What’s in a name?

I had a guest speaker come to my class to talk about discrimination and stereotyping. She said when she came to Canada, and wasn’t getting any call backs from résumés she’d sent, she sought professional advice. The résumé expert strongly suggested that she take Jamaica out of her résumé completely. Sandals hotel chain could stay but Jamaica had to go. Once she took Jamaica out, the call backs started coming in. It then occurred to me that I’ve never sent a résumé with my name on it and got a callback. The jobs I’ve had have all been people who met me. My current employer saw me teaching. My previous employer met me and suggested I apply for the opening. Before that, someone referred me and so on. When I lived in Norway and applied for about sixty jobs with no call backs, I felt it might be my name but I didn’t think it would be like that in supposedly multicultural Canada. Apparently I’m wrong. Articles I’ve researched say that the popular names get the jobs, names like Sophia, Isabella, Emma, and Olivia will get the interview. Foreign names don’t even get called back as often as managers think they are immigrants and less likely to have the language skills required or managers are subconsciously biased. There is so much information on the net about Indians and Asians Anglosizing their names for success. Apparently  we also stereotype people with certain names. If you’re Abigail you’re intelligent, if you are Ruth, you are a leader, Ingrids are hard workers. If your name starts with A or B, you’re more likely to score A’s on tests, feminine names get traditionally female jobs and masculine names get traditionally male jobs. But what about Peta-Gaye? It’s a name I’ve only heard in Jamaica and  I’m tired of the blank stares I get when I say my name. It takes people awhile to wrap their tongues around it, linguistically speaking of course. I’ve even been told by another Peta-Gaye on Facebook that the correct pronunciation is Petta-Gaye instead of Peeta-Gaye. How clearly misinformed but what to do. So the next time I submit  my résumé, I think I’ll put my very common Anglo middle name, a name easily recognized by many cultures: Theresa, Therese, Thérèse. Whatever spin you put on it, it clearly says normal and saintly. Perhaps saintly and normal enough to get the job!


“Thank you. I did it with your help.”

For teachers, it’s delightful when a past student calls to say, “thank you. I did it with your help.” As a teacher of English as a second language, I got that call from a past student today. She’d done an interview and got a job, not just any job but one in her field with a good salary. This is the goal of most of my students. They come from all over the world only to find out that their degrees and diplomas mean nothing, that extra schooling is required, that no professional jobs are available and as silly as it sounds, they must have Canadian experience before they can get a job. It can be most disheartening.

I remember my past student well. She shed tears when I asked her to do a presentation, saying that she had always been very shy. I coaxed and encouraged, refusing to let her return to her seat and told her that the first few times I did readings, my legs were shaking. I had a good rapport with her as I do with all my students. This could be because I’ve walked in their shoes. I remember my years in Norway, learning the language, sending out at least fifty résumés and getting no response, and feeling like no one around me understood my homesickness and culture shock. I didn’t stay. I felt that there were greener pastures elsewhere.  But, for many of my students, there are no greener pastures and the pastures here that are supposed to be green are white, cold and frozen. There’s no other choice but here. Many are determined to one day return to their native land.

About six years ago, I realized that if I ever returned to Jamaica to live, it wouldn’t be the home I’d left.  I’d be disillusioned. My children, completely Canadian now, probably wouldn’t follow me.  I realized that if I couldn’t be happy here, then chances are, I couldn’t be happy anywhere. These white pastures can be cold but there was one solution for me and that was to throw myself into life here without abandon. I joined a writing group, took up belly dancing, danced at work, released the fear, spoke my mind, went tobogganing, made lots of friends, etc. It’s about enjoying the pastures whether they are cold and icy or warm and green. Life is short and time goes fast so it’s the only way.


Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. No statement was ever further from the truth than that one. Words can be more damaging than a dagger, scarring the soul with as much damage as a public stoning. I realize I’m a sensitive soul but in this past year, I’ve been lashed out at by family members for no other reason than their high stress level or their disgruntlement at something that had nothing to do with me. They got over it quickly since they unleashed their irritations at once but it left me with wounds that have taken a bit longer to heal. I realize we now live in a world of “get a thick skin” and a “deal with it” attitude where discourtesy abounds but there really is no excuse for bad behaviour and no amounts of sorry’s can make up for lashing out and losing your temper.  We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths and for our behaviour. Why is it that we are reserved and kind to strangers but we think we can treat the ones closest to us any way we choose? I’m not perfect and I too am guilty of this abhorrent practice. Even if we are forgiven and we forgive, something changes in our relationship with the lasher, like the changes a drop of water makes when it ripples in a pond. Sure the water settles after awhile but something has been altered. Perhaps we don’t respond as readily to emails or we don’t visit as much, perhaps we walk on eggshells and would rather not be around the person as often as we might have.  Perhaps we bottle it in until one day we explode and become the lasher. It’s become the new thing to say what we please, to get it all out. Well here’s a newsflash. It takes more courage, strength and dignity to be patient, courteous, gracious, kind and peaceful. Plus it’s the right thing to do. And it’s never okay to take out our frustrations on others, especially in front of other people, especially when it’s not warranted. Words are damaging. Hold your tongue. ‘Sorry’ doesn’t give you the license to do as you please.

When it’s no longer good for you

It’s hard to give up things we love or feel we need, especially when those things are deeply entrenched in our culture. But sometimes we have to because those things are not good for us and perhaps no longer serves society. America has to let go of its gun culture and the right to bear arms. At one time, this may have served people well, but it obviously doesn’t anymore. I don’t want to simplify the horror of the slaughter at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and I know it could happen even in places where guns are illegal. But it’s much more likely to happen when guns are legal. The killer’s mother was a gun enthusiast. Her home was loaded with weapons. People are saying it’s not only about guns. It’s about mental health. It could very well be but if there were no guns available to this young man, then maybe he wouldn’t have been able to harm 25 innocent children and one young teacher. Didn’t this just happen the other day in a movie theatre where Batman was showing? How many more times does it have to happen before the laws change? Next time it might very well be one hundred children. I know many Americans love their guns and it’s hard to give up what we think we need. I imagine it feeling like someone telling Canadians to give up hockey or for Jamaicans to give up jerk chicken and reggae music. It would be strange. But if South Africa gave up apartheid and East Germany gave up communism, and certain societies a long time ago gave up slavery, then I believe America can give up their gun culture. Unfortunately it usually takes the suffering or death of a lot of people before anything actually changes.


“Please God, DON’T let it be a Jamaican.”

Every time I hear of a murder, a stabbing or a drug bust, I think to myself, “Please God, don’t let it be a Jamaican.” It turns out I’m not alone. Other Jamaicans feel this way and one prosperous Jamaican spoke up about it, hence a feature in the Toronto Star a few weekends ago.  The star featured the kind of Jamaicans most of us are – the good kind – hardworking, actively involved in our communities and committed to prospering in our new home. It was great to read about so many upstanding Jamaican-Canadians who never or rarely make the news. Jamaicans are tired of being stereotyped as murderous gun-toting criminals because one bad apple spoilt the barrel. Several years ago on a visit to Cuba, my mom met a Canadian couple who said outright, that it’s Jamaicans who have ruined Toronto (and we thought Canadians were so polite). I hope this Canadian couple read the Toronto Star.

When I tell my daughter how I feel

People used to tell me that parenting a teenager is hard but what I find really hard is when there is a large age gap where one child is a teenager and the other is just starting school. Although the illustration of the mother in my newest children’s book ‘Is Reine Still Sleeping?’ looks quite tranquil, the reality is I’m constantly frazzled trying to balance the needs of my children’s different ages. This book is about a little boy trying to come to terms with the fact that his older sister by ten years is a teenager and no longer has time for him. He’s hurt and he feels she no longer loves him. It’s hard for me as a mother too, to see my teenaged daughter pulling away from us. I have to consciously remember how it was when I was a teenager. Friends were the most important people to me at that time. I know this seemingly selfish phase doesn’t last but still, communication is so important. Just as in my book when the little boy tells his sister how he feels, when I tell my daughter how I feel, it’s the start of a much needed dialogue, and we realize that we still need each other as much as ever.


