This part one of a four-part personal essay series on immigration and identity. This instalment was published by Prairie Fire literary magazine, and was recently submitted for a National Magazine Award.
Dad paused the movie. “Can you believe that some people spend their whole lives trying to get to the sea?”
My mother and I looked at him. I raised my eyebrows. We were at my favourite part, where the main character finally fulfills his lifelong dream of visiting the ocean. I couldn’t understand why my father had chosen to such a critical moment to bring everything to a standstill.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Some people spend their whole lives trying to go on vacation,” Dad said. “They make it a mission to go to the sea. The sea, of all places.” My father shook his head and un-paused the movie.
My parents had grown up in Jamaica, mere steps away from the one thing that many Canadians yearn for. I opened my mouth, then closed it, because I didn’t know what to say. I felt jealousy bubble in my gut. For my parents, the sea was an old, familiar friend. For me, it was a mere acquaintance.
It is possible that my future children will spend their lives chasing the sea. One day, I may pause the television only to have them stare back at me blankly, able to conjure images of the sea only from movies, not from memory.
I immigrated from Jamaica to Ontario, Canada when I was seven, my sister five, and my parents in their early forties. We started off in a small three-bedroom apartment in a gritty part of Toronto, but, as my parents climbed the social ranks, we moved deeper into the suburbs, and further from the city.
In my adolescence, I complained about the small towns in which we found ourselves, with unreliable bus systems and little to do within walking distance.
“Why can’t we live in the city?” I complained. “There’s nothing to do in the country.”
“We live in the suburbs because they’re green,” my parents said.
I peered out the car window. In our neighbourhood, there was a strip mall and little else, but on the whole, our surroundings were green, with mature trees and farmland lining either side of the road.
“Green?” I asked. “Why is it so important that we live where it’s green?”
“We live here,” they said, “because it looks like Jamaica.”
And then I understood: Jamaica was lush, teeming with life and sound, year-round. So, I stopped complaining. My parents were trying to recreate the place they grew up, trying to get a little closer to home, and who was I to take that away from them?
There is something to be said for the seaside childhood.
Before I moved to Canada at age seven, weekends were for ‘Beach Moves.’ Very early on, I learned how to pack a beach bag with all the essentials: beach shoes to protect my feet from sharp rocks and crabs, pails, shovels, and an ingenious beach towel that converted into a bag for wet things.
My family and I would sit at a plastic table and chairs, eating fried fish caught from the ocean just minutes ago. They still had eyes and appeared to look up at us, imploring. The wind would rush our feast, carrying paper plates and napkins off beyond our reach and blowing sand into our food. It seemed, even then, like the sea was playing hard to get.
There is something to be said for the fried dumpling, or ‘festival’, as it’s called, that left a swath of grease along our lips. Ting soda so strong it seared our tongues.
We baked in the sunshine—greedily, hungrily—until we were so brown that we were unrecognizable. Beach Moves. This is just one of the things my children, though not yet born, may never know.
Like sails catching wind, my parents veered toward bodies of water as if at some point they might discover in Canada somewhere as warm and inviting as the Caribbean Sea. In particular, they enjoyed car trips with no destination in mind. We once drove east until we reached a town called Cobourg, Ontario. I remember it very clearly. It was blustery that day.
My mother hugged herself against the chill, looking out at the grey water. The beach was made of sharp, black rocks, slick with condensation.
“Coats and gloves at the beach,” my mother said, disbelieving. She laughed.
My sister and I peeled off our shoes and socks to dip our toes in the frigid water. “Are you coming in?” we asked.
My mother and father shook their heads and watched us from the shore. They never swam in cold water; they knew better.
Just as I would settle into my Canadian bubble, my family would return to Jamaica for two weeks at a time, and I would be reminded, again, that there were other places in the world.
My childhood was characterized by extremes: one moment, I would be sitting by the fireplace, warming my hands against the minus 29-degree chill, and, the next day, I would be lounging in a hammock suspended between two mango trees, reading, eyes shaded by a straw sunhat. This was just how it was. But this duality of identity proved difficult to reconcile.
Over the course of the fourteen-odd years since I moved to Canada, I have met people who simply cannot conceive of a reality other than the one in which we live. I can’t blame them. If I didn’t know any better, if I had spent my whole life here, I might believe such a thing didn’t exist, as well. But perhaps there is a danger in loving places that exist only in the minds of some.
I’ll explain. When I was 18, I had a math teacher who was unequivocally terrifying. Let us call her: Balašević. Balašević was as broad as a board and about as expressive as one. Her hair was bleached blonde and cropped short, and she favoured shapeless cardigans, sweeping skirts, and orthotic shoes. But this was not what made her terrifying; it was her tendency to praise top students while belittling the others, calling them “stupid,” and other cruel names—treatment that, more than once, brought several of my classmates to tears. We loathed her, but understood, somehow, that she was a transplant from another time and place, somewhere in the former USSR. Serbia, we guessed. Maybe her teachers had spoken to her this way, as well.
