How do we relate with people who are completely different from our own culture and beliefs? Do we take the opportunity to get to know them and enrich our understanding around why we are all different? How does expanding our social sphere give us perspective on how groups and communities (family, friends, clubs, churches, schools) formulate our identity and beliefs? Is there something worth learning from the perfect stranger?
Waseme Gambo, a classmate at Duquesne University, prompted all these questions for me. I asked to interview her. She has 3 sociocultural aspects that are different from mine. My aim of this interview was to explore and understand the various aspects of Waseme’s identities and the intersectionality of those identities.
It was only after two classes I was curious to meet my fellow classmate, Waseme Gambo. I was fascinated by her accent and the fact that she was an international student studying at Duquesne. I have always had a connection with international people—especially since I am fascinated by different countries and how other cultures acquire unique perspectives. When approaching her, I asked if I could interview her. I learned that she is from Trinidad and Tobago, which are islands south of the Carribean. I know little about that part of the world and was eager to learn her story. Additionally, aside from her heritage, she comes from a different racial background, and I wanted to learn whether her race forms a strong part of her identity. We met for the interview on November in the Southside where she is currently living. Her family was there for the weekend and she was kind enough to spend a good amount of time with me at a café for lunch. Throughout this paper, I will share information about Waseme’s culture, and how her personal experiences have influenced her identity. I will also identify certain characteristics of our personalities that are aligned, those that are not, and my personal reflections on her stories.
When Waseme first discussed with me a bit about her island, I was stunned at how diverse it is. Firstly, the population is small with around 1.3 million people. Additionally, the population is diverse, with African, Hispanic, Indian, Arab, European and Chinese ethnicities. The dominant groups are the African and Indian communities since they came to the islands as slaves and indentured laborers during control and influence from Spain, France, and Britain. Slavery was eventually abolished, and there was unity amongst the diverse population when Tobago and Trinidad gained its independence in 1962 and became a Republic in 1976. Waseme mentioned that this anniversary is a great celebration along with other festivities across all the cultures that follow Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu religions. The whole population celebrates together and wears the colors and uniforms that symbolize each culture. Waseme forms part of the mixed race, which is 22.8% of the population (Napoleon, A., Robinson, R., M. Brereton, B., and Watts, D., 2018). Being multiracial is common, yet Waseme considers her family situation unique. On her mother’s side, Waseme’s great-grandfather was a white Frenchman who owned a plantation. When slavery was abolished, he married an African slave and they had twelve children that were “all colors of the rainbow,” as Waseme calls it. On her father’s side, her great-grandmother was an indentured Chinese laborer who married an African man. Waseme is a unique mix of Caucasian, Asian, and African descent. She claims she turned out darker skinned than her brother and sister. Waseme claims that race and religious beliefs (Orthodox Christian, Hinduism, Islam, and others) are not seen as problematic in Trinidad. Everyone is treated equally, and they work together to understand differences—even from the people that immigrate to her country to this day.
Because Waseme mentioned everyone lived equally, I asked her why she would want to leave her country when this topic is a large issue in the United States. Waseme explained how the people of Trinidad want to learn about other cultures and ways of living. I connected with what she said because based on my experience, constant exposure to diverse customs makes you realize there is so much to learn aside from the knowledge you acquire from just one country. As a bi-racial individual, I find myself struggling to stay in one place for a long time. At times I find myself missing aspects of one country that are lacking in another. You become a citizen of the world rather than a citizen of one nation. Waseme added that The United States is an example of a world of worlds, and because she claims to be curious, she wanted to study in the United States. Additionally, there are some aspects of the Trinidadian culture that is rigid, according to Waseme. The education system, for example, follows more of a strict and theoretical approach because of its celebrated Universities of Medicine. Although Waseme’s background is in the Sciences, she has a preference that serves her style of learning by following a more practical approach in education, which is greatly used in American schools. Waseme spent her undergrad in Buffalo State University in New York studying Psychology, and decided to pursue a Counseling degree at Duquesne, and not return to Trinidad just yet. Studying abroad has been beneficial for Waseme and her brother, who also is studying in the United States. She enjoys the electives, which has helped her discover other interests, such as Counseling. As a result, she is thankful for the options that the American culture offers her in terms of her career path. I was happy for Waseme that she was able to find a style that suits her. I also understand how the United States is rich in offering various options. This is the reason I decided to move back. I myself am used to studying the theoretical way when I studied in Madrid and in The Netherlands. I am currently struggling with how American master-level education appears too practical and there is little room for debate. As a result, I recognized by conversing with Waseme that it is important to consider how educational structures influence how you respond to methods of learning.
