It is 10:30 a.m. and already the Stuyvesant Town playground is filled with children. A woman leans forward into a baby carriage and coos, “Why are you crying?” She sniffs the diaper. “No stinky,” she declares, “What are you fussing about, your teeth coming out?”
Lilian is a nanny, part of an estimated 200,000 domestics employed in New York City. With her smooth, chocolate-brown complexion and voluminous afro gathered in a high bun, she appears no different from any African American woman living in the city – except her accent. She speaks as she is a tropical songbird, rolling her r’s and overstretches her vowels, adding an exotic musicality to her speech. Is it because she comes from Paramaribo, Suriname? Is it because she speaks taki taki, a creole language that mixes English and Dutch, back home? Lilian laughs and explains that when she speaks taki taki, she sounds like she is speaking broken English.
Friendly and talkative, Lilian is as warm as the weather back home. As she recounts her journey – she arrived in New York in 1991, two days before Christmas – she spins a tale of love, marriage, children, and work. She has been here for over twenty years, and she misses home. One day, she vows, one day she will return to her country and climb a mango tree.
Q. Where are you from?
Suriname, South America. It is next to French Guiana and Brazil. I love my country because it’s warm. You need only one kind of clothes.
Q. When did you come to the United States?
Twenty-two years ago. I came with an airplane…
Q. Why did you come?
I came because of my boyfriend. He was here and he asked me to come. You see, when you are young, you don’t see certain things. When you in love, it’s like, you losing your head. My mom spoke to me, “You want to do that?” and I was like, “Yeah!”
Q. Did your husband have a visa? Did you?
My husband was like the 12th kid, half of his family was here. I first came here on a tourist visa. Then he got sponsored, his twin sister is citizen. And then I married him, so I get [citizenship] automatically.
Q. What was your first year like? Was it hard?
The first year I had sickness, I want to go back. I was cold. I was struggling with the language. Here people don’t understand me. But [I stayed] just because I loved my boyfriend so much.
Q. You came for love, but was it what you had expected?
At home l used to live with my mom even when I had a boyfriend. My boyfriend would come over. I see it now that visiting and living together is very different.
Q. Where did you live?
I lived in Brooklyn for years. Then I moved to Queens.
Q. Did you work as a nanny in the beginning?
Yes, when I was in Brooklyn I used to live with the people, I lived there from Monday to Friday. I used to come home Saturday and go back Monday.
Q. You didn’t see your boyfriend often, was it hard?
We didn’t see each other for the whole week. But when you come here, you just want to work, you needed the money.
Q. How long did you stay for your first job?
I quit when I got pregnant with my eldest son. You see I used to take care of four kids. They were very young – four, three, and a twin, and one was crippled. I don’t wanna pick up no child with my pregnancy.
When my eldest son was five, I started working in this neighborhood [Stuyvesant Town].
Q. When did you marry?
I got married because I turned Christian. My pastor spoke to me and told me it was a sin not to get marry so we got married in 1989. I have two sons, a nineteen-year-old and a ten-year-old.
Q. Would you tell me a little more about Suriname?
Over there you can buy a house with a yard, and you don’t pay taxes. Back home in my country if you have money you can live. A lot of people they live better than how I live here. You should see the houses we have back home. You know, I was a teacher back home.
Q. Why didn’t you want to be a teacher here?
I don’t want to be a teacher here because I don’t like the system. Over here, if you raise your voice to a child, you’ll be in trouble. That’s why I’d rather babysit here with one or two kids and not deal with twenty-two kids in a classroom.
Q. What, in your opinion, is wrong with the kids raised here?
I think it is much better raising kids back home. Over here, the kids have no respect because the government supports them, you know. If your mom hits you, you call 911. Back home we have no thing like that, if you were bad, I give you a lick!
Q. Have you ever “licked” your children?
Yes, my kids are very respectful because I raise them up the way I was raised up back home. I know I live here, and I am not abusing my kids, but once in a time I am going to say, I believe in licking.
Q. How long were you a teacher?
I was twenty six when I left. I didn’t teach very long, I did not marry yet, I got married here. My boyfriend came over here and he told me to come, and when you love somebody, you go. So I came… I don’t have any relatives here, all my relatives are back home, only my in-laws…
Q. What about your husband, what does he do?
He has a good job. He drives truck.
Q. After all these years, do you think you made the right decision coming here?
Sometimes I still get fed up with him. I think when you are in a relationship you need to be patient. And sometimes when you have kids, you can’t be like, I am mad I am going to walk out. I have my ups and downs, but I think every couple has their ups and downs.
Q. Do you see New York as home? Would you choose to go back?
When I hear about America, I thought it was nice and clean. But I came here and I saw America is only a name… we don’t have big buildings like that, everybody has their own house, own yard… I have to get used to a lot of things.
Back home we had a good time. Here we just work and work and work, and pay the bill. I tell you, back home you finish work you take nap. Here you can’t take nap. You shower and sleep and go back to work the next morning.
You know what I love about Suriname, you have big fruit trees. You just go in the tree and eat your fruits for free. Go in a mango tree, sit, and eat big juicy fruits and have your lunch there…