Throughout the course of my life I’ve had to constantly maneuver between two cultures. If you look closely at my last name, website, and passion for Haiti you will discover that I am Haitian-American. Though they both compete for my attention, I choose to emphasize my Haitian culture first.
Growing up in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, going to Toussaint Louverture (look him up, he’s a big deal) elementary school, Miami Edison Middle and Senior High school, also known as Haitian High, Haitian culture always surrounded me. Not to mention the Haitian born parents that forbade us from speaking English to them. Kréyol, Haiti’s primary language was how we were to respond to them and if we didn’t, it was considered an offense punishable by death or at least close to it. I wish I was kidding but I’m not. It didn’t take long to recognize that Kréyol was the language of choice at home and we conducted ourselves accordingly. We, as in me and my younger sister, the last of 10 children but the first generation of Haitian-Americans in my family.
While this developed our Kréyol, it did not improve my parents’ English. My mother usually just smiled as her response to any question posed to her in English or any conversation someone attempted to have with her in English. Her smile would also be followed by her mumbling under breath “What is this person saying to me?” in Kréyol. (Note to reader, If a person’s smile doesn’t match what you’re saying to them then the person doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.) As a child of Haitian immigrants we wore many hats and a translator was just one of them. We were tasked with reading all letters that came to our mailbox and if I couldn’t read a letter my parents would questions whether or not I was going to school. This would be the case even if the letter was in Spanish, mind you we don’t speak Spanish.
My father wasn’t any better at speaking English but you couldn’t tell him that. My father had a patented response of “I epreciate DAT” to any and everything. No, really it didn’t matter what was said, good or bad, I could guarantee my father’s response would be you guessed it “I epreciate DAT” with a strong emphasis on the DAT! Neither of them spoke English very well but you couldn’t tell by how they made fun of each others English and how often they got into spats about who spoke English better.
From very early on my parents instilled in us that we were Haitian first even though we were born on American soil. Since I didn’t learn English at home my first English words came from television. I was an 80’s baby raised on television and might I add that I think TV did a decent job. I later started school and began learning English there. At home I was Haitian but at school I was American so I lived a double life that often caught up with me.
Let me explain. Considering that I was at school most of the day, found myself bringing English home and I’m not talking about homework. Of course this would get me in hot water as my natural instinct is to respond in the language I’ve been speaking all day. But wait there’s more! As a child I had a stuttering problem and this stemmed from my inability to switch out from Kréyol and English as quickly as I would have liked. Kréyol is a very nasal language like its predecessor French so the sounds used to speak it are vastly different than English. So growing up I struggled with getting my mouth to say the words or to make the sounds my brain was already thinking.
In Haitian culture looking an authority figure like your parents in the eye while they spoke to you was not a sign of respect. The opposite is true for American culture, as looking someone in the eye shows that you actually care about what they are saying. I learned the difference the hard way. One day, while ajenou (kneeling on my knees) before I received baton aka a whipping I made the mistake of looking my mom in the eye. In my eyes I was showing my mom respect and letting her know that I was taking what she was saying seriously. I couldn’t have prepared myself for what happened next. My mom’s eyes got really big as if I cursed at her and then she began shouting in Kréyol “Oh, you want to fight me now?” As a young boy I was thoroughly confused and asked myself “Marcus, how did we get here?” After two whippings, one for my first offense and second for attempting to fight my mom by making eye contact I learned that in Haitian culture that putting your head down while being talked to by an adult was the way you showed reverence. Matter of fact, the more you avoided eye contact with adults the more respectful you were thought to be.
Till this day I am still caught between the two cultures and I find myself either staring too long into someone’s eyes that they think something is in their teeth or I find myself looking at the ground which makes me look disinterested. I am trying to find the right balance but it might already be too late for me.
I learned valuable lessons from my experiences as a child navigating through two cultures. I learned to deal with my stuttering by taking my time to find alternative words that could get the same point across, instead of committing to one word and not letting it go until the right sound came out. This actually enriched my vocabulary. My second lesson comes from my mother’s missed opportunity to connect with the culture I mostly was connected to. As people, I think we should communicate more and assume less. The more we speak, the more we realize the reasons behind our differences are exactly the same.
Is there any part of your culture that differs from American culture? If so, please leave a comment about it below. I would love to hear from you.