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Cultural Collisions

March 29, 2014

In my day-to-day life here in Haiti I often encounter cultural variances, things about which Haitians have a very different attitude than I do, or things they do in very different ways than I would. Settling into the obvious patterns of Haitian culture is most often fairly easy, but the devil is in the details. Learning the subtle nuances of Haitian culture—the social norms, customs and attitudes, and the deeply ingrained myths, legends and religious ideation that underpin them—takes time. Should I be in Haiti until I’m one hundred years old I will only have begun to plumb the depths of the people with whom I have been called to live. As I learn, I must always be mindful both of the assumptions I make, carefully assessing their verity, and of my resultant reactions, both positive and negative. But sometimes lessons have to be learned the hard way, making mistakes and hopefully profiting from them in some way.

Although most of the differences I notice are of little consequence, sometimes trying to bridge the culture gap leaves me feeling disoriented and disconcerted, sometimes frustrated or even angry. Some differences I find interesting, some amusing, some downright annoying, and a few very disturbing.

I in no way mean to imply that any of my comments apply to all Haitians. What is true in my experience of those in my social circle certainly may not be true of those outside it. But I can only write from my own experience, and only to the level of my understanding of that experience. In my conversations with Canadians and Americans both in and out of Haiti I have encountered many broad generalizations and cultural stereotypes about Haitians that I considered downright egregious. Undoubtedly I myself still hold some beliefs about Haitians that are refutable, and have developed some opinions based on misunderstanding of what I have seen and heard. If anything I express here is misguided, I apologize. It is not my intention to mislead or prejudice. All who know me appreciate the great affection I hold for Haiti and its people.

I find some Haitians (and indeed some Canadians) in some respects somewhat rude by Canadian standards (as if those apply here). They tend not to wait their turn, pushing ahead of others. They will not make room for others in the crowded conditions so often encountered here, especially on public transport, unless they are browbeaten into doing so (which the guys who ride in back to collect fares sometimes do). Even then the offenders sometimes will not relent. I know that in Haiti people operate under very different cultural norms, but at times that’s not, I believe, what’s at play. It’s not that they have such a different understanding of what is polite, for when I utter the clipped “Oh!” that suggests, “I can’t believe what you just did/said!” I most times get an immediate response, and often an apology. But it seems that “me first” thinking trumps civilities.

Paradoxically, this is sometimes set against the preferential treatment so often afforded me as a foreigner. Someone cuts into line in front of me in a bank, while another person gets the manager to escort me into his office to deal with my needs without my having to wait with the others. People won’t move to make room for me to sit in the back of a tap-tap, while another gets out of the cab to offer me his seat, and rides standing on the back bumper. I don’t like being given preference on the basis of the colour of my skin, but I have resigned myself to accepting people’s generosity graciously so as not to give offense.

The “me first” attitude becomes very evident on Haiti’s roads. It seems the norm to hog the center of the road, forcing others onto the shoulders. Vehicles often pass uncomfortably close to pedestrians when there is no reason in the world to do so. Drivers stubbornly refuse to yield, even to their own detriment: they will sit in gridlock rather than give an inch. The courtesies of signalling one’s intentions or checking to see if it is safe before pulling out are as likely as snow in Haiti.

Motorcyclists in Haiti don’t restrict themselves to the streets and roads, considering their right to drive on sidewalks as well, and have no compunction about being on the wrong side of the street, travelling against traffic. They are notorious for driving straight at pedestrians without reason, challenging them to move out of the way. Many also have the habit of cutting in from of people and stopping, blocking their progress. They will often needlessly congregate in a pedestrian traffic area, making it impossible for anyone to pass.

Pedestrians are no different. Often in the market, or elsewhere, when I am trying to negotiate a narrow passage, others will step in front of me, and although they cannot enter until I move out, will stubbornly block my egress, refusing to move. I fail to see the logic in this tactic, but regardless, I have come to accept it is just what people here do. Sometimes one must just learn to play the game. I have learned not to move aside to let someone pass. To do so is to invite everyone and their donkey (literally) to push past. If I yield to others, no one is going to return the favour. Again, it’s “Me first!”

