I was seven years old when I stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Instead of walking through the jetway into the terminal, we deplaned onto the tarmac using an old-fashioned rolling stairway. There was an aura of excitement in the air as we walked past a group of musicians playing compas, Haiti’s well known dance music. It felt as if all the pomp and circumstance was just for me. Holding on to my mother's hand, we made our way to the luggage carousel as a sticky wall of heat smacked our faces. As my mom watched, an assortment of bags, boxes, and suitcases make their way around the carousel, and I stood transfixed by the noise, the crowd, and the bustle of activity going on around me. It was as if my mind and body were saying in unison, welcome to sensory overload.
I am not one-hundred percent certain, but I am sure it was my mother’s grand idea to move the family to Haiti.
See, my parents are from Haiti. They were both born and raised in Hinche, a city about forty-seven miles south of the capital, Port-au-Prince. My dad was a successful businessman and my mom was still in high school when they eloped and got married in New York. Although they were living the American dream, my mom was adamant about preserving the Haitian language and culture in our home. We spoke creole at home, lived in a Haitian community, attended a Haitian church, and best of all, my mom cooked authentic Haitian dishes.
Even at a young age, I prided myself on my ability to adapt to the American culture while retaining our distinctive lifestyle at home. However, as I stood there in the airport holding my mother’s hand in a tight vice grip hold, I realized there was a whole new life waiting for me on the other side of the airport doors. So far our welcome was warm and inviting. Bienvenue en Haiti (welcome to Haiti) those words were written on huge billboards strategically placed on various walls within the airport. I read the billboards, and at times I even swayed to the sound of Haitian compas that filled the air as our small group made its way to the exit. As we stood outside on the sidewalk with the sun beaming on our faces, the sight of the palm trees confirmed it; I was definitely not in New York anymore.
We loaded into a white van and settled in for the two and a half hour drive to Hinche. I do not remember ever being jostled so much in my young life. The roads were nothing like the paved New York roads that my mom would drive on our way to church or school. These roads were unpaved and had to be driven with extreme caution. There were no meaningful enforcement of any set of traffic rules. How could there be when there were no traffic lights or traffic signs? The situation on the roads could be described as chaotic at best. It was every-man-for-himself, where every person is trying to grab every inch of available road space before someone else does.
I tightened my seatbelt as my dad bobbed and weaved across the bumpy roads. My eyes must have looked like saucers. My mouth hung open as I watched what only can be described as complete and utter pandemonium. Pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, tap tap busses, bicycles, and trucks shared the same road. There were no crosswalks and no bicycle lanes. In addition to vehicles, a variety of other obstacles appeared on the road as well. Such as animals, wooden carts dragged by people or animals, vendors and their wares, and mechanics working on vehicles parked in the street. What started off as a two and a half hour drive, turned out to be to a six hour turbulent roller coaster ride. When we finally pulled up to the house and I stepped out of the van, my legs literally wobbled as I tried to regain my balance.
I woke up in shock the next morning to the sound of a rooster crowing. (That rooster became the bane of my existence). As I huffed and puffed out of bed it was pretty clear that if I was going to survive in Haiti, I would need to learn to adapt to this new life quickly. My worry was short-lived as my mom introduced me to a nanny that same morning. Her name was Fifi and from that day forward we were inseparable. Fifi helped make my transition from New York to Haiti go smoothly. There was so much I needed to learn about the Haitian culture and I depended on her to guide me through every step of the way. Little did I know, I was about to get a crash course on traditional Haitian fare.
As I sat down for breakfast, I was attracted by the colorful plastic food tents that adorned the kitchen table. When I lifted the pink tent that covered my place setting, I expected to see a heaping bowl of cocoa puffs, but instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a plate full of fried eggs cooked with onions, boiled plantain, sliced avocado, Haitian bread, and a large cup of freshly squeezed orange juice. I looked over at Fifi thinking that she must have forgotten that I was only 7 years old and unable to consume all the food set before me. She smiled and said, “Pa kite frè ou fini anvan ou” (do not let your brother finish before you). Not to be outdone, I shoveled my spoon into the eggs, then into my mouth.
