Monday, August 31, 2009

My neighbor, the alien

This is the way I remember it.

The traffic circle at the end of the taptap route from Port-au-Prince to Pétionville is a bustling place. If you don't mind dealing with fast-talking money traders, you can pull out your U.S. dollars and argue for a few minutes about the exchange rate you'd like to get, although if you have white skin, you're better off going to the back room of the One Stop Market on Route de Delmas, where it's just you and the Lebanese businessmen who run the business.

If it's shoes you're looking for, you can find them on the sidewalk. A local machann sells them in a display that runs about ten yards and three or four feet deep along the sidewalk. God only knows where the shoes come from, or the housewares being hawked thirty feet away, next to the store that will copy your keys if there is electricity, or if they can fire up the delko. The merchandise is decent quality, though you'd better be prepared to argue about the price. There are no price tags on anything, and if the machann agrees to your offer too quickly, you can bet your bottom dollar that you just let yourself be fleeced.

There are places to eat here, too. Back in 1993 at least, you could buy a plate of spaghetti for $1, if you didn't mind streetside dining while Haitians stopped to watch the blan eating like they did; or you could buy hot, fresh laboul for two gourdes if you were feeling adventurous, or if your stomach already had grown accustomed to the local bugs and parasites.

But if you leave the circle, walking away from the vendors who sell soap outside the business that got dechouke'ed when Baby Doc lost power, and you start down Route de John Brown, on the lefthand side of the road is a small hole-in-the-wall diner called Ti Luc's.

Ti Luc's was a restaurant frequented by the taptap drivers. The owner had a few employees working in the kitchen for him, making hot rice and beans and serving it up for $1 a plate to hungry drivers, and selling cold glasses of Coke with ice made from water that had been certified potable and safe to drink by Camep. (At least it met U.N. standards for potable water when it left the water plant.) My friend Ibrahim had discovered the place, and he shared his discovery with me.

Now there are rules about being a missionary in Haiti, and while no one will acknowledge these rules, we all know that they're there. Most of them pertain to how well you integrate into the Haitian culture, and they essentially boil down to this: Don't. Don't learn the language, don't buy stuff from street vendors when you can buy it at a store, don't take public transportation when you can have your own vehicle, and don't get to know the nationals. Not too well, anyway.

That's an unfair characterization, especially to the career missionaries who have lived there for years, and even moreso to those who live outside the capital. But it's not unfair to admit that at least when I was living in Pétionville fifteen years ago, there was a strong community of missionaries, primarily expatriates of the United States, and we didn't mix with the Haitian nationals nearly as much as we should have. The ex-pats had their own church and two schools, and even had an English-language bookstore that catered to their needs until it went out of business in 1991.

So I was a big hit whenever I showed up at Ti Luc's to get some lunch. Because while missionaries and other American nationals did go out to eat at restaurants from time to time, they usually went somewhere with a fancy-sounding French name, like Les Cascades or Le Belle Epoque, or they went to one of the American-style pizzerias. They didn't go to a hole in the wall like Ti Luc's.

I'd like to say I got to know the owner on a first-name basis, or that I got to know some of the regulars particularly well, but I didn't eat there often enough for that. But I did make a big splash in my own way, one day, when I overheard one of the taptap drivers wondering aloud what I was doing there.

"Mwen grangou," I said. "É manjé-a bon, non?" (I'm hungry, and the food is good, you know?")

He quite literally jumped out of the chair he had been sitting in, and into one at another table. He grinned widely, and laughed as he said, "Gadé! Blan-an palé Kreyol!" ("Look out! The white guy speaks Creole!")

This event, sixteen years past and two thousand miles away, came back to mind this Saturday night. I was at the charter school, waiting to lock up after the moving crew finished unloading the truck into our new rental space on Elizabeth Street. It was about nine o'clock, and the crew had been working for about five hours. I'd got them a pitcher of cold water to drink, but I wanted to let them know that I appreciated their efforts on our behalf. It's only the decent thing to do, to talk to people who have been breaking their backs working for you.

"Mucho gracias, señores," I said to two of the crew while their chief talked on his cell phone with their supervisor.

"¿Habla usted español?" one of them asked me. He seemed shocked, and I suppose he might have been wondering if I had been listening in on the conversations he and his co-workers had been having.

"Un poco solamente," I said, and he smiled. "Yo no estoy fluido." (Just a little. I'm not fluent.)

"¿Es usted un americano?" he asked, then, a little more hesittantly, in English. "You were born here?"

"Sí, señor, yo soy de los Estados Unidos," I said.

He acted surprised, as though he couldn't believe that an American could speak Spanish at all, and he asked me twice if my parents had been born in the United States. Presumably, I suppose he was thinking, if one or both of them had come from somewhere else, that might explain how it was that I could speak Spanish at all.

"No," I said. "Ellos son de los Estados Unidos tambien, de Pennsylvania. Yo tengo amigos y amigas quienes hablan español, y ellos son mis maestros." (My parents are both from Pennsylvania. I just have friends who speak Spanish, and I've been learning from them.) He looked unconvinced, as if he considered this unlikely, but his co-worker took my side and pointed out that there really are a lot of Hispanics in the area.

So I simply pointed out to him what seems obvious to me: "Sí usted puede a hablar ingles, yo necessito a hablar español." If you can speak English, then I need to speak Spanish.

I know some people have taken the attitude that immigrants need to learn English, and to be fair, I suppose they should, because English is the de facto language of the nation. But this attitude often gets taken too far, and we consider the task of integration to be their responsibility alone. This is all wrong.

In the eyes of God, we are not here-firsts, and johnny-come-latelys. That's a childish mindset that we try to see our children move past by the time they start kindergarten. What we are, instead, is communities of neighbors; and neither community has the right to make demands of the other, but only of ourselves. While I hope that my Hispanic neighbors, including the day-laborers as well as professionals, will take the time and make the effort to learn English so they can walk more easily in our world, I hope that we can make the same effort so that we can walk through theirs.

As we make that effort together, we can discover much that is new, and learn not only about our neighbors, but about ourselves as well. It's a frustratingly slow process to learn a second language, but with each time that I cross the language barrier and connect with someone who didn't expect it, I'm reminded just how much it's worth it.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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