I once believed Princeton was the home of the successful. Toni Morrison chose to teach students at Princeton before her teaching retirement in 2012. Michelle Obama cultivated her intelligent analysis of the world at Princeton. John Nash received his doctorate at Princeton, the only place that accepted him when everyone else thought he was crazy. People became something at Princeton. I didn’t see the people I wanted to be around me. Naturally, I thought Princeton would be a place where I would become my aspirations. But first I needed to leave home before I could get anywhere.
I grew up thinking location was associated with level of success because that was what I saw around me. The people with the nice cars lived in Boca Raton. The people who always had parties lived in Miami. I grew up in Coconut Creek, Florida, a town that epitomizes the modern suburban lifestyle, between Boca and Miami. Nothing seemed to be happening in this town in between places. Leaving felt like the only way I could truly live. A Princeton education felt like the perfect escape.
While I was completing my undergraduate degree at Princeton, my mother and father moved away from my hometown. My father returned to Haiti, where both my parents were born and raised. My mother moved to Tampa, a good five-to-six-hour car ride north of my hometown. I craved neither of these places, and the homesickness remained. Haiti didn’t have my local park, strip mall, grocery store, or even the Walmart that made me feel nauseous with desire. Tampa didn’t have any familiar faces. I didn’t feel homeless, but I did feel like I had less home . I wondered how I came to the point of romanticizing a home I could not even identify, and what the implications of that were.
In Haiti, I am a stranger and Haiti is a stranger to me. I felt it immediately after getting off the airplane. The air was humid, much like my Floridian home, but colored with an idiosyncratic scent that smelled like my grandmother’s perfume and my uncle’s lunch. I always associated these scents with Haiti because after a long visit from either family member, the lingering smell reminded me of their home there. The roads were the domain of pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists, all fighting to see who could be victor over any little space that opened to get them closer to their destination. There is a particular dress code in Haiti that is defined by self-conscious sophistication. You don’t have to look fancy, but you do have to look put together. Most women and men wear polo or button-down shirts with jeans or khaki pants. Kids walk around in beautiful school uniforms. Everything is ironed to perfection. As I learned the hard way, there was no quickly slipping on shorts and a T-shirt for a quick errand.
Having been in Haiti for several months, my father pointed out the streets and landmarks for their past and present implications. He’d say things like, “This was where my best friend lived. Now he lives a couple streets up there where I take a shortcut to work.” As a returnee, I could see he was still balancing between Haiti being the place of memory and Haiti as the place of current residency.
At a dinner party, my father talked to friends who had never left. They were shocked that he returned and surprised by his perspective on the country. Fragments of my father’s fantasized stories of Haiti remain in his consciousness, and he still believes he is “one of the people.” I wonder if that is how everyone sounds when they return home, spewing epithets that someone who had only read a brochure of the country would say: “The sea breeze at night feels perfect after a long day around town.”
Those brochure epithets felt similar to some conversations I had with a good friend from university. My friend Ola has lived in eight countries. Ola defines home as where she fits in and where her name is pronounced with ease. I imagine that with as many countries as Ola has resided, being able to blend in is an important part of being comfortable and therefore being home. In the context of “blending in,” America is my home. I have the accent, the mannerisms, and the cultural knowledge. In Haiti, my belonging only functions from a distance. The moment someone sees the way I walk, the way I dress, and the way I talk, I am immediately identified as an American transplant.
I remembered many of my conversations with Ola in which we imagined going back to our “motherlands” and helping our people. In a way, this is how I interpret my father’s perception of his returnee status.
When my father first broke the news of his return, I felt he was a little too excited about moving back. His stories about Haiti seemed like fabrications to keep him from feeling isolated when he didn’t feel like he belonged in America. My musings proved wrong. In Haiti, my father was easily able to distinguish between his desires for Haiti and the reality. He never hid the source of the more unsightly aspects of the country, such as rubble as a product of poor management rather than the earthquake. More importantly, my father fit into Haiti’s landscape well. Few people truly seemed to question his long absence from the country and my father preferred that he be recognized for his Haitian-ness, rather than his acquired American-ness.