By the way, those with donkeys or wheelbarrows and those carrying large or heavy loads command the right of way, often loudly announcing their approach in the expectation that everyone will clear a path for them. Frequently it is difficult to find a place to retreat to, but it can be a bit dangerous to not yield to a donkey, especially when wearing sandals. Just this morning while doing my shopping I had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a donkey approached, I ducked around a corner, only to have the owner follow, her donkey, carrying panniers of breadfruit, squeezing me against the post of a market stall. I was glad to have lost some weight since I returned to Haiti.

Far more troubling, however, is the image many Haitians have of foreigners, having been heavily influenced by the rather distorted picture presented of life in the United States (and by association, Canada) by American films, television, and now the Internet. Almost all Haitians believe that everyone in Canada and the United States is rich, owns a big house, has a new SUV, and has well-paid work. Most certainly no one is poor! While this latter belief may be true in comparative terms, poverty is of course a reality even in the wealthiest of countries.

Many young men, through continuous exposure to music videos, have come to see the image projected by American rappers as the ideal to be emulated. That influence is apparent everywhere here—the insufferable dress, the affinity for “bling”, the bastardized English (that irritates me to no end in my English classes) and the gestures and posturing that are considered “cool”. Young women fashion themselves after performers like Beyoncé, with revealing clothing and hairstyles and makeup they cannot really afford.

Haitians are also under the illusion that all Americans and Canadians are extremely generous. This stereotype has been nurtured by those who have come to Haiti handing out gifts and “helping”, sometimes with an astonishing lack of discernment. This may work well for short-term visitors, but the fallout can be extremely troublesome for those of us who are in for the long haul.

The problem is not so much that Haitians hold these misguided ideas, it’s that they act on them. Since they believe that every blan has a great deal of money, in the eyes of many, so must I. Therefore they think I can, and in the opinion of some, must, take care of the needs and ultimately the wants of any Haitian who asks. Almost daily I have to turn away people, many I have never before met, who come to my home with the expectation that I will give them money or buy them things. While I do help those I know when I can, the demands sometimes get outrageous. And while most are polite, occasionally I encounter someone who is insistent and turns hostile when refused. Almost as troubling is the tendency of those I do help to consider that help a contract to become their patwon, their permanent benefactor.

This expectation that I will be boundlessly generous extends beyond money. Haitians seem to have the ability to take in a great deal at a glance. I have noted that those who have been in my home once or twice are aware of just about everything I have. Many have no qualms about asking me to give them anything that catches their fancy—clothing, a suitcase, electronics, food, laundry soap, or my toothpaste. Nothing seems off limits. Someone recently asked for my hairbrush, and when I offered another, he refused it. He wanted mine. Most of those who visit me think nothing of exercising de facto ownership of my meagre possessions, using whatever they see without asking.

When I do give my permission to use my things, in the minds of some this allows them to extend that permission to others. This especially applies to the use of electricity to charge phones, iPods and other electronic gadgets. A while ago, electrical “octopuses” developed as the number of these devices grew, until it got to the point I know longer had sufficient power for my personal needs. Consequently I had to restrict access to those I knew. I have noticed the same tendency at the nursing school: students seem to feel entitled to use the power, sometimes even unplugging school equipment to access outlets.

I can’t help but having given a lot of thought to Jesus’ admonitions to live a simple life. Even though I no longer have a lot, if I had far less, I would have nothing to protect, nothing for others to covet, nothing to separate me from others. I would then have to trust completely on God’s promises of provision. To give the words of Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee a particular twist,

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,

I think maybe that’s what Jesus is trying to tell us.

