Monday, January 7, 2008

Returning to Jamaica

Back in October, I wrote about my Uncle Frank (October 22, 2007) and the significant impact he had on my life, particularly as a mentor/role-model for me of an anti-racist activist. I also wrote about going back to California to attend his memorial service and being surrounded by my large extended family, who are part of the Chinese Jamaican diaspora (November 3, 2007).

And today I just booked my plane ticket to go to Jamaica to take part in a final farewell to my Uncle Frank: the scattering of his ashes in his hometown of Kingston. It will be my first trip to Jamaica as an adult, although my mother reminds me that I've been twice as a toddler (and that there are photos of me splashing about in Dunns River Falls--but of course I was 2 and have no memory of this whatsoever, although there is evidence in the form of photos). It will be a family reunion, of sorts, since several cousins and aunts/uncles will also be coming to help fulfill my Uncle's last request.

I do wonder about it--this last request of his--to be taken back to the place of his birth and his upbringing. He lived more of his life outside of Jamaica than inside it and, to the best of my knowledge, never seriously contemplated settling there after obtaining his degrees in North America (and certainly not after he started a family). I wonder about the tug of Jamaica on my Uncle--that he identified so intensely as Jamaican that he wanted his remains to be there instead of in the home he had known for almost 2/3 of his adult life.

My Uncle's allegiance and identification with Jamaica makes me think about my own conception of regional and national affiliation. I have already ruminated on this in the post "Proud to be an American" (sorry for so many cross-link listings!) but it does seem like this is the question I keep returning to: where is my national/regional/cultural allegiance and how strong is it?

For my Uncle, he would have told you that being Jamaican was in his blood (and he wouldn't have cared if you quoted anti-essentialist rhetoric at him). His license plate on his car read "rahtid," he cheered for the Jamaican soccer (excuse me, football) team every chance he got, the Jamaican flag and variations of it (the Jamaican colors of black, green and yellow) adorned his home, Reggae music (and I don't mean Bob Marley--no disrespect intended, but my family tends to scoff at Marley and think he's popular with non-Jamaican folk mainly) would blast from his car, and the foods he most craved were those of his childhood: stew peas, ackee with saltfish, and ox-tail.

My Uncle was proud to be Jamaican. And he never qualified it. He didn't say he was proud to be a Chinese Jamaican or a naturalized American-Jamaican-of-Chinese descent. For him, plain and simple, he was Jamaican.

I wonder what I will feel when I set foot there. Will I feel like I, too, am Jamaican, or at least part of a larger Chinese Jamaican diaspora? Guess I'll have to wait and see what happens next month.


Tami said...


I am embarrassed to say that I never knew there was a Chinese Jamaican diaspora. Just shows you how limited our concept of race and nationality is. Can I link to this from my site?

Jennifer said...

Hi Tami,
I'd be flattered to have you link this post to your site. It's funny--I was taking part in a meeting today where we had to go around the room and talk about our "academic autobiograhy"--essentially, how did we end up as professors doing the work that we do.

And normally I try not to talk about the personal connections in my research (because I find that there is this assumption/knee jerk reaction that people have that OF COURSE I work on Asian American issues because I'm Asian American and thus my work is therapeutic rather than academic), but this particular crowd disclosed many personal/family connections to their research, and I guess because my uncle has been on my mind (along with my upcoming trip to Jamaica) I did say that one of the things that motivates my research is trying to figure out where I fit into America given my background as someone who grew up believing I was Chinese Jamaican.

As a kid, I got asked a lot "What are you?" (as a kid I didn't know to just say "human" because what kind of question is that--as if I were animal/vegetable/mineral) and I told other kids I was Chinese Jamaican. And as I grew older, every time I gave this response people would say, "That's funny, you don't look Jamaican" and I didn't quite catch on (call me slow) that they meant I didn't look "black" until I got to junior high/high school. It's also funny because my family's phenotypic features are very varied (I'd say we range in complexion from a dark toffee to light parchment) but to me we all looked alike, maybe because everyone spoke patois and ate Jamaican food combined with Chinese food so I figured that meant we were Chinese Jamaican.

I haven't called myself Chinese Jamaican in a long time--I think because even though it was an identity I felt as a kid, as an adult who works on race I've begun to question how strong this cultural connection is. But it is funny, because anytime I spend a lot of time with my maternal family I do feel the tug of identity. Which makes me excited and a bit anxious to actually "return" to Jamaica and see how I "feel" when I'm actually there.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. I think if you grew up in Jamaica you would not put Chinese before the Jamaican. But you would have to tell them (your fellow Jamaicans)that your not Ms. Chin :). Unless your name is Chin: ). I feel the way your uncle did about Jamaica, I have spent my adult life here but I never truly belonged no mater how much I facebooked and ate sushi and pizza etc. I will never identify with USA. I love my fellow country men warts and all and every time I get off the plane my heart swells with love and pride. I hope you get a chance to feel that way but if not enjoy your trip home.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I think you're probably right--that if I had grown up in Jamaica I would have that as my primary identification.

But I also wonder...because many of my cousins who were born and to a large degree raised in Jamaica also tend to hyphenate now that they are adults.

For example, I'm fairly certain that two of my Canadian cousins call themselves either Chinese Jamaican or Jamaican Chinese (I don't think they call themselves Canadian but perhaps I'm wrong). Maybe this is due to the fact that they moved when they were little (under the age of 10) and that they don't return on a regular basis, as your comment suggests that you do.

Anyway, I am really looking forward to going as an adult. I promise to report back when I return.

Unknown said...

I know this is extremely late but I am first generation American, my parents are Jamaican, and I just had to comment on the Bob Marley thing and "looking Jamaican!"

Whenever I tell people that I am Jamaican these are the two main things I hear:
"Oh I love Bob Marley" and
"You don't look Jamaican"

For one Jamaican really is your nationality because there are African, Chinese, Indian(India), English, Syrian and every mix in between!
How else could you explain or mix off food (bok choy, curry, rice and peas...)
And secondly what about Beres Hammond and Sanchez and all the other artist we grew up listening and actually dancing to! If they mention one of them then I know they really know some reggae.

I personally have family of every race but they are all Jamaican.
It just really bothers me to have to define myself.
I feel like in American its all about checking a little box next to Black, White, Asian or Other...

At least with Hispanic/Latino people when they check the box it does not describe their race particularly, it describes their culture.

But I hope all is well with you if not I can certainly introduce you to my uncle Al or my uncle Tony, both "Chinese" Jamaican and sound like they just stepped off the boat!
The pride is in every Jamaican's blood no matter where they go.

Jennifer said...

Never too late to leave a comment! I appreciate everything you've written--and I think many of my aunts/uncles/cousins would echo your sentiments. Perhaps because my own father is not from Jamaica, coupled with being raised in the U.S., I don't quite feel the same tug--or at least I end up questioning it/wondering about it more than other relatives of mine.

At any rate, thanks for stopping by and hope you leave another comment if you feel so moved in the future!