Monday, April 15, 2013

Commentary on Poem by Noy Chou "You Have to Live in Somebody Else's Country to Understand”


Purchase above book at: Biblivault

What is it like to be an outsider? 
What is it like to sit in the class where everyone has blond hair and you have black hair? 
What is it like when the teacher says, "Whoever wasn't born here raise your hand." 
And you are the only one. 
Then, when you raise your hand, everybody looks at you and makes fun of you. 

You have to live in somebody else's country to understand. 

What is it like when the teacher treats you like you've been here all your life? 

What is it like when the teacher speaks too fast and you are the only one who can't understand what he or she is saving, and you try to tell him or her to slow down. 
Then when you do, everybody says, "If you don't understand, go to a lower class or get lost." 

You have to live in somebody else's country to understand. 

What is it like when you are an opposite? 

When you wear the clothes of your country and they think you are crazy to wear these clothes and you think they are pretty. 

You have to live in somebody else's country to understand. 

What is it like when you are always a loser? 

What is it like when somebody bothers you when you do nothing to them? 
You tell them to stop but they tell you that they didn't do anything to you. 
Then, when they keep doing it until you can't stand it any longer, you go up to the teacher and tell him or her to tell them to stop bothering you. 
They say that they didn't do anything to bother you. 
Then the teacher asks the person sitting next to you. 
He says, "Yes, she didn't do anything to her" and you have no witness to turn to. 
So the teacher thinks you are a liar. 

You have to live in somebody else's country to understand. 

What is it like when you try to talk and you don't pronounce the words right? 

They don't understand you. 
They laugh at you but you don't know that they are laughing at you, and you start to laugh with them. 
They say, "Are you crazy, laughing at yourself? Go get lost, girl." 
You have to live in somebody else's country without a language to understand. 
What is it like when you walk in the street and everybody turns around to look at you and you don't know that they are looking at you. 
Then, when you find out, you want to hide your face but you don't know where to hide because they are everywhere. 

You have to live in somebody else's country to feel it.

Written by Noy Chou

***Published in 1986 by the Anti-Defamation League for the "A World of Difference" project.


I migrated to this country 2 years after this poem was written at the age of twenty-three. I'm now 50 years old and reading this poem still wrenches at something deep in my gut. My eyes linger on each word as if to imprint and embed them deep into the inner recesses of my mind and soul. I cannot stop reading it because it feels as if the words and the spaces in between are transmitting something that is so powerful and meaningful I feel filled up to the brim from its message. 

The poem speaks to me personally, my life as an immigrant and the many changes I had to go through, sometimes reject and accept, in order to keep moving forward.  To live my life in this country I had to fully embrace a new mindset and a new life style in order to understand and deal with the many choices presented. The poem stresses the courage and resilience of people like myself (outsiders) who have embraced a new status quo in order to make it through. Living as an immigrant in this country and raising a child in a family where one or both parents are immigrants' calls for determination  and resolve because you have to try to see things from the inside out and from the outside in at all times.  In other words an immigrant has to be flexible and be willing to evolve in order to thrive. They have to be willing to fall and get back up: to fail and see the upside of failing.

When I first entered this country I lived in the Bedfordstyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York where I connected to a vibrant West Indian community. Until then most of my life was spent in Barbados, West Indies where I spent most of my days in the sun and enjoying island life. My upbringing was difficult and traumatic but I was surrounded with people who looked like me and a culture that reinforced the belief that I could do anything I dreamed of doing as long as I became educated and worked hard. I saw people in powerful and leadership positions who looked like me. Life in Barbados prepared me to empathize and understand other people and cultures.

Living in my West Indian neighborhood in New York allowed me to continue buying and eating the foods I was accustomed to, but as the years passed by and I moved away from the inner cities and lived in the suburbs, I had to make even more adjustments to my lifestyle.  The further one travels away from the urban areas, as a black person, one finds the foods, clothes, hairstyles etc that you love are  not easy to come by. Adjustments had to be made on all levels internally and externally. The further you travel outside of urban areas the more of an outsider you become.  One of the major changes I had to make was relinquishing my love for eating most of my food with gravy and with my favorite hot sauces.  The hot sauce mostly available during those days was Tabasco. My diet became bland, my attire less colorful and more practical and comfortable. I found it harder and harder to explain the changes to my family back home because they were not living in America and could not understand my everyday life and struggles.

People made fun of my accent: of the fact that I had more than one job. Some assumed that my natural dreadlocked hairdo was a wig or that I did not wash it.  Many did not know where Barbados was or even about the history of the Caribbean and if you so much as complained about life here in the USA they were quick to say, "if you do not like living here go back home!" Even when I was the only black person in a room with an accent like mine I held on to sliver of the umbilical cord, which kept me connected to my culture and my home.

Noy Chou reached out with this poem and its words still vibrate in powerful and impactful ways.  The poem has been used in lesson plans in schools and elsewhere to help bridge differences, promote tolerance and understanding.  This poem speaks to spirit.  It is a primordial scream that resonates on every level of one’s psyche.  It demands one look inward and outward at the same time; it demands that the insider hear what the outsider is saying and feeling and at the same time asks for compassion, civility and justice even as it communicates a righteous and indignant anger that cannot be ignored or underestimated.  

See Cheryl's Memoir excerpt: "Turning 50 Is a Bitch"
See Cheryl's Greeting Cards and Art at: FineArt
See Cheryl's 13 year-old daughter's Artwork at: AmaSepiaChan

Please feel free to leave a comment below. It would be very much appreciated if you share your thoughts

No comments:

Post a Comment