WHEN I was 12 years old, my native St. Lucian mother moved to St. Lucia with my American father. Growing up with parents from two diverse backgrounds was a cross-cultural experience that I did not even realize I had. However, reflecting on these experiences allowed me to form my own national identity.
Living in St. Lucia was an adjustment. Previously, I had lived in Laurel, Maryland. My mother, who was born in Castries, decided to move back home after being away for 20 years. While living in America, my mother still held on to her cultural values and norms. As a child, I became accustomed to school-packed lunches with tamarind juice and breadfruit balls. I woke up to my mother hovered over a large pot of oil with lumps of dough as she attempted to make fried bakes. They never actually seemed to float but stuffed with accras, they seemed to suffice.
Nevertheless, when I moved to St. Lucia in 2010, it seemed as if my upbringing was a complete contrast to that of my classmates. I felt the constant need to prove that my mother was actually St. Lucian and, no, I didn’t have an accent. To make matters worse, I was really bad at all sports, including football and cricket. Also, I can’t whine to save my life.
When my parents separated during my final year of high school, we were unable to accommodate our previous lifestyle. As a result, my mother and I moved to the south of the island. My neighbours spoke a different dialect that I did not understand. Eventually, I picked up on social gestures and cues. Toothpaste became “Colgate” and a pillowcase was now a “pillow slip”. I picked up on my mother’s movements and habits as I transitioned into adolescence. There was a fluidity in her movements; they were fast and curt. These traditions stuck with me until college and it never occurred to me that they were indifferent. Yet, when studying at an American University for the first time in 2015, I felt a cultural shock of a lifetime.
At my American University, I was recognized as an international student and was invited to join clubs that would help me adjust. To my surprise, I found myself struggling to meet students who shared the same experiences as I did. In the classroom, there was a distinct difference in the structural-based learning that I was previously accustomed to. Naturally, the common question arose: “Where are you from?” Often, I did not want to give a long ancestry list, so I would reply with “St. Lucia”.
This was met with a variety of responses from: “So, how come you can’t speak another language then?” and “Wow, why did you leave such a beautiful island to come here?” As the conversation continued, it became clear that their perception of “the islands” was very different than the lives of most locals who lived there. I was bombarded with questions about my nationality and whether I identified as black or not. Comments such as these startled me because my father being African-American and my mother of Afro-Caribbean heritage, I do identity as a black woman. The way that I speak or do things so happens to be based on both of the environments that I was accustomed to. Yet, when I tried to explain this concept to people, I realized that I first had to understand cultural stereotypes and how they affect our perceptions. In my research, I came across a TedTalk by Canwen Xu that helped me understand cultural stereotyping.
In this TedTalk, Xu describes her experiences as an Asian-American. Xu was born in Nanjing, China but moved to the United States when she was two years old. Growing up, she lived in North Dakota and Idaho. Canwen opens the dialogue describing how growing up in the whitest neighborhoods in South Dakota conflicted with her national identity. She was used to being the only person of Asian descent in her class. As a result, she constantly struggled with conforming to stereotypical ideals or blending into the mainstream culture; which meant forgetting her own.
She quotes: “My peers liked me more because I was more similar to them. I become more confident because I knew I was more similar to them. But as I become more Americanized, I lost bits and pieces. Parts of me that I could never get back. And no matter how much I tried to pretend that I was the same as my American classmates, I wasn’t.”
Hearing her story helped me draw conclusions from my own narrative. Was I trying to fit into a certain norm because I felt different? When speaking to other Caribbean natives who came to study in America, the narrative is almost the same. How can we challenge these stereotypes if we don’t question our own perceived notion, whether they be from the media or our own opinions? So why does everyone seem to have a different depiction of what living in the Caribbean looks like?
Rodolfo Mendoz Denton, Ph.D, answered these questions in his article, “Cultural Stereotypes, Or National Character?” He says: “We have all heard vacationers come back from an exotic locale with tales of how wonderful the locals are. Often, these exclamations characterize, unhesitatingly, an entire nation: “Everyone is sooo nice in Mexico!” Or, “I just love the Bahamas, the locals are so happy and carefree!”
I have come to the conclusion that it can be hard to study in a foreign place, whether that be the UK, America or Canada. However, I encourage students looking to study abroad to own their heritage. Do not feel the need to fit into a stereotypical image and do not feel the need to change, either. Understanding how your multi-cultural roots shape you as an individual is the key to self-acceptance. Accept the various layers of yourself and don’t be afraid to break barriers.