Geography 101

Did you know that the Caribbean is a region comprising of 30 countries? Also known as the West Indies (because some European idiot in a boat thought he was sailing to India, realised he wasn’t in India because he went west instead of east, and decided to profit from his L), they are generally divided into the Greater and Lesser Antilles and a few mainland territories on the South American continent. While these countries are united by a common history, they have their own political leaders, dialects, cuisine and topography. Also 29 out of 30 of them don’t start with J and end with Amaica.

Yeah I said it.

I didn’t realise how few people knew this until I left St. Lucia. Call it innocence, I call it expectation. See, we had to learn world geography as a part of our syllabus, and I expected kids in bigger countries, in countries with better access to resources and with televisions with more than 43 channels would at the very least know what I knew. Granted, I did Geography until the end of secondary school, but I developed a vague idea of what was where around the age of 13.. surely they did the same?

I was wrong.

“Your English is so good,” people in my classes gushed. I stared at them, confused. It sounded like a complimented but it felt like an insult.

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well… y’know… you’re from the Caribbean…”

“Yeah, St Lucia. Our national language is English… what did you think I spoke?”

I never got an answer to that question, which is what bothered me the most. See if someone had said “Oh I know some islands speak French so I assumed you did the same, despite not having a French accent” or “Well the Caribbean is close to South America, so I thought maybe Spanish or Portuguese” then I wouldn’t have been so irate. But no one ever had an answer for me. It was as if they thought I spoke some sort of Caribbeanese, a foreign dialect unknown to most people, something that sat between African (also not a language) and whatever the hell it is Sean Paul sang in. I had an accent ergo I spoke Foreign. My mastery of the English language was therefore something to be amazed by and complimented. Never mind that the majority of the countries that formerly belonged to England have English as their first language.

Do we have to have a history lesson too?

I think I was a major disappointment to a lot of people in my school. I didn’t sound as “Caribbean” as I think a lot of people expected. I didn’t say mon, or whagwan, or call children pickney dem. I didn’t sound like Bob Marley or Sean Paul. I didn’t say bacon like beercan, nor was I aware that some people did. When I pointed out that I was from a completely different country, reactions ranged from embarrassment (“oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was a difference”) to outright rudeness (well, I thought it was rude to say “aren’t you guys all the same anyway?”). Me being “rude gyal Caribbean” bluntly asked if Bangladesh, Pakistan and India were the same, or if I should start saying England, Ireland and France were all the same, waited until the outrage from my peers died down, then let my point sink in: that being in the same region didn’t mean that we would all be the same. I took a “take no prisoners” approach to educating the masses.

I don’t think it’s much to ask for everyone to have a basic knowledge of the world, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’ve had the same experience when talking about my mother and her South African background (My mother did NOT LIVE IN A HUT WITH THE LIONS), and seen my friends have the same conversation regarding Japan, South Korea and China (They’re not the same country and don’t have the same language). Maybe everyone should have a world map or a globe in their home, they’re not especially expensive. Alternatively, just listen to the Animaniacs’ World Song a few times. Even if they don’t mention St Lucia either, it’s a start.

LEARN THIS NOW.

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#ILiveWhereYouVacation

It’s kind of funny when people ask where I’m from (“YOU’VE GOT AN ACCENT”) and follow it up with something like “I want to have my honeymoon there.”
Like. Ok? Good for you? Do you want me to hook you up with hotel deals?

Ooh, or you know what’s worse? “Why are you here then?? The weather is terrible!”

Of course! If only my simple island life had afforded me the opportunity to use Google to investigate the climate of the UK! Then I would have known to stay where I was!

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Well that's put me right off higher education

Ok I’m being a little facetious. I get it, I really do. It’s a tropical island, the kind of paradise shown in music videos where people dance sexily under waterfalls, or sexily on the beach, or sexily while drinking a coconut. It’s usually idealised in songs as being this relaxed, laid back place where people just, like, chill man. Smoke a blunt, maybe eat some jerk chicken and plantain, and work on your tan. And this is why the hashtag #ILiveWhereYouVacation is so popular. People do go there on vacation. Much of our economy depends on tourism. I just think that people forget the “I Live” part.

Because people do live there. As in, they live in houses. With actual electricity and plumbing that needs to be paid for. We work and pay taxes and have insurance on our property and go to school and put gas in our tanks just like everywhere else. That’s kind of how a country’s economy works.
I left there when I was 16, and just like most 16 year olds in the world, I spent about 12 of those years in education. My school wasn’t on the beach or in a cave under a waterfall. I wasn’t taught how to frolic with wildlife or catch fish with my bare hands. I was taught Math.

