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Misadventures of a Yardie: Lost in Translation

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The snow expedition was my introduction to winter. Like most Yardie new to America, it was a culture shock. I had no choice but to embrace the new environment. This led to my next misadventure.

It started the day following my blizzard experience in the park. Despite feeling sick, I refused to miss my first day of school. The night prior, I prepared my school attire—a white shirt, navy trousers, and new sneakers. All night, I tossed and turned, feeling restless. In the morning, I woke up with a cough and sniffles. Pain surged through my body, but I dragged myself out of bed. My head all the while pulsated like a Reggae bass line. 

I stumbled to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take a shower. Then, I went to the kitchen and warmed up the calaloo and saltfish Mommy left on the stove. A pot of fever grass tea sat next to it, so I turned it on. 

The next task was to organize my younger sisters. Mornings were the most challenging, but I got them ready and had their breakfast without any issues.

Unlike the previous day, I ensured my sisters and I were dressed appropriately for the cold weather. I ushered them out the door and headed towards an apartment building on the next block. The routine involved taking her to the babysitter, which meant detouring before dropping Maya off at preschool. 

Aaliyah, usually beamed with mischief, clung to me. Her small face scrunched up as she fought back tears. While we walked to the sitter’s apartment building, she wailed louder, unwilling to go. Despite my scratchy throat, I spoke in a firm tone. “Aaliyah, look, stop your foolishness. You do this every day. Mommy always drop you off before going to work. Now me a do it. Besides, Miss Pat a go tek care a you. Bet you a go stop cry once you reach.”

I held both girl’s hands, crossed the street, and approached the building. As I expected, Aaliyah’s mood shifted once she saw familiar faces at the door. Miss Pat was waiting inside the lobby, helping to direct other kids to her apartment. My sister wiped her eyes and scampered off without a backward glance. Mission one: accomplished.

Maya was another story. The preschool was a few blocks in the opposite direction. She, too, began sobbing. She stopped walking and pleaded that she did not want to go to school. But, like Aaliyah, her mood changed once she arrived at the school’s entrance. When her little friends walked up, she loosened my grip and dashed inside.

For a brief moment, I sighed, feeling relieved that portion of the morning was done. I will have to relive it when I pick my sisters up later. But for now, that was a later problem. I walked down Flatbush Avenue to Erasmus Hall High School for over twenty blocks. After about forty-five minutes, the building appeared ahead. Worried about being late, I quickened my pace. Just before reaching the entrance, a guard gestured for me to head towards the opposite side of the building. 

I headed towards Church Avenue and made a right turn. An abandoned White Castle restaurant stood on the way. I made a second right turn and stopped where students lined up for a security check. All morning, I felt nervous, but seeing the metal detectors increased my anxiety. This level of security precaution was uncommon in Jamaican schools, so it was foreign to me.

I looked around nervously. Ahead of me stood a tall teenage boy, exuding confidence. He had a backpack with the Jamaican flag emblazoned on it. I thought he might know the answer. “Hey, what’s with the metal detectors!” 

The boy turned around, surprised by my question. His eyes flashed before recognition settled in. He smiled and spoke in a familiar, melodious accent. “Yo, yuh nuh from ‘round here? I’m Byron. Wah Gwan?” 

With a sense of relief, I delivered my response in a similar tone: “Nat a ting. Me just came from yard. Me name Jahmar.”

Byron nodded. “Well Jahmar, welcome to fareign. Dem mek school feel like prison, yuh zee mi? A so it go inna all a de school dem here. Security tight tru idiot pickney bring guns and weapons to di school. At least now we no haffi worry bout dat.” 

He shook his head and sighed.

As we shuffled forward, the detector beeped when I passed through it. I must’ve had some coins in my pocket. A guard, stern and unsmiling, glared at me. He had no interest in pleasantries. His eyebrow furrowed, and he spoke in a deep bear-like growl, “Keep it moving.”

Byron let out a chuckle. “Welcome to America?” He stepped forward. But, when I remain in place, he offered a sarcastic suggestion. “Jahmar, you haffi keep it moving.”

At that moment, I realized that the experience had created a sense of danger. I couldn’t believe children were subjected to this kind of treatment. 

After emerging on the other side, clear of anything metal, my eyes wandered around. The school was an imposing structure with a historical façade that echoed tales of yesteryears. My scholastic misadventures began that day.

Walking through the hallways felt like exploring an alien planet. Amidst the crowded corridors, lockers perched from the wall. My footsteps echoed with a tentative rhythm, the new kid’s dance of uncertainty. 

Above, fluorescent lights buzzed like artificial sunlight. They cast a glow on faces that blurred as they passed by.

With a widened grin, I greeted everyone, my Jamaican accent rolling off my tongue. “Wah gwan?”

Confusion followed each reaction. Despite that, I stayed undeterred. I continued my greetings, enjoying the musicality of my voice amidst the cacophony of Yankee chatter.

Despite this, the responses were blank stares and puzzled frowns. To them, I might as well have been reciting Shakespeare in Patois. I chuckled to myself, reflecting on how my greetings back home would elicit a chorus of replies.

To fit in, I combined the melodic rhythms of patois with the New York twang. The result was a linguistic hybrid that appeared to both amuse and bewilder. 

“Hello, what is going on? My name is Jahmar. Nice to meet you. Nice to you.”

The execution was horrific but funny. 

Later, amid the clamor of the day’s activities, I encountered my first genuine challenge — the infamous “Beef Patty.”

