This past Fall, I uprooted my comfortable, convenient life as a college student living in Los Angeles to live in Havana, Cuba. I reluctantly left my boyfriend, sisters and besties and in August, I found myself waiting for a charter flight in the Miami airport accompanied by four other curious American college students and one lime green duffle bag with my initials on it. I carried all the money I would need for the semester in hard cash. I had just cut all of my hair off, in a daring decision that even stunned myself. All I knew was that I was to be living with a host family in Vedado, the neighborhood where the University was located.
I had never experienced anticipation in the same way. I felt a similar sensation to the one I felt when I got stuck on the uphill of the roller coaster on the Santa Monica boardwalk when I was ten years old—like I might fall off of the planet entirely and slightly nauseous. I expected discomfort. I expected to “be changed.” I expected to come home with stories to tell my friends over rum and cokes. I thought in some ways I might even feel “enlightened.” But I thought these realizations would be a lot more about the differences in culture and space than discovering truths about myself. I was wrong.
I was never the kind of girl that could breezily connect with her camp counselor. I wasn’t the kid who got swung into the air or put on someone’s shoulders at camp. I never eased my way into a campfire song, and nobody ever made me a lanyard bracelet. Those girls were from Long Island or Connecticut and had moms who only ordered iced tea and bought them hardtail yoga pants for Hannukah. I didn’t know how to talk to them.
Gossiping with the older girls about pre-teen boys or asking them to braid my hair or paint my nails never felt quite right coming out of my mouth — like a puzzle piece that really looks like it fits, and one might even try to squeeze it into the space, but it just isn’t the right piece and never will be. Instead, my words came out sounding a little too enthusiastic yet without enough actual emotion behind it to back it up, so the relationship tended to fall flat. I vividly remember watching the skinny Sarah’s and Alexa’s in their jean shorts holding Counselor “Mimi’s” or “Tammy’s” hand and asking myself: Why can’t I be like that?
What does this have to do with my time in Cuba? I found myself reminded of that thirteen-year-old feeling of being unable to communicate, of being so aware of your being, but so unaware of your place. Like all of the times you’ve walked away from a social situation feeling a full body-cringe and just wanting to hit yourself in the face.
Take my relationship with my host sisters for example. They’re identical twins, fifteen years old — the age that so finely walks the line between kid and adult. The walls of the house are plastered with pictures that they got professionally taken for their quincenera the year before. In the photos, they’re wearing scandalous off-the-shoulder dresses with faces full of makeup; yet at night they make milkshakes from Nestle cartons and hold hands with their dad while they watch telenovelas. They like to dress in matching puma jumpsuits and also in neon tops paired with neon sunglasses. I wanted to connect with them so badly and at times I feel like I did but it wasn’t the same when I didn’t have the words to communicate what I wanted to say half the time.
They liked to make fun of me. They thought it was hilarious when I said “si, si,” and nodded my head along to what they were saying but clearly didn’t understand.
“You never understand,” they liked to say, shaking their heads and laughing.
“Yes I do! Imagine if you were in another country trying to speak English,” I said.
“You’re right,” I said.
They thought my clothes were funny too. One night I was sitting in their room about to go out and they asked me what I was going to wear.
“Just this,” I said and gestured to my dress.
They burst out in laughter.
“You’re going out in that?”
“Yeah what’s wrong with it?”
“You look like a vieja [old woman]”.
One day, they laid out all the clothes in my closet only to find themselves extremely disappointed that almost everything was black. They insisted I borrow one of their shirts. There have been moments where we have really connected: laughing at an overeager contestant while watching “La Banda,” when I helped them with their English homework and they started to understand the present perfect, drinking chocolate milkshakes together at the dulceria.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I often felt like the thirteen-year-old girl I was at camp: trying too hard to connect with people I didn’t have the language to connect with. While JAP and Spanish are two very different languages, I learned that language reflects life and vice versa. I wasn’t simply unable to fully relate to the girls because my Spanish wasn’t good enough, it was that my “Cuban” wasn’t good enough.
I don’t know the pressure of only having one University to go to and never enough spots for students to get in. I don’t live with my grandma, step-grandpa and great-grandma in one apartment. I don’t make my own notebooks for school. I’m not a good salsa dancer. I don’t gel my hair. I learned what these things feel like, but my stay was temporary. Sometimes that made going into their room, lying on their bed and asking them about their day feel forced, fake, like being at camp all over again.