Learning the Cuban Way

by Daisy Villegas

Being in Cuba is unlike being in any other Latin American country. I learned this faster than I could sweat. The first week challenged me in ways that I never anticipated. Aside from the unavoidable difficulties of adjusting to the heat and finding drinkable water, I was struck by how lost I felt with finding the right words and the socially acceptable way of behaving around Cubans. In America, it is not unusual to merely introduce oneself to a stranger and move on (no need to go out of one’s way). In Cuba, people are warm and friendly. They don’t merely shake hands. They exchange a kiss on the cheek, polite words, and strong eye contact. Never had I had to greet strangers with such warmth before. In spite of my experiences as a Latina, learning the Cuban way was like learning how to walk.

Even my Spanish couldn’t save me from the fast pace of barrio slang that many local Cubans use to communicate with each other. Studying abroad in any country often necessitates small risks, such as stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Studying abroad in Cuba, however, often requires a little gumption. Learning the Cuban way of making small talk, greeting people, and listening are Cuban neighborhoodall great skills that I have come to appreciate. Picking up Cuban words, such as terms of endearment, and greeting Cubans attentively are all aspects that have enabled me to connect to the culture and people much more closely. While I may always stand out as a foreigner, I am all the closer to feeling like I can belong in Cuba.