Understanding Jamaica is a life-long endeavor. In the short amount of time we’ve been here, we have only uncovered the tip of the ice berg in terms of understanding the culture. But one thing that has already become apparent is that Jamaica is a land of contradictions. In an attempt to explain what that means and to share a bit about what we’ve learned so far with those of you at home, here are a few of the contradictions.
Fresh and Healthy
Jamaica is a fertile place with an abundance of amazing fruit and vegetables. In the country and even some urban areas, people grow their own food in the back yard: yams, mangos, oranges, you name it. They raise their own chickens and goats. Fish straight out of the ocean is never more than a couple hours away.
Farming is considered by some to be a low rank task, harking back to slavery on the plantations. Additionally, the country suffers under unfair trade arrangements which make many processed, US products cheaper to buy than the fresh, local variety. As a result, for every fresh fruit on the table, there is likely also a processed, packaged good: highly sugared juice, cheese in a tin can, condensed milk, packed salt fish from Canada. Not to mention all the oil used for frying and the heavy dose of pesticides used on the crops.
Jamaicans are known for being upfront and “saying it like it is.” Politically correct language has little to no use here. If you’re overweight, you’re called “fatty.” If you’re caucasian, you’re “whitey.” If someone doesn’t like your haircut: “Why did you do that to your head?” It’s not offensive and no one is hurt by it (or so they say). You are the way you are, and everyone knows it, so what is there to hide?
Many Jamaicans spend a lot of money and effort trying to change the way they look. To get a more favorable, lighter skin color, some people will bleach their skin. Many women will battle their hair with perms, creams, wigs, dyes, etc. Fashion comes at the expense of comfort, as getting dressed up and put-together for work or church borders on the competitive and ignores any increases in temperature.
Warm and Welcoming
Jamaicans are also known to be warm and hospitable. They will go out of their way to take care of you. (The other day, we were admiring a huge jackfruit hanging from a tree in someone’s yard. Hours later, on our way back home, a woman approached me and said that as soon as the fruit was more ripe, she would like to give it to us. We didn’t even ask!)
There is also an envious and a critical side to the culture. Children are often reared through fear, beating, and belittling. People don’t like to see others get too successful, or they’ll even go out of their way to hinder someone’s success or spread rumors about them. In the book, Going Home to Teach, written by Anthony Winkler, he explains it this way:
“It is not difficult to trace the root of this wicked belief, even though one does get a little weary of trotting back to slavery days with every national idiosyncrasy. But this one definitely came off that dirty shelf. There was only so much room in the manor house for liveried servants and their soft jobs, and those slaves who broke their backs in the fields vied mightily for the few cushy places. This struggle pitted slave against slave in a blood rivalry whose outcome immeasurably improved life and whose harsh memory lingers in the deep-seated suspiciousness of [people I work with now]. And since the war to catch the master’s favoured eye was waged by slaves with only two possible weapons, sexual attractiveness or intelligence, it is understandable that Jamaicans should tend to view these two characteristics in their fellows with envy.”
Well that is just a quick and shallow exploration of some of the contradictions we’ve encountered. Ask a new person and you’ll get a different viewpoint every time.