I am astounded at the complexity of my interactions with each person I meet here. I feel as though every interaction has a new interpretation each time I reflect on it. A reoccurring feeling is one of displacement. Not of my physical self but MYself.
Being an immigrant in the United States, displacement is not a feeling that I am a stranger to but it is more apparent here in some ways. I find myself wanting South Africans to know that I am Jamaican, and not American. I find myself being lumped in with my group and being identified as an American. I am different from my group and different from the majority of the people around me. The moment I realized this was quite comical but also very trying. This realization opened up a weld of confusion for me. It forced me to reckon and wrestle with the fact that I would have to choose who the HECK I wanted to be on this trip.
It was a Sunday night, our second official night in South Africa and we had dinner at a very mediocre African restaurant. Their oxtail did not measure up to my daddy’s recipe, which is still the best I have ever had. We were scheduled to attend a comedy show hosted by South African comedian Tats Nkonzo. The show was centered around race.
Now for me, being with a group of Americans in a foreign country attending a comedy show about race was very unsettling. The rest of the world hates Americans, especially our president and that in and of itself made me extremely nervous. My plan of action was simple, sit at the front and get the brunt of the initial humor and then coast through the rest of the show already having been dealt with and not have to worry about the hard-hitting jabs. Well, my plan failed and we were pretty much the entire show.
I was doing very well flying under the radar until the host asked about our relationship with white people. I guess my face betrayed me with a very telling and emphatic reaction that clearly just needed some sort of vocal elaboration. The host comedian took one look at me and singled me out to explain myself. I began by explaining my identity as a Jamaican woman.
I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that people around me were laughing, guffawing and whistling. Was it something I said? I had not realized that the more I spoke the more my Jamaican accent thickened and completely flattened out my ‘American voice.’ Everyone in my cohort looked like they had just seen me commit an act of betrayal! But what struck me deep was the host, in his response, saying he didn’t believe me. He questioned my heritage. He insinuated that I was Jamaican but far removed or that it was something I said to sound cute, a tidbit fun fact that I tell people to seem different.
That night was the first time that someone didn’t believe my heritage. The usual response is “Omg that’s so cool” or “Wait what, so did you like have school there?” Ignorant responses that I can handle off the fly. This response stumped me, stripped me of feeling what I was. I felt naked. Who was I? Was I even Jamaican anymore? Did I stop being Jamaican the moment I left? Or was it the moment I subconsciously put away my accent for home-use when that white boy in 9th grade asked me if I had a speech impediment? When did I stop being authentic?
This experience has just been the first of many that I’ve had in South Africa, a struggle and a pregnant pause before answering the ever present question “where are you from?” I take a pause and think for a moment, who do I want to be today – Jamaican Ysanne or American Ysanne?