Public health is a major concern here. Access to safe drinking water has improved considerably since the earthquake, although even today I regularly see people drinking filthy water out of the ditches as detritus floats by and goats relieve themselves upstream. Although they practice personal hygiene rigorously, Haitians have almost no concept of basic sanitation. They have a basic understanding of germs, but their actions suggest that most have virtually no grasp of disease transmission.

Garbage disposal has been a bone of contention between me and my friends and neighbours. Most Haitians simply toss their trash anywhere at all, sometimes piling it to be burned, but often not. Everywhere I look I see litter, and at times the smell is revolting. Some regions of the country are noticeably cleaner than others: I found Marchand-Dessalines quite clean, and in many of the more rural areas there is far less garbage strewn around. But Pierre Payen is extremely dirty, as is Saint-Marc. The rivers that flow through both are unsightly garbage dumps.

Yet I think back to what was in Canada when I was a youth. People routinely tossed garbage from their car windows, and the roadsides were littered with trash. The advent of fast food made the situation much worse. I made a fair bit of spending money scouring the ditches for pop bottles every few days. It took a change in social attitude, driven at least in part by enactment and enforcement of anti-littering laws to change the situation. It will likely take the same thing here, though that will be for Haitians to decide. I have accepted that for now at least, if I want my little corner of Haiti to be cleaner, I will have to pick up the trash myself. I see it as a health issue as well as an aesthetic one, but Haitians aren’t bothered by it.

Unquestionably a far more serious problem is sanitation. According to the United Nations,

“Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. In addition, 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open.”

This certainly applies to Haiti. Haitians having a very different notion of modesty than Canadians, and public urination and defecation are the norm here. Being totally unfamiliar with the concept, almost none of my guests will use my bathroom. Even the outhouses and septic tanks that do exist are often poorly built, many near water sources. In Saint-Marc I saw an aid organization building outhouses not ten feet from a stream used for domestic water. Though it refuses to admit it, the UN itself was responsible for the cholera outbreak that began in October of 2010, shortly before my arrival in Haiti, due to the unconscionable waste disposal techniques at one of its troop camps.

However, many of the differences I encounter are far less troublesome, although I admit at times they can be irksome. But all serve to develop my patience and tolerance of others.

I have a penchant for having all things in their place. Here in Haiti this has taken on even greater importance, as outside of daylight hours, I frequently function in darkness. Knowing exactly where things are is therefore critical to me. So when people use my things and don’t put them back where they belong, it gets me a little ticked. Sometimes it is days before I stumble upon their new abode.

I have had a bit of trouble with my stove since some of my friends and neighbours have taken to using my kitchen on occasion. The burner controls have a common safety feature to prevent accidental opening of a gas valve: one must push in the knob before it will turn. But someone, being unfamiliar with stoves, apparently finding the knob wouldn’t turn, just used more force. Plastic knobs do not fair well under such abuse.

I find that rather than ask how things work, many Haitians will try to figure things out for themselves. I think that they don’t want to appear incompetent. The results of this reticence are sometimes less than desirable. I have had to have the inverter for my power system repaired twice after people crossed polarity when connecting it and burned out some of the electronic components. “Oops!” doesn’t pay for repairs. To prevent this happening again, my inverter is now “hard wired” to my batteries.

As I write this, a friend, unbidden, just went to turn off a burner on the stove, and not knowing which knob controlled what, turned on the gas to the oven, which must be lit manually. Seeing the burner was still on, he tried the next knob in line, which turned it off. Now seeing no flame, he didn’t bother to turn off the gas flowing to the oven. Though due to the openness of Haitian houses this would not likely have the potential to cause an explosion, it is not unlikely that had I not noticed, I could have returned from work to find my propane tank completely empty.

