Traditions are important. Sometimes we just don’t know why. Having grown up in a Jamaican/American household it’s easy to see the many cultural and familial differences between both. And because of this, it can also be confusing navigating the waters of blended heritages. Just because it’s right for one culture, it doesn’t make it kosher for the other.
Arguably it’s easiest for the young. As a child we look at the challenges of life as an adventure. Things that, in our adulthood, we may find inconvenient can be made into games or easily explained. Why is there no snow at Christmas? Why don’t we celebrate Thanksgiving? Why do we eat curried goat at Easter dinner? Family traditions are created and recreated all the time. Whether we realize them or not, they’re all heavily influenced by our heritage. Jamaica is never cold. Thus, when holiday specials are shown on television with Rudolph and the North Pole there is no real frame of reference. However, just because there is no snow in Jamaica, it doesn’t change the fact that the Christmas spirit is still felt. It is different, though. It has to be. And while Easter is not the same without an Easter bun in Jamaica, it’s not the same without Easter eggs in the United States.
So much is the same while still being quite different. The majority of my known family is from Jamaica. And like so many before them, many have become US citizens. The term cultural melting pot is so true of the US. Without question, each country leaves an indelible imprint on the people we ultimately become. Being raised as a “Jamerican” means that you often fall into the stereotype of having strict Caribbean parents who have high expectations for their children. I’ve found that this stereotype holds true. Not only was I raised eating vastly different things from my American counterparts, academic excellence was also required.
How often does one think of the cultural difference between two lands? Sometimes they feel almost segmented and can even be embarrassing. As a child growing up in Jamaica I was sent to live with my grandparents. In the islands this is not at all uncommon nor is being sent away to a boarding school or to live with another relative. The vast majority of schools, whether public or private, required uniforms. Calculators were not used and we were required to invest ourselves fully to our school work. I found that my experiences in the US were quite different. The work was far less challenging and there appeared to be more focus on being a more well-rounded individual. There was more of a focus on extra curricular activities in conjunction with academics.
The family unit, in whatever form that may take, is a big part of Jamaican culture. While it wasn’t uncommon for there to be situations where children came from a single-parent home, the family unit, the nucleus often includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others. Often times it did take a village to raise a child. And as with other cultures, living in a home with a list of family members can also be expected. Unlike the accepted norm in the US where parents and grandparents are sent to live in an assisted living home, in Jamaica (and Jamerican homes) you’ll likely find them living with their adult children or vice versa.
Family dinners can mean upwards of 20 people in Jamaica and as many have come to expect, the general state of being is very laid back. However, it can be a very big culture shock when navigating the waters of Jamaican life. In the US we’ve all grown very accustomed to having anything we want practically any time we want it. Not so in Jamaica. The conveniences of Amazon’s next day delivery or Sunday shopping doesn’t translate there. And as the stereotype states, island time generally means that events start well past their official start time. While this can be frustrating, it’s just the way it is.
Speech is another big thing. In my youth I had a very thick Jamaican accent. While it can be beautiful to those visiting the island, it can be very difficult to understand when living in the United States. I suppose you can say that there’s a bit that’s lost in translation. Because of this my parents felt that it was best for me to trade my Jamaican Patois for a more nondescript accent. And although some may say that I was in some ways stripped of a part of my heritage, I can now adapt my speech to reflect where I am. When I’m in Jamaica there are still flavors of the dialect in my speech while in the US I am always conscious of my diction and delivery.
I’ve found over the years that the influences of the small island nation can still have great impact on an American girl. I was born in the US and my childhood was spent in Jamaica. As a result of that cultural mixing I can appreciate the holidays with my many relations. I have grown to love the jerk pork, roasted corn and other Jamaican delicacies during our very American holidays. With Caribbean Christmas songs intermixed with traditional American ones and our dominoes games mixed with Scattergories, It truly is a marvel to hear the melodic conversations of my parents’ generation as well as that of my grandparents’.
Sometimes we take for granted the things that make the land of the free so great. We forget that like Jamaica’s motto, the US is also a land “out of many, one people.” We have so many races, creeds, cultures all rolled into one. What I may consider a traditional meal is different from that of the next person and the next. Better yet, each of our lives are a study in differences and similarities. As Americans we sometimes forget that there is a great big world out there and that our society is often the bridge to its many wonders. It’s everything to me that I’m an American but I also know that my American experience is a result of a tale of two lands.
This article appeared on page 5A in the 12/10/14 issue of The Union-Recorder.