“Hey, I got Chinese takeout! Have some!”
–“Thanks! Where’s it from?”
“Just around the corner from here.”
The next day, I walk around the bend. The restaurant’s name? Fortune House, the same name (in English, but not in Chinese) as my dad’s former restaurant. It may have only been day one of my trip, but it made me immediately homesick.
It’s been absolutely mind-boggling to see the constant presence of Chinese people in the three Guianas. We’re members of the same diaspora, but we just ended up on opposite sides of the globe. Our daily language, the ones we live in, are completely different, mutually unintelligible, and yet the immediate knowing glances when I walk into the door of a Chinese business immediately leads to a conversation in the one thing we share.
Georgetown, Guyana 喬治敦
There’s a BBQ chicken place across the street. It’s 10pm, I haven’t eaten dinner, and it’s the only place still open. To my surprise, the owner is Chinese. She takes my order, passes it along to her black employee, and it comes out, hot and delicious, in five minutes.
–“Excuse me… I just have to ask, but do you speak Chinese?”
“Yes. Which one? Cantonese or Mandarin?” Prompted, I switch right into Cantonese.
–“Cantonese. Where are you from? Are there many of you here in Georgetown?”
“Oh, I’m from a little town in Guangdong. There’s a lot of us that speak Cantonese here, most of us own restaurants.” She hesitates a little, switching back and forth from a subtle Guyanese creole. “The newer arrivals though, they all speak Mandarin. You’ll see more of them on Regent Street.”
Skeldon, Guyana / Nieuw Nickerie, Suriname 新尼克里
Three people ahead of me in line at Guyanese customs, exiting the country, a Chinese lady struggles to answer the policeman when asked in English her purpose of travel into Suriname. She turns to me, immediately speaking in Mandarin.
–“Tourism.” I reply to the police officer.
Two hours into the wait for the ferry, I work up the nerve to talk to her again. I peer at the passport in her hand: it’s Guyanese.
–“Excuse me, but are you from Guyana, or did you move here?”
“Oh, I moved here. I’m from Guangzhou.”
–“How long ago?” We both switch to Cantonese.
“Too long. Maybe 15, 20 years?”
–“Do you like it here?”
“No. I wish I stayed in China. But you know… You go where your family goes.”
–“And what do they do?”
“They opened a restaurant. I’m just the housewife, never really bothered to learn English. Call me A-Yi. And I’m here with my friend, A-Xia, she’s from Henan. We’re taking a break — Paramaribo’s much more interesting than Georgetown anyway, we go two or three times a year. And we get to go shopping.”
–“Do you go back to China often?”
“I used to… but not really anymore. I don’t have many connections left.”
We’re called to the ferry in a torrential downpour, continuing our conversation there, soaking wet.
–“So how did your family choose Guyana, of all places?”
“We heard there was opportunity here. Life wasn’t easy back in China, like everyone else we left to try to improve our lives.”
–“But… You don’t like Guyana. So why here?”
“Let me put it this way. Your family had the means to move to Canada. We didn’t.”
We add each other on WeChat, parting ways at Surinamese customs. One hour later on the road, while my driver fills up at a gas station, A-Yi appears out of nowhere, shoving an energy drink into my hands through the open door before shouting goodbye.
Paramaribo, Suriname 巴拉馬利波
A heavy downpour leads me to duck in a convenience store. A Chinese girl in her early twenties serves a man at the counter in perfect Dutch. I hesitate, then address her in English.
–“Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch… Can I get what that man bought?”
“Sure, no problem! It’s… zuurzak juice? Sorry, I don’t know what this is in English. But it’s good!” The man from earlier concurs, also in English.
–“I think it’s soursop. I’ll take it.”
“That’s 6 SRD. So where are you from?”
–“Canada. Excuse me for asking… but you’re Chinese, right? Do you speak it as well?”
“Yes, but which one? I speak Hakka with my family, Cantonese, and Mandarin.”
–“What, really? How?!” I switch to Cantonese. She quickly helps another customer in Dutch before continuing the conversation.