He had wanted to turn off the burner under the water for my “shower” because in his opinion it was hot enough; it was barely tepid. Haitians’ concept of hot and cold is very different from mine. They use water as they find it; for them, water above room temperature is hot. Should the environmental temperature drop to 20°C, they complain bitterly of the cold. When my friends talk of wanting to visit Canada, I warn them it can be cold. As they respond that they know, I am thinking, “Boyo, you have no idea what cold is.”

People here are used to degage, making do. Consequently, rather than use a dipper, of which I have a couple, to get water from a bucket or my barrel, they will reach for a pot, or a jug, or anything else at hand. Rather than getting a glass or a cup to get a drink, they will use any container they see, clean or not. I have yet to see anyone in my house use my funnels to fill water bottles; rather they search for an empty plastic pop bottle and cut the bottom off. While those things really aren’t a problem, but after a favourite chef’s knife I have owned for some forty years had its tip broken off, requiring me to spend considerable time and effort to reshape it, I had to draw the line at using my kitchen knives for cutting wood, prying things apart or tightening screws. Much of my cutlery shows signs of being used for unintended purposes.

I can readily understand Haitians aversion to waste, especially when it comes to food, but sometimes it moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. I had purchased a bag of oatmeal and it had become infested with insects. When I went to throw it out, a friend protested that Haitians wouldn’t be so wasteful. Instead they would take the time to pick the insects out. He extricated the oatmeal from my garbage pail and took it home. I have had similar experiences trying to dispose of vegetables long past their prime. But then I remember an aunt who would skim the mould off the top of a jar of preserves and serve it, and our local butcher who would soak wieners in brine to remove the green tinge. Not much different methinks. In fact, I have come to think that it is time more than anything that separates our cultures. In many ways, Haiti resembles Canada of the distant past.

I am astounded at many Haitian’s tolerance for eating the same thing day after day. Despite an unrelieved diet of rice and beans, when given a choice most will opt for rice and beans. I realize that the local market does not offer all that many choices, and economic realities move some of those beyond the reach of many, but it is possible to come up with a bit of variety within any Haitian’s food budget. Today I purchased everything I needed to make a very large bowl of coleslaw for the equivalent of $1.50, not much more than a couple of plates of rice and beans from a street vendor. But I have yet to find many Haitians who would willingly eat a salad.

Recently Evens, my Haitian landlord with whom I now share my house, stated that he had had his fill of rice and beans for a while, and purchased a case of spaghetti. For several days now that has been our evening meal—mounds of spaghetti tossed in a small amount of sauce made of oil, some tomato paste, a bit of water and a Scotch Bonnet pepper, sautéed a bit, then topped with dollops of ketchup and a few shots of hot sauce. I try to rescue my portion before the ketchup and hot sauce, much preferring some chopped parsley, cracked pepper and Parmesan. I have also cheated a bit, getting my supper at the school before I come home. There I have a few options.

I am also amazed at how much food a small Haitian can pack away. Most of the Haitians I’ve shared a table with (I use the term loosely as most of my meals in Haiti do not involve a table) ate far more than I could. And yet they are hungry far before I am. When I visit people I am always offered far more food than I can eat.

Haitian portions

Haitian portions

Understandably, Haitians prefer Haitian ways. Since soon after my arrival in Haiti, many have taken issue with my laundry techniques. I had gone to a lot of trouble to get my hands on a Rapid Washer, a modern version of a laundry device that was once common in Canada and elsewhere, but long since went the way of the dodo. But I find that combined with a 5-gallon plastic bucket, it still makes an excellent washing machine. However, some have argued vociferously that the traditional Haitian way of doing laundry, scrubbing with ones’ knuckles, is superior in that it gets clothes cleaner. After one of these harangues, one of my friends pointed out that unlike most Haitians, I usually wear my clothes only once before relegating them to the laundry. Therefore they are seldom really soiled, just sweaty and dusty. So my method of doing laundry is entirely adequate for the task. The jury agreed. But they still think my washboard is a joke.

