Month: June 2012

Fashion Revisited

So I guess I offended a few people with that last post.  Sorry I didn’t know that your kulots and crocs were so sacred.  But I also had some people ask the positive advice of what should be worn in Haiti on a short term trip.  So here’s my response.

The number one thing that you need to pack when coming to Haiti is a sense of humor!  You’ve got every right to break any of my previous fashion rules, but if you do, be prepared to respond to any criticism with a light heart.  If some Haitian says, “Why have you been wearing the same pair of baggy shorts all week?”  You look them straight in the face and say, “It’s because I used up all of the space in my suitcases to pack medicines to save the lives of your children!  So get off my back!”  Or if some young Haitian punk asks you why you’re wearing such ugly work boots that should only be used in situations of 2-foot deep mud, don’t hesitate to tell him “These boots are so I can kick the crap out of you whenever you get mouthy!  Now shut up and help me build this house for your mama!” 

The truth is that you may never even hear the criticisms from the Haitians if you don’t speak their language or have built enough trust with them for them to be completely honest with you, but believe me, they’re thinking it.  And when they do verbalize their disapproval of your appearance, they can be ruthless.  I have heard such harsh comments from Haitians directed towards foreign visitors as, “She’s so ugly she looks like instead of being born, she just popped out when a zombie farted!”  or “Her head looks like a donkey just threw up on her shoulders.”  Or, as one commenter pointed out after my last post, “How come he smells like a big white cockroach? ”  Haitians also tend to exaggerate everything and make their words as dramatic as possible, but this doesn’t mean that their offensive judgements have no basis.  These comments weren’t made about necessarily unattractive people, but people who greatly misjudged the importance of looking decent.  I could show photos of these same people from Facebook to the same Haitians who said such things and they would say that they are beautiful, desirable, wonderful looking folk.  But make one poor fashion choice and you become donkey vomit. 

At the same time, you don’t have to be a supermodel to get a genuine complement from a Haitian either.  You just have to care.  A little self esteem goes a long ways and it shows through it the way you dress and there’s nothing more beautiful to a Haitian than confidence and a friendly smile.  No matter what you decide to wear, as long as you know you look good in it, then chances are that Haitians will think you look good too.  But if you just put on something because it’s comfy, or it can get dirty, or because you don’t want to attract any attention, then you’ve chosen your outfit for the wrong reasons and it will have an impact on your interactions with the Haitians that you intend to serve.

So, what about the t-shirts?  I can’t seriously condemn the use of matching t-shirts 100% can I?  No, I don’t.  I am actually completely in favor of well designed group t-shirts in appropriate situations, but they must come with their own set of rules.  First of all, PLEASE do not wear them in the airports.  Do not come marching into or out of the country wearing them like some sort of army.  With cell phones these days there is absolutely no reason why this would be necessary.  However, your team may decide that you want t-shirts for use when you are giving programs in your home country about your experience or even while you are in Haiti for any sort of larger program that you may be involved in.  But in these cases, please make sure that the t-shirt is well designed, of a subtle color (for heaven’s sake NO TIE-DYE), and don’t include any stupid slogans.  I would suggest that if your team does decide they want matching t-shirts it is best to ask your hosting organization if they have any t-shirts that you could buy from them.  These t-shirts are usually more professionally designed and include the organization’s logo and name.  To be seen in a t-shirt such as this can actually be an automatic source of respect from the Haitians in your community who already recognize the organization and know what they stand for.  Also, please if you are going to have matching t-shirts, buy enough extras for the Haitians who will be working with you from the start, don’t just leave yours behind for them afterwords. 

I know it may seem silly, and superficial, and shallow, to make such a big deal out of fashion when there are so many other very serious issues to worry about in this place.  But the truth is that so much of what we wear as foreigners to Haiti are just outer representations of much deeper misunderstandings that many still hold about this place and its people.  So, what I’m really trying to say with all of my fashion advice is not just to change your outfit, but change your attitude.  In the end that’s what’s really going to make the difference.