From One Island to Another

By Christian Jalim

Hey everyone! I’m Christian and I am from the small country of Trinidad and Tobago (/ˈtrɪnɪdæd … təˈbeɪɡoʊ/). For those who don’t know, it’s actually a country in the Caribbean archipelago that comprises of two main islands, Trinidad… and… you guessed it… Tobago. I hail from the larger sister island, Trinidad but from a very small, rural village called Manzanilla (a name of Spanish origins but the pronunciation has been anglicized). Trinidad and Tobago is fairly known in the Western hemisphere, however, halfway across the world in Japan, especially in a Prefecture such as Ehime, my country is barely known to the locals, or so it may seem.

So as all Ehime-ites will know, Ehime is well-known for its mikans, which are delectably sweet citrus fruit that is famous, loved and enjoyed by the people of this prefecture. Even our mascot is designed after this fruit. So what does this have to do with Trinidad and Tobago? Well in my country, we have our own mikan and we call it puttygal/puttigal (/pʊtiga:l/). I’ll say that they’re practically the same except mikans are usually a bit sweeter, less tangy and have no seeds in them. The word puttygal actually originated from the French phrase “parts égales” which means equal parts because on the inside, there are equal numbers of segments. Over time, “parts égales” has evolved and been Creolized to the word puttygal, although, many people like to say “Portugal” because it sounds “more proper”…

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Having said that, you can imagine the surprise of my students when I showed them what puttygals are, when they asked me, “Chris-sensei do you like mikan?”. Little did they know that I loved mikan way before reaching Japan. As such, living in Ehime is even more special for me because back at home, puttygals are my favourite fruit and here in Japan, my new home is famous for its very close cousin. It’s always a better day when I get mikans from people. Just eating it takes me back home and comforts my soul.

Some more fun facts about my country, Trinidad and Tobago is a melting pot of people from various walks of life to make a wonderful, rich, and very diverse culture and society. From our food to our music, our culture is a true representation of the cosmopolitan nature of our nation. Trinidad and Tobago is very famous for Carnival, an absolute spectacle of colour and creativity with the costumes and parades throughout the streets on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Also, we are known as the birthplace of the steelpan… no, not a steel frying pan. The steelpan, or steel drums as it is called sometimes, has been pivotal in shaping the identity of not only Trinidad and Tobago but by extension the Caribbean at large. The distinctive sounds of the steelpan can be heard any time someone wants to put that tropical “Caribbean-ish” vibe into one of their musical arrangements. Think about the iconic song “Under the sea” from “The Little Mermaid” and you will hear that the sound of the steel pan is prominent. However in Trinidad and Tobago, music from other Caribbean islands is also popular. From soca music (ˈsō-kə an energy inducing, fast tempo music that originated in Trinidad) sung by artistes from other Caribbean countries, to reggae music and dancehall songs from Jamaica, we listen to them all.

Just a few weeks into my new life here in Ehime, I had a huge, unexpected surprise at one of the local festivals held at Matsuyama Castle. It’s my first time to this picturesque location so I’m basking in the beauty of the area and I heard something that seemed very… familiar… reggae music?? But Japanese voices singing?? “Na, I’m probably hearing things…” I was thinking to myself. But I listened carefully for a while and indeed it sounded like some kind of Japanese reggae. While they weren’t songs I’m familiar with, there was definitely a sense of assurance that I was hearing reggae music at all. After a while, I mustered up the courage to talk to the DJ and have him confirm my suspicions. And I was correct! To my surprise, the DJ had lived in Jamaica for a while and really grew to love Caribbean culture and music. He was surprised to know that I’m from Trinidad and after our conversation, he turned up the Caribbean vibe all the way.

And by that, I mean he then started to play so many songs that I know, and many good, old school dancehall songs one after another. Talk about a nostalgia trip! I felt like I was suddenly transported to a backyard party at one of my friends or relatives playing the dancehall classics, or at my parents’ house on a Sunday morning where people will be hanging out (in Trinidad we will refer to it as limin’) nearby and playing said songs from their cars. He even played soca songs that dominated the streets this year in our capital city of Port of Spain during Carnival celebrations. It was like medicine that will alleviate any impending homesickness.

Fast-forward to the start of the new semester, I’m doing my self-introduction and showing my students stuff about Trinidad, including our national instrument. During my self-intro, I ask my students if they have ever seen or heard the steelpan before and to my surprise, a number of them indeed have seen the steelpan being played by Japanese people on TV. So while Trinidad and Tobago may not be wildly popular to the majority of the population in Japan, there are definitely pockets in the society which have people that love and respect the music and culture of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the Caribbean.

There have been several times since then, when I went to a place to just hang out, and I’m hearing Caribbean music. It’s always in a place I least expect it. For example, most recently I visited one of my friends and fellow Trini ALTs in Matsuno, here in Ehime (hi Apphia!) and we visited this really cozy bar near her apartment. Nothing fancy, just your simple small bar but once again, to our surprise, we heard them playing classic Jamaican tunes gently in the background. I’m talking about songs that fueled the childhood of Trinis within our age group. We spent a lot longer than we anticipated just sitting, singing and chatting with the owner and other patrons. It was just surprising that even in such a small, inaka area situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, the culture of the Caribbean has touched this small town area and is radiating the space with warm Caribbean energy and vibes.

As not only a Trinbagonian but a person from the Caribbean, it makes me proud to see how far our Caribbean culture can travel, influence and impact people in the most unlikely places, in a land where the society can be very, very different from our own. I guess in a way, you can say that I have moved from one island to another and while there are differences, it still feels a lot like home.

Christian Jalim is currently a first year JET living in Matsuyama. Being from a very rural area in Trinidad, he has a great appreciation for teaching at his schools in the mountains where he is surrounded by nature. He completed his Master’s degree in Global Studies and has an interest in learning foreign languages and Linguistics.

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