Caribbean Is Calling
How My Caribbean Roots Gave Me a 'Confidence Visa' That Never Expires
By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
I saw a T-shirt in an airport duty-free shop once. On the front, it said: "It's a Jamaican thing — you wouldn't understand." But I understood immediately.
Because to be Jamaican is to possess an innate confidence and pride that has nothing to do with your station in life. I can't explain it, but it seems that every Jamaican is hardwired with an irrepressible lust for life and unwavering confidence, whether they're living high on the hog or barely making ends meet. There's a healthy (and some would argue unwarranted) sense of entitlement islanders have, which, combined with creativity, undeniable charisma, and the uncanny ability to make something out of nothing, distinguishes them wherever they go. If you've ever met a Jamaican, you know this to be true. We never blend into the background.
Like so many Caribbean people, I'm a mixture of cultures and nationalities. My father is from Jamaica, my mother is from Barbados, and they met in England, where I was born. I have three citizenships: American, British, and Bajan. But since I lived in Jamaica for more than 20 years before moving to Miami, I consider myself "Jenglish," identifying more as English than American, and much more Jamaican than Bajan.
I love Jamaica, perhaps even more so now that I've lived 500 miles north of it for the last 18 years. Whenever I fly into Montego Bay, I feel a thrill as the emerald carpet of Jamaica's hilly interior, known as Cockpit Country, fills the window. The plane banks, revealing a scalloped coast fringed with talcum beaches, thick bushes, and gray ribbons of highway that have replaced the winding two-lane country roads I used to drive when I lived in Mo'Bay. As we begin our final approach and my memories of Jamaica and Jamaicans come flooding back, I wonder what first-timers envision the country to be like. And I know that whatever their expectations, their experience will be so much more.
That's because, even among its 30-something other Caribbean siblings, there's nowhere on earth quite like Jamaica. This tiny island of just over 4,000 square miles and 2.5 million people has had an outsize impact on the world, it's nothing short of astonishing. I challenge you to find a place where the face of Bob Marley or the strains of "One Love" aren't instantly recognized. Beyond rum, reggae, and Blue Mountain coffee, we've given the world our Olympic bobsled team, jerk chicken, and the planet's greatest sprinter, Usain Bolt.
Even though I wasn't born there, I know that much of the confidence I possess as an adult comes from growing up in Jamaica, around people who are always proud, often loud, and never ashamed to make their presence felt. It's a rock-solid sense of self that, like my passport, I take with me wherever I go — a sort of "confidence visa" that never expires. But as much as I credit my confidence to Jamaica, I know people from other Caribbean countries who feel that their nationality gives them a sense of being special, too.
Kym Allison Backer, an Atlanta-based magazine editor, moved to the United States from Georgetown, Guyana, when she was 14 years old. And more than 30 years in America have done nothing to dilute her pride in the country where she was born.
"I carry my culture with me wherever I go," she says. "My primary identity is Guyanese, partly because I've kept so tightly connected to my homeland and also because I've always had such a strong family unit that celebrates our origins. Growing up in the Caribbean, I was surrounded by excellence and governments with women in significant positions of power, from Dominica to Guyana. For the most part, these women and community leaders looked like me. That is a tremendous boost to the spirit. And that foundation, that norm, has definitely bolstered and emboldened me as I move through the world."
Despite being born in the United States, Melissa Noel feels the same way. Her Guyanese parents migrated to New Jersey before she was born, and Noel grew up between both countries, now holding dual citizenship. "Being Caribbean is the essence of who I am, and [growing up in the U.S.], I feel like I got the best of both worlds," she says. "Caribbean culture, food, and discipline has made me the person that I am today, and I wear my heritage like a badge of honor. Last year, for the first time, I could write in 'Guyana' as my country of origin on the census form — it was huge. We know we Caribbean people are a force, but no one can deny it when you see our numbers in black and white."
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Backer, Noel, and I share similar childhood experiences, being teased for our "otherness" in spaces outside the region. At grade school in England, my "friend" would pull my kinky hair so it stood up and away from my face, and call me a "little Black sunflower." Backer recalls being asked by her new American classmates if people in Guyana had houses and wore clothes. "Growing up in New Jersey," Noel says, "I was the child with the accent and 'strange' food."
Perhaps it's this shared early imperative of standing up for ourselves and our home countries, combined with the love and pride for our Caribbean families, that made us who we are. "Now that I'm older, being able to embrace my Caribbean heritage as well as the fact that I'm an American has made me feel self-assured and willing to share the region with people," Noel says.
As someone who proudly makes a living writing about the Caribbean, I can relate. Being Caribbean in America means that you have hundreds of thousands of people who'll have your back, who'll champion and "claim" you, even if you're not from their country. It means that whenever I walk into a room, I walk with the proud spirit of Jamaica behind me.
So, if I carry myself taller than a 4'10" person should, or if I seem more at ease than the situation would merit, know that it's not just me; it's a Caribbean thing. And hopefully now you understand.
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