I’m a proud Jamerican.
For those not familiar with that colloquial conjunction, no I don’t have some identity crisis. However, I do have the privilege of being a Jamaican-American. In case you were wondering, yes I do have two passports! I was born in the great ol’ USA, but for the first 10 years of my life, I was raised on the beautiful island of Jamaica. My journey to acclimate to life in the U.S. began when I moved to Florida at the age of 10. I’m now in my late 20s. Most people might think that my cultural connection to Jamaica would have dissipated over the years. But on the contrary, being raised by Jamaican parents and spending all my holidays in Jamaica, kept the islander within me very much alive.
So, what does this all mean for my travel experience? Well, let’s just say that my U.S. Passport is best at the border, but the yardie within thrives once I’m in. So, I’m pretty lucky because I don’t have the barrier of having to get a visa to travel to many countries across the pond. That which makes travelling around the world much more attainable and I never hesitate to book a flight when the travel bug bites.
I currently reside in Florida and I am “relatively” well-travelled. Without fail in each new location, my accent often invites the question, “so, where are you really from?” As soon as I say Jamaica, it’s almost as if there’s some island magic that creates an unspoken spiritual connection. I’m not sure if it’s the ocean views, sea breeze, or down to earth vibe that the islanders seem to espouse, but it has me convinced that my island is the most loved across the globe. But hey…I might be a tad bit biased. Either way, sharing my island background always seems to shape my experience very differently than when I am perceived to be the “American tourist,” who is then warned about where not to go and what not to do.
It’s a fact that people simply love Jamaican culture. Need proof? Jamaica was ranked the Number 1 Caribbean destination for 2016 on Trip Advisor because of its perfect combination of music, culture, natural beauty, history and adventure. In each new destination that I travel to, when locals learn that I’m Jamaican their efforts to connect with me and my Jamaican culture tends to lead to a more “rootsy” or local experience:
- In Puerto Rico, that meant getting off the plane and journeying straight to the “Kioskos” along Route 3 on the beach in Luquillo for a uniquely Puerto Rican food and fare experience; as opposed to being brought to just another seafood restaurant by the beach that I can experience on any island.
- In Hawaii, it led us to the best local bakery (Kamehameha Bakery) to replenish with a local favorite poi malasada, after hiking Diamond Head. It also meant learning where the locals go to take in the views, because hiking clearly isn’t everyone’s favorite pastime, and so we came across the Tantalus Lookout point at Puu Ualakaa State Park.
- In Cuba, it inevitably brought us to la playa at Santa Maria Del Mar and enjoying the box food sold by the vendors as the local Habaneros do, instead of just following the tourist checklist and going to the beach in Varadero.
My perceived experiences as a Caribbean islander are different to my experience as an (African or Black) American. For example:
Being perceived as a black woman: In Europe, I was often viewed as exotic and a lot of times people just stared at me….A LOT. (My experience in Croatia, Italy and Germany stand out to me in that regard.) Sometimes it felt like as if I was an exhibit in a museum and at other times it was as if they had never seen a black woman before. For those whose curiosity gave them enough courage to speak to me, I encountered people who were somewhat mesmerized. Oh and if I “rocked my fro “for a day, without a doubt people would be in awe and and someone would inevitably ask if they could touch my hair.
Being perceived as an American: Sometimes my experience came with the negative assumptions associated with the “Ugly American” tourist. That moniker has nothing to do with physical attributes but speaks more to a global stereotype of the loud, crazy, insensitive and culturally unaware Americans who have toured and roamed these countries before me. While there are always “party animals” and “culturally unaware” individuals in every country (not just in the U.S.), this stereotype certainly does not and should not define all American tourists.
Being (African or Black) American: On occasion an additional stereotype that I face, which is likely due to the portrayal of over-sexualized black female bodies in media (i.e. video girl in music videos), is that I would be this exotic, unexposed, wild thing. Locals would impress upon me what they expected and their surprise that these “stereotypes” are not applicable to me. Furthermore, I have a personal and professional network that is filled with intelligent, sophisticated, and well-travelled (African or Black) Americans so the aforementioned alternative perceptions are somewhat disappointing and are definitely not a reflection of my reality.
But to the contrary, as a Jamaican female: The most pervasive and slightly undesirable stereotype is evoked in the universal question “do you smoke weed?” When I reply with a “no” people are often disappointed and jokingly state that “You can’t really be Jamaican.” While the question is seemingly harmless, I certainly don’t think marijuana should be the prevailing cultural symbol of a nation. Outside of that, I’m often perceived as strong, educated and exotic beauty with an irie vibe. I am not a member of a “flora or fauna” species so despite the harmless intentions, I have never been a fan of being labelled as an “exotic” beauty which seems to be a common occurrence. Of course here too, there is the objectification and colorful perception of Jamaican women being sexy and sensual and I believe that is tied to our strong culture surrounding our fashion and style, dance, and modern dancehall riddims. Nonetheless, I do take pride in knowing that Jamaican women are perceived as confident and educated and admittedly, I try to live by the motto that “every little thing is gonna be alright” so I know I give off that chill, “no worries,” irie vibe.
I have been subject to all of the stereotypes discussed above and while some of them are seemingly more favorable than others, none are above or beneath the other; because in some way, shape or form they are a “typecast” that attempts to place a complex individual into the limited dimensions of a box. I don’t think any stereotype should be the definitive factor as to how people are treated in any particular situation. After all, stereotypes are just oversimplified labels and ideas of a person but they can’t actually define an individual in all their proclivities.
All stereotypes aside, it’s a privilege to have dual citizenship and while I currently reside in the U.S., I am certain my Jamaican roots will always play a major role in how I experience the world. I’m not sure if it’s the abundant flora, fauna and beaches that recapture my heart with each visit, the patois dialect that breathes life into the stories, the dancehall music that keeps the culture energized within me, or if it’s simply the rich and flavorful Jamaican jerk chicken and curry goat that nourishes my body and soul that keeps the Jamaican within alive and thriving. Whatever it is, I love that my Jamaican cultural identity travels with me and shapes my experiences, as I explore destinations near and far.
If you want to follow my journey and future travel adventures, you can find me on:
· INSTAGRAM: @carla.erskine
· FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/purposefullycarlae
· WEBSITE: www.carlaerskine.com