Feelings of a Foreigner in Haiti: “The Follow Up” Part 2

I know this isn’t a unique situation that I find myself in; many of you have traveled extensively, both to Haiti and other areas of the world, so you already know that even short trips leave you with a lot to think about.

This last visit to Port au Prince was a whirlwind of a trip.

Is everyone familiar with the Creole phrase, “Tèt mwen chaje”? Loosely translated it means: I’ve got a lot on my mind.

You can also use “Tèt chaje” to say things like:

Tèt li chaje: He’s troubled / burdened.
Eske tèt ou chaje? : Are you troubled?
Ala yon tèt chaje!: What a dilemma!

But I digress…

During this initial stage of reflection, I’m still going over a hundred different moments from our week in Port au Prince, and the only thread of consistency that I can find in all of them is the way in which they fall into one of two distinct categories.

1.  There were moments where I felt included, connected to the community and actively engaged with the people around me.

2.  There were moments where I felt distinctly out of place, a foreigner standing in the middle of a world I didn’t really understand.

The moments where I felt connected are easy to feel good about, the moments of disconnect are harder. And yet, in both experiences I can see and feel growth.

Thinking back to my first trip to Haiti, I realize how easy it was to feel on the inside. The experience was new and exciting and people were welcoming and my beginner level Creole allowed me to connect but it also allowed certain conversations to go over my head, conversations that would inevitably challenge the feel good moments I held onto so tightly.

Subsequent visits seem to get harder, and as your Creole gets better you understand more. This is good and bad; the moments of connection are more profound, but the moments of disconnect become more visible and harder to ignore. All of a sudden you realize, for the tables to turn, you’ve got to be in this for the long haul.

And so I’ve started to filter stories through this process; which ones fall into the category of real connection? Which ones are reminders of the many things I still don’t understand? Which are the stories that inevitably blur the line and evoke feelings connected to both feeling on the inside and being on the outside?

One moment that stands out from this last trip was a conversation I had with a staff member at the last guesthouse we visited.

Everyone had moved on from dinner and she was starting on the dishes, I asked where I could put my plate and she told me the counter was fine. Then she asked me where I was from, and (already working through this “feeling on the inside/ being on the outside” complex) I jumped at the opportunity to connect.

I asked if I could help her with the dishes, looking for a reason to stay in the kitchen to talk, and to take part in something so “everyday” that I knew it would make me feel less like the foreigner standing on the outside looking in. She hesitated, asked me if I really wanted to, and shrugged at my response of: “I do them at home, and I’ll feel more at home if I can help out here.”

We talked for half an hour while we moved through plates, cups, and silverware, but as I helped her with the tedious task of rinsing and drying, I realized that really she was the one doing me a favor. By welcoming me into her space and sharing a part of her experience, she gave me the chance to step out of that role of foreigner even if just for a few minutes.

Stewing over that conversation, I’ve questioned whether or not that moment of “feeling on the inside” was a space that I created or a real point of connection; I’ve since decided that the answer is both yes, and no. I know that her everyday reality and mine differ in important ways, but I can also recognize that there’s room for overlap in our experience, and therefore room for authentic connection. Similarly, I think that there are ways that we as foreigners can connect deeply with the communities where we stay in Haiti, but we also have to recognize all of the obstacles that impede our entry into the more intimate spaces of those same communities.

For me at least, I think that’s perhaps one of the greatest challenges to face while working in Haiti.

I wonder if you agree?


by Erin Nguyen on January 22, 2015

2 thoughts on “Feelings of a Foreigner in Haiti: “The Follow Up” Part 2

  1. Oh, Erin, I can so relate to this! After 9 trips in 5 years I have had many inside/outside experiences. It is my desire to connect on a deep level that keeps driving me back into the kitchen. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for your post, Erin. I resonate with this post, as well as the other one you wrote about how to answer the question of “How was your trip to Haiti?” I’ve only been to Haiti five times – to two different places – since 2010 – for a total of about 45 days. So, while enough to understand the tension you describe in your posts, not nearly enough to have any helpful thoughts. I’m so drawn to the Haitian culture because of their simplicity and resilience and my desire to live more like that – yet feeling so handicapped by the lack of ability to really understand the culture. I’ve lived so differently. My dream is to sometime live in Haiti long enough to put my attempts at learning the language to use and truly engage in dialogue with the people to better understand and love them. While I feel I always gain more than I could give in each trip I’ve taken to Haiti, I do feel that these trips have helped me be much more aware and sensitive to the needs in my own community that I live in.

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