Friday, August 9, 2013

Identity Challenged

As is customary whenever I hear a Caribbean-ish accent nearby, I always enquire.

"Whey yuh from boss?"

The responses vary from the common, "yard" (Jamaica if you didn't know), V.I., Guyana, Grenada, etc, to the not  so frequent, Bahamas, Bermuda, Tortola, among others.

The conversations then typically follow the inter-island communication template:
  1. How long you been here?
  2. Why'd you leave home? 
  3. Married? Pickney?
  4. Work?
The most recent exchange was a youth at the gym, a Bahamian (rare in Atlanta); but the conversation didn't quite go as expected. When he enquired about my home island, my response of course was "I'm a trini." His next question threw me:

Are you actually from Trinidad or are you really Tobagonian? O_O 

I don't think I've ever, had that question posed to me before.....good one buddy. 

It's been years since last I pondered the issue. I've always been aware of certain, subtle differences between both islands but have always tried to focus on my identity from a national perspective. When asked, I'm not Trinidadian or Tobagonian, but simply, Trinbagonian. 

But that mindset just ignores the very real fact that we are very different peoples. But how does one identify as Trinidadian or Tobagonian really? There are a few key areas, that we differ: language, culture, racial mix, culinary traditions and the urban/rural spread just to name a few.

To anyone paying attention, the most obvious difference is the accent. Yes, Tobagonians sound slightly different. Though it is not always noticeable, there is a bit of an accent, especially when speaking to someone from the back country, places like Speyside and Parlatuvier. 

Because the island's history differs from that of Trinidad, Tobagonians also have a much different cultural identity from that of their larger island neighbour. Tobagonians seem to impart cultural norms that closely mirror African traditions but things like goat racing during Easter weekend are uniquely their own. A heavy emphasis on African-inspired cultural traditions also gives an idea of the primary racial make-up of  the island which unlike Trinidad, is predominantly black.  

Which brings me to my next point. I used to think I was dark-skinned; all that changed when I met a black Tobagonian. I've been sunburned before, and even then, I wasn't anywhere near as dark as the rich, inky black hues prevalent on the island. You only think you're black.....gawd damn.

Why the lack of racial diversity you ask? You'd have to look into the island's history. Indentured labour programs post the abolition of slavery, led to a very diverse mix of races and cultures in Trinidad. Indentureship skipped Tobago entirely and as such, the island remained populated primarily by descendants of the island's original African slaves (hence the heavy influence of African traditions on all aspects of Tobagonian society). 

Even their food is unique. While they do cook very much the same foods as we do in Trinidad, there are a few important differences. The trini version of dumplings for instance, is a light, yet firm boiled flour concoction. Tobago dumplings on the other hand are tough enough to bring down an aircraft when thrown but you haven't lived till you've eaten a plate of Tobago crab and dumpling. 

To me, their variations on everything I've grown up eating, from pelau to ground provisions and stew chicken, has always been heavier, more flavourful and much more intense. This is probably why one may often hear Tobagonians referring to trini foods as flat or bland. 

But the intensity of their culinary traditions is tempered only by the general laid back nature of their people. Unlike the very urban and considerably more developed (by developing nation standards) western neighbour, Tobago is considerably more rural. Even in the capital, it isn't uncommon to see goats tied up on roadways and front yards. Their pace of life is significantly slower than the frenzied, party-crazed trinis across the way and Tobago will probably always remain the place, trinis go to relax. 

Yup, so whilst I haven't thought through these things in a while, Tobago does have its own unique identity but make no mistake, when asked where I come from, my response will always be Trinidad AND Tobago.

D.Trini J.

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