Curaçao is a Dutch-controlled Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. Virginia is a state located in the mid-eastern section of the continental United States. Phillip and his family have relocated to Curaçao, though Phillip's mother remains homesick for her old Virginia home. These two distinct regions are juxtaposed throughout The Cay as a way of comparing and contrasting the cultures of America and the Caribbean more generally. The novel explores the differences and similarities between the two places, often defining the two cultures against one another.
On of the main messages in The Cay is that we can learn things from other cultures only if we stop seeing them as different and separate.