Jamaicans are one-of-a-kind. As the only English-speaking country in our neck of the West Indies, it’s no wonder that we developed our own unique culture. While it does share some similarities with that of our West Indian neighbours, this is largely through adoption.
When I travelled on the Carnival Cruise through the Caribbean, from Cayman to Mexico, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing reggae music or seeing the Jamaican flag hoisted up. Our cultural reach spreads all the way to unlikely territories like Germany, France, and Japan.
What’s most impressive is that we didn’t fight wars or attempt to indoctrinate anyone to achieve this. What can we say? People love us and want to be like us. But, in spite of how popular and easily identifiable our culture is, we often leave foreigners scratching their heads.
After all, listening to every Bob Marley song ever recorded and travelling to our island every year will not make you an inside-expert on who we are, what we do and why —even if you think you are. Here are five things we do that confuses even the foreigners who live among us.
1. The Rubbing Alcohol
Americans are no strangers to rubbing alcohol. They see it in pharmacies and even at the dollar store. Most people know it can be used for antiseptic purposes, but I think foreigners are a little confused by the way Jamaicans “re-purpose” rubbing alcohol for medicinal uses.
I wrote about this in The 5 Essentials of a Jamaican First Aid Kit. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s not too late. In the article, I detailed all the many ways Jamaicans use rubbing alcohol. The two main ones that sometimes leaves even other West Indians confused is sniffing it and pouring it on the crown of the head.
Why do we do this? In Jamaica, there’s a common belief that if you’ve been out in the rain or cold weather, a cork full of alcohol on the head may prevent illness. Some people may use rum for this instead. As for the sniffing, if you do get sick, a whiff of rubbing alcohol can reopen that nasal passage in no time.
2. Our Language
Many Jamaicans can go from proper English to patois (pronounced patwa) in a heartbeat. Funny enough, the longer I’ve been in America, the easier this becomes. I don’t mean switching to English becomes easier either; I mean switching to patois does. In fact, I think I use Jamaican Creole more in America than I ever did in Jamaica.
Unfortunately, for the foreigners who happen to be in the room when I switch to patois, the confusion is evident on their faces. Jamaicans speak very quickly, and our habit of eating syllables and joining words makes it virtually impossible for other English-speakers to understand us. One example I always use to illustrate this is the word d’even. This is how many of us say, “don’t even”. We don’t waste our breath.
Aside from our speed-talking, the words we use even in English or broken English often leave foreigners in the dark. For example, my mother uses the word bly a lot when talking to other Anglophones, at which point I have to remind her that they don’t know what that is. Giving someone a bly in Jamaica is letting something slip or giving someone a pass on something they should have gotten in trouble for.
We also have strange ways of describing body parts. For example, we say foot bottom to mean the sole of the feet. And, just in case you’re wondering, yes we would say head top to mean the top (or crown) of the head. But then, there are those that make no immediate English-sense, such as “wanga gut” which can mean any of the following: big belly, saggy belly, belly belonging to a greedy person, or all of the above.
It's how we describe body parts. Foot bottom, hand middle. My daughter told Canadian BF last week to rub vicks on his foot bottom and he looked at her like she had 2 heads. Poor chap was befuddled. He told her she was making words up 😂😂
— Wendew (@wensbff) June 8, 2019
Whenever I say the word pomegranate without like "code switching" first I guess🤔, (dunno if everyone's parents did this but) my parents used to make me drop salt water in my nose when it was stuff to clear it so that too…🤔
— Alex Wolf (@AlliWolf) June 8, 2019
It definitely has to be the words used.
I forgot "Hush" was offensive up here and got a real awkward exchange out of it.
— But Really Though? 🇯🇲🇺🇸 (@jhrissland) June 8, 2019
3. Giving Each Other Money
There are many contributing factors to my graduating college with two degrees, 100% debt-free. Not least among them is that college is much less expensive in Jamaica. However, on a 50-dollar-a-day salary in the United States, it was taxing for my Mom. So, she used a partner plan—or as Jamaicans say, pawdna—to help pay for it.
