As the airplane finally broke through the clouds, and I could see the familiar airport and the runway beneath me framed by the beautiful Caribbean Sea, the mixed feelings that I had been having for the entire flight finally started to tip the scale towards the positive. I could feel my excitement level rising and my trepidation melting away as I stared out the window. The bank of clouds that we had been flying over for so long wasn’t over the land, and the sun was shining down brightly on to the ground below. In the distance, I could see the mountains reaching up to the sky, looking like ancient, noble rulers of the land. Their massiveness was countered by the countless tiny white dots scattered over their surfaces, the houses of Kingston’s upper class. In that moment, it was hard for me to imagine a more beautiful sight than what I saw through the small square in the side of the plane.
This is going to be great, I smiled to myself as the plane descended towards the ground and the runway got closer and closer. A year away at school in Jamaica. How could I have ever doubted myself? The applause coming from the Jamaican passengers sitting around me as the airplane touched down smoothly on the runway only served to build on my excitement. I joined in, clapping energetically. We were all clapping not only to thank the pilots for the smooth landing that they had provided us, but also to thank them for bringing us back home.
I had been so enthusiastic about this trip at first, from the moment that I had first seen the flyer for the exchange program that the University of Toronto offered, right up until last week. That was when my boyfriend of six months, Colin, had broken up with me. At first, he’d been so supportive of my trip, telling me that it was a great idea and that he thought that it was an opportunity that I shouldn’t pass up.
“I know what I said,” he’d muttered, not looking at me, when I pointed that out. “But what else was I supposed to say? I couldn’t tell you to stay!”
I had to fight back angry tears. “No, you couldn’t tell me to stay but you could have been honest with me. You had me thinking you were so happy for me and you said you might come visit me…”
He’d finally looked up, exasperated. “Come on, Nadiya, be real. I wasn’t serious. I’m not going to go to Jamaica! I’ve heard about the crime down there, there’s no way I would go there, especially to Kingston. I think you’re crazy to be doing it, if you really want me to be so honest with you.”
I was stunned into silence at how cold he was being and how insincere he’d been previously. Colin, clearly relieved that I’d had nothing to say, had jumped up. “Sorry, Nadiya, but I just can’t do long distance. We’ll see where things stand when you get back, I guess.” He had given me an awkward peck on the cheek and practically galloped out the door.
Since that evening, I’d become convinced that I was making a huge mistake, and I still felt that way that morning when I was at the airport saying goodbye to my parents. I lost my boyfriend (even though he was a jerk) over this trip, I’m not going to see my parents until Christmas… Do I really know what I’m getting myself into? Living in Jamaica for an entire year was going to be much different from my usual one- and twoweek vacations with my parents. I had started to panic as I was handed my boarding pass, having visions of myself battling mammoth-sized cockroaches and mosquitoes as the humidity made my hair frizzier and frizzier, missing Colin the whole time.
After I got my boarding pass and was all checked in, my father had been the first to say his goodbye. After a firm hug, he instructed, “Make sure you call us from Aunt Sharon’s house as soon as you get in tonight so we know you got in safe. And do you have enough money with you?” I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. “Don’t make that face, you never know when you’ll need cash, you know,” he admonished me. “Who knows what could happen.”
I definitely appreciated the fact that my father was being open with his wallet, but he had given me enough cash in the past couple of weeks to buy a small country. “Daddy, I have enough money. If you give me any more, it will weigh me down.”
Then it was my mother, who already had tears running down her cheeks. “Please be careful, Nadiya. We all know Jamaica is a wonderful place, but don’t forget that it has another side too, alright? It can be a very violent place, especially for those who are naïve to it. Don’t ever wander around campus alone after dark, yu hear? And all your family is there, so make sure you call them whenever you need anything, anything at all. And as soon as you can, make sure to get a cellular phone. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, you can call us whenever you want and we will send you the money that you need.”
“I know, Mummy, I will, I promise. I’m going to take care of getting a cell and starting a bank account in the next couple days so that everything’s all set before classes start.”
My mother smiled at me and then gave me a tight squeeze. “And make sure you have a wonderful time. Your father and I always tell you that some of the best years of our lives were the years that we spent at UWI, so I know you’re going to have so much fun. But we’re really going to miss you,” she added wistfully.
I smiled back, but couldn’t stop my own tears from falling. Usually when she started her anxious mother routine, I wanted to get as far away as possible, but not in that moment. “I know, I’m going to miss you guys too.” I gave one last hug to both of them and then grabbed on to the handle of my carry-on that up to now my father had been pulling. I adjusted the strap of my purse, took a deep breath, and with a final “Bye, I love you!”, I hurried off to the security gate. I had given them one last wave at the security gate, but had barely been able to see them because of the tears clouding my vision. At that moment, I had been convinced that I had completely lost my mind. But now, sitting in my seat as the plane cruised to a stop, I felt the complete opposite.
Here I am, I thought happily, looking around me as people started to unbuckle their seat belts and open the overhead compartments (despite the seatbelt sign still being on and the purser’s annoyed announcement). Home.
Because even though I had been living in Canada for the last ten years, a full half of my life, I still considered Jamaica a second home. I had been only ten when we’d migrated, but I had plenty of fond and vivid memories of my time growing up there. I clearly remembered my old prep school, the pretty purple and white uniform I had proudly worn, playing Brown Girl in the Ring with the other little girls in our neighbourhood, going for ice cream with my parents on the weekends, and regular trips to the country to visit my grandparents. But even if I hadn’t had those memories, my family had come back to Jamaica to visit just about every year since we had moved, so the country had never gotten too far away from my sight or mind. That was why I would be seeing my parents at Christmas; this year, they were making their annual trip to Jamaica during the Christmas season.
