Submitted by Heather A., an African-American woman who married a Haitian-American man.
was 16 when I met my now husband as a freshman in college in 1989. I met his sister two years later at the same school. They both spoke only English (at least around me) without the slightest hint of an accent. They liked what I liked. They ate what I ate (the college diet of cheesesteaks and other fast food). They were – to me – American. In fact, while my husband was not then able to sweep me off of my feet all those many years ago, the flu did, and he brought me chicken noodle soup. Nothing is more “American”, except maybe apple pie.
I was born and raised no more than 15 minutes from my college campus. When I arrived as a freshman, I had not been exposed to much more than my West Philadelphia surroundings. We did not travel, and I was not exposed to other cultures. I had heard stories of my one maternal great-grandfather and his native American upbringing; my paternal great-grandfather and his parents’ slave history. I had also heard stories of another maternal great-grandfather’s West Indian heritage; however, it was believed by some that he came to this country illegally and claimed to be from St. Thomas to avoid deportation. All of these men were deceased by the time I was born, and the second (or third) hand stories were just that: stories. I did not appreciate other cultures. In fact, I was very closed minded.
When, years after college, the “speak English” movement began, I was silently on the side of “Americans” who pushed for an English speaking society. I did not see myself as insensitive or prejudiced. I had taken Chinese courses in high-school and Spanish courses in college, both with just the minimal amount of effort required to pass the course with a decedent grade. I never made the effort to learn another language. I did not like for people to speak other languages around me. Truth be told, I was (am) simply nosey (or newsy depending on where you are from) and self-conscious. But, if I could not understand the conversation, they must have been talking about me, right?
Despite the fact that I was surrounded in college, by people from other cultures, my diet was truly the stereotypical American diet. I never strayed very far from the college diet of burgers, pizza, chicken wings, cheesesteaks and hoagies (lettuce and tomato on top constituted fruits and veggies). So there you have it, I was a homebody with limited food choices who did not (does not) speak any language other than English.
Although my now sister-in-law and I became very close, I was not exposed to her family, except at events that permitted only limited interaction, such as her wedding and baby showers. I had also lost touch with her brother until 2007, when I was invited to join my friend for one of her monthly family dinners. Soon after, my now husband finally did sweep me off of my feet, and I started attending those dinners on a regular basis. As my relationship with my husband and his family developed, so too did my mind.
There is nothing that I want more now than to travel. I am saddened by the reality that I will likely never step foot on Haitian land. More troubling is that, absent significant change, my Haitian-American son will not do so either. There are many other destinations on my bucket list. But, I can just imagine being ashamed during a trip to France because I do not “speak French.” So, I have committed to learning at least one other language – starting with French (and a few creole words and phrases too). I find it important to do this as a family, so that my husband, who already speaks the language, can improve his skills and so that my son will never be as linguistically challenged as his mother. I look forward to one day being able to hold a conversation (even a limited one) with my husband’s French-speaking grandmother.
Thanks to my husband and son, I now strive to make healthier and more diverse meals. I have been willing to explore more, not just Haitian delicacies but food from many other cultures. Mostly, I wait for my mother-in-law and sister-in-law to cook, but recently, I have been exploring in my own kitchen, frying plantains, making picklese, trying to make rice and beans like my mother-in-law (I failed at that) and threatening to cook patties (well, I will do that soon).
The idea to write this post began as a joke between me, my sister-in-law and my husband, and my threat to write about the trials and tribulations of being married to a Haitian man. To my surprise, my sister-in-law said “do it.” Oh joy, another task on the “to do” list that is already flagged with several overdo chores. But, the truth is, my constantly growing relationship with my husband and his family has been a joyful and eye-opening experience as I learn more about their culture. It has prompted me to expand the boundaries of my own mind, not only for my own benefit, but for my son’s benefit, as well. I pray that he grows up to be not only accepting of, but also inquisitive about many other cultures, especially the Haitian culture that is his. After-all, unlike my great-grandparents, his grandparents are still here and tell, first hand, of their experiences, and he (and I) will benefit greatly from all they have to share.