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Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Why People Tell Me I’m Not Really Jamaican

By
Why People Tell Me I’m Not Really Jamaican/incultureparent © GooDAura - Fotolia.com

The question of my origin is always inevitable. It is one of those ‘getting to know you’ questions, similar to “What do you do for a living?” Or “How old is your child?” However, I can never simply answer the question with a cursory response. I always feel the need to tell my story, in spite of its possible insignificance to the casual onlooker.

“I was born in Jamaica and raised in South Florida,” I always mention.

 

Depending on the person on the opposite end of the conversation, my Jamaican heritage may be embraced like a novelty or dismissed with a statement like, “Oh, you’re an American.”

 

In my experience, the latter always stems from Jamaicans. Jamaicans have their own assessment of a “true” Jamaican based on three major criteria.

 

  1. Do you have a Jamaican accent?
  2. Did you attend school in Jamaica?
  3. Can you speak Jamaican patois?

 

In all of the aforementioned, I fail miserably. I left Jamaica at seven months old, attended an American school system and [gasp] struggle to speak Jamaican patois.

 

During our honeymoon, my husband and I jumped at the chance to spend time in Jamaica. We can both trace our Jamaican ancestry back to at least four generations. As I basked in the sun and gladly enjoyed the familiar Jamaican cuisine, I grew annoyed with native Jamaicans constantly referring to him as one of them and me as his American wife. They would inevitably ask me, “How did I like their country?” I would quickly correct them that I have visited “my” country many times before.

 

Even our daughter aligns American culture with me and Jamaican culture with her father.

 

“Who makes the best pancakes?”

 

“Mommy!”

 

“Who makes the best curry chicken?”

 

“Daddy!”

 

“Who makes the best spaghetti?”

 

“Mommy!”

 

In a way, I feel like I’m both. I can totally laugh at the nuances of Jamaican culture and have a very strong knowledge base for navigating the tight-knit community. However, I’m very American and possess a lot of memories growing up in the 1980s and 1990s with American sitcoms like The Cosby Show. I can name more American artists than I can Jamaican.

 

I do wish Jamaicans could be more like Italians or Latinos, where you are who your parents are. I’ve never heard my Puerto Rican friends’ authenticity questioned even if they weren’t born in Puerto Rico. My Italian friends also embrace their Italian culture even if they have never stepped foot on Italian soil. Furthermore, I find Jamaican families too quick to categorize their children who are born in America as Americans and not Jamaicans, stemming from a sheer sense of pride relating to the opportunities linked to being from the U.S. However, a danger lies in discontinuing the culture of their homeland in an effort to show how American their children can become. I feel it’s much better to recognize both sides of a person, their familial heritage and the country in which they currently reside.

 

While raising our daughter, I’m conscious of introducing her to our family’s Jamaican heritage by first familiarizing her with the food. Food has a way of bridging the gap between distant lands. I often smile to myself as we start our mornings with porridge and find myself beaming when I tell my parents that she loves her porridge in the morning and curry goat for dinner. I often show her Jamaica on the globe, telling her about the many family members that currently live there, and I remind her that her parents also have Jamaican ancestry. However, some sides of the culture she learns on her own. She practices speaking Jamaican patois, which she finds rather humorous, and can quickly distinguish Jamaican music from other genres.

 

Perhaps I will continue to straddle both worlds. I have come to accept that as my fate. So, I have chosen to fill my life with both. In a way don’t we all? Our present state comprises not only where we are from, but also where we currently live. A dash of Jamaican flavor sprinkled in with my Southern upbringing and a bit of influence from living in the Northeast during my adulthood makes a savory dish that is far from humdrum.

© 2012 – 2013, Christine Mills. All rights reserved.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Christine Mills is the co-owner of the multicultural children's book publishing company, Hartlyn Kids, which she started with her friend of over 10 years. They both blog about raising globally aware children at hartylnkids.blogspot.

Leave us a comment!

10 Comments
  1. CommentsAqueelah   |  Sunday, 16 December 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I can very well identify with what you say. I am African American and because I am “light skinned” sometimes my claim is questioned or put to the test. I also have a Cuban great grandma whom I never met and because I am African American many Cubans scoff at my claim. because I don’t speak Spanish or have any “Cubanisms”. Alas we can just revel in our heritages and just be still and be.

