Growing Up Fast

I went from a sheltered girl in Haiti to a worldly New Yorker.

by Sabatine Gervais

Moving from Haiti to New York City at age 11 was a life transformation. I had to stop being a kid and become a responsible young woman helping her family.

As a child in Haiti, I didn’t have much freedom. My parents were strict, especially my father. No partying, coming home late, or visiting boyfriends or girlfriends. Furthermore, my parents said that thieves and gang members lived in our neighborhood, so I had to stay inside most of the time. I was sheltered and often bored being stuck inside.

When we got to New York, my 24-year-old sister Milly enrolled me in middle school because my parents didn’t speak English. I felt intimidated because I was the only Haitian girl and my English was not great. I was confused most of the time and spent a lot of time alone.

Back in Haiti, my parents took me to school and picked me up, and my mom helped me with my homework. In New York, I went to and from school on my own, and my mom couldn’t understand my homework.

My parents became less strict about rules like my bedtime and no TV before I finished my homework. It felt like their way of letting me know that I needed to start becoming responsible.

I was exposed to all kinds of things at American school—kids smoking weed, skipping class, disrespecting their teachers, fighting classmates, and getting pregnant. I had to be my own parent. It felt weird, like I wasn’t their little girl anymore. I thought they were treating me like an adult when I was just 11 years old, and it frightened me.

Changed for the Better

ESL class taught me a lot. It helped me with my pronunciation and how to engage in conversations. I also watched cartoons with subtitles at the bottom to learn spelling and pronunciation. I read books, including dictionaries. I practiced talking to my sister and brothers who had moved to the U.S. a few years earlier. After two years in the U.S., my English was good enough that I could help my parents translate documents and at appointments.

Three months ago I went to the radiologist with my mother so she could get a mammogram because of pain in her breast. I had to translate from Creole to English and back and make sure that my mom understood.

Before examining her, the radiologist looked for a long time at my mother’s previous mammogram pictures. Then she said to me, “Tell her that she is supposed to have a mammogram every 12 months. If she’s doing another one today her insurance might send her a bill that would address the matter of having two mammograms within a year. Can you please ask her if she still wants to do it?”

I wasn’t sure how to translate what she told me. I felt embarrassed because it seemed like I had forgotten how to speak my own language.

The radiologist asked, “Are you having trouble translating what I’ve said?”

“No, I have it all under control, ma’am.”

“It seems like you’re struggling. Are you sure that you’ve got this?” she said kindly.

“Yes, I’m positive. I’ll handle it.” And then I did—I translated it into Creole.

My mother said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

I said in Creole, “Yes, Mom, better safe than sorry.”

Door to the World

The radiologist called me a “mature young woman” and I thanked her, feeling ecstatic knowing that all the hard work I’d done to learn English was paying off.

Her words also made me feel important. It impressed my mother that the doctor saw that she had a daughter she could count on.

My mother said in English, “Yes, I know she’s a good daughter.”

YC-Art Dept.

The radiologist yelled, “Mom, you spoke English!”

My mom laughed, then said nothing. I knew she felt shy.

“Keep encouraging her to speak English so she’ll be able to become more independent.”

“I agree. My siblings and I got her to take English classes after work.”

“She’s lucky to have you guys as her kids,” she said on our way out.

Feeling Proud

Before this visit, I hadn’t gotten credit for translating for my mom when we went to the doctor. My responsibility had finally been noticed and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was cheesing so much that my mom asked me why. I told her what the radiologist had said.

My mom smiled. I realized that it isn’t bad to have responsibilities because it builds character and helps others see me as reliable. It’s shown me that I can handle a lot. I like that my parents can count on me to help them.

I had imagined a fun childhood in America where I went to amusement parks, movies, and parties. But in fact, I rarely went out and I had to help my parents much more than I expected. At first that felt like punishment, or even a loss of my childhood. But I came to appreciate the chance to help my family. I realized it isn’t bad to have responsibilities because it builds character and helps others see me as reliable. It’s shown me that I can handle a lot. Now I possess qualities that can open up many doors for me.

I realized that it isn't bad to have responsibilities because it builds character and helps others see me as reliable.
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