Haitian food is influenced by French, African, and Spanish foods with Taino roots. Staple foods include beans, rice, cornmeal, plantain, cassava, sweet potatoes, and coffee. A typical dish would be a plate of rice and beans (diri ak pois), which is also considered the national dish of Haiti. Like all cultures, Haitian cuisine has unique soups, pastries, and various dishes that liven even the mundane dishes eaten across the region. A list of popular dishes which top my favorite list are: Mayi Moulen ak Sòs Pwa (cornmeal with beans), Griyo (fried pork), Diri Djon Djon (rice with black mushrooms), Soup Joumou (pumpkin/squash soup), and even good old Spaghetti, which is most often cooked with hot dogs or dried herring.
My brother smirked in triumph as he scooted his chair away from the kitchen table. I waited until he was long gone before I looked over at Fifi in defeat. He could gloat for now, but we still had lunch, dinner, and a before-bedtime treat of Labouyi bannann (Plantain porridge) ahead. The kitchen was located towards the back of the house. It was a fairly large room with rustic double doors that led to the backyard. Once outside, I saw a row of small apartments, like narrow row houses built of wood with flat tin roofs. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a small community of people living in our backyard. Fifi pointed out a couple of maids, the gardener, the driver, and couple of handymen who served our family in exchange for free room and board.
It is common for upper and middle-class families to hire workers to cook and do other chores. Since Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, finding work is close to impossible for many people. In urban areas, the father, is head of the household and responsible for earning an income. Mothers stay at home and are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and teaching their children religion and morality. In rural areas men work their fields while women sell produce in the market, manage the household, and provide care for the children. Single-mother households are also very common, as men typically have children by more than one woman. In such households, mothers often rely on older children and relatives to help earn income and assist with day-to-day care for the younger children.
Haitians place great value on family life. In the traditional Haitian household, the extended family lives together. Grandparents may act as parents in place of an absent or working mother or father. Relatives and close friends may fill the role of godparent, which entails responsibility for a child if a parent dies. My parents choose my older brother (from my dad’s first marriage) to be my godfather and a close family friend to be my godmother. The sad thing is that I do not have any memories of either of them. Maybe with my godparents they were more content on playing their role in name but not in deed.
The Haitian way of life also includes various leisure and recreational activities as well. Families spend their leisure time within their own family and friendship groups. People generously open their homes and offer food and drinks as a way of creating a warm and friendly atmosphere. Haitian social circles commonly celebrate birthdays, first communions, and baptisms among other special occasions and holidays. Social events, like weddings, allow for semi-formal to formal attire. Contrary to popular belief, Haitians pay great attention to their public appearance. Urban Haitians (both male and female) prefer to wear Western-style clothing while rural women wear dresses and head scarves; they rarely wear pants due to their tradition. Young people will most likely follow the latest North American fashion trends (American style).
A month had passed since our arrival and the rooster was incorrigible. My mother enrolled us in school and I was in the primary level, one grade below my brother. On my first day of school I wore a powder blue dress uniform with matching blue ribbons. I also wore cute frilly socks and patent leather mary janes. My mom would not allow me to walk to school alone, so Fifi became my walking companion to and from school each day. The first day was dreadful. I was relieved when the teacher rang the silver bell that sat on the corner of her desk. Keeping my head down, I tried to hide my tears as I walked towards Fifi, she was waiting for me at the school entrance.
“Sak pase?” (What’s the matter) she asked? “The girls in class told me that I am not a Haitian” I replied. I was so confused. When I lived in New York, the conversations were different. "What?! You are Haitian? Stop lying. You don't look Haitian! You were born in the states? But you wear brand name clothes! So, both of your parents are from Haiti? Wow! I cannot believe you are Haitian?" It was as if they were searching for a character flaw to prove the negative stereotypes about Haitians were true.
They were completely oblivious to the mean and hurtful words they were saying. Now that I was actually living in Haiti, I was labeled as an imposter.
