From There to Here…

Zoe Welsh

Kingston, Jamaica

September 2005

Zoe WelshI’ve thought many times over the last eight months about whether I would or could commit to paper the next chapter of the story of my journey to find the other half of me. I’ve pondered how and where to start, where it might take me and where it might ultimately end. I even thought some time ago of a working title. But to understand the significance of From There to Here, to appreciate the distance I’ve travelled to get here, you have to understand where the there was and where the here is.

There is a place I hope never, emotionally to have to return. Geographically it’s the city of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, England. It’s a place that has its critics, has long been the butt of many a joke and for the best part of thirty seven years has been home. We’re both (Milton Keynes and me that is) much the same age and I have happy memories of growing up in a city that has grown up with me. It was designated a new city in the late sixties, reached puberty as the seventies turned into the eighties, came of age at the end of the same decade and reluctantly assumed adulthood and all its responsibilities sometime during the nineties when I did. For that reason I will always have a soft spot for the place. My reasons for not wanting to return to this particular there run far deeper than the geographical, but more of that later. If Milton Keynes is the there then Kingston, Jamaica is the here, a city that couldn’t be more dramatically different in every way. It’s been my home for the last eight months.

If you weren’t privy to my Jamaican epiphany of 2004 you won’t have caught my first chapter. I am a mixed race woman who from next year will consciously start to lie about her age, for now though I’m thirty seven years old, happily single (sometimes), successful (apparently) and sorted (supposedly). My Mum is a white Londoner, her Mum; my Nan was a country girl from a small Oxfordshire market town. They brought me up, the two of them together. My absent Father is another story, born in Jamaica, he like many of his generation travelled to the Mother Country at a time when it was still struggling to get back on its feet after the war years; in return he was offered the promise of a better life. He left Mum and me when I was just nine months old to make a better life for himself in the US. Do I detect a pattern? He’s been there ever since.

The circumstance of my birth made me half British and half Jamaican while the circumstance of my life just made me half, half a person, half me, uncomfortably incomplete. As I grew up, being half Jamaican became something of a demon. I never felt able to be half of something I knew nothing about, that in my eyes would have made me a fraud, an impostor. Jamaica was just an island in the Caribbean, a place on a map, a picture postcard holiday destination. As I got older it became harder to ignore my demons as ‘fully paid up’ second generation Jamaicans my age visited each year returning with new strength and pride in their dual identity and with talk of a whole other life that I couldn’t begin to imagine. But that was then and this, so the cliché goes, is now.

When I said that I could never go back to the place I refer to as there practically of course I know I will but emotionally the reason I can’t is that it is a place of internal disquiet and discomfort, of uncertainty; of never knowing and painfully not liking very much the person I was. I can vividly remember growing up desperately wanting to fit in, well actually more than anything else I wanted to be invisible, to have that kind of anonymity that goes with looking the same as everyone else around you. Somehow, however hard I tried I always stood out. I felt uncomfortable as the only black kid (well mixed race but in 70s Milton Keynes any distinction was purely academic) in a primary school of white kids. By the time I got to comprehensive school my discomfort turned to isolation as I was mercilessly bullied for my differences, those same differences that made me half Jamaican.

I felt uncomfortable going to Mum’s hairdressers, getting my afro sheared (yes I do mean sheared) by a hairdresser whose forte for blue rinses and a nice cut and blow meant that at best I always left with a dented ‘fro. I felt more than uncomfortable in the Brownies not least because my uniform matched me, thanks to my Brownie Sixer for that observational gem. By the time I got to Girl Guides, (so I’m a glutton for punishment) I’d gone beyond ‘merely uncomfortable’. Not having learnt my lesson in the Brownies I squirmed as I was made to perform ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, a dubious honour bestowed on me thanks to being the only brown girl in the troupe. It was to be many years before being a ‘sexy browning’ would afford a certain kind of kudos and my amateurish wining came in for beady eyed scrutiny on the dance floors of Kingston’s nightclubs!

Anyone who’s been bullied at school knows that it’s the cumulative affect that’s the killer; it eats away at you, undermines you, your opinion of yourself, you self-esteem and in turn crucifies your confidence. My school years were quite simply the most miserable of my life. The discomfort I recount here doesn’t do justice to the hard core bullying I experienced throughout my school days. Reading this you’d be forgiven for thinking I had a wretched childhood, well yes on one level there were elements of it that were indeed horrible which have left scars deeper than even I’ve been prepared to acknowledge until recently. But, and this is a but that I have only just come to recognise, without these experiences I may never have felt the need or pull to look beyond a life that up until May 2004 was plodding along quite nicely. Believe it or not, thanks to the secure and loving home that I shared with my Mum and Nan, thanks to their limitless unconditional love, I had a very happy childhood with enough positive affirmation to counter at least some of the negative effects of the bullying. We may not have had two pennies to rub together, but I always felt rich in the love and attention department. The one thing though that neither Mum or Nan could give me is the thing I have craved my whole life; that illusive feeling of internal comfort. They were unable to give me the pride in myself that would finally set me free to be the person I’ve always secretly wanted to be. To give me the ability to be able to get up in the morning and really and truly know who I am, with the self confidence to feel comfortable and blessed in the brown skin I live my life in.

