Redefining personal space


Simone* is 12 years old. She lives in a small one-room house with her mother, two sisters, one older, one younger, and two older brothers – 6 people in all. Simone’s bathroom is a pit toilet outside of the house; her shower is a barrel of water and a bucket next to their house, in the dirt.

Simone is always surrounded by people. Her mother works until after 9 o’clock each night. She and her sisters must walk for over an hour each morning to reach the main road where they catch a taxi to get to school, and again each afternoon to come back home. Sometimes she goes with her brothers down to the river to play. Other times she’ll study with her sisters or watch tv, but she is never alone.

Personal space is an oft-chatted bout topic for PCVs here. I’ve heard friends stories about getting the shock of their life when they stepped out of their bedroom only to find their host mom, stark naked, walking through the living room. When living in a 9×10 room just off the kitchen, I would lament about my host sisters listening to my telephone conversations through our thin wall (actually a doorway with a piece of plywood over it) or feeling like I was part of whatever conversation was happening in our kitchen just outside my bedroom door or cover my ears whenever I was woken up to the 3 year-old screaming “DOMDOM!” and pounding on my door.

Personal space? What personal space?
Personal space? What personal space?

Having grown up in a crowded, loud house, you’d think this would be something I was used to. Quite the contrary, it’s something I’ve been running away from my whole life.

And yet, here I was. It didn’t matter that I’d spent many years living in a 2-bedroom apartment with 6 people plus multiple pets, it didn’t matter how much yelling there was in my house all throughout my childhood. Living with people is still hard.

Personal space is so important to me, as it is to many other Americans. It allows me time to reflect, time to connect with what’s going on in my life. It grants me time to be alone with my thoughts and to recharge away from the pressures of the outside, to experiment without judgement.

"No Domdom, you can't have quiet time because I have to brush your hair!"
“No Domdom, you can’t have quiet time because I have to brush your hair!”

Reflecting on Simone’s reality and the reality of so many other people in Jamaica, young and old alike, I felt guilty. I had never been more aware of my privilege. No matter how bad I’d had it, it always could have been worse.

So where do people like Simone go to be away from others, or at least away from their confined existence? Outside, of course. Yuh chill spot, a place where you can bill bak, relax. I always see young men hanging out at the shop or on the football field. I still don’t know where the women go in their free time; I get the impression that they’re mostly in their homes, cleaning (it’s really hard to find/make female friends here).

Making the connection that the struggles I faced as a 25 year old woman living in a small room in a family’s home are not unique at all both helped to smack the American privilege lens away from my eyes and to help me feel more connected to the people around me. It’s important to not let your home be your whole world, to break out and enjoy yourself regardless of your situation.

Destruction of my idea of personal space has made lots of room for quality time shared together.
Destruction of my idea of personal space has made lots of room for quality time shared together.

I’d like to end with a song. It speaks more to the male experience than it does to the realities of being a female in Jamaica, but captures an essential element of Jamaican culture. That is, spending time chilling out at the shop, di cawna, wherever it is that your people are.

*Simone’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.


3 thoughts on “Redefining personal space

  1. Since I am getting ready to go to Madagascar, I have worried about this. Once again appreciate your insights. Love to learn from those who have been there done that! And you are a great teacher. Thanks

    1. Thanks Eve! My cultural conditioning is so different from that of a typical person in rural Jamaica, but I’ve had to learn how to make it my own and work with my reality as it is. Good luck!

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