This is my first extended trip outside of Haiti since arriving eight months ago, so I’m getting a lot of questions on a regular basis that I’m not used to answering. There are a few that always pop up.
So, how’s Haiti?
I don’t know if there’s a terse way to answer this that fits within the bounds of normal conversation. Implicitly what people want is something the same length of “How are you? I’m fine.” A brief, one breath sentence that allows both parties to continue moving forward with their daily routine, satisfied that societal niceties have been adequately established. But asking “how are things in Haiti?” is akin to asking me to throw whole books of conversation at you.
What people really want to know is how are things after the earthquake. I don’t travel much to New York, so I don’t know if New Yorkers often get asked “how are things after 9/11?” or if Virginia Tech alumni are asked “how are things after the incident?” What is an appropriate response to that? “Things are… good” said with an appropriate pause to demonstrate that I’ve allowed proper time for inner reflection and mourning of lives lost?
The fact is, everyday I talk to at least one Haitian who lost a family member or friend in the earthquake, and the statement is always made with a straight face; I can’t read the emotions. The emotions are there, hidden behind the taut facial expressions, sun-darkened skin, and eyes wearied, yet full of boundless energy. Nonetheless, I can’t read the extent of the emotional trauma that exists behind such expressions.
In all practicality, it’s been almost 18 months since the earthquake. While for those of us looking from the outside the earthquake is the singular most recent and significant event we have to identify with Haiti and thus is the focus of our inquiry, for Haitians, it was a very very bad day 18 months ago. The effects were devastating and many are still affected today. At the same time, Haitians, for lack of a less didactic phrasing, have had to live in Haiti everyday since. We have not. For Haitians, the facial expressions worn on the day of that tragedy have been slowly caked into the past by the humdrum of day after day of life.
This fact doesn’t lend itself to an appropriately brief response. “How’s Haiti, you ask? Well…” I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose the most appropriate response given that the question is likely never meant to be answered in full to begin with, as is the case with our cultural niceties, is “it’s moving along.” And in the end, that’s what people want to hear. Too many details are confusing. How am I? I’m fine. How’s Haiti? It’s moving along. That’s all people want to know. And, well, yes, I assure you the country is moving along.
How’s the rebuilding going?
And then sometimes there’s a follow-up. How’s the rebuilding going? I never know how to respond to this. My first reaction is to lob a joke into the conversation. Well, they’re working on building a second Pinkberry, so it’s sorta rough until that’s finished. That one often gets blank stares that belie an inner monologue that I imagine consists of “really, there’s a Pinkberry in Haiti?”
Again, the reality is that what we see and hear of the reconstruction efforts in Haiti are not what Haitians see and hear. We turn to C-Span and hear reports of slow progress, filth on the sides of the road, and only X percent of the rubble being removed. Haitians get up in the morning and go to work, stepping past filth (which was there long before the earthquake), side-step rubble where it exists, and continue their day to day existence. Most Haitians in Port-au-Prince (for it’s important to remember the earthquake affected mostly the capital) don’t quantify relief efforts by how much rubble has been removed from the side of the road. Roadside rubble is aesthetic. Do I have a job? Can I feed my family? Do I have somewhere to stay? These are checklist questions that determine one’s appreciation for any visible relief efforts.
Can you get things in Haiti?
When people ask this, I know what they mean, I really do, but I can’t help but smile when they ask. Can I get things in Haiti??? Can I get things? I want to shout What CAN’T I get in Haiti?? Sometimes I wish I could stop getting things. It would boggle my mind to drive down Route Frere, one of the main roads, and not be bombarded with offers for fresh baked bread, car accessories, sunglasses, bootleg movies, household plants, cell phone minutes, and any and everything else I might need but really don’t need at that moment.
But what people are really asking is, can I get the same things in Haiti that I can get in the United States. And the answer is yes. My favorite example is that the main grocery store, Giant (not to be confused with the U.S. supermarket) sells approximately nine different types of Cheerios. Nine. Extrapolate from that and you find that most things you purchase in the U.S. are in fact readily available in Haiti.
For my expatriate and/or Haitian-American friends, what other questions do you get when you tell people you live/work in Haiti?