When I first visited Jamaica I knew the trip would change my life. I knew that if it went well I would never be able to let go, that Jamaica would always be from there on in, part of me. If the trip went badly then I knew I faced the prospect of never really knowing who I am and having to walk away from my dream of being able to feel whole. I’ve read my fair share of self help positive thinking books and they all tell you in one way or another that in life you only regret the things you don’t do, not those you do. It makes sense, it’s logical even, but it’s also beyond scary if by feeling the fear you lose all that is familiar to you and has been your entire life. Finding the other half of me was always going to be an emotional roller coaster but I’m not sure I realised that it would be a ride that would ultimately take me away from all that is safe in my life. For my journey to continue means giving up everyone and everything, for however long that I love back home in the UK. Everything that is secure, my Mum, my friends, my job, my home, everything that until now has defined the person I am.

So where am I now on my journey?…..literally I’m a million miles away from where I was eighteen months ago. I have been living in Kingston since the end of January. For the first five months I worked as a consultant producer at one of Jamaica’s two broadcasting companies. The rest of the time I have been on leave and most recently on a mission to find a reason to return to live and work on a more permanent basis. Many who know Jamaica, who have spent any length of time here, say that you either love it or hate it, almost from the moment you first clap eyes on it, that either you can’t bear to drag yourself away or can’t wait to leave. I fall firmly into the ‘I love it and don’t want to leave it’ category; it was and still is love at first sight. Jamaica has got under my skin big time, my deep brown mixed skin. So, I’ve made the decision to trade familiarity and security for that illusive feeling of internal comfort. I’ve taken redundancy and stepped out of a career that I’ve had since leaving university and I’m about to return to Milton Keynes to sort the practicalities of emigrating.

I have to find a way to finally learn to be Jamaican. Learn? Yes learn! When I got off the plane the very first time I had no idea how to be. When I hugged the man in arrivals who called himself my Uncle Albert he was as much a stranger to me as the immigration officer who had just stamped my passport. I had to learn to be part of an extended family, mind blowing given I grew up as an only child in the UK. When I visited the grave of my paternal grandmother, a woman I never knew but whose reputation precedes her still two decades after her death, I felt like I’d found the root of my family tree. When I looked deep into the eyes of my great Aunt Daisy and extricated myself from her bear like hug I was able to start to imagine a past and visualise a future that I could be part of. As the little old lady looked back at me the fact that we’d lived our lives thousands of miles apart in distance, experience and expectation meant nothing to either of us, we knew we were family.

Learning to be Jamaican has been so much more than academic; it’s become a mission! I am learning to be confident and to express myself with the kind of positive self reality that seems to be uniquely and inherently Jamaican. I am getting to grips with the fact that Jamaica is indeed a country of contradictions and that there are elements of the place that frighten, surprise and depress me. Kingston is a tough city to choose to live and Jamaica a country where often you can find yourself far too close to the underbelly of island life. It’s impossible to escape the reality of poverty, crime and frequently failing infrastructure. But I am not and never have been one to view life through the rose coloured tint of unreality, life is life wherever you choose or have the opportunity to live it.

There have been far too many incredible ‘only in Jamaica’ experiences and ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ moments to make my journey anything other than amazing. I’m getting to grips with dealing with being a sexy browning (have I mentioned that one before?!) and enjoying the attention that brings with it. Everyday brings with it another first; the first time I drank from a jelly coconut, picked over a fish, ate festival and choked on scotch bonnet pepper. The first time I had one too many rums and ended up face down on a restaurant table in Port Royal. The first time I tentatively ventured onto Asylum’s dance floors. My first cricket match played out in the searing heat of the Red Stripe Mound at Sabina Park, my first carnival, my first j’ouvert. I still have the paint stains on my clothes to prove I made it to the latter and the indelible memory of watching the sun set over Oracabessa beach with thousands of happy and inebriated paint soaked carnival revellers. My first trip to the Carib cinema in Crossroads where the audience outperformed the celluloid stars, with their quips, jibes and heckling! My first trip to ‘country’, me behind the wheel, no road signs, little signalling (what’s all the frantic arm flaying out of the window malarkey all about?), much horn blowing and one too many potholes. The first time I was asked ‘is that a wig or a weave’ and took the reference to my spiralled hair as a compliment! My list of firsts is endless. With so many firsts, I know I have lots more seconds to look forward to, so how can I possibly drag myself away?

I leave Jamaica in two weeks and plan to be back by early 2006. By the time I leave I will be almost completely half Jamaican. My application for citizenship is going through, so even with red tape, fingers crossed I can ‘soon come’ back! So far my mission to learn to be Jamaican is going to plan. As to whether I’ll get the qualification at the end of my studies, who cares? Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt from the whole experience is that the here of the title is no more a physical, geographical here than the there ever was. This isn’t just about being in Kingston, or even in Jamaica, it’s about finding a place in my head and heart that allows me for the first time in my life to be me. It’s a place where I have learnt to love and appreciate the person I was, accept the person I am and have the confidence to discover the person I want to be, the person I now know I can be.

Copyright © 2005 Zoë Welsh