As my long time readers know I spent a year living in Trinidad, West Indies and have traveled back and forth many times. Those folks know how much I loved it there too. Many experiences as well as cultural and historical posts related to that were chronicled in the Trini Tuesday posts I did for the first year and half of this blog. I haven't done a TT post in probably about 7 months and I know I've picked up a number of new readers since then. It's been fun to shift and share about my home culture for a while and there will be more posts on that in the future but for today I'm going to do a little fusion.
Before Mr. Lime and I moved there we had gone through some general cross cultural training which was very helpful in enabling us to adjust to a new place. During the training we were required to evaluate our own cultural values and consider a what our reactions might be to very different sets of values. It really helped us develop good attitudes and shed judgementalism. When we moved there we dove in head first looking to learn and experience as much as we could.
We were also fortunate to have local friends who acted as cultural interpreters during times we found confusing. These were friends we could ask anything from "Why is there a colony of ants living in my iron?" to "How do I deal with a lecherous taxi driver?" We were blessed with neighbors who took us by the hand to the open market and showed us how to haggle for the best produce. Other friends taught me what to do with the unusual fruits and vegetables that I came home with after that first trip to the market. When we demonstrated an interest in learning about the local culture people were more than happy to teach us. One friend's mother became like a mother to us and began introducing us as her white kids. I can't even begin to express what a blessing that kind of acceptance was.
Most of the expat Americans I encountered on the island embarrassed me though. They had all been there for much longer than we had and yet they didn't seem to have much appreciation for local ways. Truthfully, as much as they departed from Trini cultural norms I didn't really see them adhering to American norms either. They sort of developed this third culture that I found rather odious because socially they had isolated themselves, sometimes quite intentionally. Consequently they had bred a lot of distrust. I generally avoided them.
There was one American woman though who I quite enjoyed though. She wasn't fully an expat. she lived in the US but traveled back and forth to Trinidad several times a year and often spent most of the summer on the island. Ironically, she was from a town very close to my hometown. She was a little slice of familiarity with her knowledge of Shoo fly pies, Dutchie slang, and Dutchie values. As I observed her I noticed how well respected she was by Trinis and how well she functioned in the culture so I was more drawn to her and she provided every bit as invaluable to interpreting things as my Trini friends.
Because we came from the same American subculture and because she had so many years of experience with Trini culture she was able to anticipate some of the pitfalls I might make and helped me to avoid them. She also saw the one area I was most resistant in and gave me some excellent advice. (Yes, I know you are shocked to find I could be at all resistant, I am such a docile and compliant person. By the way, I have some lovely swampland in Trinidad to sell you too.)
Now what was I resiting to strongly? I mean I truly was working to learn and fit in and enjoying it immensely. I had found that both Dutchies and Trinis are very forthright people and so I didn't have to entirely muffle that particular tendency of mine. I did at least try very hard to be careful about what I was blurted out since I didn't want to come across as critical of local culture. What barrier was I refusing to remove?
Well, as you know the Pennsylvania Germans are a plain people. Even those of us who aren't Amish or Mennonite are fairly subdued in our dress and grooming. It's not at all uncommon for middle aged women to just hack off their hair and wear it in a very unflattering cross between a bowl cut and a pixie. Cosmetic companies could go broke in dutch country. As weird as many of you may think my early and abiding love of tie dye is, in my hometown it is considered entirely aberrant (Must be those Greek roots of hers, Ethel, it's just unnatural you know!). In the entire county you'd be hard pressed to come up with enough bling to properly adorn a single rap star. Heck, we think the southern belles with their tastefully painted faces and perfectly coiffed hair are a bit ostentatious.
Now I am in Trinidad where tailored attire, grooming, fashion, and bling are the order of the day. Also, any given outfit can only be worn a certain number of times and before it can be repeated a certain gap in outings must be observed. It's nearly an insult to tell a Trini you remember the last time they wore a particular ensemble. You all can laugh but I truly found that a very disorienting thing and I figured as long as I was clean and not violating their standards of modesty I should be ok. I will admit I very quickly took to the love of wild patterns and bright colors, big surprise I know. I remained blissfully plain otherwise, happily wearing the same couple of shapeless dresses to church week after week, schlubbing off to market in a tee-shirt, shorts and sandals. Through it all I wondered why the women were viewing me with a mix of pity and disdain. Surely they could see I had a brain in my head and they can tell I bathe regularly. (Trinis are seriously fastidious regarding hygiene. It may be 11 degrees above the equator but you simply will NOT encounter a Trini with BO unless he is is a drunken bum passed out in the gutter. Even then he will try to have the good sense to pass out under a public water pipe so he can bathe when he revives.)
Enter my blessed Dutchie interpreter who took me aside and gave me the talking to I most needed. She said there was no way I was going to be given entre among the women unless I started being demonstrably female. She of course, understood what anathema I considered all this fuss and finery. I hasten to add I was already happy to observe the requirement of bathing twice daily in that climate and didn't mind in the least that we didn't have running hot water in the bathroom. Fresh as a daisy! But alas, daisies are such a plain thing and they don't grow well in the tropics. It was time for me to learn to be a hibiscus.
This dear lady related the tale of how she'd been corrected. She had gone to the capitol city to do some shopping. One of the items she wanted was not readily available and had to be special ordered. When it came in and she had to return to pick it up she and her local friend got ready to go. The American lady searched high and low for her claim slip and was dismayed when it could not be found. She asked her friend what she ought to do to prove the order was hers. The Trini woman said not to worry, the clerk would remember her. "Ah yes, of course, because I am a platinum blonde American in a sea of Africans and East Indians, right?" Her Trini friend regarded her head to toe and replied in all seriousness, "Nah gyul, is because yuh wearin' de same ugly bag of a dress as when yuh make de order!" Lesson learned.
I began spending more than 60 seconds styling my hair, started wearing more tailored clothes, and donning skirts when I went in public. Lo and behold, the women decided maybe I might just be worthy of consideration. On occasion, I even heard "Ooh but de blouse/skirt/dress takes you, gyul! Yuh not looking like a regular American. Yuh lookin real Trini now." Now, I still was refusing make-up so I know they were making exception for me, but they at least saw I was making an effort and recognized it. True to their forthright nature I also heard in whispered asides, "My dear, de skirt making yuh bamsee look a bit too wide. Take it to the tailor and let it out." Understand this is not an insult. It meant I had earned their concern for my welfare.
Since I had demonstrated competence with braiding my own hair in a manner evocative of the local mode I was also trusted with the heads of little girls when I went to visit friends. That sort of activity begets many more opportunities to learn about a culture because when you are sitting in someone's house braiding their child's hair while they brush another child's hair you are actually getting to see people with their own hair down and they expose themselves in ways you'd never see otherwise. It was quite astonishing to me and I was more and more grateful for that simple piece of advice from a woman who had successfully bridged two cultures.