Finding exotic new lands and people is one of the highlights of travel. And for many, cultural difference means simply seeing how the other folks dance, eating their strange food, appreciating their architecture, and thinking how great it would be if only we would [fill in the blank] here in America.
For those of you who’ve read my book (At Home on the Kazakh Steppe), you’ll know that it’s those cultural differences that make me gasp or even holler, “OMG,” that are more likely to capture my attention and interest.
And, to my glee, our lead off guest, Alexis Chateau, identifies just those sorts of differences. Well, no “OMGs,” perhaps, but her post may make you catch your breath a bit. In an eye opening way. I hope so.
Beyond the clash of behaviors and traditions, cultural difference can also mean a clash of values. And Alexis tackles just that in Living with Jamaican Values in America. Welcome, Alexis. (For a fuller bio, see last week’s post here.)
Living with Jamaican Values in America
In 2015, I did the unthinkable. I quit my corporate job in Jamaica, took a freelance PR gig, re-homed my pets, gave up my apartment, and packed my life into three suitcases. After a month of taking trips around the island, I then traveled to the U.S. to take my routine summer vacation. Almost two years later, and I’m still here.
Despite visiting the country once or twice per year for 18 years prior to moving, adjusting has not been easy. There’s been many a-time when I left Americans scratching their heads, and just as many times when I observed Americans with a cocked eyebrow.
Why? Well… here are four ways my Jamaican values differ from those I’ve run into in America. For added perspective, I live in Atlanta, Georgia; and have travelled from the southern tip, to up north, and into the Midwest.
I never noticed how blunt Jamaicans were until I settled in America, and became a full-time resident. But, I give myself too much credit. I should say I never realized how blunt Jamaicans were until my Dad, who is American-born, pointed it out.
“This isn’t Jamaica,” he would warn me. “You can’t be that honest. Honesty isn’t appreciated here. I’m not saying you should lie, but… bend the truth a little. Spare their feelings.”
At first, I thought he must be wrong. In Jamaica, lying is cowardice and considered a precursor to worse things. I grew up hearing the mantra every thief is a liar, and every liar is a thief. Who wants to be a thief?
But sure enough, I began to see the signs for myself. Americans seem far more likely to play a game of cloak and dagger with tact, facts, and the truth. From my experience, it’s considered “better” and “respectful” to be polite and politically correct, than admit to a truth that could hurt feelings or bruise egos.
- Social Status
Color rather than race plays a role in social status in Jamaica, but only because our former plantation economy means color and class usually coincide. Most Jamaicans will tell you, we are a “classist” and not a racist society.
Though this comes with its own unique problems, it does mean you can earn your place. Social class is decided by your appearance, the way you speak, your level of education, your occupation, your level of income, who you know, how well-travelled you are, and where you live.
In America, social status seems to be decided the second you enter the world -– or cross the border. Minorities and immigrants seem to take up permanent residence at the bottom of the barrel, and have a much harder time “proving” our equality to gatekeepers, as there are far more barriers erected to our success. Many of us scramble over the barriers soon enough, but most of us do not.
Just take a look at many upper class neighborhoods. Most are populated by Whites and citizens; sometimes by Asians. Blacks do not make up the ratio in these neighborhoods that they do in regular society. In Jamaica, the exact opposite of that is true.
- Treatment of Women
In Jamaica, there are few laws in place to protect women. For instance, sexual assault or sexual harassment doesn’t technically exist. There is only rape, which requires penetration. (There I go again, forgetting to be politically correct, and finding the right euphemisms).
But the truth is, in Jamaica, women are revered, even if there is something ridiculously sexist about it. Funny enough, one of the things I hated most about living in Jamaica was how women were treated.
Boy did I laugh at myself when I realized that America, for all its laws, was far worse. In Jamaica, even teenagers can walk into a pharmacy and purchase birth control. In fact, clinics give them away for free. No questions asked. Try that in America.
I have also noticed the vilification of career women in America, whereas in Jamaica, women are expected to have 9-5 jobs — not that this always equals a career in the true sense. Men are usually busy “hustling” and trying out different entrepreneurship ventures. We like our steady paychecks, and they respect that.
And finally, there was breastfeeding. I couldn’t believe how many mothers had to take to the streets to fight for the right to breastfeed their babies in public spaces. Something so natural was turned into something taboo.
- Global Warming
In Jamaica, global warming and climate change is an accepted fact. It’s not something we debate or argue about. I have never in my life heard a Jamaican deny the existence of climate change, and our contribution to its worsening, as humans.
Yet, only about 64 percent of Americans believe in global warming. I remember the first time I saw that number. I was writing an article for a client, on how scientists can better teach climate change to the public. I remember staring at it for a moment, and then Googling the heck out of the number because… there was no way. [From Pew Internet.org and from The Guardian]
Now we have a President who doesn’t believe in climate change, either. Well, that certainly cleared up any disbelief for me that the statistic wasn’t true. I’ve learned not to discuss environmentalism and sustainability here, or take it for granted that this is a common concern we all share.
Jamaica has its fair share of problems for sure: from poverty to high crime rates to homophobia. And America definitely has its sway for several reasons. Who doesn’t want to realize the American dream?!
But there are times when I question if this is the America I’ve known for eighteen years of traveling to, and now living here? The truth is, I don’t know. I would like to think not.
What I do know is that this is home, now; even if I often feel as though many Americans don’t want me here.
Alexis, thank you for sharing your observations and experiences here. You’ve touched on some very important, critical really, aspects of mainstream American culture — or is it regional? — and I am eager to see where the conversation takes us. I’m saddened by your perception that “many Americans don’t want me here” and hope we might explore that a bit more. This is such a strange time in our country.
Here are Alexis’ links: