Cliche though it is, this story begins the summer of 1969. It was a time of exploration and new territory. As millions watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon, my parents were making their own giant leap: getting married and leaving their friends and families in New York behind to become teachers in a distant land, a place I assume sounded like an exotic paradise to them, the US Virgin Islands.
Coincidentally, earlier that year aquanauts had spent two months underwater in the Virgin Islands (Tektite I). Fast-forward eleven years, and astronauts feature in this story yet again. Buzz Aldrin is visiting the Virgin Islands the day I am born. I don't meet him, but my godmother introduces him to my dad.
I was born in May 1980 under two flags: one with 13 stripes and 50 stars; and another with an eagle holding arrows and an olive branch, flanked by the letters "V" and "I", making me, unlike my parents and unlike half of the islands' 100,000 residents, a Virgin Islander by birth.
This is in part a story of my life, and in part a story of a place, for the two are intertwined in ways that I am still discovering. The culture, or rather cultures, in which I was immersed have shaped me. I grew up an island child, going to beach parties at Magens and catching lizards and hearing stories about jumbies. It was a good childhood. And yet I also grew up without a place to call home, attracted to and alienated by both the American (New York) culture my parents introduced me to and the Virgin Islands traditions around me.
It is not that I grew up with one culture in the house and a second as soon as I was out of doors. My parents adopted some island ways. They worked with a mix of locals, people from other islands, and other "immigrants" from the States. My preschool was mixed. But after that ... the truth is that I never was really part of the dominant culture. I attended "the white private school", which divided us by economics, the result of which was that on an island where only 15% of the population was white, nearly all of my classmates were white until junior high. My classmates were largely first-generation Virgin Islanders, while some were descendants of well-established white, clear, or light Virgin Islanders, or were themselves newly transplanted. I had some black classmates (local, continental, and from other islands), as well as some Puerto Rican, Israeli, Palestinian, Indian, and East Asian classmates, and even some from Europe and New Zealand. We were a diverse group, but not one which was representative of the island. Even more remarkable, the entire faculty (with one exception) was white. So I spent much of my time, like most white residents, in an environment where whites were the majority. We would have stuck out even if it weren't for the fact that we were the only school that didn't have a school uniform.
I learned all about the American Revolution (who would have a battle on Bunker Hill, anyway?) and the US Civil War (the US abolished slavery 17 years after General Buddhoe's revolt in the Danish West Indies), but until high school my knowledge of VI history was largely limited to what I learned outside of school, the single required unit in the fourth grade, and many field trips (spoiler: the mosquitos at Lameshur are ferocious). My school didn't even get days off for many of the local holidays, which is about as non- Virgin Islands as you can get.
Some of the common avenues for being more connected were closed off to me. Most of my friends attended churches. My parents were Jewish, and while the synagogue we sometimes attended has a long history on St Thomas (in fact, it's 200 years old, making it the second oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere), there were very few other kids in the congregation. Some of my friends' parents owned shops in town, and after school they mingled with merchants, tourists, and locals. I didn't play any sports. I wasn't exactly antisocial, but I was bookish, and I enjoyed my own company. So this is about me, as much as it is about the place I grew up.
I knew some calyspo, soca, and reggae tunes, but I learned to play piano rather than steel pan, and thanks to one of my high school classes, I even listened to classical music, an unusual pastime for teenagers anywhere. I ate callaloo with my parents sometimes, but I didn't try conch or goat, which they ate, until I was an adult (or if I did, I don't remember it). And my speech is the Yankiest of Yankee (my parents were teachers). But I was a kid, so I absorbed many things that I didn't even realize were local, until I was in college and my ways thrown into relief with the contrast of the States.
Unlike me, my parents had an alternate reference point from the start. One of the first things they did when they arrived on island was look for apartments. Stateside, they likely would have been given directions with road numbers and street names. On St Thomas they were given more useful directions: "Turn right at the tambrin tree, just past the goats." A bit incredulously, my parents headed out to find the apartment, and sure enough, even without knowing what a tambrin (tamarind) tree looked like, they found the apartment.
My parents learned as many lessons as they taught that first year, some as soon as their first week. They had expected their students to be predonimantly black, but were surprised to see so many European surnames. Thanks to the legacy of slavery, there are many names in the islands. (I, on the other hand, would later have the reverse realization, recognizing specific "local" names as Dutch or Danish or French.) They also learned about local attitudes toward child discipline and not "spoiling" children.
The day before Christmas break, one my mom's students told her they hoped she would come back. She was confused. They meant come back to the school after Christmas. So many of their continental teachers quit after one semester. Her students were used to seeing outsiders enter their lives and leave just as quickly as they appeared. My parents returned, and continued settling in to their new home.
They were quickly introduced to melee (gossip). Without dependable phone service, people found a way to disseminate all messages. As my parents put it, "If someone went to the post office and chatted with the postmaster, by the end of the day everyone would know exactly what they had said". It is true that news, for better and worse, travels quickly on a small island. Now we might pick up the phone to call someone (perhaps even on an unintended party line), but we might also see someone else and ask them to pass on a message, or drive over to visit, or bump into them running errands, or just honk and stop our cars in the middle of the road, holding up traffic to chat when our paths crossed, as they inevitably would.
My parents learned about being polite and respectful, and the deference of children to their teachers and elders. "Sirs" and "ma'ams" were the norm. This has eroded some in recent years, and now you are more likely to hear about yout voilence (youth violence), including at the school where my dad has worked since it opened. But at the same time, there is a politeness I haven't seen stateside. Saying "good morning" (or "good afternoon" or "good night") is imperative, and my parents insisted I get over my shyness because it was a mark of rudeness not to greet people. Woe is the person who tries to get service somewhere without a "good morning"! Failure to address others, even people you are just passing walking along the street, is considered snobbish and uppity. Now in college in New England, people look at me strangely when I say "good morning" or even give a less-formal "hello" of acknowledgement; they seem confused, perhaps wondering if they are supposed to know me, or they think I am imposing on them, making my intrusion on their personal space known. Don't I know my place to remain silent and anonymous? It is but one of many little constant reminders to how I have adopted customs of the Virgin Islands, a reminder to myself that even here where I look like I belong, I'm still out of place.
St Thomas celebrates its annual carnival in April (since 1912), with a month of festivities, including calypso competitions, a food fair, lots of drinking, music and dancing, tramping in parades and the Jouvert bacchanal, stilt-walking mocko jumbies, and amusement rides for kids (Tivoli, in a nod to the Danes). When I was in kindergarten I prepared to be in an ocean-themed floupe in the children's parade, but an hour before the parade started, which was hours after it had been scheduled to start (the local attitude towards time being more than a bit relaxed), I was an exhausted sea anemone, my bright pink head piece drooping in the sun. I was hot and tired, irritated by the blaring music, and I asked to go home. Of course I immediately regretted missing the parade. I don't remember carnival the next year; it's possible that's the year we went shopping and to Disney World, or perhaps my school didn't participate at all (it was the year "Legal" won road march). I begged to participate the following year, and my parents said no. It seemed like I was the only kid who wasn't in the parade. Finally, I got a chance to sparkle and shine. I enjoyed practicing our routine, but once it came time for the parade, it was just as crowded, hot, and noisy as I remembered. I never asked to be in the parade again.
Only this year, my first year away from home missing the Carnival season altogether, am I really sorry not to be part of the festivities. I know if I were there, I would be unhappy in the heat and crowds, but at least I would get to enjoy the rest of the season, instead of listening to the vying road march and calypso songs, biting testimonials to the year's stupidness, on cassette tape. "Carnival is very sweet!"
Just as I am a person of contradictions and dichotomies, so too can the Virgin Islands contain multitudes. At first glance, there are natives and tourists, and I belong to neither group. Some of the natives are wealthy and well-established, belonging to one of a few large families, but many live below the poverty line. If you look more closely, you'll notice other people: the wealthy merchants, predominantly Indians and Palestinians; Hispanics (primarily Boricuas and Dominicanos); the Sephardic Jews, the (St Barths) Frenchies (called by worse names), and creole descendants of the Danish, Dutch, and English, who have lived in the Virgin Islands for generations; the many many down-islanders who are indistinguishable to continentals from Virgin Islanders; and then there are the continentals who are indistinguishable to Virgin Islanders from tourists.
