A New World Full of Strangers

I moved to the U.S. at 12, and was not ready for my new life.

by Edwidge Danticat

I could hear nothing over the deafening engine of the airplane, but I certainly could see their faces. They waved wildly as though this was a happy occasion. They seemed so thrilled that I was finally going off to the rich and prosperous city of New York. I was sad beyond the limits of my 12 years of life.

One of the stewardesses grabbed me from the doorway and quickly led me inside. Their waves. . . their smiles. . . their cheers were no more. I solemnly followed her to the seat I was to take. She flashed her smile and I was left alone for the trip.

The tears that I fought so bravely before fell uncontrollably into my lap. I was leaving my aunt, uncle, and countless cousins to embark on a mysterious trip to be with parents I barely knew and brothers I’d never met.

A Crowd of Caretakers

The stewardess woke me when the plane landed. Before I knew what was happening, she and I were filing down an endless tunnel toward what seemed like a crowd of caretakers.

First the people who made alien cards pulled me aside and snapped my picture. Then the people who handled the bags rushed me through a line to grab my suitcase. Soon, ahead of the other passengers, I was out of the airport.

Since I did not remember what my parents looked like, I was very frightened when a tall bearded man started to hug me. I was even more afraid when a chubby woman placed her arms around me and exclaimed, “At last my little girl is home!” I felt like an orphan who was being adopted against her will.

The ride home was no more comforting than the meeting with my parents. I was uncomfortably squashed between my three brothers in the back seat of the car while my parents and uncle were crowded in the front seat.

My American brothers, who had given me timid hugs before piling into the car, were now curiously staring at me. I imagined they were as anxious to know where I’d come from as I was to know where I was going.

Perhaps if they had asked me who I was, I would have explained that it was not my fault at all that I was entering their lives.

A Stranger to My Family

To feed and clothe our family, my parents had to desert me so early in life that now I did not even know them. The boys had probably heard about the problems in Haiti: the poverty, the oppression, the despair. I wanted to plead with them to accept me, not stare at me. But I suddenly realized that they had every right to stare. I was, after all, a stranger—even to my own family.

To avoid their glares, I turned to the car window. There must have been hundreds of thousands of lights speeding by.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that water was somehow responsible for lighting. In Haiti, one could pay as much as ten cents for one gallon of water. I tried to imagine how many millions of gallons of water it must have taken to bathe the city in such brightness. God, I thought, this must be the richest country on the planet.

Our home was a great disappointment. It was a two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of a graffiti-covered building. In Haiti, homes were almost always open and spotless. In my new building, the doors were shut and dusty.

When we reached the apartment my parents lived in, I hesitated before going inside. The door looked like a cage. When my father fastened the filthy lock, I felt like I was in prison.

My parents did not wait long to enroll me in school. I could barely tell the difference between “hi” and “high” before I found myself in the car heading for IS 320. The school building had even more graffiti than the apartment building.

In Haiti, schools and churches were treated with utmost respect. Here things were obviously not the same. I wanted to run back to the car as my father and I walked by a crowd of hysterical students. In my pink cotton dress and yellow sneakers, I was sure they were laughing at me.

As we entered the building, I held my father’s hand so tightly one would have thought that my life depended on it. In my school back home, I had been the best memorizer and the most articulate student. I had never given any teacher reason to hit me. Here I was sure that I would fail no matter how hard I tried.

Fortunately, there was a Haitian gentleman in the office. He had a brief talk with my father and made him sign some papers. Then the gentleman walked me to my homeroom class. As I left my father to go fight my way past the shoves of the hurried students in the halls, I felt as though I had been abandoned once again.

A New Friend Helps

The Haitian gentleman introduced me to the homeroom teacher and then to one of the many Haitian girls in the class. He told me that she was one of the most respected girls in the school, mostly because of her roughness. The first day, my new friend kindly escorted me from class to class and made me sit next to her in every one.

Despite her help, I could not understand what was being said around me. As far as I was concerned, the teachers might as well have been hitting spoons against the blackboards. I understood nothing. The classes all blended into one long discouraging day. To make things worse, each time I stepped into the halls the thought of being abused by the other students scared me.

My fear was not realized until the last period when our class would eat lunch. One of the girls on the lunch line lifted my skirt up in the air and began to laugh. During her fit of laughter, she managed to spit out the word “Haitian” as though it were the filthiest and funniest word she’d ever said in her entire life.

Because my friend intervened, my humiliation that day was brief. After everyone found out that I was always with her, no one tried to touch me again.

Unfortunately, the verbal abuse did not stop. “Haitians are filthy. They have AIDS. They stink.” Even when I could not understand the actual words, the hatred with which they were expressed hurt me deeply.

Dirty Looks

Now that I’ve grown to understand every insult, they hurt even more. In the same way that my brothers glared at me my first day in this country, people often glare at me as though searching for some sign of my nationality. If I don’t fit their particular stereotype, they challenge me. They ask me whether I am sure that I am really Haitian.

Being any kind of immigrant isn’t easy. Nevertheless, the view of Haitian immigrants has made us ashamed among our peers. The boat people and those few stricken with AIDS have served as profiles for all of us.

If only those who abuse us would ask, perhaps we’d explain that it is not our fault that we are intruding on their existence. To avoid brutal deaths and lead better lives, we are forced to leave our homes.

We’d plead with them to accept us and accommodate us, not make life miserable for us. Because, yes, we are strangers. Unfortunate strangers in a world full of strangers.

From the September/October 1987 issue of New Youth Connections.

Since getting her start at YouthComm Magazine (formerly YCteen and New Youth Connections) when she was 14, Edwidge Danticat has gone on to become a celebrated author. Seven years after she wrote the article above, it grew into her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Her second book, Krik? Krak! was a National Book Award finalist. 

She has also written The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, Claire of the Sea Light, and Everything Inside an numerous books for children. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a  2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.  She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow, a 2018 Ford Foundation “The Art of Change” fellow, and the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize and the 2019 St. Louis Literary Award. Her latest book is Everything Inside, a collection of stories about community, family, and love.

In the same way that my brothers glared at me my first day in this country, people often glare at me as though searching for some sign of my nationality.
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