In mid-December of my grade twelve year, I handed Balašević a form to sign. It stated that my Grandfather had died unexpectedly, and that I needed permission to push a test to after the Christmas holidays, in order to fly back to Jamaica for the funeral. We were leaving unexpectedly, and, in my grief and confusion, I had quoted Balašević conflicting dates in the days prior. Her patience had evidently worn thin.
She looked over her glasses at me.
“Liar,” she said to me. “I don’t sign sheets for liars.”
I stepped backward. My classmates, who were familiar with her particular brand of mistreatment, kept their eyes on their pages. Others pretended to work or stared off in into the middle distance.
“You tell me you’re leaving three days from now, then you tell me you’re leaving two days from now. You’re lying. You expect me to move the test so you can go on holiday in Jamaica? So you can lie on the beach?”
I clutched the paper to my chest and returned to my seat. She had reduced my homeland to a caricature, a travel brochure. People like her reminded me of the hermit crabs I trapped in my bucket on Beach Moves—their worldview was narrow, reduced to a disk of red plastic. I realized, then, that some people thought islands were just for vacation. They didn’t know you could build a life there, with the salt air on your tongue and the sun in your eyes.
I hope my children know that there is more than one way to live.
It is something with which most people are familiar. Going “home.”
You go back to your small town, or wherever you’re from, and are made to dress up and attend dull parties where there’s no one your age to talk to. You smile and nod and drink fruit punch because you know that these people—who recognize you, but who you do not recognize—meant a great deal to your parents, and maybe even made them who they are. A lot of people go “home.” The only difference with me is that, when I go home, I also go on vacation. So, while Balašević’s assumption was hurtful, it was not completely inaccurate. It was only years later that I realized how much Balašević and I had in common. We both led dual lives, the true depths of which only we were aware.
Though I have always adored touristy activities (like watching the sunset at Rick’s Café, for example, or kissing the snouts of the dolphins at Dolphin Cove) I resent being seen as a tourist and being grouped into the indistinguishable mass of burnt sunbathers slapping around in flip flops, sipping all-you-can-drink piña coladas. As the years go by, however, and my familiarity with the island and its people fade, I am acutely aware that I become less of a “citizen,” and more of “something else.”
Our trips are so commonplace that I can hardly distinguish one from the other. Often, they are rushed, a blur of faces whose names I strain to remember. The December trip was notable, however, because it was not a vacation.
The funeral was held in the mountains, in Mandeville, my father’s hometown. The pictures from that day are full of vivid contrast: bright green foliage against black funeral attire. All five of my father’s siblings were there, smiling weakly for photos. As they loaded my grandfather into the hearse, my father let out a sharp sob, startling me. It was only the second time in my life I had seen my father cry.
I realized the complexity of the place I now found myself in, the overlapping web of relationships and experiences that connected the people around me. An entire life my parents had led prior to my own.
Back at my grandmother’s place in the city, I begged my parents to plan a Beach Move, wanting so badly to revert back to the role of “tourist” to escape our dour reality. But their hearts were not in it. For the first time ever, we did not go to the beach at all.
There are things people don’t know about the sea. The chill of the air after 7pm, for example, or the eerie intermingled whistling sound of crickets and wind. My sister and I were always taught to be careful at night, when the waves turn rough and black like ink. The sea will suck your favourite flip-flops from your feet, unapologetically. The wind will steal away your hat. It happened to my father. He leapt on a jet-ski to retrieve it, disappearing into the horizon.
When we were younger, my sister and I had a game we’d play where we’d hold hands and jump over the waves as the tide rolled in. This never seemed to get old. Sometimes they were taller than we were and threw us off balance. Once, I was sucked underneath by the current—I saw only blue and green and swirling sand—and emerged with a bump on my forehead, horrified. It was a momentary but absolute loss of control.
The sea can be powerful and uncaring.
Most people are unaware of the many faces and personalities of the sea. In much the same way, my family oscillates continuously between three identities: our Jamaican identities, our Canadian identities, and the identities people assign to us, whether we agree with them or not. Like that moment where I was at the whim of the sea, being tossed to and fro, with salt water flooding my nose, we sometimes find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control. At times, I don’t feel at home anywhere. I’m too Jamaican to be Canadian, but too Canadian to consider myself truly Jamaican. Other times, I feel like a citizen of the world, grateful to be one of a very few who can say, with absolute certainty, that there are infinite ways to live a life.
I agonize over whether or not my children will have the opportunity to experience this beautiful, painful duality of existence, where entire continents can be leapt with ease. Years later, I would leap across the Atlantic in much the same way, settling in Europe for a year abroad. My life as an immigrant has made the world seem small. Conquerable.
My children may not know the sea. They may yearn for it just as my parents did, stumbling over cold, rocky shorelines. They may even make it their life’s ambition, like the main character of my favourite movie. But I am confident that they will know other things: deserts or mountains or forests or rain, maybe. Things that I, with my head in the sand, will never know.
While the tide pulls away for some, it rushes in for others.