I frequently speak with groups of people in the planning stages of mission trips to Haiti and there’s always at least one person in the group who doesn’t know me and has never read the blog, who will ask the question, “What about clothes? What should we wear in Haiti?” And no, in such situations I do not rattle off my Top 10 Mistakes, but do try to give reasonable, easy-to-follow suggestions on what they should pack to wear that will be appropriate for their specific mission. “Just be yourself,” I usually say, “Wear things that make you feel good about yourself and the Haitians around you will respond positively to your presence as well.” But I still usually feel like my point hasn’t really gotten across and get the impression that the questioners are looking for a utilitarian list of dos and don’ts. So after several of these interactions during my recent trip to the States, I found a new way to illustrate my advice.
Think about yourself as going on a first date with Haiti. You’ve heard about Haiti maybe through the internet, or through shared acquaintences that introduced the two of you, and you’ve decided that you wanted to get to know him better. You’re able to land a date with him and are really excited but you want to make the right impression. No matter how much your heart has feelings for Haiti, you know that you can’t show up in just any outfit. You want to impress him but you don’t want to look overzealous and overdo it either. You want to look your absolute best but you also want to keep it casual because you don’t want him thinking that you’re trying too hard. You have no idea what his intentions are but you simply want him to see you as attractive enough to want to get to know you better and possibly pursue a relationship. But you remain confident that if he is interested in a relationship it will be based on who you truly are so you want to be authentic in your clothing choice. Just be yourself, but the best version of yourself. You are really interested in Haiti and you would be so thrilled if he gave you a great compliment on your style that first date, but you’d be crushed if you found out from your friend later that he really liked you but thought your shoes were ugly. So you remain very conscious of your style choices, but don’t worry to the point of it creating a false impression.
You know enough about Haiti to know that he won’t be taking you out anywhere fancy, probably just a casual dinner at a chain restaurant and maybe a walk in the park afterwards. So you wear sensible shoes, but not the dirty tennies that you wear for your morning jog. A nice shirt that’s not overly embellished, but not something as casual as a t-shirt which would make you look sloppy. Your favorite pair of jeans or pants, or a skirt to show off your legs, but not anything with too many pockets that might make it look like you’re stashing away leftovers from dinner for your camping trip over the weekend. You do your hair and put on a little make-up, just enough that you don’t look like you just rolled out of bed, but not so much that you look like a drag queen on her way home from the rave. You know that Haiti sees enough of them in his everyday life and you would like him to see that you’re a bit classier and more modest, someone with an education and interesting views.
If you make a good enough first impression, you’ll get the chance to get to know each other better, with each encounter getting more and more comfortable with the each other to where you don’t have to worry about what you wear at all. But if you make a bad first impression, Haiti’s not going to be interested in seeing you more or getting to know who you really are. If you don’t peak his interest from the first time he sees you, he’s never going to get to know your heart or all of the good intentions that lie within in. He’s never going to care about all of your good ideas or your interesting talents or how your relationship with him could actually help him improve himself just as he could help you improve yourself as well. You know that Haiti is a guy that sees a fun personality, caring heart, and strong spirit as important, but you also know that he’s not blind. You’ve got to show him that you’ve got the whole package from the start and care enough about yourself and respect him enough that you put some thought into your appearance. Not because you’re vain, but because you know he enjoys it and because you feel better when you look good. And when you feel better about yourself and appear approachable to others, you will be more effective at building that relationship that you’re after.
So, I know it might sound silly, but next time you’re packing for a trip to Haiti, or any other place where you intend to be in service to a different community or culture, think of yourself as preparing for a first date with them and see how it changes what you might pack. If you do it well enough you might just end up starting a relationship in which you end up growing old together despite all of your fashion hits and misses and can even laugh at each other in your underwear knowing so much about one another that none of it matters.