"What?! You are Haitian? Stop lying. How could you be a Haitian when you were born in New York? You do not sound like a Haitian? Let me hear you count to 10. You know, wearing the school uniform does not make you Haitian! Wow! I cannot believe you are Haitian?"
While living in New York, there was no way that I could completely distance myself from the negative stereotypes about Haitians. Now that I was living in Haiti, I was finding it difficult to embrace my Haitian roots. Identifying yourself as a Haitian in New York was an outright disgrace. Haitians were unattractive, they had offensive body odor, and they were a burden to society. Identifying yourself as a Haitian in Haiti, when you were born in America, made you a threat to your fellow schoolers. I was teased all day long because being an American made me a snob. I wore earrings and a pretty gold necklace, I wore fancy socks and shiny leather shoes, the ribbons and my hair were extra shiny and long, and to make things worse, I spoke English when I struggled with the creole words.
On our walk home, Fifi spoke in soothing tones as I recounted the events of the day. When I told her that going back to school was no longer an option, she responded with a question. “Can you show empathy?” It dawned on me that I enjoyed amenities they only dreamed of. They did not have an indoor bathroom like I did. They did not have a refrigerator or a stove in their kitchen like I did, because their kitchen was outdoors. And for extra added measure, Fifi reminded me that they probably did not have as many dolls as I did either. By the time we made it home, I realized she gave me a different and kinder perspective on how to view the world and the people around me.
I no longer focused on their hurtful words, instead I focused on finding the similarities in our differences.
Finding similarities between the two cultures would prove to be a challenge. The Haitian lifestyle is strict with many rules that dared not be broken, even when you turned eighteen and are considered an adult by American standards. The only element that seemed to bridge the cultural gap was music. Festive occasions like the Haitian Carnival held over seven days before Mardi Gras provided the perfect platform for friends to dance and laugh without any inhibitions. Also, as chance would have it, my dad was a DJ who had unlimited access to the local night club. I remember dancing hours on ends with friends and being carried home because I was overly exhausted by the end of the night. Music has no borders, it needs no introduction, and it has the ability to forge friendships that last a lifetime.
Six months had passed and if someone did not kill that crazy rooster, I would. School was closed and we were on break. I was feeling all grown up because I was walking to and from school all by myself. Years later, my mother confessed that she had Fifi follow me at a distance to make sure I was safe. I received my report card (kanè) and I made great marks in all my classes. I was making friends and even had a couple of them stop by the house for play dates. All things considered, I was adjusting well to my new Haitian lifestyle.
At this point, I was speaking creole fluently and I was familiar with all the nuances of the creole language. My mom often reminded my brother and I that we were able to accomplish so much in such little time because of our positive attitudes. Looking back, I do not know why we did not throw major tantrums when our parents broke the news that we were moving to a third world country and never going back to America again. My guess is that we were at an impressionable age and were easily duped by the promise of flight peanuts.
For as long as I can remember, I always had an inquisitive mind. It explains why I never recoiled when exposed to a different way of life. Most kids who experience culture shock like I did at such a young age would show all the classic symptoms like: mood swings, irritability, resentment, crying, sadness, loneliness, and depression. Not me. Although I can admit to being anxious, I was otherwise happy and sociable. I was like a sponge, ready to absorb whatever information I could.
Fifi was great about taking my brother and I out for outings. She would pack a large basket full of delectable treats for us to eat. Most of the time, she would become our tour guide and take us for long walks on the outskirts of town. Every once in awhile she would infuse some surprises by allowing us to ride on a donkey. I have a vivid memory of Fifi filling a large basket full of sweet, succulent mangoes. We knew it was time for an outing so we grabbed our backpacks and put on our walking shoes. Instead of walking out the front door, we followed Fifi up the stairs to the balcony. “Chita”. She tells us to sit down on the plastic white chairs. We were going to enjoy the scenery and do an excessive amount of people-watching.
