Monday, May 30, 2016

Chinese in the Caribbean

I was told there was a small Chinese population in Guyana but I didn’t run into any for a long time. There weren’t even very many white people that I saw. Instead, amidst the sea of Afro and Indo-Guyanese faces, I stood out painfully and this fact followed me wherever I went. It didn’t help that I had probably the whitest skin in the country, having just come out of a Canadian winter. Whenever I walked around, men would call out to me “China!” or “Chinese girl!” or sometimes “Hey beautiful!” (no matter what - even when I wore baggy sweatpants and a t-shirt and had an acne breakout).

This public attention to my race made me uncomfortable. As a Canadian, this would be considered street harassment and in Canada, it is incredibly rude to greet someone by pointing out that their race. Not to mention, of course, the fact that I’m not Chinese. But this kind of behaviour persists all over the world, except, oddly enough, in Korea where Koreans assume from my lack of Korean fashion sense that I am Chinese.

But I eventually got used to this treatment, taking it as their way of being friendly. The one comment that threw me off-guard was a mechanic, who called out to me “hey China! Como estas, mi amor?” I was taken aback; I had not seen anyone speaking Spanish here at all. I wasn’t sure if maybe he was Spanish or he thought Chinese people spoke Spanish.

True to my style though, I did eventually find the Asians in Guyana. I came across a regular-looking grocery store and went in to buy some beer and maxipads. While I scanned the liquor shelves, I heard the store clerks chattering behind me, and I thought, wow, I really can’t understand what they’re saying. For some reason, Creole sounds an awful like Chinese. When I turned around, it turned out that the store clerks were Chinese. It appeared that this grocery store was owned by a Chinese family.

I wandered to the second level of the grocery store and discovered an entire floor of Chinese imports. Interestingly, and perhaps stereotypically, I was flooded with immediate relief. Here was the soya sauce and the sesame oil. Fish sauce and oyster sauce. Rice. Now I knew where I could go if I wanted to make some bibimbap. When I lived in Namibia, I had even managed to find a hook-up to order tofu, which seemed to be a more complicated process than even buying drugs. Perhaps I could do it here too. This Georgetown store seemed to have everything, including shampoo and Chinese Colgate toothpaste…because God forbid you have to brush your teeth using toothpaste with English packaging?

Oddly enough, constantly being greeted as “Chinese girl” – and being a little homesick - made me crave Chinese food. As one of the “six nations” that form Guyana, the old and established Chinese population in Guyana means that the country has developed its own regional variety of Chinese cuisine. I asked a few different drivers and hotel staff what restaurant had the best Chinese food (there were a surprisingly number of Chinese restaurants), and they all unanimously suggested New Thriving.

New Thriving Restaurant

It was a big place, with a fast food takeout area on the lower level and a more formal banquet-y sit-down area on the top floor, as well as a little Chinese bakery on the side selling Asian pastries. I thought perhaps here I might blend in a bit more, but the patrons were mostly Indo-Guyanese, with very few Chinese families. The Chinese owner greeted me warmly and I ordered the chili bean curd (or bean “crud” according to the menu), which I thought would be ma po tofu, but turned out to be its own thing. The meal was delicious, and I left feeling better. I thought about the indentured Chinese workers who came here almost two hundred years ago, working long hours for very little pay, and thought about how homesick they must have been, being so far away from home. They figured out how to make it work, and now are a part of Guyanese society. I felt a little less homesick with a belly full of tofu and a bit of historical perspective. Now, I just had to find a tofu dealer.