By Natavia Edwards
Barrage means “a whole lot” in Patois, and that’s how the experience was when I migrated to the United States, and everything prior to that day.
It all started when I was 9 years old. I was watching a movie with my grandmother on her brown couch in the living room about a boy who couldn’t speak. I said aloud, “Poor him, him cah speak”, and my grandmother replied, “Don’t seh nunin ca yuh cah speak nietha wen yuh di younga.” That reply shocked me because I don’t remember me being quiet and not able to speak. I asked my mother if it was true and she said “yes,” and she even told me that she and my father tried home therapy, and the therapist couldn’t solve it. Until one day, I magically started speaking when I was 6 years old. I realized the reason why I couldn’t speak was because of my mother and my father’s toxic relationship. During primary school (which is how elementary school was referred to in Jamaica), my friends sometimes couldn’t understand me, and it hurt me, even now I feel like my friends don’t understand me even when I’m not speaking in Patois.
November 18, 2015 was the day that my mother, Daniel (my younger brother), and I migrated to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica. There were a lot of mixed feelings; from being excited because I’m going to another country to being emotional because I must leave half of my family behind to meet another half of my family to being nervous because I had never been on a plane. I said to my mom, “Mommy, I’m scared, can I pray?” She said “Sure!” and the plane took off as I’m holding my mother’s hand. When the plane landed in Miami, my brother was speaking Patois and I replied, “Don’t speak like that, we’re in America” and people around my seat including my mother laughed. That was a watershed moment because migrating to America is like migrating to another planet!! From the structure of houses to their education system.
The first few days living in the US made me regret leaving Jamaica because not only did I miss my friends and family, but I also missed the opportunity to take the most important test in primary schools across Jamaica, the GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test). GSAT (now called TestPrep) is the test that indicates which high school matches your scores. I was in sixth grade when I migrated, and I received the GSAT practice test during my fifth-grade summer. I remember I took the practice test in my grandmother’s veranda, which is like a porch but with a gate and walls. Whenever I got frustrated, I would look outside and feel the cool breeze.
I didn’t go to school for a month until January 2016 when I attended Sunset Ridge in East Hartford. The education system in the US is very different from Jamaica because in Jamaica, you’ll be in high school after sixth grade but in America, you’ll still be in middle school. Going from Jamaica to Sunset Ridge, I went from having a school bag on wheels packed with so many notebooks and textbooks to barely one notebook in my backpack and mostly using the school computer. I went from staying in one classroom throughout the day to going from one classroom to another and sometimes going to my locker in under 4 minutes! I went from buying my lunch from a shop and eating in the classroom to eating in a cafeteria. I went from taking tests such as Literacy Test and Communication Task on a paper to taking the STAR test during my sixth-grade year on a computer. Looking back, it was a lot to adapt to, but I am a fast learner, and I had no choice but to make America my new home.
My mother, Daniel, and I moved in with my stepfather in Bloomfield, CT in the summer of 2016. I also switched to a school that was 10 minutes away from my house called Global Experience Magnet School and it was my seventh-grade year. During that year, I had to do an exhibition, which is a presentation about yourself, your goals, and your future. That Friday in December was the day I presented my exhibition. I dressed casually with my jeans, white oxford shirt with my navy-blue school blazer and my hair combed.
I saw darkness except the for the bright artificial light that was coming from the SmartBoard. There were 13 students, some wearing causal clothes because they were presenting the same day as me, while others were in uniform, and there was a teacher who wore a dark purple oxford shirt with a bright colored tie, and my mother was there wearing a grey sweater dress with black leggings and black boots. They were all waiting for me to speak. The only person that could not see me was my best friend who also wore the school blazer for she helped me by scrolling through my presentation. As I presented, I heard silence except for my own voice, and I was soft-spoken because I found out that people could not hear me but the people in front did. I was so nervous I didn’t give them eye contact and read off the SmartBoard and start fidgeting with a dark-blue pen. I spoke about myself (being an immigrant), my knowing (learning about a new topic), caring (to see different perspectives) and doing (to perform active and meaningful service). Also, I spoke about my spark, my college choice and my career. I wish I could explain what it feels like of being an immigrant, but I was on a 30 to 45 minutes limit, and I had 32 slides.
At the end, I felt relieved by the sound of my audience clapping, including my mother. They all were proud of the fact this was my very first presentation, but they could tell that I was very nervous. My mom was very proud of me but disappointed because she saw me practice prior to then, and she knew I could do better. One person in the front said “I like your presentation. Um, when you started speaking, I noticed you have an accent. I was guessing where you come from until you claim that you were born and raised in Jamaica.” Another one asked, “Do you like it there?” That question I couldn’t answer because it was a year since I migrated. This event has showed me that I would have to step out of my comfort zone to try something new in life.
Not only did I have to adapt to the education system but also code-switching. Code-switching is the way you act or speak to your friends and family vs. in public areas, changing the way that you speak based on the audience. Prior to the day I immigrated, my mother always reminded me to speak “properly” whenever I spoke in Patois. Whenever I met someone the first time, their first question is “Where are you from because you have an accent.”
Trying to speak “properly” made me realize that I’m struggling with my identity. I felt like I was Hannah Montana by being in two worlds and having two languages (standard and broken). I tried to fit in when I visit Jamaica for the summer to see my family and went to summer school there and I was proving to myself that I was raised there because if I am starting to speak standard English, people will automatically assume I was BORN there.
I remember a day of my 8th grade summer when my father and I went to the passport center to re-new my passport, I asked my father, “Mi a one Jamaican or one American?” My father replied, “You a both mi pumpkin.” Last year during quarantine made me realize that migrating to United States really changed my life and I am struggling to accept who I am. I am both Native Jamaican and an American-Immigrant. I went from not speaking at all like the little boy in the movie to able to speak both English languages. I can adapt changes in my life and I’m also a teenager who has a barrage of experience in my life at a young age.
Course: ENG 095 Basic Writing and Reading Strategies, Spring 2021
Assignment: Literacy Narrative
Instructor: Alexa Carey
Photo credit: “Jamaica the Artist” by Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license