What Do You Love About America?
Once I had to interview for a scholarship while I was in Haiti. I set myself up in a backroom of the orphanage and crossed my fingers that the video-chat would hold up. I knew they’d probably ask something along the lines of, “Why help folks over there instead of at home?” and I was prepared to talk about the relative impact of a dollar in America vs. overseas, about how these lives matter just as much about American lives.
Instead they asked, “What do you love about America?” I found myself talking about how once I cried tears of joy when my plane landed back in the States. I had just spent two months in a Dominican cane cutter’s camp teaching English to people who had been denied citizenship, and so probably wouldn’t be able to get a job even if they mastered the grammar and vocab, but still needed to know English to solicit any voluntourists who showed up. Looking out the window of the plane at the neatly-arrayed suburbs of Miami, I thought surely things must be better here. I got the scholarship, and I used the money it saved to pay for solar panels for the orphanage, computer classes for one of our employees, and plane tickets for myself.
Prepping, recently, for another scholarship interview, someone advised me to be ready for questions about domestic events and policies: “they want to make sure internationally-focused people especially have a grasp on them.” I wasn’t worried. Ever since Trump’s election, keeping up with the news didn’t feel optional. Maybe it never had been, and it just took me a long time to start caring.
I remember one July 4th a few years ago, sitting amid the masses in the Dolores Park grass, watching the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform a piece about Black Lives Matter and immigration and war. That last bit opened me up to the rest by reminding me that of course issues abroad were connected to those back here. I found myself laughing and crying and reflecting on how this play was touching me more deeply than the conversations and concerns I’d just come from in Haiti. I wondered if some of it had to do with ownership, with the ability to claim these problems and these people as mine in a way I never could elsewhere, even knowing how much of my country’s history was bound up with theirs, how much of our wealth was built on their oppression. Or maybe it was just that the questions were more nuanced, more gripping than the basic needs of food, water, education, medicine, money. We live in a society that has enough resources to offer everyone those things, and still there are people suffering from a lack of those as well as intangibles like justice, belonging, dignity, freedom. There was something intriguing about problems that were complicated, that required fighting for change instead of just appealing to donor’s sympathy. But the review in the paper said, “It is a mistake to think of ‘Freedomland’ as ‘art,’ or even ‘theater’, because the show requires a shared understanding with its audience”, and that rendered the tears that had come to my eyes during the final song suspect. If a play that only touched San Franciscans and liberals was a failure, that meant I needed to learn how to make art that could span boundaries, that could speak to people from many places. I spent the next 4th of July in Haiti, the 4th after that in Ethiopia.
Haitian independence day is on January 1st. Four days after this year’s, and four days before he was going to be sworn in, the DEA arrested a Haitian senator. I was in Haiti at the time, and while I was walking down a side-road I didn’t know well, with not too many people around, a man approached me and asked if I was American. As much as I wanted to prove to him #NotAllAmericans, I knew this wasn’t the moment. I told him I was Canadian. In a meeting with community members, it was safer to address the sovereignty questions. I echoed their outrage, I talked about my frustration with Trump’s administration, I told them that the whole point of this project was to amplify their voices, that I was going to use my privilege to make sure they were heard. One of the community members came up to me after our meeting. He had some questions about homosexuality in particular. He was tired of all these foreigners coming here, telling Haitians it’s okay, converting people to their culture.
I tried to figure out what had tipped him off. Probably just my short hair, but I was still pleased. I recalled a recent late-night conversation with a group of expats — I’d been making a point of spending more time with them, because I had to learn alternate ways of belonging; no Haitian could teach me how to live there as an outsider. Someone told a story about a local fortuneteller who shocked her by divining her friend’s lesbian-ness. I argued it was just gaydar. I didn’t like the idea that someone must need psychic powers to recognize me for who I am across cultural boundaries.
I didn’t always see passing as a bad thing. I remember sitting on the floor of my friend’s dorm freshman year. I came out to them, and then they ended up coming out to me, and we were all delighted to have found one another. My friend worried aloud about having to keep her sexuality under wraps while serving in the military: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was gone, but being out still might hinder her advancement. I told her not to feel guilty for hiding it. We are more than who we’re attracted to, after all. I talked about it really wasn’t possible for me to be out in Haiti, but I didn’t mind because my work there mattered to me and was just as big a part of my identity as who I was attracted to.
I was wrong, of course. The rules rarely apply to foreigners; even that guy from the meeting was more concerned about me corrupting Haitians than my own depravity. And there are consequences to hiding. It makes an already-difficult task even harder. You’d think that immersing yourself in a new culture and language would be a great way to learn more about yourself, but it’s not so simple. Years of being referred to as “li”, a Haitian Creole word that means both “he” and “she”, probably helped me get more comfortable about asking people to use“they/them” in English. But, what really did the trick was the few weeks I spent casually scrolling through supportive posts on a Facebook group full of nonbinary people.
Only in America and places like it could a bunch of strangers have the resources to come together and talk about things like this, I thought. Except, a lot of people in the group are still somewhat marginalized or hurting — because of racism, mental illness, poverty, abusive parents. So it’s not completely fair to envision a Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, where we can talk about gender identity only after we’re safe and educated and we’ve figured out where our next meal is coming from. It might be fairer to say that in America, I have more access to those conversations. Similar ones are probably happening somewhere in Haiti, but it’s not really my place to participate.
In the dorm room where I first came out to my friends was a copy of Tell The Wolves I’m Home on the bookshelf, a book that had managed to move me when I borrowed it from some expats the last time I was Haiti, grateful then to read anything at all but especially something in English, especially something set in America. Its presence gave me the confidence to open up that night. I wonder, now, if anything I write will ever have that impact on people, and which people, and where.