I enjoy living in America. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here after all these years. Among the things I like are the conveniences: the huge all-night supermarkets, the ninety-nine cents stores, the home-improvement emporiums, the availability of fast food for the times I’m too bushed to cook or simply want the Colonel to do it for me. I love the availability of “things”, whether I utilize or can afford them at any given time or not, doesn’t matter. Just knowing they are there gives me a certain sense of security. Therefore, I suppose, I must seem like a big old hypocrite when I confess that seeing some of these American-like changes and conveniences when I recently returned home to Jamaica on a brief visit, gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This wasn’t in Kingston, the capital city or Montego Bay, the tourist mecca. Those areas were lost a long time ago. No, I was in my innocent rural district’s little town! And there was Burger King and KFC, big, loud and bold, full of people inhaling burgers ‘n’ fries and fried chicken just as fervently (if not more so) as folks do in New York City. My own contradictory feelings brings to mind the behaviour of certain men from my growing-up days, who would forbid their at-home wives to straighten their hair, wear makeup, nail polish, lipstick or sleeveless dresses because they were “good” church-going women. Yet these same men would go out carousing and having a good time with girlfriends who straightened their hair, wore makeup and painted their lips and fingernails red.
When I was growing up in this rural village the biggest treat anyone could bring when they went into town was beef patties with coco bread. To make it a super treat, they’d throw in a a bottle of kola champagne, cream soda or ginger beer. That’s not the case now! No ma’am! When we asked a teenage relative who had arrived unexpectedly way past dinnertime, what we could get him to eat, the answer was Burger King! We dutifully loaded him in the car and made a burger run. At another time, when we were going into town and asked the household helper, an elderly lady from the old school, what treat she would like us to bring back for her, she answered in two seconds flat, with a gleam in her eye, “Kentucky!” Not jerk chicken; not beef patties; not curried goat and rice; not fried fish and bammy. Nope. Her heart (and stomach) belonged to the Colonel. Coming from her, I felt something close to betrayal.
The last time I went home prior to this and wanted to buy ground provisions (yams, potatoes, dasheen, etc.), vegetables and fruits, I had to enter the bustling, crowded, noisy market. I didn’t like the crowds (never did) but was comforted by the familiarity of it–the people, the beautiful time-worn faces of women higglers whom I remembered selling their bunches of scallion and thyme, gungo and red peas since I was a little girl. I loved the sweet smells of ripe mangoes, fresh corn and sugarcane. And, of course, the art and fun of haggling over prices when one had to remember the power of the kiss teeth, the cut eye, the well chosen words in Jamaican patois and the walking away when a higgler realized you had “come from farrin” and instantly upped the price of whatever you were trying to purchase. But all was never lost because there was always a voice saying, “Come ovah yasso, mi darlin’, I give you a nice price.”
This time I did not go into the market because there was now a huge American-style supermarket nearby with no-hassle parking and my cousin and I were pressed for time. So that’s where we shopped. It might as well have been at Pathmark or Stop ‘N Shop or any of the big chains in New York, as there was just about every American product one could want. Although there were many Jamaican products on the shelves, I was struck by the fact that all the fruits were American—apples, pears, etc. This in a country with such great fruits as starapple, naseberry, jackfruit, soursop, sweetsop and otaheite apple. There weren’t even tamarind, guinep or June plum–items available on any given day from Korean grocers in certain parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn. Of course I liked the ease and convenience of this mammoth supermarket with it’s spacious aisles and efficient, friendly staff. But something was missing. There was no friendly give and take, no price haggling or sweet smell of spices wafting through the air. Most everything was neatly wrapped in cellophane and contained. And no one called me “darlin’” in competition for my patronage. As I passed by the market on our way home and saw some higglers on the periphery with their goods in little stalls, I actually felt a twinge of guilt. I promised myself that the next time I go home, no matter how rushed I am, I’ll make a point of doing some of my shopping inside the market.
The supermarket, the fast food joints, all represent the erosion bit by bit of my personal little corner of Jamaica, my district, my village, my town. But I realize that just as the people who were the bedrocks of my youth–Aunt Daphne, Daddy, Goddy Ruth, Sister Puncy– have gone one by one, so too will other touchstones of my growing-up days. And I will just have to cherish them in memory and accept what is reality now because change must come. And even if I’m being dragged, kicking and screaming into the future of my past, I must make the transition.