“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.
Prior to arriving in Guyana, that’s the most common response I’ve gotten when asked about this trip. The Ecuadorians sitting next to me on one of my flights had never even heard of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, let alone known that they exist on their continent, just a hop and skip away. (“It’s next to Venezuela.” “Colombia?” “Other side.” “Brazil?” “No, east.” “…Brazil?”) My mom thought I was going to Peru. My Couchsurfing host, Gordon, mentions people mistaking Guyana for Ghana. No one at the airports, not even me until I asked my host for once and for all, seems to know how to pronounce it right. Ghee-ana? Gooey-ana? Guay-ana? I heard all three. (It’s guy-ana, the “guy” as in “you guys”. I only heard that for the first time in Guyana.)
To make matters worse, Guyana doesn’t really have a reputation of its own internationally. It certainly has a reputation though, just not of its own making. Take Jonestown, the incident that literally invented the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid”, after an American cult leader brought his followers to establish their own “utopia” in the Guyanese hinterlands, then ordered them to all commit suicide by kool-aid after he went crazy. Or take the mini refugee crisis, or the territorial dispute extending to half of Guyana, or the recent offshore oil dispute, all courtesy of neighbouring Venezuela.
So arriving in Guyana, having no mental picture of what the place looked like, what have I found?