As someone who was raised 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 am 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 empathize with 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, I had accrued the tools to face it. But then some cultural red flags began to pop up. Wait, is recycling that big of a deal? What do you mean I’m too frank? 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 behavioral gamut of the gringos knows no limits. After a couple of months in New Haven, the personalities within our community became quite distinguishable. It was also readily obvious, even from the countless permutations of student subcultures and relationships in such a small campus, that American society as a whole is a complex reservoir 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 a hermetic circle. Among this crowd, interactions are mostly based on appearances, social strata and last names. If your corrupt father works for the government then you consider yourself the last Coca-Cola in the desert. The thickness of your wallet represents a vile but widely accepted form of merit. If you can somehow add intellect and talent to the equation, then presto! You’re Big Man in Santo Domingo (locally known as BMISD, “jevito” or “maldito baboso”).
This is what I imply by a “comfortable reality,” one which I know was an integral part of my upbringing. 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 catalog every overlap between the Yale life and the one I lead back in my hot little hometown. But despite the many extrapolations I’ve made these past three years, Yale is not a microcosm of the United States. Santo Domingo, on the other hand, could easily constitute the definitive diorama 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 shun my acquaintances or avoid lectures on the “selfish and irresponsible” concept of downtime, but because when I decided to take time off, I truly meant it. Time away from the cocoons I’ve entered or erected. I have nothing against my origins, that place I love. I have only grown more prudent, less forgiving, sharpening my views of self and the ills back home.
I am not really aware of the hows and the whys behind this faint transformation. Instead, the changes in character are never more noticeable than when I watch “Jeopardy!” with my family now, never more alienating than when I grab a beer at the latest Dominican club du jour.