I am about 10 years old and I’m in Home Depot with my mom. We are in the cashier line and she starts speaking to me in patois – “Me nuh know if dissa dih right sitten me fih buy..” The nice gentleman in front of us turns around to look. As he turns around, my mom stops talking. He proceeds to do this two more times until he finally catches on that the accent he’s hearing is coming out of a small, petite Asian looking woman. In amazement, the man proceeded to ask mom a barrage of questions….how her parents got to Jamaica? If she even speaks Chinese at all? Where were her parents from in Jamaica? What town? Before you know it, the entire line (and cashier!) want to know all about mom’s life history! Half-an-hour later, we are still there! Even though instances like this happened more than I can keep count of, it was this particular memory that made me stop and think that this is not the norm to see (and hear) a Chinese-Jamaican person.
To give a little background, both sets of my grandparents emigrated from China to Jamaica in the 1900’s. Originally, the Hakka Chinese people were brought to Jamaica as indentured labourers aimed to replace the outlawed system of black slavery. By 1963, the Chinese had a virtual monopoly on retail trade in Jamaica, controlling 95% of supermarkets, along with extensive entrepreneurship in other industries such as laundromats and betting parlors. Today, Chinese Jamaicans make up 1.2% of the population in Jamaica. My maternal grandfather opened “Sunrise Bakery” in Spanish Town in the early 1900’s which specialized in traditional Jamaican baked goods such as hard dough bread, bulla cake and bun. The bakery soon became a landmark on the island. My paternal grandparents owned and operated small grocery stores in Brown’s Town & Spanish Town. Most of my family eventually ended up between the US, the UK and Canada. My parents moved to NY in 1972, where my older brother and I were born.
My childhood years of growing up in a Chinese-Jamaican household were filled with so many interesting things. Food was (and still is) a big thing in my family. Mixing the two cultures through food is something that is so special and unique about the way that I grew up. We ate a lot of traditional Jamaican food in our house – Oxtail, Curry Goat, Escovitch Fish, and my favorite…Stew Peas, to name a few. Sunday morning breakfast was always something to look forward to – the smell of Ackee & Saltfish, Liver, Callalloo, Johnny Cakes, Shrimp Fritters & Bammy would get you out of bed faster than you knew you could move. If you snoozed, you “lose-d”… or as my dad loves to say “Hearly bird cyatch ih firss worm!” Some traditional Chinese food and Chinese-Jamaican-specific dishes were also found at our table. For me, all of these dishes remind me of when I was a little girl, sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table, feet dangling. Jamaican Black Cake and Easter Bun & Cheese were must-have’s during holiday time. As I sit here typing this, I can see dad with the giant ceramic bowl & wooden spoon creaming the butter & sugar while mom methodically throws in each ingredient. Just the mere smell of this cake transports me back to that little five-year-old girl. Memories of helping her fill the batter into the “tins”, and watching them rise through the oven window is forever seared into my mind. It became so seared into my mind that Miss Cherry’s Rum Cakes was born. Naturally, mom is the namesake <wink wink>.
It was quite typical to Celebrate Chinese New Year, have an All-Jamaican-Food family Christmas dinner, and find a bunch of Chinese-Jamaicans having marathon mahjong sessions in my parent’s basement – laughing and telling stories in patois – while Dad DJ’d – his catalog of music ranging from old ska, calypso, soca, and reggae. Just a short, quick glimpse to a basement window sill, you could also find statues of the Three Chinese Wise Men – “Fuk Luk Sau” which is placed in the home for good luck, wealth and longevity. We still bow and pray to our ancestors, sending up offerings of fresh boiled chicken, fruit, paper money & rum.
As I reflect on what growing up in a Chinese-Jamaican household means to me, the words “unity” and “tradition” keep coming up. Unity within my own family & the Chinese Jamaican community, and the deep rooted traditions that have been instilled in me – that I am now passing on to my children. The food, the language and the culture are such a huge part of who I am. This makes me think of the old Jamaican proverb “Yuh mek yuh sail too big fih yuh boat, it gwen tun yuh ovah” which translates into “Never pretend to be who you’re not!”
“Alright mom, meet you at Home Depot in five minutes…”