Of Turtles and Men

Today I swam to an uninhabited beach. As I approached the beach, I noticed I was surrounded by small dark objects. It took a moment for me to realize that I was swimming among newly-hatched turtles, swimming out to ocean for the first time. There on the beach, they came towards the water, hundreds of them, while two predators, a mongoose and a bird, I think a pelican, waited for a taste of baby turtle. We chased the predators away and urged the turtles towards the water, cheering when they made it in. Two of them were stuck in the nest. My cousin told me it takes twelve hours to dig themselves out. We (my cousins and sister-in-law) wanted to help. We picked them up and put them on the sand. They walked around in circles. We carried them into the water where they swam, in circles, not going anywhere. We realized we shouldn’t have interfered with nature so we put them back in the nest so they could dig themselves out. I’d seen this on TV but it’s amazing when witnessing it right before my eyes. The two turtles eventually got stronger, dug out of the nest and started to walk towards the water. I don’t know if they made it because they were slower than the rest and we had to swim back. The turtles made me think of us. We’re all trying to race towards something. Some of us make it. Some are slower than others. Some of us get attacked by predators and some of us get way too much help so that we never become strong enough to make it on our own. If we get carried to the water’s edge, we flounder around in circles, unable to swim anywhere.



Nothing inspires me like being in Jamaica. The words and the stories just flow to me and through me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m relaxed and on vacation or if my heart and soul live here permanently even when I don’t. As I write this, I’m gazing out at the Caribbean Sea. When I’m finished I’ll walk down to the powdery white sand beach and swim as far out in the turquoise water as is possibly safe. I’ll meet my family for lunch and listen to the cadence of their voices as they swap stories and I’ll hear about generations of relatives I’ve never known. I’ll take an evening swim as the sun is setting and apply aloe vera from the garden to my deeply browned skin. I don’t want these moments to end. Jamaica is where I feel I belong but it’s also where I remember that the world is limitless with infinite opportunities.

A Beautiful Journey

A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe as Nobel prizewinner Dr. John Nash, is one of my favourite movies. Every time I get that dissatisfied feeling where nothing is good enough in my life, I remember two contrasting scenes from the movie: one where Dr. Nash is young, in university and struggling for acceptance and fame. A professor tells him his work is not good enough and shows him an elderly professor being honoured by his colleagues. The second, where Dr. Nash is old, having battled a lifetime of mental illness, marital ups and downs, and the uncertainties of life, and finally honoured by his colleagues. The movie reminds me that for some of us who aren’t lucky lottery winners or inheritors of a vast fortune, success comes after hard work and may even take a lifetime. I don’t want it to take a lifetime. I want my novel to be completed now. I want the big house now. But if I focus on the result, I won’t enjoy my journey. I’m good at dishing out advice, like when I’m telling my students that learning English takes time and to enjoy the journey; but when it comes to me, I want it all now. I feel a bit like the young John Nash, butting my head against a brick wall, swimming against the current. Creating stories can take time and rushing through things rarely produces anything worthwhile. When Dr. Nash does win the Nobel prize, he doesn’t talk about how he came by his great theories and how hard he worked. He looks at his wife and says, (well I can’t remember correctly but it was lovey-dovey and made me cry) ‘I love you, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,’ etc , etc. Something like that. This journey of ours is made up of so many moments, poignant ones, sad and happy ones, moments that enrich our lives and we probably don’t think much of them at the time. If we rush through all these moments trying to get to the winning end, we forget that it’s the magnificent journey that really makes us. Not the successes.

Small beginnings and baby steps lead to greater goals

People ask me all the time how I find time to write with a full-time job and four children. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but I write a little at a time, when I can, much in the same way as throwing in a load of laundry while waiting for dinner to cook or just before rushing out to the supermarket. Some people call it multi tasking but whatever you call it, it means that I write even when I only have five minutes to spare. It means that the computer is up in the kitchen while I’m washing dishes. I go back and forth from the sink to the computer, jumping between two tasks when an idea strikes or when I get tired of doing one thing.

I didn’t always think like this. I thought that I had to have an uninterrupted block of time, a good chunk of at least two hours to write or it wasn’t worth the effort to start. This kind of ‘all or nothing’ thinking is dangerous because it prevents us from starting anything at all. It prevents us from the small beginnings and the baby steps that lead to our greater goals. Do what you can when you can.