Rapid Washer

Rapid Washer

Many, strangers included, can’t understand why I choose to walk. In their minds, anyone who can afford to take a taxi should not walk. Similarly, if one can afford to do so, it is generally accepted that they should avoid tap-taps and rather choose moto-taxis as their mode of transportation. I am frequently asked why I don’t have a car. All blan, after all, should own cars. It all comes down to status.

Canadians as a rule are far more casual than Haitians in the way they dress. I probably lean even more toward casualness than most Canadians. I have mentioned in passing from time to time that there are expectations around dress in Haiti. In this very class-conscious society in which status barriers are so strongly pronounced, one’s clothing is seen as an indicator of one’s station in life. As a director of a professional school, I am expected to wear a suit, or at the very least dress pants, a long-sleeved dress shirt and tie, and dress shoes. I conformed for a while, but found this mode of dress oppressive in the Haitian heat. In my opinion a sodden shirt didn’t look all that professional.

Another factor was that dress shirts and pants require pressing. I do not have adequate electricity to power an electric iron, and I wasn’t keen on trying a charcoal-fired one. Dress pants also require dry cleaning. Although having my shirts and pants done was not that expensive, I exist on a very minimal budget, and my dry cleaner was taking an unacceptable slice out of it. So though out of respect for my colleagues and students, I still endure a suit for formal occasions, for going to the office I have opted for no-iron tropical-weight short-sleeves shirts, casual slacks and canvas shoes. After all, the slightly rumpled look is befitting of a “professor” (at least in Canada). No one has objected, and in fact I had a couple of my pharmacy students come to the office to tell me they thought I was “cool”. That’s not a word that I have used to describe myself for many, many years.

What?  Me cool?

What? Me cool?

However, some time ago I learned just how strictly this dress code is sometimes applied. I was in Saint-Marc and had some papers that needed to be signed at the police station. When I arrived, I was refused admittance as I was wearing shorts. Indeed, to do business at any office or bank, one must wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. But one can get away with wearing sandals or not wearing a tie.

I am well aware that many Haitians find my ways just as interesting, amusing, annoying and sometimes troubling as I do theirs. They are often forthright enough to tell me so. As much as I sometimes can’t understand their ways, at times they cannot understand why I do things the way I do. But most are tolerant if not gracious, realizing I am not a Haitian and therefore cannot be expected to adopt all their ways.

As I interact with those who live around me, I find there is no good substitute to being open—opening my ears to the feedback Haitians provide, opening my eyes to all that is around me, opening my mouth to ask effective questions and provide what I consider to be helpful suggestions, and opening my mind to the possibility that perhaps my ways are not superior at all. Importantly, all this needs to be applied with a little horse sense.

I find Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer most applicable here. I have taken the liberty of doing a little editing.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change [or do not need to be changed];
courage to change the things I can [and Haitians want me to];
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

It has often been pointed out that I can be very negative about some things, and although my accusers judge accurately, I see this as an asset, not a liability. As evidenced by what I have written here, the differences, being far more noticeable, stand out in my mind more vividly that the similarities. I believe that this “difference mindset” makes it easier for me to recognize how my point of view, thoughts and feelings differ from those of others, to look beyond the limits of my own perspective, and therefore to more easily adjust for those differences.

I am often able to embrace the differences in cultural perspective, appreciating how they contribute to the experience of living in diverse circumstances, the diversity adding richness and often humour to the fabric of life. I know that my willingness to share their food, to speak their language, to listen to their music, and to participate in their lives is appreciated by Haitians as evidence of my respect and acceptance of them.

When it really comes down to it, despite our cultural differences, our commonalities are much greater. We all long to belong, to be loved, to actively participate in life, and to meaningfully contribute to our world. When the inconsequential differences are stripped away, we are all very much alike. This comes as no surprise to me. After all, God made us all, and we are all brothers and sisters at the core. And as with my own siblings, though we are all in many ways different, having our own opinions, habits and ways of life, we always find ways to come together in love.


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