Alyssa Writes

A Tout Oiseau Le Nid est Beau – Contextualizing Martinican Culture

Almost time to say goodbye!

Almost time to say goodbye!

A tout oiseau le nid est beau – There’s no place like home

Now that we (the assistants) are nearing the ends of our contracts, everyone seems to be evaluating their experiences in Martinique. Did I get what I wanted out of my time here? Was it worth it? Have I learned anything? At the most fundamental level–was it a good experience or a bad experience? Personally, the only goal I had in coming here was to try learning to surf. Delayed all this time due to injury, I finally took a lesson last week and I got up a few times on a surf board! Therefore, my experience here = success.

I’ve really enjoyed my time here and have applied to renew my contract on the promise to myself that I will throw myself in. Most assistants have enjoyed it too, save a few things that seem to be common concerns for everyone. While I understand where they’re coming from, I have a few things say…

I think that the most ubiquitous concern among the assistants is the way men treat women. I’m not going to defend the objectification of women—I’m pretty sure my Equity Studies major would be revoked—but I do feel as though the behaviour needs to be contextualized rather than being discussed in sweeping generalizations.

First, it is not only white women that are hissed at and followed down the street. I am not white, and it’s not until I look desperately confused in response to Creole that people question whether I’m Martinican. Regardless, I have also been hissed at, followed, and touched inappropriately. Conversely, I’ve also had men chase away the men I’ve shown no interest in.

Second, some assistants have stated that they have felt sexism; not only from strangers, but from people they know and/or like. They (and I) have heard things like “Women shouldn’t drink/smoke/lift weights/work…” Now, I think that the misunderstanding comes from “shouldn’t” versus “can’t”. I haven’t heard them say, we can’t…just that we shouldn’t. Is that sexism, or is it chivalry? I will come back to this shortly.

My survival tactic has often been to say that I have a boyfriend or that I’m married. Married works better as long as your husband currently resides in Martinique but works really far away. Following this, I’m asked “Why is he making you walk/hitchhike/etc.?” An anthropologist did a lot of study in Jamaica and he wrote about this kind of treatment of women. He wrote that women on the streets are seen as invaders of male cultural space and therefore stigmatized when they are “outside”—as in, on the street as opposed to “inside” a car or at home. Thus, it is not fundamentally because you are white, or a woman, that you receive this treatment. It’s a mockery of your (lack of) status or of the masculinity of your significant other (another issue in and of itself, but I will stay on task). My friend who is dating an older Martinican man always complains that he doesn’t let her do anything. He always picks her up from work, even when she wants to walk; he usually does the cooking (and baking of delicious cakes— to my diet’s chagrin). It’s not that he thinks she can’t do it; it’s that he doesn’t want her to. It’s a marker of status to have a wife or girlfriend who doesn’t have to do certain things. So again, this attitude of “you’re significant other is a fail because you’re out here alone” is Martinique’s conception of chivalry. Depending on your brand of feminism, you may see chivalry as sexism or not. That’s a personal opinion.

For many assistants, their experience in Martinique has been their first as a “minority” (I put minority in quotation marks because to me a minority in the equity sense of the word has nothing to do population distribution, but is a status conferred through oppression and power dynamics that negatively affect your life chances…and seeing as how wealth and status is distributed in one specific direction here, I would argue that white people are not a minority. But I get with where they’re going with it). Yes, I have had some students literally say that they don’t like white people, and I know that can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it. I don’t condone racism, but before judging Martinicans as racist, the attitude must be contextualized historically (slavery) and in modernity (neocolonialism, tourism). Let’s be honest, there is not a great precedent of positive interracial relations. I could go into this more, but it would require more than a blog…

In all honesty, one thing I was taken aback by was the education system. This isn’t even specifically Martinican, but French in origin. Personally, I was surprised about the conseil de classe, where the teacher gives feedback to individual students in front of the entire class. In Canada, negative feedback is rare, and for it to happen in front of others would be cause for discipline of the teacher. Speaking of discipline, the way parents discipline their children is nothing new to me. I was raised that way. It’s not a lack of love, but simply a cultural variation of the way love is shown. Yeah, some kids will get the hell smacked out of them—I’ve been that kid—but as long as your mother has the means, she will never let you go to school hungry, deprived, or with a crushed piece of clothing on. Despite the low income families here, our students have nice shoes, iPhones and fresh hairstyles because being well put together is (again) a mark of status—typically when you truly don’t have it. It’s shameful to go to school unkempt because it’s like airing your dirty laundry. You can be poor, but you sure as hell shouldn’t let anyone else know that, regardless of the fact that most people are in the same boat. Here, I’d be more concerned about the kid with a hole in his shirt and an ashy face over the kid getting yelled at. At least someone cares enough to yell—that is the idea of this way of parenting.

I think it’s great to move somewhere to experience a new culture. Where people often fail is when they try to live their own culture and are disappointed when they can’t. You can complain about the prices here. I eat plantains, I cooked a local soup, my friend made punch coco from scratch…Yes, it’s expensive, so learn to cook and eat local shit.You can complain about the lack of (your conception of) culture…but pick up a newspaper. Actually, I just did. Today’s France-Antilles lists 6 events: four art expositions, one theatrical show, and one chess tournament. All, but one, are free.

Is this where you spent 7 months?

You can say that you liked it or that you didn’t like it and that you do or don’t appreciate the culture, but for most of us (and I say us, because I’m guilty too), we probably couldn’t describe Martinican culture in a satisfactory manner. To be honest, the analyses I’ve made above are partly from years of study of Caribbean history and personal experience being raised in Caribbean household. It is man’s great legacy to observe and record experiences of new worlds; however, to classify parts of a culture we’ve hardly experienced as good or bad while concomitantly ignoring the social and historical contexts that produced it is nothing less than ignorant. My goal here was not to offend or to be an apologist, rather to provide a very, very basic context to observations made.