  2. CommentsChristine M. of Hartlyn Kids   |  Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I agree. We are who we are even if we don’t come in predetermined packages.

  3. CommentsShelley   |  Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Ethnicity and heritage is a difficult topic for me as a biracial person, but I’m surprised honestly that my experience seems very similar to your own. I am half Filipino and half White, but born and raised in the U.S. I can only say that half my family is Filipino, and that’s the only link to half of my heritage. In the U.S. I’m not considered Filipino by other Filipino-Americans, but I am considered exotic by everyone else. In the Philippines, everything goes out the door, and I am just American–the same as American-raised Filipinos. It’s hard not to have a concretely defined place in what you imagine to be your own community. But then sometimes I think that if we can lead meaningful lives without ownership of the culture we derive from, maybe it’s not what’s even remotely most important in life, even though it still feels like it =)

  4. CommentsCristina   |  Friday, 22 February 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I can relate to your article and feel similar to Aqueelah. I was born and raised in south Florida but have two Hispanic parents. My father was from Cuban and my mother was born in American with Hispanic parents. I’ve struggled with learning to speak Spanish all my life even though it’s been influenced around me. Somehow that has made me less Hispanic to my Spanish friends and community. I’ve come to understand, I have different blood lines and there is nothing wrong with not fitting into the cultural criteria people thing I should be in. I define myself.

  5. CommentsAlexis   |  Wednesday, 11 December 2013 at 8:45 am

    This definitely hit home with me. My grandmother is full blooded Jamaican, and she raised me. I was born in America, I tried to go back to Jamaica and grow up there but my mother refused to sign my passport, so I was forced to stay here. I have always loved and embraced my Jamaican heritage. My husband is not Jamaican he is Grenadian. He often reminds me that I was not born on the Island, in which I argue does being born on the island make you Jamaican? I cook Jamaican foods, I listen to Jamaican music, I’ve been going down there since I was a newborn baby, I communicate with my Jamaican family, I plan to be there when my husband and I grow old, but still I am considered American? I consider myself Jamaican-American. I grew up in a Jamaican household, I was raised by a Jamaican, I don’t speak patois because my grandmother was too busy trying to work her butt off to provide for us. But I understand patois. I feel that denying a person their heritage is wrong. Regardless of what they tell me I know that I am Jamaican-American.

  6. CommentsAnne   |  Monday, 27 October 2014 at 3:51 pm

    This is so true. ” Italians or Latinos, where you are who your parents are. I’ve never heard my Puerto Rican friends’ authenticity questioned even if they weren’t born in Puerto Rico. My Italian friends also embrace their Italian culture even if they have never stepped foot on Italian soil. ” No one questions their ethnicity based on where they grew up. Definitely an example of racial bias, different litmus test always applied to people of colour. Anyone comes to me with this argument and I shut them down really fast.

  7. CommentsAlex   |  Monday, 27 April 2015 at 7:28 am

    I can also fully relate to what you say, but don’t agree to what you say about Latinos. I’m half Peruvian, half German and grew up mainly in Germany. Although my mother (the Peruvian part) raised me with a Peruvian identity, Peruvians won’t accept me as a Peruvian for the following reasons: a) I wasn’t born in Peru, b) I don’t speak Spanish with a Peruvian accent (I speak fluent Spanish with a more unspecific south american accent though), c) I don’t look “Peruvian” (indigenous, although there are lots of Peruvians that don’t look indigenous – but in my case this somehow sticks out). Also I face people in Peru asking me how I, the “Gringo”, liked “their” country. And this is with them all being Latinos.

  8. CommentsC.Lovely   |  Monday, 25 May 2015 at 8:17 pm

    I can relate completely! It’s very upsetting when you are proud to represent your culture and want to embrace it but you aren’t accepted(“don’t pass the test”). and i love the way that alexis worded her comment too “denying a person their heritage is wrong.”

