Dyaspora, blan, expat, or the many labels returnees get
[This is a long read. Grab your kremas, your Baileys or a glass of wine.]
The months leading up to my trip back home were almost as exciting as the trip itself. Everything from planning the trip to the conversations about the trip was very interesting. I documented most of my thoughts here and on Facebook, where I sparked conversations. The most interesting and informative one was about determining who qualifies as a dyaspora. (The linguist in me had a blast!) This got me thinking about the many labels we [Haitians] use to differentiate our experiences and our ways of life.
I really debated posting this here. First, because this is far from the usual what I saw, what I experienced type of post. This post delves into Haitian society in a way that no tourist/traveler ever could. Because traveling back home is about going back to a place you know well and looking at it with fresh eyes. Second, because this is a sensitive issue and I’m addressing it with humour. But I’m not one to shy away from a difficult debate. So, here it goes.
What it means to be a dyaspora
Dyaspora is the Haitian Creole equivalent for diaspora. Unlike the English word, the Haitian Creole word refers to both the Haitian population living outside of Haiti and to the individuals pertaining to that population (the word can be pluralized). One can belong to the dyaspora or be a dyaspora. This is a very broad definition.
This label underlines foreignness and highlights experiences other than the Haitian experience on the motherland. The term can also have a pejorative connotation. Growing up in Haiti, I’ve heard dyasporas described as classless, obnoxious, arrogant, etc. No wonder some (including myself) may not fully embrace the label.
So I started a conversation on Facebook to get people’s views on what being a dyaspora means and whether or not one can stop being considered as such. My Facebook peeps came through. They joked. They went in deep. And they shaped their definition in a way to remove themselves from the equation. (I’m looking at you, CH, there’s no such thing as a KID—kat idantifikasyon dyaspora, ID card for dyasporas. Nice try, my friend!)
See our shenanigans here (in a mix of languages):
There wasn’t really a consensus, because the dyaspora umbrella is wide. It regroups a diverse bunch: from those who were born abroad to the ones who moved in a foreign country in their adult years to those who barely speak Creole but wave the Haitian flag with pride. The Haitian diaspora is the perfect blend of different experiences, paths and results. Picture Michaëlle Jean, Wyclef Jean, Fetty Wap, Maxwell, Jason Derulo, Alan Cavé, Edwidge Danticat on the same stage.
Dyaspora label, I rebuke thee
My status, or better yet my label, in Haiti has changed. I went from being an Haïtienne du pays, natif natal to a dyaspora. I’ve been gone for 11 years now; I should be over it, but I’m not. Never mind that I fit the category. I live abroad and have gotten used to a new way of life. My hometown looks foreign at time (but I blame it on the earthquake). And people are noticing my “foreignness”.
2015 : an airport employee bluntly tells me that he’s expecting a dyaspora kind of tip (translation : US dollars not gourdes), because my skin tone clearly shows that I haven’t been exposed to the dust and the sun in a while. Dude’s a jerk, but his comment stung. 2016: a chauffeur-guide is surprised that I understand Creole and remains speechless when I clap back in a perfect PauP Creole. Dude’s dumb, but the jig may be up.
If I’m being honest with myself, I’ll admit that I stopped being the PauP girl I used to be the minute I stopped driving there. A few years back, my friends and I were in an accident on the Nationale #1. Nothing major, but I was shaken. So much so, that I stopped driving altogether for a while. Eventually, I resumed driving in North America, but I was never able to get behind the wheel in Haiti again.
Nevertheless, this label weighs on my shoulders. I can’t be a stranger in my own land! I refuse to be considered as inauthentic. But mostly, I remember my own perception about dyaspora, and it wasn’t pretty. Karma’s a *blip*.
Now, for the record, I do not punctuate my sentences with “so” and “hum” (I’m a “euh” and “hein” kinda gal). I don’t wear bling. I shall never refer to macaroni gratiné as “Haitian mac and cheese” or salade à la boulangère as “Haitian potato salad”. I do not put broccoli or Dijon mustard in soup joumou (seriously, who does that?!).
Maybe I’m a new breed of dyaspora. The type who still craves Haitian cuisine but refuses to spend that much time in the kitchen. The type who buys made in Haiti stuff as if it’s going out of style, because she still believes in the good the country has to offer. A dyaspora who doesn’t really send money.
