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THE WAY of Life in Jamaica🇯🇲 (EN)

Every month on WOMENCANFLY.CO’s blog series, The Way, we introduce inspirational women who live around the world. 

This time, we're delighted to introduce Akiko Saito, who has been living in Jamaica for two years. Akiko’s family of four moved to Kingston, Jamaica due to her husband’s overseas assignment. With only about 200 Japanese residents in Jamaica, the country is famous for being  the birthplace of reggae and Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, but there was still much to discover.

Akiko candidly shares about life in Jamaica, raising her two children in a foreign country and the changes in her values and perspectives from living abroad. Through learning about Jamaica's history and culture and facing new challenges with the support of her family, Akiko's resilience shines through.

Family bonds are what gets you through anywhere in the world

Jamaica is more than the home of reggae

After graduating from university, Akiko worked at Japanese financial institutions and trading companies before marrying her husband. When her husband's assignment to Jamaica came up after 11 years of marriage, she embraced it positively, recalling her experiences of studying abroad in Canada and her fondness for reggae dancing.

"Jamaica is famous for reggae, right? Since I used to dance during my college days, reggae was familiar to me. When I told my dance friends that we were going to live in Jamaica, they envied me. I was looking forward to making lots of Jamaican friends!"

Akiko had another reason to look forward to life in Jamaica. Before moving there, she had lived in Croatia from 2016 to 2019 accompanying another one of her husband's assignments. Croatians are kind and the cities are beautiful. Those three years were filled with joy and learning so she had no doubts that similar experiences awaited them in Jamaica.

However, her expectations were quickly overturned.

In reality, they couldn't go out as freely as they had hoped. Jamaica has high rates of crime, including murder, robbery, and drug-related incidents, making it unsafe. Any involvement in such incidents by Akiko or her children would greatly affect her husband's job. Therefore, they had to adhere to strict rules, such as only using a car for transportation and being restricted to the safety of their home.

The gap between the rich and poor is wide in Jamaica

The gap between the expectation and reality of living in Jamaica

Akiko was surprised by the unexpectedly high cost of living. They live in an area of Jamaica with many foreigners, where a bowl of pork cutlet rice at a restaurant can cost ¥4,900, and a head of cabbage goes for ¥1,600. Despite the high prices, whether eating out or cooking at home, food expenses are remarkably high.

When they stop by a café for a break, they sometimes have to wait for over an hour just to get a cup of coffee. Jamaicans' sense of time often feels slow to Japanese people. As a result, Akiko found it challenging to continue her favorite café-hopping hobby  and struggled to find locations of interest. Making local friends might have increased social interactions , but even that seemed difficult.

"I used to think Jamaicans were bright and friendly people. However, I'm having a hard time making local friends. When I'm standing in line at the register, maybe because I'm Asian, they sometimes change their attitude. They don't show many smiles. I feel a gap between the cheerful image of the country and the reality."

While Japanese people often smile even when meeting someone for the first time, they rarely show smiles without reason. There's a background to this.

"A friend told me that many Jamaican men leave and go somewhere else without getting married even if they have children. So, women have to work while raising their children, so they need to be strong. I was surprised to hear that smiling is considered a sign of weakness."

Though it's challenging to gain acceptance, being smiled at and waved to by kind Jamaicans makes Akiko very happy. Friendly interactions are challenging to come by, making encounters with kind Jamaicans who smile and greet her brighten her day.

Beautiful weather brightens our hearts

Learning about the history and culture of Jamaica reveals more about the country

Although opportunities to go out are limited, Akiko experiences cultural shocks frequently in her daily life. There are various surprises even at her children's school.

Her two children attend a local school where relatively affluent students gather. The school has good security, but the scenes are different from Japanese schools.

For example, students litter the classroom because they don't throw garbage in the trash cans. It's common for students not to listen to the teacher.

Consequently, even though her children aren't doing anything special, they are treated like model students and praised by teachers.

Also, there was a trend in the class where they crushed white candies into powder and sold them as "drugs," giving Akiko a real sense of how close drugs were to their lives.

"Living here, I feel puzzled about many things. Why do drugs and discrimination exist? When my daughters learn about Jamaican history at school and teach me about it, I sometimes find myself understanding why things are the way they are. Understanding Jamaica's history and background helps me understand Jamaican behaviors and emotions. That's why I value learning about the history and background of the country where I live."