  9. CommentsJordi Rollins   |  Saturday, 20 June 2015 at 1:28 am

    This seems to be a recurring debate in North Americans. The passionate, fervent desire to claim lineage elsewhere, when the entire demeanour, outlook, and approach to life distinctly screams America.
    I was raised in Jamaica until University, so I think I’m in a position to shed some light.

    Most Jamaicans find the claim baffling; Being Jamaican for us is a full cultural immersipn. How much culture cam ontain in the fist seven months of life?can We don’t quite understand why you aren’t (just) American. I’ve been here for years, and while rationally, I understand the history behind the mindset, seemingly present in all groups across America, nonetheless, on another level it remains irrational. Like claiming both your parents and grandparents gave birth to you. Perhaps it all boils down to: The Anomie so prevailing in America life. The fervent desire to connect and maintain links with the past, on a level which does not does not exist in Jamaican consciousness, while in the US it is actively encouraged and kept alive. Sure we know and and want to know, but here the intensity for retro-association here is different, divisive, more salad than gumbo. We are firmly rooted in being Jamaican. There are no Chinese-Jamaicans, Indian-Jamaicans etal; It is such little intimate knowings which define nationality for Jamaicans. I suspect the moment you said you were raised here, but born in Jamaica, brought that difference to the fore. Again, it is the small things. By and large,
    Immigrants in general tend to be largely from the same swathe of society, translocated, and adapted to a new society and culture, a hybrid from the moment feet touch new land. You left at 7 months, to exist in a private hybrid.a
    md public Americam society , how much Jamaican can you be?
    theot all Jamaicans speak patois, though we all understand it fluently.

    Most Caribbeans I’ve spoken with privately agree. Unlike Jamaicans, they will probably be less forthcoming in saying. Look carefully for the gentle smile next time around, when telling a ‘born and grown’ Islander, any Islander; that gentle smile you will see, translates to – not quite. You see, most of us do not subscribe to that view point, but we’re in America now, and when in Raome . .
    Or as we say in Jamaica, smile and nod; we are happy for the connection, and it’s not that serious. To be considered for citizenship in the US you have to have lived in the States for at least 5 years(standard green card)
    Not to be callous, but the reality is, it is social citizenship that defines nationality, social acculteration, being exposed over years, especially immersion during the defining teenage years.
    I’ve never met a person raised in the Caribbean past the age of 17 who considers someone raised abroad, an Islander(used generically) In fact I’ve never met a European who considered anyone born in America with European heritage anything but American. They recognise the heritage, yes, but they see American. an x-American, and not Italian, German or FrenchBelieve me, once you leave US shores, you are an American. That is all people care about.
    It’s not that we don’t embrace you, and it certainly is not a case of denying someone their heritage. More so, our definition of what it means to be Jamaican is having spent one’s formative years in the country. Education is held in such Everest-ian regard in Jamaica, that the question will always come up, if you’re seen as Jamaican . If you’re not asked, well then. A foreignn born person who has lived in Jamaics to age 18 would be considered more Jamaican than you. NOT better, just more relatable as Jamaican, after all, true ethos can only by continued social immersion.
    Social citizenship is what counts. It is why a non-discript foreigner who looks the same as everyone else in Jamaica, is easily, identified as a foreigner by as non-Jamaican by other Jamaicans. Irish are known to be able to identify their non-Catholic Irish brothers, dressed in similar attire, with no identifying markers, on sight.
    During my first couple of years in the States, I could spot a non-American in a crowd, regardless of hue. Carriage, the Approach, is just different.
    So you see, Nationality, at least for a Jamaicans goes far beyond blood-line.

  10. CommentsSamantha   |  Sunday, 29 November 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Interesting post. I am a Canadian born of Cuban and Jamaican parents and I have never had this problem. In Canada, specifically Toronto, we hold on to our roots so much that it is odd to hear anyone claim their nationality as ‘Canadian’ if they cannot trace their family back to Indigenous groups.

    On the other hand, I find my American family dealing with very different ideas of identity. Many of them know nothing of their Caribbean/Latino heritage and even I and our other family members who live outside of the states do not consider them Jamaican or Cuban. I think it is because America has such a strong patriotic, pro-American, melting pot culture as opposed to Canada or England (other places with large Jamaican diasporas).









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