Not that my heart wasn’t also in Toronto. I hadn’t done much travelling but I was still convinced that it was the greatest city on earth, and nobody could tell me different. It was a bustling, beautiful metropolis with a myriad of things to do and, in spite of its large size, it didn’t have the dirt or danger so common in other big cities. It had a beauty quite different from Jamaica’s; a beauty of concrete and steel instead of wood and water, skylines instead of mountain ranges, but I appreciated that beauty just as much. Toronto had a population whose diversity was unbeatable, and a population whose diverse groups all co-existed in peace. I had gone to high school with people whose origins were literally worldwide and I’d had a similar experience at U of T. A journey on the bus or subway in Toronto could feel like a brief world tour, all for the cost of a token. Most important was the large Jamaican population that had made us feel at home as soon as we arrived in Canada. It was a city in which I planned to spend the rest of my life, but I knew that it would all still be there for me when I got back, and for now, I was just excited to see what this year away as a free and single girl would hold!
An hour or so later, the excitement had worn off. I was finally through customs and just anxious to get out of the airport. After waiting in one slow-moving line after another, and watching luggage spin around on the carousel for what felt like an eternity until my suitcases came out, I was exhausted and grumpy. But as I walked outside, the hot and humid air hit me like a wave, I saw the bright sunshine and the crowd of people peering eagerly in looking for their loved ones and I couldn’t help smiling. I searched the crowd, looking for any familiar faces. Then I spotted them; my aunt, uncle and cousin were waving frantically at me. My smile turned into a huge grin and a laugh. I scuttled over as fast as the bag I was pulling would allow me and gave them each big hugs. There was a flurry of greetings. “So Nadiya, you think you can handle a year out here in Jamaica?” teased Aunt Sharon.
I shrugged playfully. “We’ll see, I guess!” Aunt Sharon shook her head and smiled at me. She adored her older brother, so by extension, she adored me. True to form, she started to gush. “Bwoy, Nadiya, look how nice you’re looking! I can’t get over how pretty you are. And how much you look like your mummy AND your daddy.”
I couldn’t argue with her about that. My parents were both very typical Jamaicans in their appearance, even though they looked vastly different from one another, and I, their only child, was like the solution to the math problem of their average. My father was what Jamaicans would call brown-skinned: he was a mixture of black and white. His beige skin and his loosely curled hair stood in sharp contrast to my mother’s dark chocolate skin and strong West African features. My complexion was neither light nor dark, falling exactly halfway between those of my parents’. I had my father’s high forehead and pointy chin, and from my mother, I had inherited her round eyes and high cheekbones. My hair, like my skin colour, was halfway between that of my parents, not as loosely curly as my father’s waves, but not as tightly curled as my mother’s kinks. I usually wore it straight to make it easier to manage (hence the worry about frizz). Even my height was halfway between that of my parents. My father was just over six feet tall, and my mother was barely five feet, putting me right between them at five foot six.
My aunt was still going on. “Such a shame that you gone and left us and turn Canadian, eeh? That’s the problem with this country, you know, so many of the best and brightest have felt forced to leave over the years. But I’m just happy to have you back for a whole year! Maybe you can have some influence on my little daughter, otherwise known as my little monster!” She gave her daughter a wry glance.
“Hey Bridget!” I said to this same cousin now, flicking the young girl’s ponytail. “How’s it going?” Bridget shrugged and smiled shyly. “OK.” She was always shy with me after not seeing me for a while, but I knew she would open up soon enough. She was as talkative as her mother when she was ready.
“Where’s Jeremy?” I asked, suddenly realizing that Bridget’s older brother was missing. Jeremy was nineteen, only one year younger than me, so we were close, or at least as close as we could be living so far apart.
Bridget rolled her eyes. “He’s out with some girl, as USUAL.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. The jealousy in her face was obvious.
Uncle Wallie laughed heartily. (I had already left Jamaica by the time I found out that his real name was actually James, but that’s Jamaicans for you.) “Bridget is learning that a little sister isn’t the only female in a man’s life, and I don’t think she likes it too much.” Uncle Wallie was of full Chinese descent, which had often surprised some of my Canadian friends when they saw him in family pictures. I had had to explain many times that Chinese immigrants had arrived in Jamaica as far back as the 1800s, brought over as indentured workers when slavery ended. A lot of people didn’t realize just how multiracial the people of Jamaica were. No matter what his race though, my uncle was a die-hard patriot, as Jamaican as they come. I still remembered when he had taken his family to China for a trip years ago, and although he came back raving about the wonderful time that he had in his ancestral homeland, he also came back declaring that now he knew more than ever that Jamaica was his one and only home.
He continued now, “I hope you don’t feel insulted he didn’t come, Nadiya. He knows he has all week to spend time with you.” I had decided it would be best to come to Jamaica a week before my orientation started, to give myself time to do the little things I had promised my mother I would do, buy whatever I’d forgotten to bring and get settled in, so for the first week I was staying at my aunt’s house. After that, both Jeremy and I would be moving down to campus. Jeremy had been eager to get the chance to experience university life fully and completely, and that did not include living at home.
“OK,” declared Uncle Wallie, grabbing the handle of my suitcase. “Is too hot to just stay here and stan’ up. Time to get you home and get you settled in.”