Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Stranger In An Ever Stranger Land

The flight is short between two worlds, less than two hours and I'm landing in an odd, strange world. I remain seated as those around me rush to grab their bags full of their ever-important-stuff from the overhead compartments, rushing to leave the plane even though no matter how much they rush, it always takes at least fifteen minutes to debark and at least an hour to get through Customs and Immigration.

Americans. Always in such a rush to get to the next red light.

I'm always the last person off an airplane. Sometimes stewardesses will ask me if everything is all right, as I sit and wait for the hurried I'm-Very-Important people moving around me. This time is a bit different: there is another person three rows ahead of me also waiting until there is no choice but to leave. Glancing over, our eyes meet and there is a silent moment of Hello Fellow Real World Avoider.

I hate the rush. I hate the end of a trip. I hate what I know is about to come: Culture Shock. Not the shock of a new land: the shock of the old. Returning home to my own country, to what some consider normal life. Yet I have no choice, I can't stay on the plane forever.

Walking through the door and down the perfectly temperature-controlled accessway, I am struck hard by the sterile smell of the air. So clean, so filtered, so dead. Who knew air could smell dead without a carcass? I'm instantly brought back to the moment nearly two months earlier when I walked through another airplane's door just after landing in Haiti, onto a rusted stairway pushed by three men to the door of the plane. Leaving that plane, I walked into direct sunlight and thick, humid, sweet-smelling, abundantly alive air. I remember the captain of that plane warning each of us as we walked down those shaky metal steps to stay to the left: the right hand side of several steps was rusted through. The air was rich, thick, and sweet as I walked across the tarmac to the doorway of the terminal.

There are lots of ways to reduce culture shock when traveling; hell, half the fun of traveling IS the "shock" of different ways of life, different foods, mannerisms, languages, and styles. No one warns you about the shock of coming "home," no one prepares you for how much harder it is to return to the normal from what has become normal.

No matter how many times I've traveled, returning home just gets harder, readjusting to America becomes ever increasingly difficult.

Leaving the accessway, I join the loud throng of people rushing from one Customs and Immigration line to another, hoping to get on a "fast" one. After the sterile dead air of the plane and accessway, my eyes begin to water from the coarse smell of heavy artificial perfumes, deodorants and floor cleaner. I hang towards the back and just watch and wait for my turn to leave sacred international ground and walk onto official American soil.

It is so loud. The crowd isn't large, likely less than 200 people, but my ears hurt already from the brassy, harsh American accents around me. I can't help but think do I sound like that? Seven televisions are strategically placed around the room to occupy us while we wait for our turn through customs and immigration. Occupy us...or begin our American enculturation. Just in case the TVs aren't loud enough to be heard, closed-captioned words scroll across the bottom, some in Spanish, so no one will miss a single word of the ever-important trash on the television.

During the nearly two months I was in Haiti, I only watched TV for one hour. The family I stayed with in Port Au Prince was blessed with electricity for only a few minutes a day. One day, towards the end of my stay, the grapevine informed us we would have power for two whole hours. When the single electric light in the house flickered on, signaling the return of power, the entire family excitedly rushed out the door and down the street to the rich television-owning neighbor, already in the process of running an extension cord to his precious television placed on the crumbling sidewalk in front of his pieced-together scrap metal home. Everyone from at least a three block radius gathered around to watch this old 1960s-era black-and-white television. Food and drinks quickly passed around, all laughing and sharing the latest gossip, few actually watching the only station the battered metal hanger of an antenna received. The return of the television was simply an excuse to gather, share, and enjoy each other's company: socialize and party. No one but me noticed the news about the Army overthrowing the government - very likely the reason we were blessed with this much electricity today. Growing up on television like most Americans, I didn't need to understand the language of the reporter to know the news was not good. I tore myself away from the screen, amazed how in less than 15 minutes I was sucked right back into Television Zombie Mode, and rejoined the party.

