As someone who grew up in the Dominican Republic listening to The Four Seasons, hearing about my father’s alleged adventures at the Woodstock Festival and rooting for Ross and Rachel, I consider myself incorrigibly Americanized. I usually think in English. I look up to Tina Fey. Billy Collins wrote my favorite poem. My high school classmates don’t understand my love for LCD Soundsystem. My parents embargoed my recent attempt to buy a pair of “skinny” jeans (but these jeans are just normal jeans when you are skinny all along!).
Despite my proclivity for Americana, I am no rebel intending to stab the back of my motherland. The fact remains that I’m an island boy, the byproduct of a pseudo-conservative upbringing and misplaced inner defiance — I applied to college abroad in part to escape the comfortable realities of my Caribbean lifestyle. Once at Yale, I thought to myself: “I’m ready for this,” whatever “this” entailed. But then some cultural red flags began to pop up. Wait, is saying the N-word that big of a deal? What do you mean I’m rude? No, the DR is not in Africa — my actual answer to an actual question.
I quickly discovered that real Americans are nothing like Holden Caulfield or the cast of “Family Matters.” Neither bleak nor overly optimistic, the attitudinal gamut of the gringos knows no limits. After a couple of months of being in New Haven, the idiosyncratic underpinnings of our student community proved quite unambiguous. On the other hand, it was also readily obvious from the countless combinations of student subcultures and personal dynamics in such a small campus that American society as a whole is a reservoir of complexity filled with masses of intellectuals, hard workers, kindred spirits and disguised crackpots.
Dominican society, quite contrarily, shines by its simplicity. The people that grew up with me, the friends that I hold dear, and the chums of my chums all form part of this tiny circle within the overall community. Inside this circle, interactions are mostly based on appearances, social strata and last names. If your corrupt father works in government then you consider yourself the last Coca-Cola in the desert. Personality and the thickness of your wallet constitute a disgusting but widely accepted form of merit. If you can somehow add intellect and talent to the equation, va-va-voom! You’re fucking Big Man on Santo Domingo (locally known as BMOSD, “jevito” or “maldito baboso”).
This is what I imply by a “comfortable reality,” one which I acknowledge as part of my life. You can correctly surmise that not all Dominicans are superficial drones, just as I can tell you that many Yalies drive me up the wall with their absurd self-importance (and to them I say, see you in purgatory! Bring pita chips and Boggle). I could list several similarities between the Yale life and my hot little hometown. But that’s the thing. Despite the many extrapolations I’ve made these past three years, Yale is not a microcosm of the United States. Santo Domingo, in many ways, has become a small-scale representation of our entire country, the megalomaniac megalopolis in a nation riddled with disparities.
Halfway done with my gap year in the island, I still maintain the lowest of profiles. Not because I want to avoid lectures on the “selfish and irresponsible” concept of sabbaticals or to shun my friends, but when I decided to take time off, I truly meant it. I have nothing against my own provenance; it just so happens that my time at Yale accounts for my sharper views on my own self and the ills back home.
I am never really consciously aware of the hows and the whys behind this faint transformation. Instead, these changes in my character are never more noticeable than when I watch “Jeopardy!” with my family now, never more alienating than when hanging out with pals at the latest Dominican club du jour.