Published: June 23rd 2009June 23rd 2009
The last week has been quite intense. They say that when you go to a new place, at first you are on a high - bedazzled and amazed by everything you see. Then the low creeps up - homesickness, culture shock, fatigue.
Well, last week culture shock kicked in hard. Over the last 7 days, I’ve been confronted with issues of class, race and gender and trying to navigate my way though the nuances of cultural norms and expectations within a Caribbean context.
First of all, you all should know Eli and I stand out by a mile in the neighbourhood we live in, not just because we are clearly not from here, but because we live in comparatively nice apartments and we are seen wearing conservative-office clothing coming to and from work. There's a lot of gang activity in our neighbourhood. Every time I tell people at work or otherwise where I live, it’s followed by the usual 15 minute talk about how we should be careful, which streets to avoid and how we have no business going out after dark.
The one thing about this neighbourhood though is that people here seem to have your back.
There is a lot of intermixing here on Shaw Avenue. It’s not the norm to go home and close your door. Folks here are always on the street, washing cars, braiding hair, sitting on porches, playing checkers, just hanging out. And I love it. This sort of uneasy, yet functional, quasi amalgamation of single mothers, guys with gang affiliations, kids of all ages, rastas, religious church-goers, and others who are more difficult to place.
After work, I spend time chatting with my neighbours and playing with the kids. I have an adopted granny across the road, Miss. Niles, who I sit with some nights out on her porch. I have a family of women who warn me whenever there’s trouble in the neighbourhood. The kids holler below my window “Lishai, Lishai!” and the guys who chill on the street always say “good day.” I’m still an outsider, I know, but my neighbours are reaching out and so am I. Just today I was told by one of the girls, Shaunice, “Lishai, you sure like to wonder, FOR A WHITE GIRL!”
A white girl. Since when did I become a "white girl?" I’ve never really identified as such. My ethnicity is mixed. My father’s side is European and my mother’s side is of Indian descent. But when I walk down the street here, I’m perceived as the white girl. It’s just the way people see me here. And it’s less to do with my skin colour than it is to do with class and privilage. When someone finds out I’m a university student from Canada, I’m assumed to be loaded. This perception is validated by my smart clothing and my nice, clean apartment. Back home, with rent and living expenses to pay and student loans piling up, I would never consider myself loaded, but here...well, here it's different. Of course I feel uncomfortable being placed in this category but I can’t blame my neighbours for putting this tag around my neck. We come from different contexts and have different ways of measuring things.
There are many more things I feel I have to talk about; different perceptions of gender relationships, talking politics in a supermarket, making hard choices as an outsider, but at the risk of turning this entry into a novel, I’ll close by noting one more intersection of cultural difference...today I was asked if I was gay because my nose ring is on the right side of my nose instead of the left! My tiny little nose stud is suddenly a point of controversy and confusion. Stay tuned.