One Awkward Island Greeting at a Time

I’ve got a friendly face. When I lived in New York City everyone thought I was from the Midwest or California, although I’d grown up only a half-hour away in the Jersey suburbs.  It might be my smile. It’s huge and hangs across my face by default. Paired with a hello, it has opened doors my whole life. Until now.

On St. John, my smile hangs out alone, often mangled, as my mouth tries to form a proper greeting. Intellectually, I know if it’s morning a “Good morning” is appropriate, if it’s afternoon a “Good afternoon” is correct, and if it’s evening – this was a tricky one – I’ve learned a “Good night” is right. The problem I have is with the choice. I’ve never been good at making the right one. If I go in for a high five, I am inevitably met with a fist bump. If someone says “right”, I turn left. I always pick up the wrong water on the table. Its like my brain is a preteen menace playing practical jokes on my motor neurons. So I never get the greeting right.

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When I finally realized “Good night” was a greeting and not a way to shoo me out of stores, I spent the whole night still saying “Good evening” like Count Dracula’s dim-witted sister. I watch in wonder as tourists, fresh off the ferry, naturally roll off “Good afternoon’s” while I’m still wishing everyone a “Good morning”. There’s also the long-term residents, striding into businesses with authoritative “Afternoon’s” as if they were born doing it. And then there’s me. The precious few times I’ve actually gotten the greeting right, I’m always answered with an unimpressed “Hi.”

The problem is, I so desperately want to make a good impression. I know I’ll never completely fit in. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be a true St. Johnian no matter how many years I live here, and I have enough respect for history and social injustice to understand my place as yet another white interloper. But I also want to respect local customs and make friends. Even the National Park advises using these greetings to win favor with lifelong St. Johnians on one of their informative plaques.

The fact that I avidly read these plaques is probably another reason I’ll never fit in. That, and the brightly colored sunhat permanently attached to my head. I’m not one of these wispy expats in a flowing sundress with golden skin, hair artfully mussed by salt spray. Nor am I the hearty sailor-type sucking down dark rum at the neighborhood bar. Or the dread-locked Rasta princess at one with the natural world. I’m persistently sweaty, my hair is a frizzy nest, and my clothing is Delaware outlet style. Add in a good dose of classic Jewish neurosis, and you get the picture.

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My girlfriend tells me not to worry, to just be myself. And surprisingly, even through all my stutters and blunders, everyone I’ve met has been friendly and kind. Whether at the Social Security office, the grocery store, the laundromat, or WAPA, people have forgiven my fumbles and responded with warmth. So I’ll keep my ridiculous hat, I’ll keep punching palms, and I’ll keep smiling through my awkward greetings.

One day, just maybe I’ll get it right.

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Jennifer Walker

About Jennifer Walker

Jennifer, her girlfriend, and their two French bulldogs decided to move to St. John after significant soul searching, careful financial consideration, and impeccable planning. As if! Instead, they made a crazy offer on a house while on vacation, were shocked when the mortgage came through, and left everything behind to come to a 7-mile long rock in the middle of the Caribbean with no plan. They still have no plan, but all the intoxicated people Jennifer keeps meeting assure her she’ll figure something out. In the meantime, she’ll be transcribing her adventures in island life where previously mundane activities – like going to get the mail – can have the dramatic arc of a great Russian novel. To follow more of her adventures, check out her blog www.detachedandamused.com

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11 thoughts on “One Awkward Island Greeting at a Time

  1. Aww, you are too sweet! Just be yourself always and people will see the genuineness of your spirit and be drawn to that. Haha, love the cow picture, too!

    Have a great day!

  2. I love to smile. I smile at everyone but I , too , have the same problem you have. I inevitably blurt out “good morning” no matter what time of day. I taught preschool for so many years, I can’t help it.

  3. You have the heart of a child and a preteen menace for a brain…I’d say that’s pretty much the best combination ever! Loved your storytelling 🙂 Keep being awkward!

  4. AWESOME essay! You are so real and easily likable! I like you a lot just from reading this. I lived on St. Thomas for only a short six months, and this essay really resonates with me. Fist bump (or whatever) to ya, sister! Keep on keeping it real!

  5. Jennifer,

    No worries. We are all right there with you. The teen mantra “fake it ’till you make it” isn’t just for teens. Everyone struggles, uncomfortable in our own skin, until we are. You have love and support all around. just take a look. – From across the Drake Channel, JB

  6. We just moved to St. Thomas a couple of months ago. I just told my boyfriend I need a watch that says “good morning”, “good afternoon” or “good evening” depending on the time of day so I could just look down and know which one to use. So, you are not alone!

  7. Sending you “aloha” from the Big Island! I’ve run into issues with this as well, but the ‘problem’ is that locals greet with a hug and a cheek kiss. Even someone they are meeting for the first time! I’m not naturally demonstrative, and I’m struggling to figure out where and when the greeting is appropriate. Meeting my boss this morning for a quick meeting? Hug and cheek kiss. Greeting my doctor in her office? Nope, that’s a handshake. That cute chef I’m trying to talk into the fundraiser? I went for the hug when he stuck out his hand for a shake. I feel your pain!

  8. Jennifer
    I cannot tell you how inspirational reading this was for me today. My husband leaves tomorrow flying to st. John to start our new business. I will follow him shortly. We’ve sold everything to follow our dream. With so much unknown looming in front of us it is a bit frightening. But your article enlightened and reinforced in such a beautiful way. (I believe we’re sisters in another lifetime, we have so much in common) If you found your way, I will find mine too. Thank you.

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