Being practically a second home and a place where an adolescent grows, going to school not only was a challenge for Waseme when it came to academics, but it was also difficult for her once she transferred from a public school to a private school. At the public school, Waseme experienced no issues connecting with her diverse classmates. As a mixed race, she learned to accept her identity through humor and making jokes about how unique she is. She mentioned to me that it does not bother her if someone called her black, white, or even red. It was common for the mixed race to be labeled as red. She even laughed when she told me her mother is called a cockroach—a woman who is black on the outside and white on the inside. It was not until entering the private school that she struggled to connect with both the black and white community. She made no friends and found that period to be very difficult. Waseme basically learned to live like a chameleon and blend just to fit in. She mentioned she was extremely insecure about her hair, which is a strong feature of her mixed race. Because the dominant race is roughly white and black, and there were many in the private school, she would style her hair in multiple ways—straight and curly—to have it in ways that felt acceptable. She made close friends with white girls outside of the private school when she became a member at a gym. They would spend time laughing as Waseme would style her hair on the fly and give the look a name, like Spider. Growing up, she watched a lot of American television, and she developed an accent that many classmates and friends noticed. She learned to speak slang and eventually lost her original accent. When Waseme mentioned slang, I believe she is referring to Trinidad English, the creole language. I found this interesting and referred to our readings about how the language in American television is seen as the correct way of speaking in America and states like Hawaii experience issues with their English-based creole language, Pidgin (Lippi-Green, 1994). Although her English is good, Waseme claims she spoke even better English than now. Because Waseme made such good friends with the white community in the gym, she bonded well with the white American race while studying at Duquesne. It was only during her undergrad in Buffalo state where she experienced discrimination from both the white and black race. The teachers were not supportive of her academic level and the black people she met claimed she was not “black” enough because she would in their opinion complain rather than take responsibility for her struggles. I recall a case study we read in class of a young girl who felt isolated in school because she could not relate with her classmates, and the teachers treated her terribly by making her feel dumb. I feel based on Waseme’s experiences with both races in Trinidad and in America, that it is hard for mixed races to identify because you are judged by acquiring a certain level of “blackness” and “whiteness;” and although Waseme handles the situation with grace and humor, she has struggled to identify herself because of the set of standards races places on themselves. Teachers also have a big responsibility of treating their students with respect when observing how each child applies academic learning. “A safe and nurturing school environment reduces the risk of negative developmental outcomes, such as behavior problems at school” (Resnick et al., 1997). Waseme appeared quite emotional during this part of the interview, and the way I could respond was holding her hand for a bit. I hesitated at first because I understand it is not really ethical for a Counselor to touch their patients, but being aware of that and knowing our relationship is not meant to be professional, I went with my impulse and she accepted the gesture gratefully. I empathize with Waseme on that account because I also experienced a time in the fourth grade where I moved to a new country and had no friends. The situation was affecting my academic performance. I received no support from the teachers and they said I had a learning problem and had to be placed in Special Education.
Because it appeared that race was not the main issue for Waseme to feel isolated at the private school, I explored further the situation by asking her if the social class in Trinidad affected how the community related with each other. Waseme agreed fully with my assumption. She recalled a moment when a girl at the public school claimed that her father smoked marijuana due to wearing dreadlocks and that Waseme was, therefore, living in poor conditions. Additionally, we discussed how people in Trinidad of higher classes had social responsibilities—to provide for others and the country and to maintain an honorable family name. With great power comes great responsibility in Trinidad. Because the upper class has a responsibility to not show off their fortune, they do not segregate themselves, yet they have to remember their privilege. Waseme also mentioned the responsibility the upper class has when it comes to marriage. To celebrate the hard work and legacy of their descendants, rich families are allowed to date people of other races but not marry them. They follow a rather conservative principle of marrying cousins or people of their own race. Waseme considers her class to be “comfortable,” and they live in a neighborhood where senators and family members of extremely high class live. A rich Syrian neighbor of Waseme’s lives separately from her family because of choosing to have a child with an African man. Waseme says she is not in favor of incest, but she understands its importance because it is so common in her culture.
As we discussed honoring the family name, I noticed how much respect Waseme has towards her family. I asked her if the elderly are respected, and she said that she was also raised by her grandparents. Before they passed away, Waseme growing up would share a bed with her grandmother. She also mentioned at times even as a teenager she would sleep in her parent’s bed. I remember doing that when I was a child, and I found it nice to hear that the coming of age did not affect the child’s decision to show such affection towards her family. I learned that in Trinidad everyone has a responsibility to demonstrate respect. Whatever wrongdoing is done by one member of the family, the burden gets passed on to the rest of the family. As a result, making up for wrongdoings is very important in Trinidad. I understood in contrast to American culture, Trinidad follows a very collective culture. Waseme stated proudly that when she speaks about her beliefs and values, she speaks of Trinidad as a whole. When things get hard, everyone in Trinidad works together to fix the problem and help in the best way that they can. Waseme is so connected with her family, it appears she feels their pain from far away. I asked her about her spirituality, and she mentioned that she once felt her grandmother’s spirit go through her the day she died. She was also able to locate her lost niece and nephew when they ran away from home. This strong perception and empathy towards others show how well everyone knows each other in Trinidad.
