Can You Go Home for the First Time?
As a child of immigrants let me tell you: there is a comfort in being surrounded by people that look like you and, even more so, when they are using your language.
Like so many first-generation kids, my story has multiple potential starting points and so many curious details. I’m Haitian-American. My cousins and I were either born in the States or came over as small children. Our connection to Haiti was strictly through our families, but our identity was all Haitian, which usually put me into some “other” category. Some of the confusion, I guess, comes from having a Spanish name. A typical experience for me as a kid introducing myself was someone asking if I was Spanish. I’d say I was Haitian and the response was typically, “you don’t look Asian.” I would reiterate, “Haitian like from Haiti.” And then the question would come, “So are you Black or what?”
“I mean, look at me,” I would respond.
What complicated this all was that I went to a really diverse elementary school. As I remember it, we were probably 50/50 white to non-white. We non-white kids were largely first generation from all over the globe. There was strong Hispanic representation, but that only contributed to my otherness because I didn’t speak Spanish.
“Why don’t you speak Spanish?” someone would ask. I’d say, “I’m Haitian. We speak Kreyol.” They would ask, “So…why is your name Carlos?”
“I don’t know,” I’d reply. “I didn’t pick it!”
In the end, it made being the Haitian kid all the more intriguing and, though I like to remember that there weren’t too many Haitian families in my broader community, there really were. There were at least four or five other kids at my grade school around my same age. Our families were all somehow connected, so while it might have felt small, the Haitian community was bigger than I gave it credit for.
I was 12 when one of my cousins figured out a path to Haiti: Peace Corps. I wouldn’t know the details for years to come, but she applied specifically to serve in Haiti and got invited. Just before she departed, though, the program was suspended. Eventually, she went off to serve in Mauritania. I didn’t really understand that Peace Corps was at that point, but I understood it was her way to get out and see the world. It offered a potential path to Haiti—at least momentarily—so I packed it away for future consideration. My cousin still says her first experiences in West Africa, particularly down in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, and Cameroon were her first distinct experiences of going home without actually being there. I don’t think I understood what that exactly meant for a long time.
I was in my late 20s when I finally applied for Peace Corps. I was called to service for so many reasons, one of which was a chance to explore a career abroad. I expected an invitation to serve somewhere in Central America or the Caribbean because I finally spoke Spanish, but Kenya was my destiny. I can’t say that arriving in Kenya felt like a homecoming, but—as a first-generation Black-American—my arrival there was cathartic. As different as Kenyans are to Haitians, I found so much analogy to my own culture and so much comfort in that experience.
I served as a Deaf health/education Volunteer and honestly it felt like my first real homecoming. You see, I look pretty Swahili (an ethnic group populating coastal Kenya, Tanzania, and Zanzibar), so in Kenya, with just a little effort, I could pass as a local as long as I didn’t have to speak too much. I can’t describe that experience in any effective way. I mean, even when faced with being an outsider, people would say things like, “You must be descended from a coastal tribe!” It was definitely the welcome that I needed.
I’ll be honest, despite falling deeply in love with Africa generally, and Kenya specifically, I was able to stay objective. I knew it wasn’t a homecoming, but it informed so much of my understanding of my own culture and allowed for conversations I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
A fine example has stayed with me. It’s a moment that prepared me for tough conversations to come. It occurred during an exchange with my fellow teachers. My identity was challenged because, fairly, I had never been to Haiti.
“Can you be from a place you’ve never been?”
“Sure,” I responded. “I am,” I insisted.
“But…can you be?”
The question put me into a defensive corner. Growing up, there was a hierarchy of Haitian-ness and the first generation kids took it one of three ways: a jab to keep us in our place, a soul-piercing affront to an obvious truth, or…nothing at all. I generally took it as an affront from family but, in this setting, decorum was required and a healthy conversation ensued.
My teacher friend explained, “A child, born and raised somewhere in America, who knows our language and history and traditions, is loved and cherished, but when they come here they don’t know the place. They don’t know the life. Their blood may be from here, but they are not.” He continued, “Carlos, at this point, you know us as well as one of those children, but you’re not Kenyan either.”
And I kind of got it, but not all the way.
Due to political unrest, the Peace Corps program in Kenya was suspended in 2008. I had to leave my site and, as I departed, I told my counterpart I didn’t want to leave, that this wasn’t my choice. He said, “Imagine, you don’t want to go and there are so many that would do anything to leave.”
That conversation gave me more perspective than any other.
