"So where are you from?"
"Oh, Illinois, where is that?"
"Ooooh, Chicago! Ok. And how long have you been here?"
"2 and half months"
"O really, and what have you liked most and least so far?"
And here is where I draw a blank. I stutter, stumble and splutter, my mind racing a thousand miles a minute while my tongue ties itself in knots.
"Ummm...I like....ummm....plaintains?" I eventually stammer out, drawing strange looks from my new acquaintance, as my cheeks turn a nice rosy shade and I pathetically try to change the topic.
The truth is, that question makes me uncomfortable. Not because I don't want to discuss my personal opinions or feelings (although I've never been the mushy, gushy, let's-talk-about-how-this-makes-us-feel type), but simply because I don't want to judge. I would like to understand the culture, and hopefully, learn from it, and that can be nearly impossible to do if I am constantly comparing it to my own ideas about how a culture should think/behave/believe. So I've made a pretty concentrated effort to simply experience the culture, and haven't taken much time to analyze it (hence the stammering and loss of words). But since it seems that most Dominicans are curious what a young American girl who uprooted herself and plopped down on their island has to think (as I get asked this question all.the.time.), and since I would like to spare myself further mortifying embarrassment, its probably time to start pinning down and organizing my thoughts on the topic.
So, without further ado, my personal observations on Dominican culture thus far: The good, the bad, and the ugly.
(please note that I do not wish to generalize or stereotype any aspect of Dominican culture. These are my personal observations and none holds true all the time. There are always exceptions.)
1. First of all, its a very a loving culture. People are super friendly. Everyone (your waitress, the cashier, the random person you ask for directions on the street) calls you "my love", "precious", "beautiful," "my queen," "princess." These are just not names we use with strangers in the U.S. In fact, I would probably laugh at any man or woman who called me "princess" in the States. But here I find it endearing. Who doesn't want to hear themselves be called beautiful every day after all? And I can't walk to school without being greeted by at least 10 different people. I've even started getting to know a few of the regulars along my path. Not to mention, everyone is always blessing me. Literally. Its apparently common to say "Qué Dios le bendiga" (May God bless you) as you are passing by someone on the street, which I find to be an especially nice sentiment.
4. It can be a very superficial culture. Money and appearance count for a lot here. When you walk out your door in the morning, you should be looking your best. Sweat pants to school? Unheard of. When you go out at night, its to see and be seen. If you've got money, flaunt it. That seems to be the name of the game here. And if you don´t appear affluent (wear the right clothes, drive the right car), well, you will be judged. Just the other night I went to a bar wearing flip flips and quickly realized that there was no way they were going to let me in since I wasn´t dressed to impress (this wasn´t a night club, mind you, it was just a bar.) One of my guy friends who drives a motorcycle commented that he had trouble with Dominican women because he didn´t own a car (even though he was perfectly capable of purchasing one). Here in the D.R., a motorcycle is a form of transportation for those of a lower class who can´t afford to buy an automobile. This also explains why a rich older man can have a 20-something girl on his arm and nobody thinks anything of it. Money= Desire and Money= Power. I suppose this aspect of Dominican culture probably is not that much different from certain parts of the U.S., but maybe I'm just more aware of the way money is treated here because I don't have any!
5. On the downside, the culture can be very critical. There may come a point when you realize that all of the niceties are a mere formality; a point when you understand that sometimes, there is no meaning behind the words, no love behind the gestures. That really, you are constantly being evaluated- the way you look, the way you dress, the way you behave. True acceptance is hard to come by. And those things you thought were signs of caring earlier, may really just be a front, an easy way to disguise one's true feelings. It can make for a society that, at times, feels very two-faced. Making it much easier to be deceiving, and all that much harder to differentiate who truly cares about you, and who is just pretending. You have to be careful.
"Test all things; hold fast that which is good" one of my favorite quotes and one that I certainly try to apply while living here. Dominican culture, like all cultures throughout the world, has its good and bad aspects. I just want to find the good and hold onto it.
So don't be surprised when you see me back in the States and I greet you with two kisses on the cheek ;)