After 10 days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I learned more about my identity than I ever thought I would.
Although I was born here in the U.S. my parents always emphasized our culture. Whether through the values my sister and I were raised with or the foods we grew up eating, being an American never stopped me from identifying with my Haitian background. It never mattered that I wasn’t born there. Hearing relatives loudly chatter in creole at every family gathering and my mother’s stories of her childhood in the country’s capital gave me an unshakable identity. That is, until the inevitable uncertainties that come with it all.
When it comes to identity, a lot of things contribute to how you perceive your own . As we get older, we learn more and more in school about ancestry, immigration, and what it means to be of a certain nationality. I had countless “but can anyone really be ‘originally’ from anywhere?” debates with my peers in middle and high school. Additionally, being born in the American “melting pot” means you grow up being influenced by a number of cultures- their values, their mannerisms, their cuisine. While this diversity is a beautiful thing, it can create a lot of ambiguity.
I strongly believed in my status as a Haitian-American when I was younger. However, as I met other Haitians outside of my immediate family, I’d get condescending chuckles or disbelieving gasps when I said I wasn’t born on the island. As if being born in America de-legitimized my Haitian-ness. There was also the fact that I didn’t speak creole; I understood the language pretty well and spoke a fair amount of French. But, as with any nationality, speaking the language makes you an official member of the club; it authenticates your identity. When relatives would jokingly say that I was “too Americanized” or “not Haitian”, I felt like a fraud. If I wasn’t Haitian, then what was I? The first few days on the trip, while awed by the beauty of the island and the new environment, I couldn’t help but feel outside of it all. What brought me comfort was knowing how my parents’ lives there contributed to who I am today.
My parents’ having left Port-au-Prince at such a young age to fulfill their ambitions in America inspires me. My mom left her home to enter America’s fashion industry despite her family’s disapproval. At my age, she left everything she knew to come to a new country and chase her dreams. In retrospect, she realizes that there was a lot she’s missed out on with her family. Yet, she regrets nothing about coming to America. She worked incredibly hard to live the life she always wanted. Watching my mom reflect on her past with such certainty made me realize how much her life choices have effected the kind of person I am. Seeing people on the streets of Port-au-Prince who do not have the same opportunities and luxuries I have in the states did so even more. My work ethic and my determination to make something of myself are emulations of my parents and the country they were raised in.
Being something of an outsider has always driven me to work harder. It also pushed me to embrace the principles that set me aside from my peers. My mom raised me with the same expectations and ideals she grew up with, which may seem conservative or unrealistic to many American teenagers. For me, these were just the guidelines my parents set in order to keep me focused, humbled, and motivated. Just as my parents had to work for themselves and go the extra mile to make it in America, I know I must do the same to create my own success. Knowing how much my parents went through to get to where they are today- leaving their families, learning a new language, etc.- motivates me to never take what they’ve given me for granted. I want to make them proud by going above and beyond in everything I do; who knows if I’d have this drive if it weren’t for my Haitian upbringing.
I may not have been born in Haiti or know the whindy, mountainous roads like the back of my hand. I do know my family’s history. I know the sacrifices my parents made to provide a wonderful life filled with opportunity for me in America. What I ultimately realized is that, for me, being Haitian-American isn’t necessarily about being a Haitian person in the U.S. It’s about the values that shape me as I find my way and keep my head on my shoulders in this country. That’s enough to certify my Haitian-American identity. Not to mention, if it weren’t for my mom’s Haitian cooking I wouldn’t be the food-enthusiast I am today.