I remember having a neighborhood friend over as a child. It was on an occasion when my Mother was making “soup”. Yes. That soup. Soup that was so thick that you may or may not need breakfast the next day - or lunch. It had everything in it: Dumplins, corn, chicken, potatoes, and a healthy dose of split peas. The visitor, whose Mom frequently had “dates” that kept her out way past after work hours would often curiously stare at the dinners in my home. “What kinda soup is that?” It was the emphasis on the word soup that stuck out.
It was as if she questioned the mere notion that this familiar family concoction should even be associated with the word. She was accustomed to broth, or basically colored water. That was her entire experience with soup. I watched as she pushed around the steaming bowl cautiously. Sometimes she looked curious, sometimes horrified. She pursed her lips tightly and took a bite. Then another and another. She moved the items out of the way that she didn’t want and ate the things she liked. She still thought it was weird. But that weird dish filled her belly that night and the bag of McDonalds brought home by her Mom went straight into the fridge.
There were times that being the daughter of immigrant parents made me feel like an outsider. I stuck out. I was different. My peers made sure to emphasize that truth as often as they could. Case in point. The Thanksgiving essay. We had to read them in front of the class. Most kids talked about getting a Christmas tree and Mac & Cheese. I mean there were A LOT of menus that included Macaroni and cheese. I don’t understand how half my 3rd grade class wasn’t constipated with all this cheese talk. All a’dem needa purge after all that cheese, but I digress.
When it was my turn, my story included an airport run and how many of grannies mangoes were eaten by the customs agents and how they also confiscated her salt fish and coo coo. My story was rife with gung goo peas and rice, plantain, fry yucca, turkey, a speeding ticket, the delivery of rum cake, the mysterious jar from which fruits soaked for a cake, sorrel to relatives and the opening of gifts from abroad which were carefully wrapped in newspaper and transported in a red , white and blue plastic woven tote bag. Trust me, all of you had one in your house. There also was a lengthy story of how my brother hit his finger with the hammer as he tried to crack the coconut for the rice and peas. Cracking coconut is a skill mind you, and not for the faint at heart. Side note: I waited until my granny died before I used canned coconut milk because she could “tell” the difference. I managed to finish my story without a mac and cheese reference in all my 4 paragraphs. Yeah, some people laughed. Yep, I was a bit weird. But that was MY Thanksgiving.
Summer was a different story for me as well. In the states, you saw movies where young kids hung out all Summer and had adventures before school started. That didn’t apply to me. Most summers I was out of the country visiting relatives, getting back just in time to hear “Oh you missed it!” “You shoulda seen when…” “You shoulda been there.” and so forth from the playground crew. While my peers dined on hot dogs, burgers and pizza, I was eating ground food, stuff called “Organic” now was just plain old food to us. The fish that was swimming in the water in the morning was on your plate that night and I guess at the time I didn’t really appreciate it. Not as much as I do now.
By the time High School had rolled around, I had accepted my “outsider” status. I actually felt a sense of pride with it. I had formed my own peer groups who all had foreign relatives. I was able to see how even though the places and sometimes the languages were different, we were all still the same. A familiar fruit can be called mamon, guinep , Spanish lime or chenet. It didn’t matter, we all knew what it was and you either loved it or hated it. It was great to belong and not be an outsider all the time. It was great to be with a group of kids who understood the disdain of the dreaded Okra (Don’t @ me). Who knew from the smells outside their front door after school if dinner was just a big nope and cereal was on the menu that night.
After High School, some of us went back to being outsiders again. Not all schools had Caribbean Student Unions, so some of us had to fend for ourselves. We weren’t being anti-social, with other people, we were just looking for folks who would be able to decipher the patois or Spanglish coming from our dorm room as our parents tried to “help” unpack our bags. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “That was English?” It was exhausting. And sometimes you didn’t want to explain. Sometimes you just wanted to be near folks who understood. It was in those times, when you got a wink and a nod from someone else across the hall who had a Grandfather in tow wearing blue jeans and church shoes. You knew you would immediately be friends with that kid.
After college, the real world beckoned, and I was an outsider again. It wasn’t just ethnically this time - it was racially. Too many meetings and too many conferences when this cheese stood alone. No one knew the music I listened to. I was expected to laugh at the silliest jokes from stand-up comedians I never heard of. AND I was back to having people look at my lunch and ask with a wrinkled nose, “What’s that?” But as an adult, who paid for and cooked this food I was able to respond: “MY business on MY plate!” Just kidding. I was good about explaining what I had because at this point in my life, I didn’t see not having burgers and fries as “missing out”.
I make no apologies for being the child of foreigners. I LOVE that I am. I love all the cultures that I have come to know. I love how similar my Caribbean brethren are. Those similarities mean that we are not alone. We have brothers and sisters whose ancestors may be from an island or isthmus. They could be from a country that borders the sea or is land locked. We are group of people whose language, music and food are hugged by the ripples of the Caribbean Sea. A group of people who also have bredren across the sea on a beautiful continent that is kissed by the sun. A place where the earliest man hails from.
Wow. What a family.
Now when I leave during summertime. I am going to fete! I am going to party with my bredren. I am going to dance and wave a flag. I am going to soak up some sun. And when I get back, I won’t have to worry about hearing “You shoulda been there” because I was.
Written by Susanna Elata