FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Where in the World Do I Belong?
I like different things about Haiti and the U.S.

When I was a child, I lived in a neighborhood called Campeche near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I used to stand outside of my house and look at mountains, hills, and trees. In the distance I could see a neighborhood called Pinge whose houses were tiny, colorful and so close they seemed to overlap. Right out front was a tall green tree, called Pyebwa Kandelam, that oozed a white liquid. Every year on Easter my brothers and other kids in my neighborhood would use the liquid to glue colored paper and little sticks into kites.

I loved so much about Haiti: the spicy food that set my mouth on fire, the smoothies that gave me brain freeze, the smell of the fruit that grows everywhere. Outdoor boutiques sold one thing each: Merchants sold rice, beans, gallons of oil, chicken, pork, turkey, or crabs under the sun.

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At school, our teachers wanted us to speak French, but my friends and I preferred to have conversations in Creole. That’s what everybody speaks in Haiti: It’s mostly French mixed with some other languages.

I loved my school and my friends there. We were like a family. We talked about everything and expressed concern about each other’s problems. As the slogan on the Haitian flag says, “Union makes strength.” I never felt alone.

So I was not happy when my family decided to move to New York City. My father said his seven children—I am the youngest—would have greater opportunities in America. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and my father was an accountant, but they didn’t earn as much as they could in the U.S.

A big motivator was that education is free in the United States until you get to college. In Haiti, parents have to pay for school all the way from pre-school through college. Some of my neighbors told me that America is the richest country in the world and that money grows on trees.

But at age 11, all I thought was, “Why would they separate me from my loved ones and my best friend? That’s not fair!”

I arrived on March 17, 2011. The New York City airport was warm, but when I opened the door it was like opening the freezer. The wind whistled through the parking lot, so strong it pushed me backwards. I was wearing a skirt that exposed my legs to the cold and no jacket. The cold wind made tears roll down my face; inhaling felt like drinking cold lemon juice.

This was a shock after Haiti, where it’s rarely colder than 70 degrees. Besides the cold, I was struck by all of New York City’s systems just for getting around: the Walk/Don’t Walk signals, Metrocards, taxis, dollar vans. I didn’t know there were trains that travelled underground!

Social media also shocked me. I learned about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Kik, WhatsApp, and many more. I wondered why there were so many of them and why did people love them? When I was in Haiti I knew about the internet, but I was surprised that in the United States people carried their phones with them everywhere. Their eyes were on the phone and their minds seemed elsewhere, mouths opened to smile or laugh at the screen. In Haiti, we use our phones to connect with loved ones, but otherwise we put them away.

I enrolled in the 6th grade at a middle school in Queens. School was a blur because I didn’t know what was going on. The lunchroom felt like prison where all the experienced convicts sat with their friends, and new convicts sat alone. One minute it was quiet and the next, kids were throwing food and screaming and laughing. My brain felt like it was going to explode.

Not speaking or understanding English made me sad, and I often put my head on the table and cried. But I made sure that no one noticed.

One person was nice to me: my classmate Jesly. His parents were from Haiti, but he was born in the U.S. He knew enough Creole that he could help me understand what the teacher was saying. He was really nice.

image by YC-Art Dept

Contempt for Haitians

Besides Jesly, I didn’t have other friends because I wasn’t able to speak proper English, and I hated that. To make things even worse, some of my classmates made mean comments about my country and me. They said, “Look at her; she is so small and short” and, “She’s so shy” and, “She looks like a creep.”

There were about 12 bullies who picked on me. They said that Haiti was a poor country filled with dirt, and that Haitians smell bad and eat disgusting food and are ugly people. I tried my best to ignore them, but their words sank in and made me feel terrible.

The mean kids in my school weren’t just racist and against foreigners: They were mean to each other, too. They talked behind their own friends’ backs and made fun of how other people dressed, talked, and walked. They would fight each other after school and talk crap about each other and still be friends. In Haiti, I was honest with my friends, and we were loyal to one other. We didn’t mention friends’ names when that person wasn’t around.

We also were polite to our teachers. Having respect for my teachers was something I considered my responsibility as a person and a student. They were the ones teaching me what I needed to know. Again, the American students shocked me: They were rude and mean to their teachers and went off-task in class. It pissed me off.

Five years later, things are better, on both a social and an academic level. I’m learning about journalism, history, literature, sociology, and other topics at an international high school, which I like. But I’m still adjusting to New York and to being an immigrant without feeling ashamed. The mean things kids said in middle school still haunt me. I’m afraid of being laughed at for my nationality, background, ethnicity, and race. I’m afraid people assume I don’t have much money or education. I fear I’m not pretty; I have low self-esteem.

People, including those from other Caribbean islands, say rude things like, “Really? You don’t look Haitian”—like Haitians have a specific skin color and appearance.

Some have asked me, “Are you guys poor?” or even, “Do you really eat dirt?” This seems to me part of the American obsession with material things—whether you have this or that determines if you are cool or not. It feels to me like Americans don’t look at Haitians as people but rather at the things we struggle with or don’t have.

Better in the Country

I know that the mean kids are wrong about Haiti, but I also know my home country has problems. My family listens to a Haitian radio station called Caraibes FM, and we hear about the corruption going on. Elected officials take government money for themselves, violating laws and the people’s hopes. As a result, the nation revolts against them by protesting in the streets and burning tires, and sometimes the police kill the protesters.

There are a lot of things that would need to improve for me to move back to Haiti. I would hate living in fear despite how good it feels being in my own country, my home. But when I get older I would like to go and visit. I still have lots of family members and friends there who I haven’t seen in five years.

Both New York City and Port-au-Prince are busy, with a lot of crime. If I did move back to Haiti, I would live in the countryside, because it’s calmer than the city. You can feel safe and be around nature. In the country, I feel less worried, freer to explore the world, and happier.

Sabatine is a writer for our sister magazine, YCteen (ycteenmag.org).

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