I was pleased to hear how everyone in the Trinidadian culture shares a responsibility to help each other. I learned, however, that there is a catch, and this was a moment in our discussion where I felt different from Waseme. Waseme discussed how she follows strong ethical values. She is considered as the one who knows right and wrong, who knows where she stands to not offend. Focusing on your individual values in Trinidad appears to be difficult. By knowing yourself, you need to identify the things that could offend the community. As a whole, the culture does not support the gay community, for example. If one chooses to come out as gay, they must take the responsibility with them. Waseme claims there seldom is support for the gay community amongst family and friends, but they support from a distance. They will not attend a gay wedding, for example. Just recently, last September, Trinidad had their first gay parade. Shortly after, Waseme mentioned that Trinidad has been experiencing strange weather, and many homes inhabited by gay people were lost. People suspect based on their religious beliefs, particularly in Waseme’s Orthodox Catholic religion, that the gay community brings shame and will go to Hell. As a result, they foresee the tropical storms as punishment from God. Hockey is considered a gay sport. Waseme shared that when she was going to join the team with her friend, her father warned that the people “could turn her.”
Warning people about following good behavior and paying attention to danger is a huge part of helping each other in Trinidad. Waseme applies her values to protect her friends from making dangerous decisions. I then asked her about crime in Trinidad. Unfortunately, crime has been rising for the past few years, and there are serious issues with homicide, gangs, drugs, and rape (“A Caribbean,” 2008). I asked Waseme the reason for the rise of crime, and aside from the gay community being blamed, criminal deportees are out of control, and the police are still working to improve criminal policies. The market value in Trinidad is high, yet “reports estimate that if Caribbean countries were able to reduce crime levels to those similar to Costa Rica (with a homicide rate of 8.1/100,000), their rates of economic growth would increase notably” (“A Caribbean,” 2008).
Because rape rates are high in Trinidad, I spoke with Waseme a bit about the lifestyle of women in Trinidad and was curious about their safety. I thought about the role of women in several countries, like India and Spain (Badcock, 2018), where women who are raped are considered “responsible for the circumstances” (“Everyone Blames,” 2018). I asked Waseme if she feels safe overall as a woman. She reminded me that safety is all about having common sense. I asked her if any of her friends were victims, and she mentioned a friend who experienced kidnap and rape. My initial response was to express my condolences and concern for her friend. Waseme reminded me, however, that she has warned her friend many times. It is common sense for a woman to dress modestly and not go out alone at night. Waseme claims that both genders are treated equally, yet there also appears to be roles that both genders willingly take responsibility for. For example, Waseme did not appear bothered that women in Trinidad still earn less in the working environment than the men. She also considers it the norm for women to wear loose clothes and cover their heads in Church, for example, to “distract men from their beauty.” This made me think of the Muslim influence in their culture. Waseme’s perception of women dressing modestly is interesting because beauty in her country is praised, and it is important to be humble about it. Western society, in contrast, perceives this as women needing to cover themselves because they are seen as “sexual objects” (“This Trend,” 2010). Waseme argues that going to Church is not a “fashion show.” This scenario made me think back on the upper class being humble about their privilege. I asked Waseme if humbleness is another cultural value in Trinidad. She agreed.
As we finished our lunch and interview, I asked Waseme what her goal was after graduating from Duquesne with her Counselor degree. She mentioned she wanted to return to Trinidad and advocate for what she believes in. She wishes to work to reduce the crime rate that has drastically escalated in Trinidad in order to keep her friends and family protected. Additionally, she wants to work to maintain the integrity of Trinidad and their “openness to learning about new things, new cultures and maintaining the peace amongst the Trinidadian population.” Even though Trinidad follows a united philosophy amongst people of multiple races and religious idealizations, Waseme concluded that many young students, particularly young Muslims studying abroad in the Middle East, return to Trinidad and preach “authentic” religious ideals. These students in the news have been referred to as Muslim extremists. Waseme claims that the government works hard to control these issues and that as a Counselor she feels she also has the responsibility to remind the people of Trinidad the following values that make her country great: humbleness, respect, curiosity, tolerance, social responsibility, and knowledge. These values are very important to Waseme, and throughout this interview, she has given strong examples as to how she applies them in her life. She mentioned how going to school and traveling is important to feed her curiosity. Her ability to connect with different races shows her openness and acceptance of physical uniqueness. She finds it important to be self-aware in order to take responsibility for her actions and to be considerate towards loved ones and those that have less. I feel the challenges she has experienced have also drawn her to these conclusions. Because education is important in the Trinidadian culture, she struggled academically, and the lack of support from teachers has influenced her confidence. Additionally, being a mixed race made it hard for her to identify with one race, but her ability to blend and her interest in experiencing new cultures made her conclude that race should not influence identity. We had some disagreements, especially when discussing the issues Trinidad is experiencing with the gay community. I am spiritual, but not religious. I find it hard to hear that homosexuality is sinful. I have close friends and family who are homosexual that I support. I also noticed as a woman, I victimize myself more, and I question how much responsibility one must take for their actions because of gender. However, I’m aware that cultures influence our thought process in this regard, and I was open to hearing Waseme’s beliefs regarding gender roles. Overall, I feel Trinidad is quite conservative, and I feel there is little support for autonomy because of the collective culture. The rise of crime also has me suspect an increase in corruption. However, I understand their beliefs around honor, respect and caring for your family. Knowing your roots and where you come from gives insight on how to live autonomously with dignity and love.