As the morning bell rang, heralding the start of a new period, the actual show began. Lunch had started, and I entered the cafeteria. Amidst the clatter of trays and the hum of teenage chatter, I found my unwitting audience.

With a confidence born of hunger, I approached the counter and presented my tray to the lunch lady. The aroma of overcooked vegetables and under-seasoned entrees battled for dominance in the air. This unappealed scene was a far cry from the spicy scents of Jamaican cuisine I missed. In a high-pitched eager tone ordered my lunch.

“I’ll have a beef patty, please,” I announced. My accent coloring the request with a distinct cadence. The lunch lady, a stoic culinary guardian, paused and eyed me with a blend of curiosity. She placed on my tray her version of a beef patty. It looked like a feeble imitation, a pitiful imposter. Honestly, the beef patty was less beef than me being an Eskimo.

I stared down at the tray, my expression flitting between heartbreak and humor. With a sigh, I turned to a group of students at a nearby table, seeking solidarity. They seemed amused by my inquiry.

“Dis supposed to be a beef patty?” 

A student standing next to me nodded his head in acknowledgment.

I hung my shoulders in disappointment. In comparison, back home, our patties were full of flavor, like a street dance — hot. But Dis yah suppen… it cold and sad like a beach day without sunlight.

I wanted to clarify that this does not represent my country’s popular cuisine. So, I made my reaction immediate and visceral. 

“Dis nuh look nutten like beef patty! It no smell like it, and me know fi a fact, it nah go taste like it.”  

My voice echoed across the cafeteria. The room fell silent.

As expected, heads turned, whispers spread, and before I knew it, I was the center of attention.

A girl with bright eyes and a head full of curly hair stood up and laughed. Her voice rang clear with a slight accent. “Yeah, the food here takes some getting used to. But you nuh haffi act so. Just siddung. You nuh haffi eat it.”

She extended a hand. “I’m Trisha.” 

I reach out and took it with a grin as my spirit lifted by the encounter. “Me a Jahmar, from Jamaica.” 

The rest of the kids laughed, but Trisha explained,

“They are not mocking you, eh nuh? Dem just find it funny dat every Yardie do de same thing when dem come here. But no watch dat. A so dem stay. Me go thru di same ting. All me do a bring me own food.”

“I guess me haffi do di same ting den.”

Trisha nodded her head. “If you can wait, after school, me can tek you to a Yardie restaurant round the corner. Dem food good.”

“Me dung fi dat. If you no mind, gimme di run dung a dis school.”

Trisha updated me until the bell rang, and then we went to history class. Stepping into the classroom was a time-traveling experience. Posters of historical figures adorned the walls. If you look closer, their eyes follow you. It felt like they were judging your knowledge of their deeds. The windows were ajar, letting in the bustling sound of the city.

The teacher, Ms. Hawthorne, spoke of the past like she lived through it. Her passion for history was clear. But her attempts to spark a similar fervor within us often fell on disinterested ears. She paced the front of the room, recounting dramatic historical events.

Miss Hawthorne scanned the room, then leaned against her desk in preparation to kick off the day’s lesson. 

“Good morning everyone. Who can tell me why the Monroe Doctrine was significant in American foreign policy?” 

The class responded with the silence of a deserted city.

With the enthusiasm I’d gathered from lunch with Trisha, I raised my hand. Ms. Hawthorne nodded in my direction. I cleared my throat and responded with as much clarity and in a raw Jamaican accent.

“Well, yuh see, Miss. Di Monroe Doctrine it was like America, a draw fi dem own boundary. Dem a tell Europe fi back off and mek the Western Hemisphere off-limits.” 

The class turned to me, some with smirks, others with open curiosity. Ms. Hawthorne, however, looked befuddled. After pausing for a moment, a warm and amused smile appeared on her face.

She chuckled while addressing the class. “I think I might need a translator. Anyone here can help me interpret Mr… um, remind me of your name, dear?”

My grin undiminished by the attention, I stood back up and spoke with confidence, “Jahmar, Miss,” 

Ms. Hawthorne shook her head as a smile emerged. “Thank you, Jahmar. But to be honest, I didn’t understand you because of your accent. Does anyone understand what he said?” 

Trisha’s hand shot up like a flag of truce in the silent standoff. “Miss. I got it.” All eyes pivoted to her. She translated my words with the absent of the accent that characterized mine.

“The Monroe Doctrine was America’s way of setting boundaries. It warned European nations to stay out of the Western Hemisphere’s affairs. It also declared that any attempt to colonize would be an act of aggression.”

Ms. Hawthorne beamed at Trisha. “Well done, Trisha, and thank you, Jahmar, for that spirited response. It’s good to see you are enthusiastic about the subject!”

A ripple of laughter spread throughout the classroom. I took it in stride, feeling a swell of pride rather than embarrassment. In Jamaica, I was always eager to take part in class.

As the bell rang, signaling the end of the class, I gathered my books while thinking. “Me, a yardie with a thick accent. Made my mark.”

Trisha grabbed her book bag and headed for the door. As she passed, she spoke in a soft voice, “Yuh did great.” 

I nodded and acknowledged her. “Thanks, Trish, mi jus’ a be myself.”

The rest of the day passed with similar encounters. Each miscommunication was another thread in my high school saga. Watching the bewildered teachers struggle to decipher my contributions in class was amusing. Plus, the students’ fascination with how I pronounce ‘water’ (or ‘watah,’ as I pronounced it). Every interaction was a lesson about my cultural influence.

Series Navigation<< Misadventures of a Yardie: Winter Too Cold
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