Electricity. In America, we not only take power for granted, we assume everyone around the world has it. This assumption of power was the reason I was in Haiti: I was sent down here by a Baptist ministry to set up six brand-new, expensive computers at their Peytonville mission and train the missionaries in their usage. Train American Baptists how to use computers in a country with virtually no electricity, as if Baptists in a country of Voodoo was not ironic enough. The project took one day...they only wanted me to describe what the specs meant and give them a brief rundown on setup. These particular American Baptists had been in Haiti long enough to know that the best usage of these computers would be to sell or trade them to some corrupt official or another for pencils, papers, books, a new water filter, bicycle tire tubes and food. Which is exactly what they did.

I reluctantly pick a line and wait my turn facing the stern immigration official. I feel naked without the close throng of curious children that followed me everywhere I went in Haiti, some shyly three inches away from me but never touching, some boldly holding my hand, my arm, touching my rare-to-them white skin, always one brash kid or another touching my hair to see if I was real, startled when I spoke aloud to prove I wasn't a living zombie. I now stand alone surrounded by strangers, feeling somehow unsafe and crowded, despite the minimum 18-inch personal-space barrier we Americans unconsciously insist upon. Children were everywhere on the streets of Haiti, always playing, shouting, arguing, talking, conspiring to play one prank or another on each other. Some had families and ramshackle homes to return to; some lived every hour on the street. Regardless of their family status, they expressed a joy in their lives with their every movement and the freedom to run the streets without fear, despite the many real dangers.

The only children I see in this secured, enclosed official room are grimly hanging onto their parents, whose eyes dart around constantly watching for some stranger or another to snatch their precious children from their arms and somehow sneak them out past immigration, customs and security officials. A room that doesn't even have bathrooms for a pedophile to hide in - just in case you might want to dump the drugs you were illicitly carrying into the country. I can't help myself but smile back at one young girl who smiled at me...her paranoid mother sneered a "how dare you!" look at me and moved three lines over. It saddened me, then I reminded myself I must look pretty rough and skanky after over six weeks of Port Au Prince street-family life. That family had a house, three walls were made of wood and concrete, one of scrap metal, but no "proper" shower: just a cast-iron baby-sized vat to wash in. A house that was a warm, loving laughter-filled home, despite its lack of electricity and plumbing. I miss my "family" already.

How quickly I forgot that in America, Appearance Is Everything. A smile on the face of a well-dressed, stylishly-coiffed, manicured-nailed woman hauling tons of expensive luggage towards a child is far less threatening than one from a woman in torn, dirty jeans and a smelly ragged sweatshirt carrying only a small backpack that has traveled more miles than Greyhound. I understand, but wish it wasn't so.

Appearance Is Everything. Have you ever noticed that serial killers are always attractive, well-dressed white men? Their neighbors always say they seemed so "nice"... are always so shocked that such a "nice" young man could do such horrible things.

Of course, by "nice" they mean attractive and well-dressed.

My turn. I hand my passport over, the official struggles to find a blank space big enough for the stamp saying I'm now back in America. He asks me about the uprising and troubles in Haiti, says it must have been scary for me being in the middle of a military coup. Laughing, I reply that the soldiers sit around on the corner smoking and drinking, waiting for the news reporters to show up. Despite what was likely being reported on American television, there really wasn't thousands of soldiers running all over the streets shooting innocent civilians. He waves me across the blue line and I officially enter America.

"Welcome Home," he says.

Yes, welcome home.

* * *

©1991, Laura DiFiore

In 1991, I spent nearly two months traveling around Haiti after a brief stint as a volunteer for a Baptist mission. I'm not Baptist - in fact, I'm not any religion - but the volunteer position was a great opportunity to visit this very misunderstood country. In September, 1991, two weeks before I returned to America, there was a military coup that put General Raoul Cedras in power. The above is a Musing I wrote shortly after I returned to America.

A very slightly modified version of this essay was subsequently submitted in response to an assignment for my Cultural Anthropology class at Pikes Peak Community College, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. That was an insightful read. It's true that sometimes staying in another country results in you feeling like a stranger to your own country.