I’m Haitian-American, but what does that mean? Identity cannot be explained; it can only be expressed. It’s a lot like love. You can say you love someone, but it doesn’t mean anything unless it’s expressed through actions. For most of my life, I’ve been standing on the fence, on the border, on the dash between Haitian and American.
You see, I was born in the United States, but my parents are from Haiti. I only visited Haiti once, and that was a long time ago when I was about four years old. Of course, I would love to go back and see the country for myself as an adult. I would love to drink the strong coffee I always heard about as a child. I would love to swim in the crystal blue lakes, and sit under the banyan trees. I would love to imagine what’s behind the mountains. I would also love to shop at the street markets, and see the women selling fresh vegetables and fruits. I would love to crack open a coconut and drink its refreshing elixir. As I write this, I already feel like I’m in Haiti. I thank God for books and the internet, but I know there’s nothing like being on Haitian ground and standing under the Haitian sun as it embraces me like a mother who cradles her newborn daughter.
Growing up, I didn’t learn how to speak French-Creole. I would respond in English when spoken in Creole. As a child, I was defiant and refused to speak the language. I have no explanation for this behavior. I guess I just wanted to be more American. As I sit in my room today looking out of the window on a cold December day with white skies and leafless trees, I regret being so stubborn like the weather outside.
There is a void, and although I know it’s never too late to learn Creole, I missed 20+ years of molding the language into my own. Unfortunately, as the years go on, I find myself straining to understand Creole as if I’m trying to grasp water or harness the wind with my hands. To fill this void, sometimes, I visit Little Haiti in Brooklyn, NY along Flatbush and Church Avenues where there is a plethora of Haitian restaurants and stores. I catch pieces of conversations from the passersby, and hear the all too familiar “Sak Pase? M’ap Boule” and “Bondye Bon.” Yes, God is good!
When I look at the mirror, it’s undeniable that I am Haitian. I have the high cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes, and dark cocoa skin. My relatives always make fun of me whenever I stare at the mirror for too long. I not only resemble my parents, but I can see a hint of my grandparents in me. Every time I look at the mirror, I wonder, “How did my great-grandparents looked like and those before them?” I get the answers by looking at the reflection staring back at me. I am reminded that I come from a line of people with resiliency, fortitude, and intellect. There would be no me if it were not for them. I am because they were. Yet, my dark brown eyes still hold mysteries of what I will never see.
Food has a way of causing long-forgotten memories to resurface. I vividly remember eating pâtés, diri djon djon, bannann peze, and pikliz at graduation, baptism, and communion parties. One of my earliest childhood memories was of sitting in my grandmother’s backyard in Port-au-Prince, eating mayi moulen served with sos pwa on a sunny Saturday morning.
Around this time two years ago, I met my century-old grandmother for the first time in 20 years. “Do you remember me?” she asked in her sing-song Creole. “Wi, mwen sonje ou,” I replied. Of course, I remembered her. How could I forget? Sometimes, I would daydream about the time I spent in Haiti as a child, and the only thing I can remember was the time my family and I sat in her backyard amidst the banyan trees, eating her rich, savory meals.
That night, my grandmother had such a youthful glow, and I could not believe she was 102 years old. She was jovial. She shared stories of her past, sang hymns, blessed her grandchildren, and imparted timeless wisdom. Her skin on the back of her hand felt delicate and smooth like a rose petal.
It was during that moment of holding my grandmother’s hand that I had the idea to write a book that captured my Haitian culture, particularly its food. There are many people out there who are like me — Haitian-American, and caught in the position of facing dual identities. We are faced with the challenge to make lasting contributions, honoring those who came before us and preparing the way for those will come after us. We must carry the torch and illuminate everything we say or do with pride and purpose.
Haitian-American Author Cindy Similien-Johnson graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Ambitious and determined, she’s known for being strong-willed and confident. As a life coach and a motivational speaker, she draws from her own life experiences to inspire others. In 2014, she founded CSJ Media Publishing as a platform to use her gifts and talents in writing; and, to enlighten, encourage, and empower others to discover and fulfill their life’s purpose. She is the author of two motivational books: “Goal Chic: Changing the World, One Goal at a Time” and “How to Stay Motivated: Inspiration and Advice for Everyday Living.” Like her Facebook page at facebook.com/csjmediapublishing.