Confronting Cayman’s worst clichés

How can a few words cause so much damage? There are a few phrases repeated so often in the Cayman Islands that one wonders if there are not secret meetings going on where members agree to read from a script. These clichés are so worn and overused that one might have hoped that they would have died a natural death long ago. No chance. These clichés are going strong, and that’s not good for Cayman. Old, dim, and dangerous, they just won’t go away. Like hungry zombies, they continue to stumble around, eating away at the healthy living parts of our society.

Here are a few clichés that can’t vanish soon enough as far as I’m concerned:

“Charity begins at home”
This is one of the best excuses for not helping people ever uttered. Unfortunately, one hears it often in Cayman. “Why should I donate a few dollars to starving children in Haiti, Africa, or Asia,” this cliché argues, “when all is not perfect within the immediate twenty square miles that I inhabit?”

This is an immoral copout. “Charity begins at home” is the coward’s escape from responsibility. This cliché encourages people to believe that they have no moral obligation to care about a dying child because of geography. Those who can’t be bothered to concern themselves with the fact that more than 25,000 children under the age of five die every day in extreme poverty around the world come in different forms. Some don’t know about this daily slaughter by neglect. Others simply don’t care because they are damaged or defective human beings and have no empathy. But those who promote this idea that one shouldn’t care because of
geographical factors are the worst. No matter where you live, the Cayman Islands or anywhere else, things will never be perfect. If you are waiting for the day when there no people with any needs at home before you concern yourself with dying children faraway, you are effectively ducking it forever. I have more respect for those who just come out admit that they don’t care about other people. At least they are honest.

Interestingly, I didn’t here “charity begins at home” very much in the days and weeks after Hurricane Ivan smashed Grand Cayman in 2004. All that I kept hearing was: “Where is the English Navy?” and “How much money is the UK going to send us to rebuild?” Suddenly helping others was viewed as very much an international concept.

Fortunately, many Caymanians have huge hearts—big enough for Cayman and the rest of the world. They do what they can both locally and globally to help people in need. Hopefully their example will one day silence this dumb cliché that tells us compassion should be restricted by national borders.


“When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
You can’t go far in the Cayman Islands without hearing this one. It’s partially justified, of course. It is common sense that one doesn’t go to another society and pay no attention to local customs and sensitivities. Yes, some foreign workers and tourists come here and fail miserably at this basic courtesy. But get over it; jerks will always exist. They are a standard component of humankind.

The problem with the cliché, “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, is that it is applied too widely and too often in the wrong context. Just because something is traditional or popular here is not reason enough to guard it from outside influence. Every society has good and bad beliefs and behaviors. Some things everywhere deserve to be mocked, ignored, or rebelled against. Sure, Cayman, like anywhere, would benefit from a little outside influence in some areas. Anyone who denies that is blinded by patriotism or xenophobia to their own detriment.


There are some things that do not deserver to fall under the protection of local customs and sensitivities. This is an arguable point, yes, but I’m willing to argue it. If I visit or work in a society that condones the abuse of women, stoning criminals, or beating children, for example, I will oppose it. I will write my little essays and make my case, at least those in power start pulling out my fingernails.

Different points of view can be good for the Cayman Islands. “When in Rome…” is nothing more than an attempt to shut down alternative views before they are considered. But we should be listening and considering other perspectives.That’s how we progress.

A funny side note: “When in Rome…” is heard ad nauseam when one of Cayman’s regular flare-ups over the issue of gay people occurs. A popular sentiment is that gay tourists and gay immigrant workers should be silent and invisible when they are in the Cayman Islands. Clearly the people who keep using the “Rome” cliché in this context have not read much Roman history.

“He’s just a paper Caymanian”
This waste of syllables is fired with great frequency and vigor at citizens who were not born here. Because their mother failed to give birth to them within the bounds of the KY postal code, they are forever worthy of suspicion and maybe even a little hate. (Strangely, it should be noted, that many “real” Caymanians were not born here either but somehow manage to duck the label.)

Calling people “paper Caymanians” is divisive and a bit rude, of course, but the real cost comes when those who are slapped with this label are unlikely to ever feel that they are fully onboard and therefore give less of themselves to Cayman than they might have otherwise. I know people who have lived here for decades, care very much about the Cayman Islands, and do many things for the good of this country, yet never refer to themselves as “Caymanian”. They are painfully aware of how some reject their status so they accept the barrier put before them and never quite fit in fully. Cayman pays a little price every time this happens.

Consider that people who are granted citizenship in the United States become just that: citizens of the United States of America. Only the worst of the right-wing loonies refuse to think of these new citizens as “Americans”. The United States has benefited greatly by allowing its immigrants to feel that they are fully onboard. Of course, many immigrants haven to struggle with racism and other prejudices in their new home, but at least no one calls them “paper Americans”. For better or worse, they are part of the team and, as a result, most tend to give all they can to their new home.

I believe that the Cayman Islands would benefit greatly by accepting new citizens as full citizens in this fashion. Doing this—and dropping the stupid “paper Caymanian” cliché—would give us a much better chance of fully utilizing their talents and energy.

Guy P. Harrison’s columns appear twice per month in the Observer on Sunday.

Contact him at [email protected]