As ridiculous as it may sound, I am in an altercation with my landlord over housekeeping. I have heard enough similar stories to wonder if this might go outside of a clash between me and my landlord. As an expat living in Barbados, I find it upsetting when someone tells me I do not understand the culture in a particular situation, although, they are not able to explain it themselves. Do we even know why we do the things that they do?
Are we ex-pats setting unrealistic expectations or are the housekeepers disregarding our wishes? Layered on top is the odd dynamic between the housekeeper being an employee of the landlord and a client of ours, as they take direction from them and are paid by us. Western studies around accountability would say that this is not a winning formula. But I am in Barbados.
When do you resign yourself to the fact that this is just the way it is? A good example of this is the process to get a car registered. Upon urging by another expat living in Barbados, I paid someone to handle this for me when I bought a used car. It still took a month. It included getting the car physically weighed, even though there is no longer road tax charged here. This is an example of an archaic process that no one has thought, man this no longer makes sense, we should update that. This is a cultural character of Barbados; one that drives me crazy, and my South African friends roll with as a reminder of home.
I had another example of butting up against a cultural divide back in July when I decided to return my rental car. The air conditioning was broken and living here without during August-October is ridiculous. There was a dispute over scratches on the car. I am not referring to the ones that I created trying to get out of a tight spot – those were obvious and obviously my fault! I am talking about the smaller ones created by my surfboard that I believed were wear and tear.
The negotiations over this were unpleasant and I expressed to the owner that I felt that I was being taken advantage of as an expat living abroad. I since have bought a car, have done some research into paint jobs and know that I was hosed. For me, the more deeply disturbing part of the interaction, and those that I had with him prior, was that I felt that this man does not accept women as equals. He certainly was not going to negotiate with me as an equal.
There is enough evidence to suggest that there is a paternalistic culture on the island. When I hear some men speak, like the one that owned the rental, I physically cringe. Their language so aptly describes their belief that woman should serve them – this man used that exact language. Coming from Canada, I mistakenly thought the world had moved past this.
Those of you who have read my blog on an ongoing basis know that I struggle with how women are treated in public here. I cannot comment on how they are treated behind closed doors, but on the street, there is a lot of catcalling and shouting at us. I cannot say that I have felt unsafe, but I have felt disrespected, hassled, and harassed. Adding another layer to this situation is sex tourism – white, wealthy, usually older, female tourists come to the islands looking for companionship and will “pay” for a local man’s time and attention while they are here. This happens at a high enough frequency that it has become part of the culture. Apparently, there is no way of them knowing whether I fit this category, except that I am a single female traveling and walking alone. When I walked along tourist beaches it happened all the time.
One day a man was walking at a safe distance on a road shouting at me. When I finally turned around to say, you aren’t shouting at me, are you? He stopped, somewhat shocked, and said of course not that would be disrespectful – well, at least we agree in principle! It has been highly recommended to me that I don’t employ this tactic, should I upset the man and he become aggressive. For this I have asked the question over and over: Why isn’t my discomfort considered equal to his need to save face?
When I bring up the issue that I feel harassed when I am walking around and putting up with catcalling, some tell me it is part of the culture here. Misogyny is not a cultural construct, like food and dance, it is unacceptable behavior.
Am I fighting an uphill battle as an expat living in a foreign country? Are these examples of cultural differences that I need to abide by, rather than fight? When I am told that it is my problem because I don’t understand the culture, here is my struggle: I do not feel heard, and I feel taken advantage of, even disrespected. Isn’t there something off in a culture, in general, if people are feeling that way?
I think that my housekeeper doesn’t feel heard by my landlord, which is why she keeps complaining to me, rather than talk to her employer about the things that she needs to properly clean the apartment. It is possible that the rental car owner doesn’t feel empowered and so he is demonstrating his control over me, and other women, to make up for that. How are our interactions affected by my landlord being white and the housekeeper black, and the car owner black and me white, on an island that shows visible segregation and inequitable distribution of wealth and power?
It makes it sound like I am fighting with everyone, which I am not. It may sound like I don’t like the culture here in Barbados, and this is not true. I have had wonderful singular interactions that I think are indicative of the culture. Winslow, a man that I had never met, changed my flat tire in the parking lot of a club the evening of the hurricane. He didn’t want to see our evening ruined and so got down on his hands and knees, sweated his ass off, and changed my tire while those in my party looked onwards. Someone did the same for Lorena just last week, pointing out that she had a flat, and coming to her aid without being asked. People here in Barbados are kind and take care of each other, even those outside of their community.
When there is no negotiation and power imbalance, it is all love.
So why do I sometimes feel like an outsider? Because I am. While not bad, it makes me fearful. Afraid of being blamed for an interaction where I am just one party, threatened that I am being taken advantage of, simply not heard, or on a deeper level unsupported. This is how minorities feel all around the world, some in their own home country. I am pretty sure this is how immigrants feel as they are encouraged to adopt the local culture and shed their beliefs about “how things should be.”
I have been here for a year and all my close friends are not from Barbados. I feel a kindred spirit as I meet other travelers who came to live and work abroad during the pandemic. It doesn’t bring me closer to understanding the local culture but allows me to vent about the frustrations of living here. That feels like what I need, but it may not be the long-term solution if I stay.
It is time to harness the collective wisdom. How do you know when to argue and when to accept that the culture you are living in needs to be abided by, even though it may differ from the one where you grew up?