Monday, February 25, 2008

"Hello Mrs. Chin!"

Years back, when I lived in Western Massachusetts, there was a Jamaican restaurant I went to all the time--really a take-out joint with 4 formica tables. My parents came to visit once, and I took them there and when we got to the counter the owner, a woman I'd seen countless times, looked up at my mother and said "Hello Mrs. Chin!"

This is not my family's surname--but it is what all Chinese in Jamaica are called--Mrs. Chin, Mr. Chin, Chinee people, Chinee--variations thereof.

This my mother explained after we left the shop. She was actually tickled pink to be called Mrs. Chin--to be reminded of a practice that she had grown used to as a young girl. None of my relatives ever thought this was offensive--it was simply what they were called. Of course, I think that there are a few qualifications. I think that it was black Jamaicans who generally referred to Chinese Jamaicans as "Mrs. Chin" and not white Jamaicans (although I could be wrong about this).

And throughout my stay in Jamaica, I did encounter this practice along with my cousins and other family members. At one restaurant, a waiter gestured to our table and asked another server if he would bring menus to the "China people." At Dunn's river falls, a local guide smiled warmly at me and said, "How are you doing Mrs. Chin?" -- which took me a minute to realize that he was talking to me, but I smiled back and told him I was fine. And in meeting one of my cousin's second cousin's, a young boy of 7 who did not favor the Chinese side of the family, he looked dubiously at all of us and asked his grandmother if my cousin could really be related to him because he looked like a "Chinee" person.

And oddly enough, none of this bothered me. I freely admit that if I had been in the U.S. and this had happened to me--if an African American man had called me Mrs. Chin or talked about a group of us as "China people" it would have rankled me to no end. But in Jamaica? Having heard that this was the experience of my family, seeing that this continued, and understanding a bit about the complicated racial hierarchies and dynamics of the nation, it just didn't bother me.

Is it a lack of malice--because I never sensed any in the comments? Was it my own "go with the flow" mentality--when in Rome, after all? Or is it the pick your battles issue--I mean, how would I begin to explain that this practice, begun probably a century ago, was stereotypical or potentially demeaning and confusing to not only Chinese but Asian visitors/residents (because lets face it, not only Chinese end up in Jamaica).

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this issue--the kinds of analyses I would apply here in the U.S. don't seem to adhere in the same way in Jamaica. I had several conversations with my cousin "W" on these issues, any many others, during our time there. "W" was born in Kingston, lived there until he was 3 and has made several trips back. Unlike my mother's side of the family (his father is my mother's brother), "W" still has his maternal side in Jamaica--his cousin "T" picked us up from the airport and we visited with his aunt "P" in a Kingston suburb, Portmore. "W"s family is very mixed--in addition to the "Chinese" flavor of my uncle, his mother's side brings together white, Indian, and black cultures, reflected to a large degree to the varying complexions and phenotypes of his many cousins.

Anyway, I'm going to end now. There's a lot more to be said and to mull over on this and many other topics. If you hadn't already guessed, this week I'm dedicating my blog posts to musings on my trip to Jamaica, on my thoughts of being Chinese Jamaican, and perhaps most importantly, on re-thinking the meaning of mixed race America if we open up the space of "America" beyond the borders of the U.S. to places north (like Canada, which is where most of my extended Chinese Jamaican family lives) and south to the Caribbean.


Lucy said...

I live in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in NYC (I'm Korean). I was walking down a street and a lady came up to me, and in a very friendly and excited tone started repeatedly saying "Hello Mrs. Chin! How are you, Ms. Chin!" while affectionately rubbing my arm. It was... weird. My cousin who I was with at the time, theorized maybe that's just what West Indians call Asian people. I googled "jamaican, mrs. chin" and found your blog. Thanks for clearing that up for me. I was a bit befuddled.

Jennifer said...

I would have been equally befuddled, even though I am Chinese Jamaican and have been called this before! I mean, I *think* what the woman may have been doing is expressing a kind of enthusiasm/excitement/affection and perhaps even nostaligically she had a very positive experience with Chinese in Jamaica (I say Chinese because there are predominantly Chinese rather than Korean or Japanese East Asians in Jamaica). It is odd, though, that she would be so expressive to a total stranger, but perhaps that's my own cultural bias as an American coming out. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

Anonymous said...

Hello! My name's Rose and I'm from Jamaica as well - I am so happy to have come across your blog!

I didn't know how else I could contact you, but I wanted to request a bit of your assistance with the 'I am Jamaican' project...The aim to prove that Jamaica is not just the homogeneous country that most people think it is.

So that I don't take up so much space, please do e-mail me at to explain... It's very simple, and your assistance would be greatly appreciated!!