Yesterday we did something that we have never done here together. We went for a walk, just for the sake of going for a walk, in our own neighborhood.
We haven’t ever done this for a lot of reasons. We don’t like the idea of walking in one direction from our house because a former employee lives down there. We know he was responsible for at least one attempted robbery at the mission in the past, and maybe the push behind others. He was in prison for a while but is now out. Funny, he was there because he stole from another former employee. We choose not to walk down past his family’s house because we’re not comfortable with that. We just want to avoid problems.
For the most part though, walking or doing anything in the area isn’t really that enjoyable. People here are not kind. Some are. Some are very kind. Others though, are not, and have no problem sharing that part of themselves with us. The whole being yelled at, being called blan, having people constantly asking you for things…it all gets old really fast.
Dr. Jen and I were talking when we met about our blogs and the things that we didn’t blog about. I sometimes have a hard time sharing stuff like this, not because I don’t want to tell you, but because some of the times that I have shared it I’ve been blasted by people for being honest. You know what? I’m done with that too.
People may not always like what I have to say about Haiti. They may not agree with it. That’s fine. The bottom line for me is that I live here, and these are my experiences, thoughts, feelings and observations. Not yours. If you don’t like them, then ask yourself why. It may be because you disagree with how I deal with something. Okay, but again, I’m the one in the middle of it and I don’t tell you how to deal with the stuff that comes up in your life.
I sometimes struggle with the way people look at underdeveloped countries. I feel like we get judged a lot through conversations with people about our approach to things. Again, that’s fine because it’s simply a matter of disagreeing. It’s okay to disagree. Disagreeing with each other is what causes us to challenge our belief systems and often leads to change. What I have the hardest time with is the sense that because I come from the first world I should be willing to overlook a lot, be taken advantage of a lot, and let basic injustice, rudeness and poor treatment of myself and others just pass. I sometimes feel that’s what people are telling me I should be doing/thinking, but then I look at how most North Americans look at their own countries, myself included. We think nothing of criticizing the government, getting angry when people mistreat others or go against social norms etc. It is allowable in our own culture, so why are we so quick to criticize others when they look at things through the same eyes in another culture?
I’ll be very honest. I hate it when people call me “blan”. Why? Because I think of how that translates. “Hey white!” Okay fine. But what would someone say if I said, “Hey black?” I know, I just stepped onto the thin ice with that one. I hate it when people call me, “Mwen blan”. My white. I know that it’s just an expression here, but it’s an expression that I don’t like because it’s one that shows possession, that there is a sense of obligation. That I, the white person can provide something for them and in turn they will be “there” for me. The people using it use it that way for the most part – and again I think of how well it would go over if I rephrased it and said, “My black”. Not so good, especially considering the fact that Haiti is a country that fought for it’s independence and outlawed slavery over 200 years ago. How can a country expect to get ahead if it’s people are still carrying that mentality around? The biggest reason that I hate those references to my skin color are that they totally bypass human courtesy. The reason that grinds on me is because that human courtesy is not lacking within the Haitian culture – they greet each other as people, not by their skin color. I know that there are a lot of issues around foreigners here. I know that Haiti has let me experience racism in a way that most people never will, but I think should. It would change the world I think if we all had a chance to be on the receiving end.
I know some of you are probably thinking, “Yes Leslie, but they don’t know any better.” Yes, actually they do. I know they do because Haitians don’t treat each other the way they treat foreigners, and I know because I see it in their faces when they shout “Blan” and tilt their chin up a bit. It’s a sign of pride and I know. The other thing that I know is that being here means that I have a small opportunity to let people know that what they do isn’t appropriate. When someone hisses at me for my attention I don’t even look their direction. I can hear it, and they do it to each other, but I think it’s disrespectful and rude to do it to anyone, not just me, and I refuse to encourage that. If someone, an adult, calls me “blan” I may or may not respond. Most often I don’t. I have the hardest time with children, because they really don’t know any better and are only following the example of their parents, siblings, and other people in the community. If a child calls me “blan” I simply ask them why they can’t say, “Bonju Madame?” At that point they often giggle and smile because they know that’s the right way to greet people, all people. The “Mwen blan” thing? I usually look at the person, and simply say, “I’m not your white.” They are all small easy ways to let people know that they aren’t being appropriate without making a big deal out of it.
So back to the walking thing. That’s why it’s not always that fun to go do something that at home is so easy. Consider your neighborhood. Chances are that if you went for a 30 minute walk you wouldn’t have anyone harassing you. In some places people won’t even make eye contact with you. If someone did say something offensive you would probably be shocked. Now, put yourself in Haiti. Anytime we go out that will happen at least once. That’s including driving in a vehicle. Simply because we are white and not from here. Not because anyone actually knows us and has been poorly treated by us. Now, going on a walk, chances are good that it’ll happen 10, 15, maybe 20 times in a 30 minute period. Thus, the not being fun or enjoyable or relaxing part.
Yesterday Chris and I decided that we needed, check that – HAD to – start getting more exercise. We know we need it for ourselves because it’s really easy to just sit at home and do nothing. To let the culture win. I’ve also been thinking about our family and what kind of example I want to set for my kids. I’ve had a struggle with my weight and exercise etc and I don’t want my kids to go through that, so part of that is setting an example right from the start of getting exercise and eating better. Chris and I also know that even a 20 minute walk goes a long way with improving your mental health and in turn the way we deal with things here. I also don’t want my kids to grow up here and feel like they aren’t comfortable going out into the community.
So, knowing that it might not be enjoyable we decided that we would push through and start doing what we know we need to for our own health. I pointed out the fact that a lot of times people here are just talking for the sake of talking or so that someone else might see them doing it and it boosts their pride a bit. Eventually, us walking through the area will get old. It will become old news. We will be boring.
I’m happy to say that we actually had fun last night. We walked a path just down from the main road that I had never taken further than a block from our house. Yes, I’ve lived here for two years and never done that. It was a cool evening, and we ended up getting caught in the rain on the way back. We weren’t harassed. I found myself smiling most of the way because it felt so good to get out together in what is now home. We saw some of our neighbors and staff taking advantage of the power and dancing a bit in the yard. We were passed on the path by a fisherman that offered to sell us fish. He had passed by our place on the beach the day before and the fact that he was wearing a pink ladies hat with a flower on didn’t seem to faze him. I had to stifle laughter because it was pretty funny. He was wearing the hat yesterday night too. I loved heading back to the house, in the middle of the rain, and passing a little boy running down the path with a banana leaf over his head acting like an umbrella. As we passed we looked at each other and giggled at the fact that we were both soaking wet. I loved having time with my husband, away from the house where we could just chat about random things.
It’s our goal to do this everyday – just take 30 minutes to stretch our legs. I know some days will be great and others will be no fun, but it’s worth it.
Another sweet thing from yesterday night was lying in bed and falling asleep watching a lightning bug flit around our room. I think he was just coming to say good night.