I went on to serve in Zambia and then I lived and worked in Ethiopia. I finally got the chance to go to Haiti in 2010. By then, I had traveled the African continent and in Ethiopia, like Coastal Kenya, I could get by as a local so long as I didn’t open my mouth too much. I definitely looked more Ethiopian than I realized and this lead to its own tough conversations.
“You must be descended from Ethiopians, at least,” I would be told.
“No, I don’t think so,” I’d say. “I’m pretty sure most of my people came out of West Africa,” I’d add.
“Is there a problem being Ethiopian?” the offended would respond.
“No! No offense,” I’d assure them, and add, “Yes! Maybe way, way back I am Ethiopian.”
When the earthquake shook Port-au-Prince on January 20, 2010, I was working in Ethiopia. My mom broke the news and, after accounting for family, I didn’t think too much about it. How could I help? I was a million miles away. But, within a few weeks, Peace Corps Response had mobilized positions and I spoke with a recruiter about my qualifications. I applied, was invited, and cleared to serve—it all happened in the blink of an eye. In the few weeks before my departure the stress rose more each day. I had never been to Haiti and now—on my first trip—it was going to matter.
There were frantic calls to my cousin who lived in Haiti—and calmer ones to my mom. I asked my cousin about her experience arriving for the first time, the adjustment, and the sense of it all. I was just looking for some external confirmation that I was making the right decision. She said, “You’ll be fine.” My mom, who was never keen on my decision to even go to Peace Corps, just kept saying, “I’m so proud of you. We’re all so proud of you. When Haiti needs you most, you have found a way to serve.”
How’s that for pressure? “I’ll be alright,” I’d tell myself. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”
On the flight, I was anything but fine. In the airport on arrival, I was anything but fine. And then I got into my ride.
An embassy driver, Chintok, picked me up. Initially, he spoke English with me, but I insisted we speak Kreyol. He was surprised I spoke the language. “Most of the Americans who come here only speak English. Sometimes they speak French,” he said.
“But I’m Haitian,” I said.
He smiled. “Welcome home.”
On that drive from the airport, taking in “home” for the first time, there were as many questions as there was a wash of familiarity. The people that looked like me. As a child of immigrants there is a comfort being surrounded by people that look like you and, even more so, when they are using your language. The familiar was also seeing so much of the Africa I knew. The sights and sounds and smells were reminiscent, but somehow even closer to my heart. I think I never knew what to imagine from Haiti, I never saw it in the places where I served, so instead of that feeling of being home in a different country, I realized how much more Kenya and Zambia and Ethiopia should have felt like home. The sights and sounds were different, yes, but so similar. What I think would have taken weeks or months to adjust to, instead took only a ride from the airport.
But I still had so many questions.
“I thought you said you were Haitian,” Chintok said during my onslaught of questions.
“I am, but this is my first time here.”
“Welcome home,” Chintok smiled, “for the first time, I guess.”
I worked in Haiti for about 18 months: three months as a Peace Corps Response volunteer with USAID’s Office of the Response Coordinator and the rest on contract with the United Nations Population Fund. My work took me all over the country as I engaged the people and places most impacted by the earthquake. A new basic conversation emerged: one where the people I met would determine that I was Haitian but that I was born and raised in the States. I’d hear the echoes of the family conversations in my childhood that distinguished us first-gen kids as not Haitian, but instead as American-Haitian. When I pushed back to defend my Haitian-ness, as I had with my own family, the response I got in Haiti was easier to swallow. “You can’t remember what this place was like before the earthquake. All you know is now—and while this is Haiti, this is not what it always was.”
In those conversations—with Haiti under my feet—I realized that I had no memory. That alone made it hard to call this place home—no matter how it felt. Familiarity and connection weren’t necessarily enough.
As time went on and I carved out my place with friends and family in Haiti, there was opportunity for more conversations. Those themes from Kenya came back, but with new additions. “Sure you’re Haitian, Carlos, but not really.” And it wasn’t my fault I missed so many of the defining experiences so many Haitians in Haiti lived through. I wasn’t there for a dictator or the rise and fall of a promising democracy. I wasn’t there for the several devastating hurricanes. I never saw the great Haitian White House before it collapsed. I hadn’t even been to a Karnival. My Haitian-ness was true, yes, but not completely. I was there by choice when so many people had no other choice. Being there, in Haiti, helped me reconcile my sometimes conflicting identities. I learned to belong there on my own merits.
Often the conversations would end with someone saying, “It’s okay to be American, you know. We still love you and know that you’re ours.”
“I know,” I’d respond, “but I’ll always be Haitian-American.”
I found myself there, at home for the first time.