Jamaica was once a British colony and a center for the slave trade. Although slavery has been abolished, discrimination based on skin color still exists.

Living in Jamaica provides Akiko with opportunities to think deeply about slavery, racial discrimination, economic disparities, and the education system. While we often tend to have fixed perceptions about other countries based on school education and media, true understanding only comes from experience. It's essential to judge based on actual experiences rather than through the media.

Compared to Japan, life in Jamaica is more likely to be dangerous. It's challenging to enjoy sightseeing or shopping to the fullest. However, precisely because of such circumstances, there are indeed things to be gained from experiencing the history, culture, and thoughts of the country through living abroad.

Expat life can be full of culture shocks

English, Jamaica's official language has different pronunciations

The official language in Jamaica is English. However, Jamaican accents are so strong that it's challenging to understand.

"For example, 'bus' is pronounced as 'boss,' 'ask' becomes 'aks,' 'kettle' is 'kekkle,' 'bottle' turns into 'bokkle,' and 'name' sounds like 'neema.' The English we learned is entirely different from the pronunciation here. English is already challenging to learn, but with such strong accents, I can't even understand the words. It really shakes my confidence."

From experiences like these, Akiko realized that there are various accents of English worldwide. However, despite nearly giving up on Jamaican English, she acknowledges its necessity for communicating with locals and continues with her English studies.

Akiko's favourite English language learning books

Akiko's language learning materials include YouTube videos and books. Instead of trying various materials, she focuses on practicing the ones she has chosen repeatedly. She recommends Bilingirl Chika's YouTube channel "Bilingirl English Conversation" and has recently joined an online community run by Bilingirl Chika.

On the other hand, her two children attending local schools, though initially

struggling to understand Jamaican English and sometimes crying, have now mastered it. However, they still don't fully understand everything, and sometimes misunderstandings occur due to their inability to comprehend English.

Once, when her son, a member of the track team, mentioned, "There's practice at Jamaica University tomorrow," they went to watch. To their surprise, it was a competition day, not a practice session. Amidst swift Jamaican athletes, her son participated in the race still in his practice attire. Around Aikiko, Japanese seemed to draw curiosity from the Jamaican children, asking, "What's his name?" When her son ran, cheers calling his name erupted from the stands.

"Not being able to speak English narrows down your scope of activities. If you want to get along with the locals, you definitely need to take the initiative. So now, I'm summoning up courage to strike up conversations and participate in the children's school events," she says.

At Akiko's son's athletics event

Rediscovering Japan's virtues and the importance of family in Jamaican  life

Aikiko adheres to a few principles. Firstly, being aware that their actions are seen by locals as typical of Japanese behavior. She reiterates this to her children.

"When we lived in Japan, I often felt constrained by worrying about what others thought. I used to think, 'Wouldn't it be better if we were more carefree?' But I think that being conscious of others actually contributes to maintaining safety, cleanliness, and order. Living in Jamaica, I've come to realize how amazing Japan is," she reflects.

Secondly, prioritising health above all else. While stress is inevitable, she finds solace in her husband's encouragement.

"Once, I asked my husband, 'Do you think the things I'm worried about are trivial?' He immediately responded, 'Yeah, they're trivial.' I was surprised, but it instantly lifted a weight off my shoulders. Whenever I'm feeling down, he always asks, 'What's wrong?' and that one question boosts my spirits. I just think, 'As long as he's by my side, everything will be fine.'"

Her husband has always been proactive in household chores and childcare since they got married, and that hasn't changed. In a new environment overseas, having a constant presence is invaluable.

Her husband is scheduled for various overseas postings in the future. While the country and duration are decided without their input, with an attitude of understanding and embracing each country's culture and the unwavering warmth of family, they'll be able to stand firm wherever they go.

Growing up being immersed in various cultures

While small steps might suffice in Japan, overseas challenges often require a leap of faith. Surely, the perseverance now will serve as a runway for future leaps. Just by safeguarding her family's health and daring to try something new in a country where there are only 200 Japanese people, Aikiko gives us courage. We hope she continues to soar freely in the dreams she envisions.

May Aikiko's future overseas endeavors be filled with health and joy.

Being open to understanding and embracing each country's culture, alongside a vibrant and healthy family, might be the best advice for thriving overseas.

We hope this serves as a useful reference for those planning to live abroad.

We look forward to seeing Aikiko take on her next challenge.

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