Yes, mi bredrin

So, listen! What is going on in Jamaica? Why are the people so discriminating?

I don’t wear dreadlocks and I’m not a Rasta; my shaved head signals that I’m a ‘bald head’. Beat me up for that? No. I walk into stores and staff do not huddle in corners and whisper or point at me.

I have dark skin but I don’t bleach my face. I could land a job in any bank or prestigious office. When the men who want to wash my car windscreen get close they don’t take a leap back and say “What the….? ‘Im so hugly!”

I don’t wear coloured nails or high-heeled shoes. Joking apart, that’s a combination not to be fooled with in this little island. Alright, I’ve been known to spend an good few hours in a spa trying to make gnarly feet–bruised and battered after years kicking balls–look more fetching. But, sporting my open-toe sandals, I can stroll along the sidewalk without strange looks or wolf whistles.

But, here’s what I’ve noticed happening. I walk into some situation and start talking to the Jamaicans there. Things are going along smoothly, but there’s a certain stiffness presented to me. Then, I let something slip that shows that I have Jamaican credentials–a look, a movement of the mouth, kissing my teeth, some understanding that foreigners are not supposed to have such as the meaning of ‘bangarang’ or the difference between ganja and janga. Then, budum! “‘Im is wan a wi!” Everything changes. “Yu is fram here?” That sadly flat British accent of mine, that people have told me should be on radio or TV, has been giving people fits. “No, man! A Hinglan’ ‘im cum fram,” has just been turned on its head. From then on, I notice that the conversation changes and I get the looseness that I’d expected from the start. People had been putting on a front, thinly in most cases, but now they could dump that.

I tend to think of Jamaicans as generally friendly people and quite welcoming to outsiders. That’s what I know from experience. But is that because I’m Jamaican and feel comfortable with most situations I encounter, or can relate in some way to the local people around me, even though I’ve not lived here for a half century? That’s the image Bolt and Shelly-Ann are selling ‘to the world’. One love!

When a foreign diplomat told me she thought Jamaicans were a bit reserved and tended not to invite you into their homes, I nearly choked on the piece of sugar cane I was chawing (Jamaicans don’t chew). Where has this woman been living? Look, she has a splendid residence and I’d happily go there instead of inviting her to my roost. But, that’s not it.

It wouldn’t be unnatural for us to give each other a pass on friendliness. That how most people are with their own kind. But, Jamaicans have so many kinds–out of may, one people, right. You’d think the smart thing would be to nice up everybody. But, we nice up those whom we think are foreign, but really, really nice up those whom we think are from Yard (Jamaicans double up on a word to make it really strong). So, when I pull up for gas and don’t acknowledge the attendant with a “Mawnin,” I get a glare. Justified for such rudeness. But when I say “You cyan fillit wid 90?” I see a little smile and a glint as she asks me to “Pap di tank fi mi an tun arf yu henjin.” It’s popping.20130829-050144.jpgI’ve been in many situations where people have run off with some stereotype of me. It’s usually been funny.

The Welsh-speaking lady in my office building in North Wales, who came to meet Mr. Jones, and was taken aback when I greeted her and said in Welsh “I’m Mr. Jones.” That’s a very common Welsh name. “But, you’re black!” she’d said with incredulity. Right, in one.

Those customers in grocery stores in the US, who ask me where to find items on the shelves. I’m struggling to find the mayo, myself.

The man who parked his car outside the restaurant where I was standing, waiting for my wife, and gave me to key and said “Park it, for me.” He was shocked when I said “Park it, yourself!”

The official driver waiting at the airport in Uganda, who asked me if I’d seen a white man on my flight. I’d said no. “Where is that IMF man?” he grumbled. Hello! We had a great drive into Kampala 🙂

That’s life, sometimes, in that graded world that assigns lots of roles by colour or gender or race. Like my wife bristling when the server in a restaurant brings me the bill, and the silly look on the server’s face that follows when I hand it over to her, it’s all part of renegotiating the world. But, now, I’m having to be a bit more attentive.

Yesterday afternoon, I dashed out to do an errand before the rains lashed down and the afternoon traffic got heavy: I went to buy coconut water. The sign said boldy “Sorry. No coconut water”. I went in and asked the lady, politely, what was going on; water had been short for weeks, now. Coconuts dried up? She told me that the shop had had supplies earlier in the day, but they were now finished. “Cum back tomarra,” she said, coldly. I just reacted: “Mi a go Mandeville a mawnin.” Her head shot up. She held my hand. “Tek dis numba. Call back ’bout four a clack. Is den di truck due fi cum,” she said, helpfully. Inside track? I can’t be sure. But, I’m going to watch out.

I’ve long known that people make snap judgements on first meeting. That’s why I go to hardware stores in tee shirt and rough shorts or pants: I seem more like a handyman and get better service. Do not go there in a business suit: the shark will bite you.20130829-052330.jpg