“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
I could tell that another geography lesson would be necessary. The very thought of having to pull out my phone, open my Google Maps app and explain where T&T was made me cringe, so I decided to give it one more try.
“I’m from Trin-i-dad and To-ba-go,” I said as slowly and as clearly as I could, even using hand gestures in this futile attempt at basic communication.
She turned her head slightly to the side and a confused expression came over her defined, pretty Mediterranean features before turning into a frown. Her dark eyes then averted their gaze, settling on her shoes. She paused. An awkward silence ensued.
“Do you speak English? I can’t understand a word you are saying!” she barked as she looked up. It was clear she no longer felt like chatting. I was ready to give up.
For those of you landing on this part of the newspaper who have been abroad, I am sure you can relate. Maybe you have grown to recognise the way, after saying where we are from, the other person might feign a bewildered, embarrassed smile and tactfully change the subject in a new effort at finding common ground to build a conversation upon.
“The Caribbean!” Perhaps that might get you somewhere.
“Oh Cuba!” or “Ah, in Jamaica?” or if dealing with people from the subcontinent—“Yes, West Indies.” These answers can sometimes signify frustrating progress in explaining where we are from.
Part of the experience being a Trinidadian abroad is getting used to this. The sad truth is that when people hear that you are from someplace so inconsequential that they have managed to live their entire lives without ever hearing or needing to know about, then you must also therefore be of little importance or relevance to them.
Are you even worth knowing, they probably wonder, unless you are fortunate enough to be chatting to one of the rare, naturally curious, worldly people out there.
I suppose the apathy that ensues from saying “I am from Trinidad” is better than the immediate contempt that some nationalities seem to bring out in others; think Israel and Palestine, or the United States and Iraq, Serbs and Croats, Cypriots and Turks. We Trinidadians and Tobagonians come in peace, and that’s always a good start!
After all, can you blame people’s ignorance? Why should they know about us? I imagine it’s like saying you are from a neighbourhood in a big city and expecting foreigners to relate. After all we are about the size of a neighbourhood in a big city.
If they have heard of us it is not because of oil, soca, or Carnival but because of sport.
Yet some of us think that our microcosm is the centre of the universe. Imagine, some of our politicians believe they are all-powerful as they ride around in motorcades parting traffic with their blue lights flashing, yet there are mayors of cities that are relatively more powerful with greater responsibility.
To exacerbate the awkwardness that usually accompanies introductions, before I can get past the “Where are you from?” and move on to a hopeful, “Oh, interesting, what brings you here?...,” in my case, since I don’t look like the internationally recognised stereotype of a person from the Caribbean, I frequently have to contend with “Oh, you don’t look like you are from there, I don’t believe you. Are your parents from there?”
“One of my parents is from Trinidad and the other Tobago,” I usually respond.
I am sure many other people from T&T, from all sorts of backgrounds, can relate to the requirements of having to provide further history and cultural lessons to go along with the initial geography lecture. Every Trinidadian or Tobagonian abroad gets used to becoming somewhat of a de-facto attache to the diplomatic corps in this respect. It feels good to be different.
When I decided on the topic for this column, inspired by these frequent recurring issues, I went out of my way to strike up conversations with strangers in order to gain some more insight. They usually followed the same familiar flow outlined above.
I will admit that I have put myself in their shoes, and wondered what they must have thought of me. I must seem like the most random guy on the planet or a joker with a weird sense of humour. The tall man from a place no one knows.
Then it gets even weirder: when asked what I doing here, I claim to be visiting for swimming.