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I moved to California from NYC nearly 2 years ago and the drastic decline in the Haitian presence was absolutely depressing. People are not kidding when they say NYC, Miami and Boston are the enclaves of Haitians in America. I managed to go from being surrounded by Haitians in NYC, to not having 1 Haitian friend in Los Angeles! This changed a few months ago. I was deep in my math calculations of which cereal deal was cheapest in Costco when I heard a couple speaking Haitian-Creole behind me. I was so excited that I just ran over and befriended them. They graciously insisted on having me visit their church so that I can see that there actually were Haitians in Los Angeles. As we became closer, they confided in me about their increasing apprehension about raising their son and daughter in America. The boy does not speak as much Haitian-Creole as they would like, he talks back, and his teacher has informed them that they can not beat their children in the U.S. So my friends have decided to do what all Haitian parents threaten their children with: send the boy to Haiti! After all this, my friends asked me HOW did I manage to be born and raised in NYC but speak Haitian-Creole and not turn out to be a vacabon. My explanation: I was not raised as an American, but as a Haitian.
The beauty of being raised with strong Haitian family values is that I can see distinct difference between myself and my peers in our views of the world, our interactions with others, and the principles we hold close. The Haitian family values I want to highlight in particular are the importance of saving, strong work-ethic, communal childrearing, and self-presentation.
The word is “frugal”
Now there are many misunderstandings about Haitians. Some call us “cheap” and others label us “penny-inchers.” But a more appropriate term is “frugal.” It is not that Haitians don’t want to spend money, but moreso that we cannot afford to waste! One winter, my brother tried to change the thermostat in our house because he thought it was too cold. Somehow my father sensed that there was an influx of heat and he was not pleased to see our thermostat at 80 degrees. When we woke up the next day, my dad had returned the thermostat to its normal position and duct taped it so that we could not change it again. The Haitian custom of conservation is not only limited to bills and money. Haitians value any possessions we have. Many still have the plastic on the dining room or living room chairs!
But besides teaching me how to stretch a dollar, that frugal upbringing taught me how to survive when my finances are low. I am currently a graduate student and my income is solely what UCLA allots each semester. I must budget money distributed in September until I receive my spring semester loans in January. And UCLA only gives you enough money to pay rent and utilities WHILE SCHOOL IS IN SESSION so I must find money to get through each summer. But I don’t worry about maneuvering such a tight budget because I was raised to persevere. I don’t waste water with long showers because of my uncle. When all of us would gather at his house for holidays, he gave us 8 minutes in the shower. If you were still in there, he would cut off the hot water! To this day, I still wash my face at the sink when I brush my teeth because a faucet uses a lot less water than a showerhead. When I drive my car, I make sure I take care of at least 2 errands along the way so I don’t waste gas. I turn off all the lights that are not in use and I can fix almost anything with Krazy Glue. I can’t seem to remember what I wore 2 days ago, but I can compare the 16 chicken breasts I saw in Costco for $17.82 to any other supermarket sale to make sure I get the best deal. All in all, I mirror everything from my frugal Haitian upbringing because it made me a survivor, especially during this recession where every penny counts.
Secondly, I’d like to address the Haitian family values behind discipline. You know I couldn’t talk about the being raised Haitian without discussing the baton! The blessing of being raised with strong Haitian family values is the communal upbringing. Haitians KNOW how to bring that lakou system from back home to the U.S. As a child, I did not only have my parents raising me, but also my godparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and family friends. And they ALL disciplined me too! Of course I didn’t see being put a genou as a blessing when it happened, but the discipline was a crucial aspect of my upbringing. It taught me respect and showed me there were consequences for every action.
