Photos by Hannah Cranford
By Hannah Cranford
El Candelon, D.R. — I know Americans are strange. I have not gone my entire life just believing that my culture is the normal one.
I understand that as a United States citizen, I have innate habits and ideals that make me different from the rest of the world. After travel, I have always reflected on differences within the cultures and noted the aspects of each. However, I have never been so affected by a cultural immersion as I am in life today.
I am a brand new health volunteer living in a pinprick-sized rural town in the beautiful Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. I have six months in country, and I will continue to work in my community until October of 2016. Already, I have lived in the capital city, a pueblo, and now, a tiny campo. I have learned to speak Spanish, to make a sancocho, and to dance bachata.
One can definitely say that I have integrated, although, I am as much a gringa as ever. As an American, volunteering through an American organization, I was put through rigorous, but inspiring training for my position. I was filled with so much excitement and enthusiasm. I felt as though I was going out to make leaps and bounds for world peace and development with my own bare hands.
My organization gave me specific goals to reach with names like, “minimum number of individuals affected” and “total members showing competence.” They loaded my bags down with manuals, forms, and guide books, and they sent me off, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to get to work. However, I soon realized that this type of combined over-motivation and quota aspiration was just another eccentric American-ism that doesn’t quite translate.
As Americans, we are determined. We have master’s degrees in multi-tasking. We are always punctual. We define our success in life by numbers, profit and money. We never sit down, we never stop, and we NEVER smell the roses.
There’s no time for that nonsense. We are the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. We are expected to always be plotting, perusing, and persevering. There’s always the craving for more, we are never satisfied by mediocre, and we want to change the world! I’ve never been prouder of my country than I am today. However, being enveloped into a whole new culture has made me understand my cultural strengths and flaws. This has inspired my ever-continuing personal growth to share these strengths and acquire new cultural habits.
As a Dominican, family is everything. And family isn’t just the blood relations. This also includes the entire neighborhood, the corner colmado owner, the school bus driver, the school teacher, and the man who brings you your gallons of filtered water.
Dominicans absolutely always greet one another; even strangers act as if they’re seeing a long-time friend. They have the niceness of “Southern Hospitality,” but times ten. If a visitor arrives, they are immediately offered a seat, a beverage, and a snack. It doesn’t matter how soon they may be leaving or if they just ate. These offers are expected to be accepted.
During meal times, food is always served to any and every one who is in or around the home. Rarely do they accept the answer, “no.” Multiple times, I have met Dominicans on the bus or sitting on a bench, talked to them for five minutes, and then been invited to their niece’s son’s birthday party, next Saturday, two towns over, where you’ll, of course, be fed and housed for the night, if needed. And they’re SERIOUS.
Dominicans also share absolutely everything. You would never buy an eighteen ounce soda without splitting it between you and five of your friends. Whether it’s snacks, tools, pencils, soap, gasoline, clothes, or the flu, none are truly yours. They are shared by you and all those around you. The only true concern in life as a Dominican is just to make sure your family is healthy and happy, and that they grow up to have healthy and happy families of their own. However, this beautiful sentiment comes with its negatives.
Dominicans live day to day solely searching for the next source of entertainment, the next thing to make them happy. This involves spending a lot of time sitting around in plastic chairs on front porches, sipping coffee, playing dominos, and chatting with the neighbors.
There is very little of what us Americans would define as “work.” Things get done, eventually, but not in American-time. In the Dominican Republic, the age-old saying of, “Time is money,” just doesn’t translate. There’s nothing more superfluous than time. There’s always tomorrow. There are no dates, schedules, or hours of operation because that doesn’t matter. If a job directly affects the health or happiness of family, friends, or the farm, it may be completed slightly faster. For example, the cows are milked, the rice is cooked, and the floor is mopped every day. However, construction, renovation, and development creep forward at a snail’s pace.
Additionally, Dominicans are much more affected by the elements. This is, in part, because they live physically closer to them. For instance, being nearer to the equator, the sun beats down with more strength making it practically impossible to work or even leave the house at midday. Also, the housing and vehicles are rudimentary and are not built to withstand heavy wind or rain. If there are hints of rainclouds, everyone must stay home no matter what may have been scheduled that day.
This relaxed view of life took me by surprise at first. I felt as if they were wasting every day of their lives doing nothing. Why couldn’t they realize their productive potential? Then I woke up.
I am the one who is out of place here. I am the one who has been taught to believe that every second spent unproductively is an unjustifiable waste of life.
I am the one who’s strange. Yes, I would love for my work here to be monumental, two years of building hospitals and completely eradicating disease. However, this world moves much slower than I do. Instead of being frustrated, I have decided to embrace new ideals.
Life isn’t all about industry and profit. Life is about family, friends, and happiness. People always say these things, but Dominicans actually live this way.
Dominicans are now teaching me how to relax, how to be content, how to enjoy, and how to do absolutely nothing and smile about it. They have made me remember how important my family is to me and how crucial it is to surround oneself with wonderful people you can count on. I now understand the spirit of a community, and that every single one of us is a beautiful part of this wonderful world and should be treated as such.
After only living here for six months, I already know I want to instill their sincere, welcoming, and loving nature in me and take it with me wherever I go in the future, spreading their cultural beauty as far as I can reach and hopefully, every day, becoming a little less strange.
Have you visited the Dominican Republic? How was your experience? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.Follow @hancrann