Although the islands are dependent on tourists, that doesn't mean we like the way they take over and act as if the islands exist for them alone, rather than being a place where people actually live. The tourists are pale pale white or sunburnt red. They overwhelm the beaches, town, and the area by the cruise ship docks. They drive slowly in their rented jeeps, sometimes forgetting to drive on the correct side of the road (the left side, in a nod to the British). They ask stupid, or at least ignorant, questions. Sometimes they don't even know where they are; I remember once a group of classmates and I hollered "Welcome to St Maarten," "welcome to Aruba," " welcome to Jamaica!" to a mass of cruise ship tourists. So many of them really didn't know, and probably didn't even care, which island they were on. (For all of the "all ah we is one" talk, we could have inter-island rivalries even with St Croix.) So I resented the fact that I was often mistaken for a tourist, that when I walked in town, I, too, was hollered at with those ubiquitous cries of "Back to de ship?", that if I went into a shop I might be asked how I was enjoying my stay, or where I was from.
Here. I was born here. But can I really say "I bahn heh"?
In some ways I was, and still am, a tourist. I can view St Thomas, the only place I have lived, with the eyes of an outsider. I'm a tourist of sixteen years, a tourist who has long outstayed her welcome. And as a child of continentals, destined to go away to college and likely never return to live, in some ways I am more of a tourist than my parents, who have lived there almost twice as long as I have, and who seemingly have no intention of ever leaving. They have chosen to make this place their home; I was merely born into it.
My father has been a guidance counselor at the same public high school for 20+ years, and he has had hundreds of students each year. He stood out as being one of the only white people, and more often than not when we go somewhere, we get stopped by someone. "Mr. S., 'member who I is? I you student in aytee-tree" or whatever. He doesn't always recognize them right away, but often he remembers them and their families. My mother is also well-known. She left the public schools many years ago to write grants, first in education and later in law enforcement. The government is the largest employer in the territory, and many people who work in the government know her, or at least know who she is. She's more well-known than many would like a honky continental to be.
I have been told that black people can't be prejudiced because they've been, and still are, so oppressed, and that whites can't be discriminated against because they're the majority and have power. I usually bite my tongue or resist the urge to suck my teeth. While there are huge differences and a long history to consider, and whites even in the VI continue to hold disproportionate power, no one is immune from prejudice and discrimination. Unlike in the mainland US, with its notion of "one drop" creating a more rigid black/white race divide, the VI more openly acknowledges a range of color shades, with an opportunity for a corresponding range of prejudices. But far more often than I see prejudice and discrimination on the basis of color, I see it on the basis of birth place. Black continentals and down-islanders are just as excluded and disliked. I see a lot of prejudice and nativism these days, including from some local Senators. I can understand how people look at the islands' history -- being claimed by seven different flags, multiple pirate battles and naval occupations, hundreds of years of slavery, appointed governors until 1970, and rapid population increase and migration changes -- and become fearful and protective, but the result is prejudice and discrimination just the same.
Coincidentally, the day I was born my dad had a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper. He wrote against then-recently proposed legislation to take away rights from non-natives. Fifteen years later, when I was in high school, I wrote a letter to the editor. A clause had been passed (as part of the Casino Bill, Act 6069) that defined a "native Virgin Islander" as a direct descendant of someone who was a VI resident prior to 1927 (that is, 10 years after the islands were sold from the Danish to the US, when former Danish citizens could elect to become US citizens; the last of the real natives, i.e., the Ciboney, Taino, and Island Caribs, were gone not long after Columbus christened the islands in 1493). The sponsor of the legislation was none other than a senator who had previously lashed out against my mom, berating her boss for hiring a "transient" and asking if he had tried to locate a Virgin Islander for the job. At the time, she had been living there for 22 years, and that was not enough for her to be considered a Virgin Islander. Nor is the fact that I was born here is not enough to make me a native Virgin Islander. And though the legislation was subsequently amended, the sentiment remains. So what right do I have to claim this birthplace as my home? If home is "the place where, when you have to there, they have to take you in", then it is not my home.
