Those four words were enough to make my 12-year old heart fall to the pit of my stomach. I had failed, again. I practiced my patois (patwa) for days gearing up for my trip to Jamaica and yet it still wasn’t good enough to fool this lady. She smiled, amused as she rocked her baby.
I nodded yes.
I was from foreign and I hated it. For the rest of the vacation, when we were out I’d let my parents do all the talking and just stand there hoping no one could smell the American on me. However, even when I was home in the U.S., I still felt I was from foreign. It wasn’t easy growing up, pronouncing words differently from other kids because that was how I had overheard my parents saying it or always having my lunch packed with various sandwiches containing plantain while my friends paraded their Lunchables.
I wasn’t always left out though; at one point the school I went to had a majority of Jamaican students. So much so in fact it became the cool thing to be and I would be quick to label someone a Jah-FAKE-n meanwhile I was the Jah-merican in my own house. However, once I got to high school no one understood why I couldn’t do sleepovers or why the only football I cared about actually involved feet.
My insecurities crept back in when I came to college and began to meet Caribbean students whose accents made them sound like they sang every syllable. They knew every single Caribbean food, song, and dance. Meanwhile I had to scramble to research the newest Vybz Kartel song and ‘dutty whine’ until my neck cramped up to feel relevant. Until one day, one of the girls started to talk about the Caribbean people that only knew their flags and nothing else about their culture. I nodded my head in agreement until she ended her speech with “no offense Sofiya.”
My heart fell to the pit of my stomach, again. I couldn’t fool her just like I couldn’t fool the lady years before. For days I let it affect me, I was tired of not feeling good enough. If my black card wasn’t constantly being revoked my Jamaican card sure was.
I began to think about all the things I did know and I came to the conclusion that just because I wasn’t loud about my culture it didn’t mean I was ignorant of my heritage. Just because I didn’t always wear it on my chest, didn’t mean I wasn’t proud.
I admit I do not know everything about Jamaica, when I cook fry dumplings they come out like rocks, and I couldn’t tell you how on earth Bob Marley could make the most revolutionary lyrics sound like peaceful mantras.
However, I can explain the ideology of Marcus Garvey, I can tell you what reggae songs make my parents slow dance, I can tell you about how my grandma thinks black dressing and rum solves every ailment, and I can tell you how this little island where my parents were born changed the world.
I am Jamaican not because of how much I know or how much patois I can speak but because of who I am.