crowded subways.
The group is diverse – even from the small sampling I met. Yet they have distinct features. Both husband and wife have degrees. They are at the upper level of their technical expertise. A promotion away from crossing into executive management. Staying would have meant more money, a bigger house, flashier cars, and fancier holidays. The standards by which we measure success these days (secretly or not).
Most managed large projects in their fields. One guy’s overseas work allowed him a life right out of posh lifestyle magazines. The wives worked for multi nationals, got paid in hard currency, ran successful businesses. One IT guy told me how the family used to spend frequent weekends at 5 star resorts. Now he’s a humble contractor somewhere cold and grey. Making deliveries between projects to pay the bills.
They knew what they were getting into. It took planning. Scoping visits to see the prospects at the destination. Evaluating the personal and financial costs. One guy had the grim details worked out on a spread sheet. Electricity. Groceries. Fuel. Mortgages. Schools (good private ones). Taxes and possible income. They would, at least at first, make quite a bit less. Live constrained lives. Yet they left.
It was not for a few money making years in Dubai. It meant new passports. The sale of properties (the clearest sign of a major life shift in Sri Lanka). All this inflates the WHY question.
To which their answers are evasive. Something about “educating the kids” and the “long term”. The word “prospects” got used often alongside other vaguenesses. I feel awkward to press people who are only friends of friends. They don’t know me enough to trust me with the truth.
So I had to sniff for clues elsewhere. A closer look at their backgrounds is a good start. There is a narrow spectrum in my “sample”. Parents who were mid level government servants, lawyers, general practitioners. A mother who was a teacher. Not the kind of people with the type of essential contacts you need in a feudal society like ours.
Those who survived local universities did so unstained by the politics and with first class degrees. Others qualified through company training programs and part time professional courses. Their big breaks were getting in the door of large companies. They used their technical expertise with well developed people skills. A combination that powered a rare entrepreneurial drive. Which got things done amidst the usual insanity of Sri Lankan complications.
It added up to success in the snake pit of Sri Lankan corporate life. Despite not going to the right Colombo schools or belonging to a minority. No one cared as long as the balance sheet was good.
What they lacked are political connections. They preferred to live by their abilities and the rewards of their achievements. Far better than anything gained by selling one’s loyalty to a big man for a meagre government job. There is always a point where someone with the right skills had to do the work. No amount of patronage can design large IT systems or manage logistics of complex projects.
Those I met had in some way worked in the upper levels of Sri Lanka’s economic life. Big infrastructure projects. IT systems connected to the nation’s financial nervous system. Projects that in different ways saw the meeting of economics and politics. They got to see the inner plumbing of Sri Lanka’s financial health. Perhaps glimpsed the consequences of ignorant greedy powerful people.
In this way they built their success during the war years. Through yet another bomb blast. Power cuts. The Tsunami. The Checkpoints. Remember those? They operated in an economy where the only reliable factor was the next catastrophe. Amidst all this they stayed in Sri Lanka. While a parade of friends/relatives left in the face of tightening first world migration rules.
Now the war is faded to infrequent anecdotes. We are the “miracle of Asia”. Our rulers are flush with money our grand children won’t need to pay back. Which still doesn’t answer the original question: Why flee at the dawn of a “golden age”?
Did they see something coming that we don’t see? Something they felt even their abilities couldn’t handle? Reasons compelling enough to leave behind a comfortable life in Sri Lanka? Abandon the fruits from years of hard work?
Eventually, one of the migrants muttered to me: “I don’t want my children growing up in a dictatorship”. His “explanation” stunned me. This guy was one of those hard nosed practical analytical types. The kind who avoids politics and the theoretical to focus on facts and practical results. He seemed embarrassed by his admission. But single malts have a way of bring out confessions.
A dictatorship bad enough to drop the hard earned rewards from years of toil? The silence about the specifics made me want to think he was trying to get me off his back. Stop me from probing about his personal choices. If I mentioned this remark to my farther I know what he would say.
Granted my “investigation” of this demographic is not scientific. Mostly eavesdropped conversations. Noted body language. Recollections of interesting phrases that stayed in the brain. Poured through the sieve of idle speculation. Then distilled in my personal cocktail of cynical pessimism.
I did not use carefully worded surveys. There was no data modelling. Statistically, the tiny “sample set” is only adequate for a limp joke. So you can safely dismiss my gloomy speculation as just that.
Migration choices are highly personal. Perhaps this group of people are just ambitious. May be they think they can rise higher elsewhere. They certainly have the skills and the drive to pull it off. Sri Lanka is a small pond once you add certain globally sort after abilities to your CV. I have seen such departures before.
Yet this group reminds me of people on a high wall with a good view of a cricket match. They can see things those on the ground cannot. What they see is making them abandon a life’s work and run.
I REALY want to think I am bleating at shadows. So please convince me that I am. You know where the comment box is.