Re-thinking Haitian Friendships (1/2)

I woke up this morning to an email from a Haitian friend of mine, asking for money to attend school. My brows knitted. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to wake up. This isn’t first time I have received this kind of financial requests from friends and acquaintances and certainly will not be the last. I had given away every last penny I can possibly give when I left Plaisance, some of it to him. American friendships do not come with the same expectations of financial support.

“I can’t, Jean Rony.” I wrote. I wasn’t sure what to say. I logged off Facebook and went to make a cup of coffee.

Then I remembered the first time I met him. He was this quiet boy sitting inside the Digicell door, where I went to charge my computer. “Ki laje ou?” I’m twenty-two. “Me too!” I said with a big grin. He looked at me instead and shook his head, “Look at you, you’re twenty-two and done with college. I am twenty-two and I still haven’t finished high school.” We sat together often, during those months that I was in Plaisance. He often brought his English books, always eager to read aloud passages so I can correct his pronunciation. “You are my best friend. M’ap panse de ou anpil.” He texted me on my last day.

I remember that and I remember how I had spent 19.99 on a graduation present for a friend this morning. I remember how I had spent 30.29 on another Swiss Army Knife for myself a few days ago, simply because I was careless with my last one. I remember the 12.89 that I spent on beers a few days before that. That’s half of the tuition at a private school for a year for a Haitian child. I doubt his tuition was much more than that.

I feel the same shame now that I felt when my other Haitian friend told me about how he gives much of what he earns to his friends and relatives. “Of course, I share everything.” He said, casually. I think of my frivolous expenses and I think of this post by someone I know. We can’t keep handing out, but at the same time — it is just so incredibly, sickeningly unfair. “I am twenty-two too and I still haven’t finished high school.”

In Rise of the Novels, we discussed, in the context of novels, the transition from “you are a good person because of what you own” to “you are a good person because who you are,” from extrinsic to intrinsic.  Similarly, interpersonal relationships transitioned in a similar sense — from being based on materialistic means to internal values. The transition has been so complete that we forget society was once based on something different. In fact, we antagonize and frown upon relationships that are based on anything other than “internal values” (despite that, oftentimes, these internal values are very much formed by what we can afford to experience. “Well-travelled” and “adventurous” are two more acceptable terms to like about someone than something like, say, “having enough money to take cruises to foreign and faraway lands”).

And sometimes, I forget how embedded in my culture I am as well. I am repulsed by these instances where my Haitian friends ask me for money, because in the society I grew up in, friendships do not come with these materialistic ties. My first instinct is that it is because I am a blan. But in the average Haitian community, the wealthier relative/neighbor very much has a responsibility to share their wealth. It isn’t because I am a blan, but because I have the means to give. Asking for money, in such a society, does not cheapen the ties between two people and is not because the other views you as primarily as a means of receiving money. I think — that is where most foreigners in this situation would take offense.

He is using the $40 to finish school, so he can begin providing for his mother and his sister — and I would probably use it on a dress. When I had quickly written back, “I can’t,” what I had partially meant was also that I only want to give when it comes at little to no cost to me, a phenomenon that seems to plague my generation.

Ayiti cherie, you continue to make me re-think my actions and values even when I’m not there.

(Edit: I will finish this post another time, but this post brings up a certain point about “low-cost” aid that I cannot properly address at this moment. To clarify, briefly, after thinking about this some more, I do not mean by this post that simply donating money is the way to help people in Haiti. In this particular case with my friend, this amount of money would have put him through a much-needed class and was not simple hand-out from a stranger. For some, money would actually be more of a “low-cost” commitment, that can actually be more debilitating to a society than otherwise.)


Blogging and Swarthmore

Since the start of this blog, and progressively more so, this blog has been about events of my life and my introspective thoughts about them. They rarely reference anything outside of my experience. I had even at points made a very noted decision to only blog about what I know and experience.

I am beginning to find, as the months progress, that I miss the kind of analysis that happen (or rather I am forced into) when I write papers at Swarthmore, the kind of understanding that only follows those caffeinated early hours of the morn. As a result, in the next few months, there may be an attempt at a different type of blogging on here, digging more into current events, to help me get back into that mode of critical thinking.

This will also, hopefully, increase my blogging rate, because I only blog here when something of significance occurs or when I get in the mood. Unfortunately, what this has meant in the last few weeks is that I have simply increasingly sloughed off the habit.

Strangers on Plane Rides

I have some of my strangest encounters on plane rides. I am not sure if it is the anonymity or the brevity of these encounters, but plane rides cause strangers to open up to each other in incredibly frank ways. My flight from Atlanta to Oakland last Friday was a series of odd little interactions.

At the airport, thirty minutes before departure, the guy next to me started to talk to me. His opening line — “Where is your teddy bear?” I think that is pretty indicative of the nature of the conversation. He is, in the most polite of terms, a vapid 23-year-old, redeemed by a pair of baby blue eyes. I enjoyed the first innocent flirtatious encounter I’ve had in months — meaningless and fun — the kind of encounter that reminds me what the rest of my age group is doing and concerned with, what the rest of the world is like outside of Swarthmore and Haiti. Sometimes, I forget how unique my environment has been for the last four years.

Flash forward 2 hours, I am talking to a man who recently traveled to Mexico to investigate the possibility of starting a gaming industry there. We are talking about Western subordination of other cultures and whether or not that may be beneficial for the subordinated cultures. At some point, we discussed Cuba. The couple in front of us, turned around after the plane landed — they were just coming from Cuba with their grandchildren. Their son is currently in the Dominican Republic.

The next plane, I sit down with a pounding headache. A nervous looking teenager sits down next me. He is wringing his hands, taking deep breaths to calm himself. It is his first plane ride — well, second if you count the ride from Texas to this connecting flight. “I don’t know how you can stand sitting next to the window,” he says. He looks strung out, cannot stop talking. This 18-year-old is recovering from a meth addiction. His girlfriend was murdered a year ago and he was kicked out of the house yesterday. Now he is traveling to California to meet up with someone he hasn’t seen in over a year, with a total of seven dollars in his pocket. “What are Californians like?” He asks. The earnestness of the question puts me at a loss for words. He has only finished eighth grade, although the Narcotics Anonymous letter he wrote indicated minimal literacy. He lost his 130-dollar sunglasses, which he bought with his last paycheck.

The plane lands in Oakland at 10:30 PM. He cries, his face still glowing with wonder at the bay area lights. “I am going to the beach. I have to drop off Sharon’s keychain. We made a promise.”

To not know

Tonight is officially my last night here on the Island. The last night of these crazy, turbulent past two months. I can’t summarize it in a paragraph and I don’t think I quite dare to. I have stopped taking pictures, I’ve noticed. I tend to do that when I realize how little pictures capture of an experience. Certain dimensions of life that can’t be caught in little bytes on a camera.

At this point, I haven’t even dared to think of the past two months in any sort of conclusive sense. I am not sure if I know quite how to yet. It will come, I am sure, as all things come, in looking back. Some complete picture and some decisive way to feel about what has happened to me, but right now, I feel conflicted and I can’t make sense of it all. And I think, in some ways, I am fine with that.

To not know — but I am also not waiting. I have plans until the end of May, focus on my MCATs, then graduate, then —

But I also don’t feel paused anymore. No bated breath for something larger and bigger to happen. I am still searching, still much that needs to be done in the next few months, but I have this year of space between here and medical school and I don’t feel rushed anymore to jam-pack it full of some experiences or other.

So right now, take the next month a day at a time and when I am done with the MCATs, I will start the next steps. There is time and breathing room to not know for now, to just be here and focus on this, on now.