How many times did I hear “Oh, you’re getting married in Jamaica? How exciting!” No, not exciting at all. Not the way you think. Exciting because I was marrying a man I fell in love with eleven years ago, with whom I had lost contact but never forgot. Now he has three children and I’m excited because I have no children and now I am able to be a step-mother. But not exciting, because I was able to spend only six weeks with them before I came back to school alone. We won’t all be together permanently for about five years. Not exciting because I was not having a “destination wedding.” I, a privileged white American, while I was there, would be staying in the bush with no indoor plumbing with people who know what it is like to go to bed hungry.
In my world, I usually don’t receive a second glance when I’m out shopping, in a restaurant, or just walking around. I can go around as if I am invisible, only attracting attention and initiating conversations when I want to. But in Jamaica, I was the opposite of invisible.
In the span of six weeks, from the time I left the airport upon my arrival to the time I hopped in the taxi to return to the airport for my departure, I saw about five other white people. When I walked from shop to shop in the middle of Montego Bay, everyone looked at me because I wasn’t supposed to be there. When I stood still long enough, the store security guard usually came to stand next to me. When I paid for our purchases, the cashiers looked to my husband before looking at me, as if waiting for him, a Jamaican, to say that it was ok to interact with me. I was a female, white, American, and everyone knew that someone like me didn’t shop there.
No one was rude to me, but no one talked to me. People would stare at me, but nobody really made eye contact. This was the way it was not just in the inner city, but also in the bush where we lived. The house was not located on a major road that would lead from one tourist area to another, so there was no reason for a white person to pass by, even in a vehicle.
Children wanted to touch me and hug me, but adults would not speak to me unless I was introduced. I walked the same road a few times each week, and every time I would have to wave and say hello before anyone would acknowledge me. I was a sight to behold, I gathered by the response of people walking by to reach the river. If I was outside, heads would turn to look at me in the yard. If I was hollering to the kids I really drew the attention of a passersby, and even more so if I was outside hanging up laundry. I was doing the things a woman there would do, but I wasn’t a woman from there.
Jamaicans speak Patois, and they speak fast. Not knowing all of what the words mean, I could pick up on some of the conversation because it is mixed with a lot of English words. People having conversations with my husband would sometimes be particularly kind to me and speak English so I could be included. But more often, as if I wasn’t there, they would speak in a way that I could not understand. I don’t think they meant to be rude; however, it made for some very lonely times when I would be standing in full view of the person speaking to my husband and not be able to participate in the conversation.
I thought long and I thought often of those who say things like, “If you are going to come to America, you have to learn the language.” I was in a country where, for the most part, I could speak the language, yet could not understand what was being said. The same can be said for those who speak English as a second language. In America we use words that do not carry the original meaning or have multiple meanings, and we have made up words by melding some words together. Speaking English doesn’t necessarily mean that you will understand me just because we are both in America.
Language wasn’t the only thing that caused me to feel invisible while in full view of all of Jamaica. My white privilege definitely caused me to stick out while also causing some distance between me and others. When I arrived, we had to buy a shower curtain for the outdoor bathing room so that the neighbors couldn’t see me out there. When the water stopped running in the drought conditions, I was not expected to go bathe in the river because I wasn’t used to being naked in front of strangers. Plates were purchased shortly after I arrived, but I was the only one served on a plate. These are just a few examples of ways that I was set apart from others because of who I am.
I would like to tell you that I would happily agree to give up all my modern conveniences and move to Jamaica to be with my husband and kids, but I don’t think I could. It was ok when I knew it was temporary, but the idea of living that way all the time is frightening. There would have to be some changes in their lives before I could move there, changes that would bring them out of their way of life and start to move them into mine. Like into a place with indoor plumbing, which would mean moving out of their home. They would do that for me, and in fact have agreed to move to the U.S. when they can, which means giving up everything they know and love. Could I do the same?
No matter if I give up everything I know or not, when I am there I could give up all but one thing: I cannot stop being a female, white, American. Even if I changed my citizenship, people would hear me speak and know where I’m from. They would see my skin and there would be expectations: they would think I expected certain actions and behaviors from them, and they would expect certain actions and behaviors from me in return. No matter how long I were to live there, no matter if everyone in the bush got to know me, no matter if I learned all the Patois and could keep up with and be a part of all conversations, I would still be the opposite of invisible. But maybe that’s just the way I would feel because when I’m there I am always going to be different.