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.
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.
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.