Home or not, living in the Virgin Islands was formative, and it was a very different experience than I would have had growing up elsewhere. Things I read about in books or that my stateside cousins took for granted were novel to me: department stores (okay, we had the one Woolworths) and shopping malls and escalators; long drives on wide straight roads; phones, running water, and electricity that were always available. We did much of our shopping in Florida or New York, crammed in to a week or two during the summer, and we had a small generator (and buckets, candles, and lanterns) we could use during the frequent rotational power outages. Yes, I complained of having nothing to do, and I certainly lacked opportunities I would have had in the States, and I'd trade mosquitos for lightning bugs (fireflies) any day, but it wasn't all bad. Now when I go to the beach or sit outside my parents' house taking in the view, I realize that I had something many people dream of, that people who pay large sums of money to visit however briefly. In many ways I was lucky.
The Virgin Islands are situated in the middle of Hurricane Alley, and I had the misfortune to experience not one (as Alexander Hamilton did), but two "once in a lifetime" hurricanes in my 16 years: Hugo, when I was in elementary school, and Marilyn, when I was in high school. It's hard to describe to people who were not there what it is like to go through a storm, to hear the wind and flying objects and shattering glass and pieces of your roof being ripped off, the eerie calm of the eye, and what it looks like when you emerge right after a storm to find your belongings strewn about, buildings unrecognizable, and hillsides devoid of trees. "But Hurricane Andrew," you say. Floridians who survived Hurricane Andrew may know something about hurricanes, but not about what the aftermath is like on an island.
It's hard for others to imagine being so isolated, waiting for gasoline and ice and water and food and medical supplies to first arrive. Or the months of military rule and curfews; eating MREs and buying ice for refrigeration every day; noisy generators for running water, and boiling water to drink; impassable roads, driving under telephone poles, and debris scattered everywhere; blue tarps serving as makeshift roofs and praying every time it rains, and mosquitos and dengue fever; closed schools and lost jobs and chaos. And people don't even believe me when I tell them that each time we didn't have power or running water for two or three months, that we didn't have phones for most of a year, and that we didn't have cable for longer still. And that it was, for the most part, okay and normal. We simply kept up a survival mentality of "today is a little bit better than yesterday". This all marks me as too foreign.
While I'd rank hurricanes as the biggest drawback to life in "America's paradise", there's also the high rate of murder, rape, and domestic violence, the political greed and corruption, the poverty and the contrast between the have's and the have-not's, the plethora of condos and hotels and tourist attractions coupled with the dearth of infrastructure and services for residents, and the simultaneous dependence on and resentment towards tourists. And personally, the sense of not belonging.
Once I started going out to bars (it's the land of rum, after all, even for those under age) and socializing more -- sometimes with locals, but mostly with tourists and newly-arrived transients, primarily twenty-somethings who had come to spend a bit of time working on boats, or as bartenders, or in construction, or to just lime around and enjoy the sunshine and beaches. Meeting people who loved the island, even if it was because they saw a sheltered tourist view or hadn't been there long enough for the honeymoon to wear off, helped me to consider that perhaps my teenage assessment was too harsh. But I'm not sure. I lived in a beautiful place with its own rich culture, an undoubtedly fun place for a tourist to be for a week or two. As the saying goes, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."
Or would I want to live there? Away for less than a year, I already have a different perspective. I've met people from different parts of the US, and I've learned more about US culture. I listened to Christmas carols ("Ma, ma, bake your johnny cake", and "Good morning, good morning, I come for my guavaberry") with actual freezing temperatures and snow outside. And I've learned that many things I like that I thought were more ubiquitous are unique to the Virgin Islands or the West Indies.
So where do I want to live? I don't know. At times I'm incredibly bitter about being from a place where I don't belong, but I also don't know of anywhere else I would want to live. New England culture strikes me as strange -- bland and narrow-minded -- and I don't see myself belonging here either. Like it or not (or both), I am a Virgin Islander. Norman Paperman (and Herman Wouk) "can just go home," at the end of his Don't Stop the Carnival Caribbean adventure, but I can't because I have nowhere else to go home to.
(Addendum: I wrote this just over 20 years ago. My perspective has changed some over the years. I took this piece down for a time, because I no longer agreed with parts of it. I've decided to put it back up with only minor revision, as I do think it captures my perspective at the time.)