Saturday, 11 September 2010

Social gyaffs and social gaffes

I have had the great good fortune to make friends by accident. Two Georgetown photographers who found James’ blog tripped across mine too, and gradually through comments and chats we became friends- rather like the imaginary friends children have. Mind you, I was never 100% sure that they weren’t actually Greek girls or Canadian schoolboys or Kyrgyz herdsmen taking the piss out of me.

Strange, then, to arrange to meet up in Georgetown. I was curiously nervous, because I am very open in my blog and I had never realised until it came to the crunch how much that is a product of being so far from everyone who reads it. I suddenly observe, planning to meet these two, that I have rather laid my life out like cold cuts on a platter, and it’s very out of character for me to profligate my privacy so.

I needn’t have worried. Their balance of warmth and decorum is unimpeachable - Mr Roast Pork almost steps backwards as he shakes my hand. In Guyana, they tell me, if a married man is seen out with another woman, murmuring indubitably follows. But surely the three of us out together acts as a kind of mutual chaperone? No, it’s just as bad, because I’m out without my husband. The fact that he is 500 miles away does not excuse me. This makes me rather uncomfortable- I’m not used to being forward, rash and risqué simply by stepping out of the door with Other Men, especially not in my usual Guyana nunny bag-lady clothes. It’s funny but inhibiting. I find myself taking shallower breaths. My personality is testing the confines of a corset.

I knew already that Georgetown is a small and therefore self-absorbed (gossipy) society. But it had not crossed my mind that adults in Guyana might be less free than they are in the UK. It’s not a visible constraint- you wouldn’t know it unless someone tells you. I am fascinated and puzzled. I mean, one man, one woman, dodgy nightclub and lots of booze, yes- that might raise a few eyebrows. But three people aged 29 or over having a beer in daylight in full public view? My sister used to laugh at my gaucheness when I came to London and stiffened over kissing people on the cheek, but I feel positively touchy-feely in this context. We went out to gyaff- I spent the first half-hour fretting that I would gaffe.

I soon forgot my self-consciousness, though. I never thought when I was gradually, carefully building trust and friendships with Amerindians in the interior, that it would simultaneously deepen friendships with people reading my venting, ranting and pontificating too. Long-term friends far away email to say they feel they know me much better now. And I would never have met Mr Cult Leader and Mr Roast Pork if it weren’t for my blog: that seems very clear. Here, it isn’t really on for a husband and wife to have separate friends. Mr Cult Leader was saying that he and his wife do, but it was stated as a matter of pride, of distinctiveness, not the matter of course it would be among my UK friends. I think we would see only having the same friends as a danger for a couple, not a positive. Here it’s ever so slightly radical.

Which gets me to wondering if this causes society to polarise- between respectable people who carry an Edith Wharton constraint with them, and lairy men who shout the most explicit ‘compliments’/ insults / suggestions at me on the street. Does the one feed the other? I asked if that means that men have mainly male friends, then, and women mainly female. On the whole that seems to be true. And there is an expectation that your parents will know your friends. It suddenly strikes me how very vulgar expats must appear here- what coarse social manners they must display, and how sleazy they must seem. But I, insanely decorous all my life, would hate to have sex restricting my choice of friends. I’m not very good at the girly girl stuff. And doing everything as a couple would be stifling. I think James and I feel enriched by our souls’ very different feeding troughs.

We talk about the brain drain, possibly the only strong kinship between Guyana and Northern Ireland where I grew up. Both men state very positively that the drivers of migration are women. Considering the discussion we had had already about Georgetown’s goldfish bowl of gossip, and noting that it is the husbands and not the wives I am meeting, I can imagine myself finding this self-absorbed society restrictive: perhaps that is a motivating factor for Guyanese women too. Well-paid jobs are not plentiful, and I don’t know what the statistics say on equity in the workplace but with Guyana’s birth rates and motherhood demographics (high expectation to start popping early, girls), it can’t be a feminist’s paradise. Roast Pork and Cult Leader say that they would not leave Guyana, although only time will tell whether their wives take the same view...

Those are the things they say. Then, of course, there are all the things they don’t say. They inhabit a complex multicultural cocktail of an atmosphere profoundly unlike the rarefied monocultural clarity of the Aishalton oxygen I am used to. There are no references to gaffes in my blog. They don’t fish for compliments on their generosity in sticking their necks out to entertain me. They don’t elucidate how extraordinarily ignorant I am of the country I’ve spent the past two years in, although they do introduce me to Dave Martins’ weekly column so that I can discover this for myself. I have since learnt that the correct expression for my cultural numptyhood is that “I don’t know all the fine fine”- I don’t understand the myriad nuances of Georgetown culture, and by extension (since this is the bulk of the population) Guyana, at all. And there is the whole different ambience in which we talk. I hear a definitiveness, a crispness, a kind of vaunting and hyperbole and fizz in their speech that is partly capital city and partly distinctively Guyanese. It’s a friendly and enjoyably baffling evening. The fact that I am tantalised rather than humiliated by my ignorance is a testament to something- Guyanese hospitality? Online friendships? Or just that they are goodhearted guys?

There’s a distancing pleasure in watching old friends gyaff. They comment crisply and with aspersion on each other’s increasingly elaborate retelling of old anecdotes. They scoff and mock and laugh like an old married couple, with some deliberate irony and some less deliberate. I think the fact that marriages are different in this culture means that the line of friendship falls differently too. There’s an almost deliberate play on yin-yang that I haven’t experienced since my early twenties. Gyaffing isn’t just a different word for chatting; it is actually a perceptibly different activity. Great fun, but like any new language, it would take time to absorb into oneself. I’ve been wondering lately what this blog is for. Maybe it’s the nearest I’ve ever got to a proper gyaff.


  1. It's not surprising that you should have to take a few minutes to absorb all these new things. But before you generalize, think more of the idea that Guyana is a microcosm of a variety of cultures and cultural ideas and customs, what you may learn from the Cult Leader and Roast Pork is but "a view", not the view :-) Have fun learning and disseminating.
    Wong Ping from Roast Pork.

  2. Taking the lens to Georgetown society now, are we? Always interesting to see yourself and your society through a stranger's eye. I agree with Wong though, I know Roast Pork and the Cult Leader and I really don't believe that they are representative of Georgetown society. They may also have a jaundiced view of the society, so take what they say with a dram of cachaça.

  3. is wa' a gwan hay? dis 'oman come from farren an' now she a judge abby dese? fus she gan' in de bush an' she tryin' to teech dem how fu do ting rite, now she wan teech we? me gun complain to da minista who din halla pan she da wan time.

  4. Wong Ping, you have a point. Perhaps these two men are not representative of Georgetown normality. (Although, Badlight, in my experience Roast Pork and Cult Leader are actually unrepresentatively POSITIVE and not at all jaundiced- although they might be if they read this of course!). Sliknik, I wouldn't dream of trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, even if she WAS only 29, so if you would like to correct my cultural gaffes by writing a response, it would be my honour to publish it on this blog.