Saturday, April 21, 2012

Welcome to Dominica: Dominica v. Jamaica (Part Two)

By Shervin Stoney 

Integration is defined as, “the action or process of integrating.” As a Peace Corps volunteer, the most important aspect of the first six months of service is integrating into your community. You are away from home and thrust into the position of a stranger in a foreign land. In order to survive the 27 months of service you must learn about your new home's norms and culture but more importantly, you must gain friends and people you can trust in the community. This has an eerie feeling of familiarity for me in this
experience so far. I am in a constant state of déjà vu.

I have never felt so close to my Jamaican upbringing in my adult life. At ten years old, I migrated to New York. While I have visited Jamaica many times, I have never felt completely connected to the culture that I grew up in the way I do now.  As my host cousin says to me whenever I comment about knowing something relating specifically to the Caribbean-like food or a cultural norms-“Welcome back to the Caribbean.”

While there are a great deal of cultural similarities between Jamaica and Dominica, there are also stark distinctions. It is imperative to recognize these differences because while integration might be easier for a Caribbean born individual, it still presents its own unique challenges. (This is besides that fact that I have not lived in the Caribbean for ten years and have now assimilated to living in America.)  

Wegmans is the most popular grocery story in Western New York. Upon entering a Wegmans, you will not find a Dominican food section, or a Bahamian, or even Haitian, but you will find a section of Jamaican food. I can’t imagine that the population of Jamaicans living in Western New York is so large that Wegmans has specifically created this section to satisfy the population. Rather, this speaks to the full-bodied identity and permeating nature of the Jamaican cultural. You will find very few nationalities the size of Jamaica-approximately 3 million- that is not just culturally distinct, but also influential. The culture of Jamaica is rich and ubiquitous, from the distinct reggae music to the absolute domination in track and field.

When I first received my invitation to Dominica, admittedly the first thing I did was pull up a map on my laptop. I had a vague idea of where it was, having studied an abundance of maps in college for my political science classes. The next thing I did was read the Wikipedia page in its entirety. Dominica has a rich history and culture, resilient people, an untouched paradise. The identity of the Dominican people is no less defined than that of the Jamaican population.

The colloquial name used by Dominicans is “the nature island.” The island is an untouched paradise. The tourism industry never developed the way it did in Jamaica or the rest of the Caribbean. This is due to three reasons: no international airport, a lack of investment or support for mass tourism, and no white sandy beaches. Dominica is a volcanic island, which causes the geological make up to be a bit different that most other Caribbean islands. The beaches that are sandy are mostly black sand, and the majority of the other beaches are rocky.

Dominica carries a distinction that is bar none; 37% of the land is a national park. This has allowed for a vast majority of the tropical forest to go untouched and undeveloped. The focus on the natural land does not stop there. The schools spend a great deal of time educating the young generation about the island's vast natural resources. This is not to say that there is not a slow shift away from a society connected to nature; there has been a slow invasion of western culture, particularly American culture, that has captivated the young population. There are still no massive resorts on the island, the main sector of the tourism industry is cruise ships docking in the capital, and the most well known and prominent resort on the island, Jungle Bay, is not situated anywhere close to a beach. Jamaica’s tourism industry on the other hand is vastly different. It is heavily commercialized and is not driven by nature, but rather resorts situated on white sandy beaches.

While the cultures share many elements of their origin story both countries were colonized by the British and are members of the Commonwealth, both have a diverse population of European and African descent, and both countries are a part of the larger Caribbean culture. The people, however, are different: the outwardly loud, universal nature of the Jamaican culture is not present in behavior of the Dominican culture. The expression of the Dominican culture is much more inward and harmonic to nature, a certain connectedness to the land. Understanding the differences in behavior between the cultures and recognizing and adjusting to the differences will be more vital to my survival as a Peace Corps volunteer than anything else. 

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