I turned 29 over the weekend. 29 years! When did it go by so quickly. One minute you are 5 running around with scissors cutting your own hair. The next time you blink you are 21 in college accidentally buzzing your hair off (true story, ask Justin Klump). By the time you are aware of life’s quick, roller coaster pace, you are in Jamaica (another island) with facial hair- a mustache you’d never thought you’d have.
Life is happening. You either enjoy the ride or you fret about it. Mo bettah you enjoy it.
Today marks day 48 being on the island. It’s our last week of specialized training and then next week we find out where we will be living for the next two years. After that week we officially swear in and then will be on our own.
I have a couple of little things to share so I apologize ahead of time for the randomness of this post.
Mr. Chin – The Chiney Man Embraces His Role
One of my favorite things about this country is the direct communication. Jamaicans call it, as it is. A great example of this is how Jamaicans greet each other. Its really important that you acknowledge people as you see them. While most of this is pretty typical, like, “maanin” (morning), or “waagwan” (what’s going on), there are several occasions in the day in which the hello is attached to a personal identifier or label. It is not uncommon for a person wearing glasses to be called “four yie” (four eyes), a big woman to be called “champion”, and an older man to be called, “boss” or “bossy”.
These terms are not to make fun of someone, but to describe someone whose name you don’t know. In the states we might think of these labels or identifiers as we pass someone, but we would never say these things out loud. You don’t just call a big woman, big, and out loud to her face. I can only imagine the reaction you’d get if you tried to.
It was an important lessons for us to become comfortable with these labels and to not take them personally. For me, I am Mr. Chin or Chiney man because I am Asian. I am told that back in the days, a large number of Chinese were brought to the island as indentured slaves and that most of them were named Chin. Whatever the story is, all Asian people are called Mr. or Ms. Chin here regardless of your ethnicity. I have embraced it. It doesn’t bother me. The only time something like this gets to me is when people try to force me into a stereotype. I have been mistaken for a Japanese and Chinese tourist many times here, but once they here me speak, I am often given a look of confusion and curiosity. Who is this Mr. Chin that looks like all the other Chins, but doesn’t act like the other Chins? It’s a great cultural exchange experience for Jamaicans and for myself (one day well make a video of greetings).
Spicy vs. Pepper: A Language and Cross-Cultural Lesson
So most of you know that I’m not a fan of spicy food. Too much heat gives me, well, the intense feeling of too much heat. I sweat profusely and depending on the type of spice, actually feel pain and discomfort. I was actually pretty worried about this, because I had heard that Jamaicans LOVE spicy food. Of course I assumed that ALL Jamaicans loved spicy food but thankfully not all do (but probably most). The Peace Corps staff here really helped me out by connecting me to host families that they themselves didn’t really like “the pepper” – scotch bonnet.
Scotch bonnet has the same equivalent heat level index as habaneros. When cooking with it, you only taste the spicy effects if you cut open the pepper (which you need gloves for) or if the skin bursts when stewing or making a soup. Mind you, I sweat and heat up just eating black pepper so You can imagine, probably with laughter, the type of effect scotchy has on me. It’s ridiculous. I’m heating up just thinking about it. And though both of my host moms have done amazing by not using the pepper too often, both have inadvertently given me food with it. My current host family even has a phrase for me when I eat spicy food, “Mr. Chin has caught the pepper. The pepper has caught you.” Always said with a laugh.
For lunch today I went to a local cook shop (plate lunch restaurant) and asked what items were spicy. The nice lady gave me the short list of incidents. Great. I’ll stay away from those. I then saw chicken with black bean sauce and asked about it, seemed harmless. “No sir, not spicy at all.” Great.
I returned to our training site to have lunch with my fellow volunteers. First bite, sweet and savory, just how I like it. Just as I’m about to swallow, an intense heat hits me like a punch in the face. My cheeks heat up, and for some crazy reason, I feel the hair on my head open up the flood gates, I am dripping sweat. My fellow trainees confirmed my suspicion, Mr. Chin caught the pepper. Scotch bonnet strikes again.
Later today I shared this story with my host mom. After a brief laughing fit, she explained that spicy is different then pepper. Spicy to Jamaicans refers to seasoning, not heat. When I asked the lunch lady if the chicken was spicy she said no because it was seasoned with black bean sauce, no extra spices. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t have heat. Fail. A good lesson. When looking for food that won’t make me sweat, I need to tell the people cooking, “No pepper please.”
House on di Hill
By now you imagine that there is nothing typical really in Jamaica. Just when you tell yourself to expect something to be a certain way, you will find an exception here, you will be surprised.
Needless to say, when it comes to housing in Jamaica, there is nothing typical, you will see the full range of housing from makeshift shelters to 7 floor 16 bedroom mansions and everything in between.
My house on the hill (where I am currently attending training) is one of those in between the extremes. On any scale it would be considered a big house. I live with a lively retired couple who although are in their 70s who look and act more like they are in their late 50s. I’ll call them the Gs.
The Gs retired to this community like many other families in the area. They have added on to the original house that they bought many years ago and have enjoyed retirement by doing some amazing gardening and keeping the place neat and tidy. I remember feeling like I was staying at a bed and breakfast high in the mountains and that feeling has yet to leave me (which is why i’ll miss them and this place when I leave next week).
I just wanted to leave you with some pictures of the place. What makes me laugh is how much this place reminds me of houses in the states. Again, this is not typical of Jamaica, nor is this typical for Peace Corps. Then again, I’m learning that nothing is typical of Jamaica or Peace Corps. My experience is unique. Who knows where we will be living next and what that will be like.
We have almost completed 2 months and have about 24 more to go. Can’t wait to see what’s next.
Till next time, blessings and love. -Mr. Chin
The kitchen where Mrs. G cooks up her amazing dishes
My bedroom. Note the makeshift structure to support the all important mosquito net
The formal living room that we never use