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.
- Do you have a Jamaican accent?
- Did you attend school in Jamaica?
- 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?”
“Who makes the best curry chicken?”
“Who makes the best spaghetti?”
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.