* Michelle Thoughts, * Peace Corps

Culture 101 for Returning Peace Corps Jamaica Volunteers

jamaica bus stop

This is a (mostly) fictional guide for Peace Corps Volunteers who are readjusting to the States after serving in Jamaica. It’s meant to be a light-hearted look at the cultural differences between Jamaica and the U.S., through the imaginary trials of a PCV who has adopted host country norms and forgotten how to be American. We got nearly three months of cultural training about Jamaica before service- what would we have learned if the roles were reversed? Although some of these things would probably never happen, others are legitimate concerns. Enjoy and, please, add your own in the comments below!

Common Cultural Mistakes and How to Correct Them

  • Greeting everyone constantly
    Hold off on greeting everyone you see and remember your cultural integrations strategies: observe and model the behavior around you. Whereas saying “good morning” or “good afternoon” holds much more significance in Jamaica, remember that strangers in America are probably not going to feel disrespected if you don’t acknowledge them on the street. In some places, even eye contact will weird people out.
  • Taking your sweet time
    Don’t be late! Get used to being places at the appointed time again, and be prepared for people to move from one activity to the next a lot quicker.
  • Not respecting lines
    Welcome back to the orderly, first-come, first-serve mentality. There is no need to push your way forward in a queue because – guess what – you will get your turn when it comes to you!
  • Singing in public
    It’s advisable to not sing in public unless you’re at a concert and the audience is there specifically to hear you. Although singing in public buses and on the streets is an endearing Jamaican habit, it’s going to get a lot of weird looks in most parts of the U.S.
  • Taking care of children you don’t know
    Resist the instinct to pick up a stranger’s child, tell a child what to do, or anything that would be seen as parenting. While these actions are helpful and expected in the more communal Jamaican culture, remember that American parents can be offended if your actions imply that they are not doing an adequate job attending to their own child.
  • Smalling up- or- Touching strangers
    Remember, Americans are more private and are protective of their personal space. Try not to hold on to people when you’re talking to them. Even in crowded spaces, do your best not to touch the people around you. Leave space between you and the next person seated in a vehicle.
  • Calling people fat
    Don’t ever call someone “fat.” Remember that Americans don’t appreciate being categorized, especially when the category has negative connotations. Although in Jamaica, carrying extra weight is seen as a healthy, desirable trait and even though it may be true and obvious, try to avoid direct physical descriptors in general. Start using euphemisms again.
  • Labeling people by their skin color
    Be “politically correct.” This is a big thing that does not really exist in Jamaican culture but it sure is important in the U.S. of A. Watch what you say.
  • Telling everyone, “Yeah, man” (yah, mon)
    If you want to keep “yeah man” or “no man” in your vocabulary, remember that people will get confused if you continue to direct those phrases to both genders. (Fact: This one has caused us problems already.)
  • Going left and dodging obstacles while driving
    Drive on the right side of the road! Also, pick a lane and stay within the lines. Refrain from honking the horn to let people know you’re driving next to them. Don’t worry so much about looking out for pot holes, goats, stray dogs, stray pedestrians, etc.

Fellow RPCVs: Now that you’re back in the U.S., what tendencies from Jamaica have been difficult to surmount? Have any of your new-found habits clashed with American culture?


3 thoughts on “Culture 101 for Returning Peace Corps Jamaica Volunteers”

  1. I went to El Salvadorian food with my family last night. I came THIS CLOSE to responding to someone else’s Spanish with “yeah, man.” I understand.

  2. Jedd and Michelle – I tried to send you a message from my i-pod this morning, but not sure if you got it? I really appreciate your redemption of the time our Lord has given you. These are great years for you and i am enjoying seeing you make the most of them. I know I surely did when I was your age and can now live vicariously through you. I am interested in your trip to France – one of the several places that I have had opportunity to live and study in. The family I lived with in Paris had a chatteau in Brittany that we would also like during Lent and Pentecost. You are gonna love it (France) – brush up on your french it might help a bit – but I find peoole most accommodating. Thanks again for your visit, the sushi was ono and the plant still has life and will soon be cut back for tranplanting – or perhaps next years bloom.
    Blessings of comfort and joy as well as travel mercies!
    Jehovah Nissi –
    Aunty Conkey
    Eph 3″19-20

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