Pick One: on the cusp of ethnic expressions

Melissa Jones, Eleanor Roosevelt High School

Melissa Jones investigates her identity as a Jamaican-American. The struggles and beauty of calling two cultures her own. (Published: 2019)


To me, the separation between these two terms is far greater than the length of a single hyphen.

My blood is Jamaican, but my mannerisms, behaviors, interests, and tastes are far different from my family members who bear this label. My citizenship is American, but my family meals, traditions, and customs tend to differ greatly from those of my American peers.


The perfectly balanced label only mocks the lopsided feeling of my ethnic standing. Possessing both identifiers places me in a predicament that is at times difficult to maneuver.

My parents left Jamaica and moved here as young adults, yet my whole life, I have only known America. On my own, in my school, in my social circles, in my world, I am uniquely me — free of labels, tags, markers, hyphens, and expectations.

But at every family function, my inherently independent self-image wanes, as I feel as if I am missing a crucial part of myself. I struggle to understand what is said as everyone in my family lets down their American-made borders, code switches, and speaks to family in their Jamaican Creole, or Patois.

Double negatives? Misplaced pronouns, or the lack thereof? Everything I hear goes against my eleven years of traditional American schooling, but even still, at that moment, I feel that I am the one in the wrong and in need of correcting. The only thing wrong with this “broken English” is my inability to understand it. “Sorry, can you repeat that for me?” has been my signature phrase. Feeling alienated and distanced by language barriers and cultural norms, I stand there, unable to answer questions that I could not comprehend. I stand there, incapable of performing nameless tasks.

During Christmas dinner, I asked my uncle where the sorrel, a traditional Jamaican drink, was. He answered, and sure enough, I responded with my usual, “Sorry, can you repeat that for me?” My question was met by an equal sentiment of confusion. For 10 minutes we stood, trying to understand each other. Sometimes, I feel like my disconnect with my culture has caused a literal border: a communication border. That evening, I settled for water.

"While living in the overlap of both cultures, I know that I must use my identities as tools to enhance the whole of who I am, rather than walls to confine me."

I have never wanted to lose myself more than in these situations of cultural conflict. Being in the room, but unable to comprehend. Sometimes, in the safety of my bedroom, I practice my Patois, trying desperately to recreate the sounds, accents, and tones that come so naturally to my family.

But once I step back into my “real” world, I know that the accent I yearned to have — or any non-American accent — would only get me labeled as uneducated and ignorant in America. I would be the embodiment of a false, but still existent, racial stereotype, and at that moment, I start to believe that my inability to conform could be a blessing. Maybe, in my own home, my parents have set me up to never understand as a way of protection, sheltering me from the difficulty of code-switching and the dangers that can arise should I forget to do so. Maybe, my parents have sheltered me from their culture and pushed me toward a new culture to put me in a position to succeed.

But I wonder if this success comes at a price. Examining my American culture forces me to think of challenges that extend beyond language hurdles, and I realize a new set of barriers awaits me. Images of racial tensions, the existence of hate groups, and a fear of traveling to neighboring cities and states where Confederate flags fly freely come to mind. Maybe that makes me sixteen fiftieths American, for each of the states on the East Coast I feel comfortable visiting. Can I really be American if the color of my skin still prevents me from obtaining certain positions, equal opportunities and respect? Sometimes the discrimination is subtle. But ship conferences and tell people that I go to school in Prince George’s county, people say, “Do you like it there?” and “Oh, I could never!” I know that even locally, certain prejudices exist, but I know that I must persist.

These divides, whether they are the ones associated with the cultural mix-ups I share with my Jamaican family or some of the more frightening ones that come as a result of being a minority woman in America, are present. While living in the overlap of both cultures, I know that I must use my identities as tools to enhance the whole of who I am, rather than walls to confine me.

Being free to embrace aspects of the Jamaican culture and elements of the American culture will allow me to create an identity that is uniquely my own. By not completely conforming to one or the other, I am free to become something of my own making. Although the path is unclear, and the borders blurry, day by day, step by step, I can begin to discover who I truly am: Jamaican-American.