Growing Up West Indian

I was raised in a conservative Haitian American family. I spent a majority of my childhood on Long Island. Long Island is pretty isolated not only geographically but also culturally. So I grew up in a black and white world. There were a handful of Hispanics and even fewer Asians but for the most part it was black and white.

I was a bit of a geek and hung out with the theater kids. Theater kids are creative and expressive. They express themselves through their hair, their clothing, their speech and their body language. Me being as creative as I am, I’ve always been attracted to self-expression.

One of my classmates had a rainbow of hair colors ranging from blues to greens to pinks. She was what you would consider Goth. I always admired her boldness. I thought it would be great to dye my hair pink. I went through a pink obsession phase in high school. I wore the color every single day; a pink top with a pink belt and pink ballet flats.

One day I asked my mom if I could dye my hair pink, cotton candy pink. She calmly looked up at me and said no you can’t do that. Why not, I responded. And she replied, because you just can’t! I proceeded to tell my mom about my friend at school whose mother allowed her to dye her hair bright colors.

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“Is she white?” my mother asked. I nodded. My mother told me I couldn’t dye my hair because it would mean different things for me. I was so upset I didn’t even ask her to explain further.

That night when I was getting ready to say my prayers with my mother she elaborated on our earlier discussion.

“I can’t allow you to dye your hair a certain color or behave a certain why because people would think you’re ghetto. Life would be harder for you if you’re perceived that way.”

It was at that moment that I realized that in order to be respected in society as a black person I had to work that much harder, do that much more to be perceived as polite. Polite people get jobs. Polite people get opportunities. Polite people are treated well. Life would eventually teach me, that even if I was a polite person that because of the color of my skin being polite wouldn’t be enough.


 

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Ecuadorian Sausage

A few weekends back I decided to give a new restaurant a try instead of defaulting to my usual. Typically, I would indulge in my usual dish of oxtails and plantains. On this particular weekend, I wandered unintentionally into an Ecuadorian restaurant in Jackson Heights. If you walked too fast you would miss it. Such a hole in the wall was this spot that I can’t recall the name.

The ambiance inside was dark and sensual with music blaring out of the speakers on either side of the restaurant. I found a spot in booth in the back. I was secluded but not alone as friendly glances and tips of a hat greeted my sweetly.

“Que te gusta?”

“I’m sorry,” I responded gently, “I don’t speak Spanish.”

“I’m sorry love. What can I get you?” With pen poised she was ready to take my order.

I hadn’t quite gotten the chance to review my menu so I asked for my waitress’ recommendation. I expressed my interest in having something authentically Ecuadorian and I preferred a bit of spice with my meals. That last part came out in a rather corny fashion but my waitress spared me the embarrassment with a generous smile. She assured me I would like the Ecuadorian sausage. I trusted this woman with my life and agreed to the dish.

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After she left I felt a bit vulnerable being a woman on a solo date. I fiddled with my phone and glanced expectantly at the door for a date that would not come. Maybe I’ll spot someone I know. It was after all Jackson Heights; I only lived three train stops away. A familiar face wouldn’t prove that unusual.

“A dance before your meal guapa” spoke a deep, dark voice.

I looked up from my phone, startled. “Excuse me?”

“I said would you like to dance Hermosa?” he extended his hand and at the moment I had remembered music was playing. Despite my heritage I wasn’t the best dance partner and my fear of public humiliation kept me from sexy adventures with strangers.

“Thank you but no thank you,” I said simply.

“Don’t be shy.” He said.

“I’m not shy I just would rather not.”

He asked a bit more forcefully this time as if to demand me of my affections. I politely declined each time recognizing the response of my fellow restaurant patrons.

“Shoo, Ramon!” My waitress arrived with plate in hand. “Can’t you see la mujere isn’t playing your game?”

Ramon retreated. A scolded dog with his tail between his legs. I mouthed a thank you to my waitress and she put my plate down.

“Es delicioso!” She kissed her fingers to her lips. “Mouth-watering.”

And it was. I left no prisoner behind in the war of the plate. I hardly savored the dish before I reconciled with myself to order a to-go plate. The spices, flavors and aromas swirled like the rush of a tornado. The Ecuadorian sausage was exactly as she had said: mouth-watering. The disappointment of the end of my meal was enough to make me cry. Thankfully I kept my composure long enough to order seconds for my midnight “snack’.