“Well, I learn Mandarin here at school, and I speak Cantonese with my friends and learn it from TV dramas.”
–“How many other languages do you speak?”
“Oh yeah that too!”
–“Were you born here? Where’s your family hail from?”
“Yep, I’m Surinamese! Hmm… I don’t actually know that though! Hey mom?” She switches to Hakka. Her mother attempts to answer me in Hakka. I have no idea what she’s saying. Back to English with her daughter.
“Sorry, don’t know the city myself.”
“–When did you move here?” I address her mother again.
She simply motions way back. She probably doesn’t know either.
The first Chinese immigrants to Guyana and to Suriname were all Hakka, generally indentured workers after the abolishment of slavery. By and large they’ve all integrated: Guyana’s even had a Chinese president before, and one of Suriname’s richest families has taken on one ancestor’s full Chinese name as their surname. I can only wonder about this family’s origins.
It’s an awfully long wait for the boat to Jaw Jaw. Directly next to the chaos of the pirogue port is a supermarket. The owner’s sitting just outside, and I’ve felt his eyes on me the entire time. I want a beer anyway, might as well just get this over with. Let’s just cut to the chase, straight up Mandarin.
–“Do you have Parbo radler?” It’s still kind of early. Let’s keep the alcohol content low.
“Yeah, just on the left.” I can feel him and his family trying to figure me out. In tiny little Atjoni, there’s only two or three Chinese businesses. Clearly I’m not from either of them.
“Are you… a tourist?” They give me a quizzical look.
–“Yes I’m from Canada, but of Hong Kong origin. Do you speak Cantonese?”
“No, only Hakka and Mandarin. We’re from Fujian. Where are you going?”
“Where is that… Oh, are you going to Isadou?” Isadou is across the water from Jaw Jaw, an isolated tourist resort.
–“Sure, close enough. Do you ever travel up the river?” Doesn’t seem like they know much beyond Atjoni, considering Jaw Jaw’s size.
“No. We just stay here.”
“–How did you end up here, of all places? I mean, this is basically the end of the road…”
“We’re just here to make money.” The patriarch shrugged.
Kourou, French Guiana 庫魯
Buying myself a frozen dinner since groceries are both in too large a quantity and price for me, I approach the supermarket counter. Seeing each other, I ask, and we settle into Cantonese. A-Ting introduces herself, having immigrated from Dongguan to Kourou over 20 years ago, in pursuit of a better life — which, at the time in her words, was anywhere but in China.
“So what are you here in Guyane for?”
–“I’m here as a tourist.”
“Oh, that’s very cool!”
–“So… what do you do here in your free time?”
“Not much, really. It’s boring here. We just go back to China once a year.” She continues working as she eagerly continues her conversation with me, answering customer questions about soft drinks in accented French.
–“Wow, you had to learn French to move here!”
“Eh, I get by. I only know supermarket stuff anyway.”
Imploring me to take any few extra items I wanted for free on her way out, I oblige with just one bottle of soda I didn’t want anyway, promising to return the next morning to take up her offer of a free breakfast.
The next day, at a different supermarket, I see the Chinese owner talking to his mixed Chinese-African son in Mandarin as the son mans the cashier. He runs off with some other kids, speaking fluent French.
Cayenne, French Guiana 皆因
French Guiana is known for its large Vietnamese population. Seating myself inside a Vietnamese restaurant downtown with an all-African clientele, full house, I order what turns out to be one of the best bowls of pho of my life. As I walk to the cashier to pay, wait a sec… I hear Mandarin orders from the waitstaff to the kitchen.
–“You guys speak Mandarin?” I ask in French, they respond in Mandarin.
“Somewhat! Do you live here?”
–“No, I’m a tourist. Where do you guys hail from?”
“Zhejiang. We’ve been here over 20 years.”
I never did ask why they opened a Vietnamese restaurant rather than a Chinese one, but this sounds awfully like home. I wonder if their customers notice.