You’re not a dyaspora, you’re an expat
Because of the overwhelming amount of calamities (acts of God and acts of men) which plague the land, herds of foreigners flock to the island to “help”, a mix of aid workers, evangelical group members, voluntourists and other foreign workers. The expats! [Expat is short for expatriate, a person who settled outside of their country.]
There’s a faction of the dyaspora who may belong to that bunch as well. Not because they come back for work, but because they’ve adopted certain behaviours. If you’re using apps, websites, tourism books and Google Map to get by in Haiti, I’m revoking your aforementioned (fictional) KID and I’m issuing you a brand spanking new Expat Card. Modernity and innovation are great! But, just like soup joumou, some things are best to remain traditional. Want to go to a bal: look for the placards in the streets or ask a friend “where the party’s at?” Want to go to a friend’s house? Let them give you directions the Haitian way. It goes a little bit like this: make a left right after Valerio Canez, that’s Tabarre 48, and a left at the 3rd intersection, look for the Adventist Church, look for the house with the green gate or ask anyone to point you in the direction of Madan Untel’s house.
I’m quoting M. on this one. When you don’t use the traditional ways (radio, placards, word of mouth), you end up in events very few locals attend and in places locals cannot afford to go to. You’ll realize that most (if not all) people around you are expats. And we all know that we are who we hang out with.
Next thing you know, people will start calling you a “blan”.
D., the black blan
In Haiti, the word “blan” has many meanings. It refers to the colour white, to white people (aka Caucasians) and to foreigners (white, black, yellow, brown and orange). The term “blan” is also used to describe certain qualities associated with whiteness, such as punctuality. A person will be deemed to be a blan if they are consistently on time.
This is the lesson my friend D. learned during her first visit in Haiti.
D. was born in Montréal and raised in a tight-knit Haitian family. D. is fluent in French, Creole and English. In Montréal, some very mean people made sure that she never felt 100% at home. Her childhood and teenage years were peppered with “Where are you from?” and “Go back to where you came from!” She was a black girl living in North America, and some people just wouldn’t let her forget about it.
Fast forward a few decades. She lands in PauP for the first time. Haiti: home! Then the person who comes to pick her up refers to her as a “blan”. She’s taken aback. “I’m black. I speak Creole. I cook a mean diri kole and I love bannann peze as much as anyone,” she thought.
“No wonder we [second generation Haitians in Montréal] have an identity crisis,” she told me. “In Montréal, we’re black. In Haiti, we’re blan!”
Is there a place where people like D. can blend?
Ayiti, se la pou la
Translation: you’ve got to be in Haiti to get it.
The vast majority of Haitians have never set foot outside of our borders. They stay by choice or by lack thereof. Some have considered leaving, while it was never a question for others. Of those who leave, some come back to build a life.
Some Haitians pride themselves on staying or returning home. They love their country and genuinely think they can make a difference. (Shout out to all the entrepreneurs, civil servants and otherwise regular citizens who are fighting the good fight.)
Among those who stayed/returned, some will be quick to remind you that you’ve abandoned ship or that you no longer understand the realities. They’ll label you a dyaspora or a blan. They never mean that as a compliment. It’s not a random comment: it’s an accusation.
I left: I’m guilty as charged, and I’m not ashamed. I’ve always been a nomad. While living in Haiti, I’ve lived in at least 5 different houses and attended as many schools (from kindergarten to university). As much as she could, my mother took me on trips (in Haiti and abroad). I always knew I would live in other countries—plural. That’s just who I am.
But I don’t accept to be judged by just about any one. If you pride yourself on your home being a Creole-free zone, I will take the liberty to question your Haitian-ness. If you’re judging me because I left and yet choose to give birth to your children in another country, I will call you on your BS. I mean, you can choose to give “better opportunities” to your children and I can’t do the same for myself. C’mon!
On a more serious note…
These labels can be divisive.
It’s one thing to use them in jest. I’ll always remind M. that once a dyaspora, always a dyaspora. I particularly enjoy her clap-backs. But I will never deny the guts it took for her to leave her life behind and start anew in Haiti. S. earned that expat status (she should never have let us know about that tourism book). But I will never hold this against her in a serious discussion about her dreams for Haiti.
It's another thing to use them to derail a conversation or insult someone. These labels become dangerous when they are used as a sign of superiority. They cultivate mistrust between two groups who ought to be united.