My family and I still run a pawdna today. I spent my last hand on paying six months of car insurance upfront. My next hand will pay for the trip to the Maldives that I booked this week.
But, what is a pawdna and what is a hand? In Jamaica, families, friends and/or colleagues come together and agree to pay one person (the banker) a certain amount of money at a scheduled time. One person then gets a draw, which is their hand at the set payment period.
This sounds way more complicated than it really is, so here’s an example. Elizabeth, Cynthia and I have a hypothetical pawdna. I’m the banker, so every week, Elizabeth and Cynthia pay me $100. I also have to contribute $100 every week to the pot. At the end of Month 1, Elizabeth gets $1,200 ($100 x 3 people x 4 weeks). Month 2, Cynthia gets her hand. I take mine for Month 3 and then we start the whole thing all over again.
Many foreigners who learn we do this then say, “But if I just save my own $100 per week for three months, I would end up with $1,200”. This is very true, but the question is: Do you? We’ve learned that by making ourselves accountable to the group, we can get that $1,200 every three months without fail. Naturally, you only do pawdnas with people you trust.
4. Women at the Strip Club
No, I don’t mean strippers. I mean the rest of us.
When I still lived in Jamaica, I had a lot of friends who were foreigners. They came from Britain, Belgium, Sweden, South Africa, Canada, Italy, and everywhere in-between. My last two boyfriends on the island were also from Spain. Regardless of their nationality, my main role in the group was to be the cultural expert as they learned to adjust.
One question I got very often was this:
Why do Jamaican women love the strip club so much? If I go to the strip club, I can bet there are more women than men. And then, while the men kick back with their drinks, their women are sticking bills in G-strings.
My response the first time I was asked this was a look of pure confusion. I thought all women were like this, but it turns out, this might be a Jamaican thing. By the second time I was asked, I would just laugh and tell them to enjoy it.
Unless the Jamaican woman is an uppity religious type, or this just isn’t her scene, she will probably have more fun at the strip club than her man. We take our boyfriends and our husbands to the club and they hand us money that we use to pay these wonderful women for the entertainment that may or may not give us a few ideas to try out at home.
Sometimes we don’t bother to bring the men. Strip clubs make a great girls’ night out! When my Mom visited the island in 2013, I took her to the strip club with my friends. It was just two guys and roughly half a dozen females in the group. And yes, we had a damn good time!
5. Our Racial Mixing
I am often amused by the many different ways Americans sum up, quantify, identify, react to or attempt to discredit my racial heritage. To some White Americans, I am Black and that’s the be-all and end-all of it. Most African-Americans identify me as Mixed or a “Red Bone” and may ask me about my heritage. I’ve been told a few times that I’m too light-skinned to say the “N” word.
To some White people, the idea of me being called “light-skinned” blows their mind. One idiot once asked, “Well, what are you mixed with? Like, Black and more Black??” Ironically, just two minutes before this, she was bemoaning how unfair it was that people did not recognise or accept that she was Jewish because she had blonde hair and blue eyes.
For the record, I identify as Mixed Black: Mixed because I am multi-racial and Black because that is my predominant gene. My Mom is Indian, Irish and Black on her maternal side and then German and Black on her paternal side. My biological father’s side is Black and Indian. Put simply, I am a mutt and proud of it—as well as the plantation land that has been in my family for 200-plus years as a result. Thank you racist Irish great-great-great grandma for the free land!
For some of my friends, the mixing is far more obvious. People often downright laugh in their face when they say they are Jamaican, at least until they deliver a dose of patois. Then, the eyes widen and the jaws drop.
I’m going to say it again for the millionth time. Our motto is Out of Many, One People for a reason. We didn’t just make it up because it sounds cool. Most of my Jamaican friends were South Asian and East Asian mixes, as is most of my maternal family. As an example, some of you may remember my graphic designer and bestie:
What are some of the things from your culture that leaves foreigners scratching their heads? The biggest one for me is that in America, so many people see climate change as fake news or a matter of opinion. In Jamaica, this is not a debatable topic. We would think you were an uneducated buffoon if you said you didn’t believe in global warming. I still have a hard time not thinking that of people who say it, here…
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