The creativity of Haitian discipline never ceases to amaze me either! Haitian parents don’t just beat their children, but carefully tailor each child’s punishments to efficiently put the fear of God in them. A universal tell-tale sign of good discipline is “the look of death.” Haitians don’t need to put leashes on their children because they can remind us who is boss with just one look. We all know the chill that goes to your bones even when the look isn’t directed at you! The beauty of growing up with that look is that I feel it ANYtime I’m thinking of veering off of the path of my Haitian upbringing. My aunt will be miles away but I still feel that chill in my bones when I’m even THINKING of doing wrong. That discipline within the Haitian upbringing transcends space and time and keeps me from doing what I should not when I KNOW better.
This communal upbringing and strong discipline also indoctrinated a respect for granmoun that transcends age. Even as adults, we can’t think of doing anything to disrespect our elders. Just last week I gathered the courage to ask my dad WHY I wasn’t allowed to soufflé in front of granmoun. 15 years later, I just had to know WHY. I never understood the rule, but I also never dared to question what I was told.
Besides discipline that rivals the military, Haitian family values instills a sense of self-pride that I carry everywhere I go. When I go out, I know I must present myself respectfully. I mind my manners and can look refined without an issue. One joke that captures this well is: “Haitians go to work as though they are dressed for church, go to church as if they are dressed for a wedding and go to weddings as if they are dressed to meet Queen Elizabeth.” And this has rung true my entire life: I’ve never been underdressed for an occasion! No one has to remind me what is appropriate business attire for job interviews or business functions. This is because whenever I leave my house, I don’t only represent Mickheila Nèrèe Jasmin. I represent my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and any Haitian involved in my rearing. I am the embodiment of their principles and I recognize that everything I do and say is a reflection on them.
The importance of self-presentation is also reflected in how we care for our Haitian homes. When I was a child, there were entire rooms of the house I wasn’t allowed to enter because it is meant for company. I loved Thanksgiving Day because that was the closest I ever got to being company! I got to sit at the nice table and use my Aunt’s good china!! With my uncle, his pride is in his lawn. Uncle never let anyone walk on his grass. One day, I forgot this rule and decided to take a shortcut across the lawn instead of walking to the pathway. My uncle promptly reminded me with a shot from his high-pressure hose that no one steps on his grass. No matter what Haitians have, even if it is not much, we will present ourselves with our best foot forward.
The last Haitian family value I would like to address is perseverance. One of the best things my parents did was send me to Haiti during my summer vacations. Nothing says “you have it good in America” like seeing an 8 year old walk several miles to carry clean water on their head. Or the joy on a barefoot child’s face when I gave them sneakers I was bored with. I know there are people in my life who made great sacrifices to ensure I was even born in this country. Haitian parents juggle several jobs so they can afford to send us to private schools, buy us Christmas gifts they can’t afford, and give us the life they never had. A Haitian’s life in America is a life of sacrifice.
For me, growing up with the Haitian family value of perseverance also made up for the fact that I was not born with all my desires within my reach. Knowing all that my parents did for me inspires me to reach my potential because I know they did not emigrate here for me to settle for mediocrity. In order to attend high school, I chose to wake up at 5 AM each morning and commute 2.5 hours to Bronx High School of Science instead of my zone school: Far Rockaway High School. While attending Princeton University, I worked 3 jobs along with my full course load to help pay school expenses. I knew that with that Bachelor’s degree, I would be fulfilling my dreams along with all those who invested time, money, and love in me. I remember when my dad told me he can die a happy man after he sees me graduate from law school. My Haitian family values have taught me to give my daddy that and more by any means necessary.
I know I would not be where I am without those lessons and principles and I plan on passing the same onto my children… EXCEPT for the plastic couches!
Mickheila Jasmin is currently attending UCLA School of Law. She is a pitbull-fanatic and aspires to fill an entire passport.
1. bad boy; rascal back
2. beatings back
3. clusters of families working cooperatively and providing for each other through financial and other forms of support back
4. a popular punishment where a child is forced to kneel upright back
5. a person who is a member of an older generation back
Cool stuff and down right truth. Good luck in all your endeavors!