I sat in awe as I watched women carry five gallon buckets on their heads filled to the brim with water. Fifi, explained that not everyone had faucets in their house like we did. These women had to retrieve water for their families on a daily basis. Other women intricately wrapped their babies onto their backs as they carried large metal bowls full of various kinds of fruit on their heads. Fifi explained that those women were merchants. They had to sell their fruits in order to support their families. I laughed out loud as we watched a man and his litter of pigs make their way down the street. He had them tied to ropes, but they kept pulling him in different directions.
That day, I learned a valuable lesson. There is no substitute for hard work. The women that walked down our street were accustomed to hard work and well acquainted with domestic drudgery. How could Haitians be considered a burden to society in New York when they were hard workers here in Hinche? In the states, the government provides welfare to those individuals who are struggling to make end meet. Haitians do not have such a system in place. What I saw were Haitians who have cultivated self-reliance in the face of hardship and scarcity.
This experience has been an eye opener for me. Seeing the women carry their burdens so willingly and effortlessly made me question my own work ethics. I wanted to learn about their past histories. Would I have been able to relate to any of their childhood experiences? Better yet, would I would have been able to survive their childhood experiences? Sometimes we can get caught up in our own story and circumstances that we fail to realize that there is a whole world going on around us.
A year and a half had passed and the rooster still lives, ugh! I am not sure exactly when it started, but I was not feeling very well. I tired easily, slept most of the day away, and I had a sudden loss of appetite. Several doctors examined me at home and they were all at a loss to what was making sick. We were quickly approaching year two and by this time my brother and I were completely acclimated to Haitian life. Being so young, my parents never complained about our behaviors. They always praised us to their friends, openly bragging about how we transitioned so well without any major hang ups. Looking back, I realize my mom deserved most of the credit because she preserved the Haitian culture in our home while living in the states.
With my health rapidly declining, my parents made the decision to move the family back to New York. My mom explained that I would receive a higher level of health care back in New York then what I was getting in Haiti. I was torn. Although I desperately wanted to feel better, I did not want to leave Fifi behind. “Poukisa nou pa kapab ale ak Fifi?” (Why can’t we go with Fifi?) I asked. I was told that Fifi needed a visa and it takes a long time to get one. Mom would not budge on Fifi, so I decided to plead my case to my dad. “Mezami, mwen bezwen Fifi oui” (Oh my! I need Fifi). My dad simply apologized and reaffirmed all that my mom had said.
We never made it to two years when we all loaded back into the white van to make that trip back to the Port-au-Prince airport. This time I would not be able to see the pandemonium on the road because my mom had a make-shift bed setup for me in the back of the van. My time in Haiti had come to an end, but the experiences I have gained have helped shape me to the person that I am today.
A week had passed since we made it back to New York. 6:00am came and left to the sound of no rooster. There was no way that I could miss that crazy rooster! I was back in my own room, sleeping in my own bed, surrounded by all my personal knick-knacks. I would give them all away if I could get Fifi back. My eyes welled up with tears each time I thought about her. I dragged myself out of bed and made my way to kitchen. There were no colorful plastic food tents on the kitchen table, just a heaping bowl of cocoa puffs that my mom set before me.
I was scheduled to see a doctor by the end of the week, but until then my mom thought it best to stay in bed. Gone were the days of outings and adventure. City life required countless hours in front of the television because it was not safe to stay outside unattended. Gone were the days of eating mangoes and the sweet sticky juice would run through our fingers, down our arms, and make a small juice puddle on the floor. Gone were the nights when I would stand on my father’s shoes as he taught me how to dance at the local night club. Life in the city moved at a much faster speed and it seemed almost impossible to slow it down.
My friends stopped by to visit. They wanted to hear every single detail about my time in Haiti. I told them about the rooster. I told them about our outings and how I rode on a donkey. I told them about my first day of school and how dreadful it was. I told them about all the delicious meals I ate and all the different fruit shakes I drank. I told them about the best nanny a girl could ever have. I shared all that I could remember leaving the best part for last. I knew my eyes sparkled when I told them I found myself. I was getting blank stares, so I took the time to explain that I found my identity. Haitian blood runs through my veins and I am proud of it.