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Pictured: the only house Caribbean people live in, obviously

“Ah but you went to the beach on weekends!” Yeah, when I didn’t have homework or chores, sure. But I was going through my emo phase as a teen and I was( and still am) a nerd so I spent a lot more time playing videogames, reading, hanging out with my friends and watching the Harry Potter movies while pointing out subtle inaccuracies (I still want to know where Peeves went). I had a walkman, then a CD player, then an MP3 player which I used to listen to Paramore and anime opening songs. I wrote fanfics and read comic books. Occasionally I would do those things on the beach, but the last thing I wanted was sand in my Gameboy. My life was no simpler than any other Western teen other than the absence of a cinema in the north of the island for a few years (we had a cinema that showed pirated films for a while but it was shut down, probably because people complained about the quality).
It would be fair to say that I grew up “middle class”, and I had much more opportunities than some of my other classmates. Poverty is everywhere, and the Caribbean is no exception. Some people lived ten a side in a one bedroom house. Some people didn’t have indoor plumbing. Some people washed their clothes in the river and grow their foods not to be organic but because they had to eat. Is that the sort of simple life you’re looking for? Because you can be poor in your own country too, it would just be less hot and with hopefully fewer hurricanes.

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How traumatic

Now I live in London and I love it here, despite everyone assuming that I want to leave. There’s so much to do and see and it’s so easy to travel to other places and your transport is so reliable. Some of your buildings are 200 years old! We’ve not even been independent half as long as that (your fault, but still). And yes I still have to work and study and pay taxes but I honestly do not know what I’d be doing if I hadn’t left. Our unemployment rate is higher than yours (20% versus 5%) and there isn’t much in the way of scientific research (which is my ultimate career goal) so who knows?

This isn’t to say that the UK is without fault (Hunt, what’s good??), or that the Caribbean is a desolate wasteland of despair and bananas. Both places have their good parts and their bad parts. I’m just saying that to idealize a place is to ignore the people in it and their daily lives. Perhaps it’s worth taking some time to learn about a place where someone lives before you choose to vacation there.

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Though we're not called 'Helen of the West' for nothing

What Are You, Yeah?

I first moved to the UK aged 16 in 2008, and when I went to A-level this was the sentence I heard the most.

“What are you yeah, what are you?”

Human was not an appropriate answer; I kept silent.

“Oh I’m Gujy yeah… I’m Punjabi innit…. Tamil, fam, I’m tamil.”

This sentence was used to divide and conquer, and I didn’t understand the importance of it. Growing up in the Caribbean, my identity was less about where my parents were from or what cards my ancestry had dealt, but where I had spent most of my life. I was as Caribbean as Mr Raj; Mr Raj as Caribbean as I. But here suddenly I wasn’t so simple. I was a strange half-beast, an amalgamation of Caribbean and African owing to my mother’s heritage – Mr Raj, were he here, would be Gujarati or something. My identity, the one I had formed, suddenly didn’t matter.

It’s weird when someone corrects you on how you see yourself. I wasn’t British (even though my passport says so) because I grew up around coconut trees and the beach. I wasn’t wholly St Lucian because my mother was born and raised in a country which imprisoned a rather nice man for 27 years for his beliefs that people were equal regardless of skin colour. Nor was I African, the lilt in my tone and the over-enunciation of certain letters giving a decidedly unAfrican twang to my sentences. So. Yeah. What are you yeah?

I had long arguments about this. Half-St Lucian, half South African my (rather unBritishly large) ass. Did I look like the villain Two-Face from Batman? Did one half of me want to cook up a braai and the other half of me want to jook gyal jook gyal jook gyal jook gyal? Was I split down the middle, between my short-sighted eyes, down my cleavage, one leg in each culture? Was it actually through my bellybutton? Is that why my butt was so big (“like all South African women” I’ve been told. The cheek), but my hair was so soft (“All Caribbean people have good hair” a Nigerian hairdresser knowingly said as she proceeded to try to rip out my edges). I ticked the Black-British-Caribbean box because it was neither specific enough (I wanted to be St Lucian on paper at least) nor general enough (can’t I just be black?) for my liking.

I also somehow wasn’t living up to the expectation of an “Island girl” when I got here. I didn’t say bacon like beercan, or greeted people with WhaGwan and praised Haile Selassie. I listened to people other than Sean Paul and Bob Marley. I wasn’t a rasta or had locks. I ate more than just bananas.

So what are you, yeah? Human. Female. Black. British. St Lucian. Me. It’s been 8 years and that question still confuses me. Why does it exist?

I did spend a few months saying I was Sri Lankan though. Just for shits and giggles.