By Nicolette Ramcharan
Published on April 18, 2016
At the age of eight, I visited for the first time a strange and unfamiliar place. My grandmother’s house, situated on a corner lot, is surrounded by six-feet-tall walls of white bricks. They own acres of farmland around the house, growing corn, sugar cane, mangoes, and bananas alongside a variety of other tropical fruits. I can still remember the feeling of the warm grass beneath my feet, the hot sun that scorched my shoulders, and the cool breeze that traveled from afar to reach my face. From the terrace of this two-story house, I could see fields of green and smell the freshly baked bread and spicy foods from downstairs. This distinct memory of the place of my grandmother’s home in Trinidad and Tobago continues to be a part of who I am today.
One day, grandmother told me she was inviting over a church friend by the name of Janice. I was eager for her visit because she was also bringing along her granddaughter who was apparently the same age as I was. The doorbell rang, and when I opened the burglar-proofed front doors, I was surprised to find that Janice and her granddaughter were Chinese. Janice said with a strong Trinidadian accent, “I brought over a real nice pot of curry goat with cooked rice.” I remember being confused as an eight-year-old child, unable to understand how there were Chinese people living in Trinidad, and wondering how it was that they spoke with the same accent as my West Indian grandmother. One would think that I would be accustomed to diversity, having grown up in multicultural Toronto, but as a young girl I had naively assumed that Trinidadians looked like my family.
Janice’s granddaughter Christine and I played in the farmlands that surrounded the house and ate sweet mangoes and baby bananas right off the tree. Christine told me Trinidadian folktales about lost children with backwards feet who roam the nights and live under the guggul tree. I remember having nightmares about these children taking me away during the night. I befriended other children from the village including an Afro-Caribbean named Ricky who joined us in our small adventures in the fields. We ate fruit, played games, and told stories to each other. I was no longer surprised to see racial difference among Trinidadians, and instead began to see difference as an empowering and positive experience.
There are many layers of geography and history when it comes to defining what it means to be Trinidadian. I am often asked the question, “What is your background?” to which I usually answer, “I am Canadian but my parents are of Trinidadian descent.” Both the question and answer are unclear. How many historical layers sufficiently define a background? What does it mean to be Trinidadian… or Canadian? I have learned through my experience at grandmother’s home that “Trinidadian” can mean Indo-Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean, White, Chinese, or even Spanish. I learned about how it was that my friends and I came to hold hands and play together, and the history behind the differences in the colours of our skin. The fields of green where my friends and I played was a place that my ancestors had worked upon as indentured servants. This was the same land that was promised to the indentured servants by the British Empire in the late 1800’s. Indentured labour had replaced slavery for the British Empire in part because of the end of slavery in 1823, and hundreds of thousands of East Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Chinese were shipped on long voyages to the Caribbean. In exchange for their labor, the Indian indentured workers were given the choice of a piece of land in Trinidad or passage back to India.
In considering Canada in the context of a post-imperial geography of the Indian diaspora, I see connections between being a diasporic Indian immigrant-settler in contemporary Canada and being an Indian indentured worker in 19th Century Trinidad. Both involve a difficult process — though an immigrant experience probably pales in comparison to indentured servitude — of moving to an unfamiliar country and facing language barriers, prejudice, and racism. Both involve taking risks for new opportunities and hoping for a better future. My mother and father faced many challenges as Trinidadian immigrant-settlers in Canada, experiencing discrimination and difficulty in finding secure employment and adequate housing. As I reflect on my experiences in Trinidad, I realize I am part of interconnected histories of a transnational diaspora across space and across time.
- Anderson, Clare. 2009. “Convicts and Coolies: Rethinking Indentured Labour in the Nineteenth Century1.” Slavery and Abolition 30 (1): 93-109.
- Reddock, Rhoda. 2008. “Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago 1845-1917: Freedom Denied.” Caribbean Quarterly 54 (4): 41-68,149.
- Roopnarine, Lomarsh. 2009. “Indian Social Identity in Guyana, Trinidad, and the North American Diaspora.” Wadabagei : A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diaspora 12 (3): 87-125.
- Fung, Richard. 1996. “Bodies out of Place: The Videotapes of Shani Mootoo.”Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8, no. 2: 161-73.
Nicolette Ramcharan is a hardworking, uplifting, and optimistic 4th year student at the University of Toronto, studying History and Human Geography. She currently works at the Royal Ontario Museum in curating and also at Best Buddies Canada. Her hobbies include tennis and reading historical novels, and she has a strong passion for traveling and historical geography. After graduation, Nicolette plans to pursue a Master’s in Library Science and Information at the University of Toronto.