For me belonging is not so much about location, but that seamless integration with an environment. It’s the difference between being the main subject in a scene and being a part of the backdrop. In Haiti I am the main subject. I am the thing that does not belong. I draw attention even when I don’t want to.
The real question is who determines where we belong? In Florida, I always felt like an outsider, but that could also just have been a side effect of being an angsty teenager. I grew up in one of the new suburban neighborhoods that popped up during the development boom in the ’80s. Despite living in Broward County, almost every weekend we were in Dade, either visiting family or enjoying the events they’d have for the Haitian American community. I was familiar with nearly every Haitian restaurant in the area and knew which Catholic churches had Creole services. Even though I found myself knowing so many different parts of Florida, I felt trapped. Mentally, I couldn’t imagine being who I wanted to be in Florida.
Some nights I have dreams about never having left Florida. That my whole life is contained in a two-hundred-mile radius of where I was born. I would be the one giving advice to newcomers on the best shortcuts or healthcare providers. I would scoff at “snowbirds” traveling from their pathetic frigid areas to the warmth of the south. I would know that the large imposing mall everyone visits was once a field of private land that teenagers would use to hang out and play games.
And even further back, I think about if my father never left. I imagine growing up fully Haitian, where my physical features are more representative of a region in Haiti as opposed to representing the whole country. Where I am the one staring at American transplants who are struggling to fit in, despite their ancestral connection to the country. Where I am driving down Delmas knowing when to brake and when to gas up, never worrying about hitting the brave pedestrians.
I understand that, fundamentally, migration—both domestic and international—is a privilege. Having “less home” may be more indicative of an economic status than it is of a personal pain. Most immigrant stories are colored by the underlying sentiment that migrants are leaving for “better opportunities.” That once arriving in a richer or safer place, home simply serves to explain some cultural origins. However, my father’s whole characterization of “ home ” challenges that narrative. Home is more than just a place where we come from, it is a part of us. And the longer we distance ourselves from home, the less complete we are.
Some people are able to complete themselves with another home. I have seen many friends completely invest themselves in New York City living, never once suggesting that they want to make it elsewhere. I think of refugees, whose home may mean something more dangerous than mines and may also be impossible to return to. Yet I realize that a part of me never wants to declare another place home.
It wasn’t long after moving to New Jersey that all the things I idolized about Princeton started crumbling away. I didn’t feel like I was becoming my aspirations, I was simply becoming an adult. The inconsistent weather, unreliable public transportation, and annoying property taxes are things I am likely to complain about. A piling of grievances that hide my real pain. It is not New Jersey that keeps me from calling it home, but my own resentment. I resent the fact, that unlike many of my friends, I do not live where close family members are simply a car ride away. I didn’t know that would be an issue until I found myself feeling isolated and alone.
And it is my resentment that is holding me back. The resentment that I wasn’t forced to make a decision to stay home, to love home before it was no longer mine. A close friend from home, Stephanie, was forced to make that decision. When I heard about the issues complicating her ability to finish university, I pitied her. Now she tells me, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
In a way, my friend’s satisfaction with being home also spoke to the fact that my romanticization of home is legitimate. I began to feel more comfortable with my homesickness. In a way, homesickness is grief. My homesickness was more than wanting to go back home. It was grief that the home I once had was lost. I was idealizing it, because like all things lost, we appreciate it more when it is gone. I am now in a space of limbo, not only in understanding where home is, but in understanding who I am. Because I have less home, I am forced to move forward and never look back. And having less home isn’t a bad thing, but a space of opportunity. I can explore my relationships to Haiti, Florida, New Jersey, and America, while developing a clearer perception of myself.
After returning to Jersey from Haiti in December, I decided to do a mass clean-up. I live a mere five minutes from my undergraduate campus in an unassuming apartment above a salon. I moved in because it was close to a job I would soon resign from in the fall of 2016. The resignation broke me in a way that I had not anticipated. The chaos of my room represented that damage.
While filing through my closet, I came across my graduation outfits. Suddenly I remembered: I had the great fortune to graduate from Princeton in 2016. New Jersey was a home of choice, the choice of opportunity. Getting an acceptance letter was the key that whispered “It’s time for you to go.” And for the first time in a long time, I slept in New Jersey with the comfort of knowing that my next home could be just another opportunity away.