Any move to a new country can be challenging. Moving from the United States to the Dominican Republic has its own unique challenges that any foreigner must overcome and understand in order to succeed and feel comfortable. Last week I wrote a post of What Not to Do in the Dominican Republic where I shared a little bit of advice for travelers. But now, I’d like to offer a glimpse into the life of an expat here for Dominicans, and again anyone who is curious about this experience. Before I begin, I’d like to say that expat is a very loaded term. While it’s not perfect, I’m using it in this post to refer to Americans, such as myself. Remember, everyones’ experiences will be different but I hope that any traveler can relate to some of these feelings.
I arrived in the Dominican Republic last summer with the intention of teaching English, and with a basic understanding of the culture having lived in a Dominican neighborhood, and having visited the country before, and with low-intermediate Spanish language skills. Things have changed since then! Little did I know that Dominican Spanish is another beast, and that the different pace of life would be a big culture shock for me. I am now teaching at a different school in another city, and my Spanish has definitely improved, thanks to daily exposure and also due to Spanish classes. While I have traveled before, coming here was my first move abroad. I’ve definitely found myself in some interesting situations and I have learned a lot about myself and about Dominican culture, to the best of my ability.
The following list is just a handful of things that newcomers may experience in the Dominican Republic.
1) Simple tasks suddenly become very difficult.
Bus schedule? Route maps? These things either don’t exist or are very hard to understand here. The best way to learn is to try, and to ask. And when you’re not sure, ask again, and then ask someone else. Things that I took for granted in the United States (drinking water from the tap, hailing a cab, speaking to strangers) became more complicated with the language barrier and cultural differences. Even after all this time, I still have a problem understanding taxi companies. Fortunately, Dominicans are generally very helpful and look out for you. I usually ask a Dominican to call for me (it’s not cheating I swear!) or I call my favorite taxi driver on his cell phone – he knows all my usual spots and is very reliable. Finding the favorite taxi driver was a blessing, and I have never been truly stranded. After a while you adapt, but within the first few months these little things can seem like big obstacles. Trust me, it gets better.
2) Your personal space bubble is gone.
Dominicans are super friendly people, and also don’t mind getting pretty personal very quickly. I’ve had people comment on my physical appearance within minutes of meeting me. What may be offensive in the United States is just a simple observation here. I’ve learned to just smile and nod. People also disregard personal space especially when waiting on a line, many people will be directly behind you. At first, I gave so much personal space that people thought I wasn’t even on the line, and then cut ahead of me! I have learned to step right up so not as to confuse others.
3) You are outside in the rain.
In the states, when it rains, it pours. And keeps on pouring. Here, it rains quickly without warning and then stops at the same pace! People tend not to go outside if they can avoid it during these downpours. At first, I thought, what’s the big deal? Then I realized that the rain will stop, the sun will come out, and if you are held up just a few minutes it really is OK. I’m learning to adapt this attitude to other parts of my life too.
4) You bring a reusable bag to the grocery store.
I’ve turned many heads by bringing a big canvas bag to the supermarkets. I grew up very “eco-conscious” and here, things operate in a different manner. For example, people reuse things until it is no longer possible to reuse them. Anything can be reused or repaired: T-shirts become rags, pots and pans can be shined to perfection for a small price, cars are literally driven to the ground. Additionally, metal and plastic can be sold by the pound – pick up trucks drive through neighborhoods calling out for old refrigerators, washing machines, or anything that they could purchase. In this respect, Dominicans may be some of the most eco-friendly people imaginable. However, plastics designed for one-time use such as styrofoam cups, cup lids, and plastic bags can be found strewn all over the ground, on beautiful beaches and hanging from trees.
Supermarket baggers are paid to place your items in bags, and I have found they tend to double-bag items and place very few items in each bag. This makes perfect sense as it is their job, but I don’t need 5 bags for 3 items (but I do use the bags for garbage!). When I want to do a big shop, I bring a big canvas bag and ask them to put everything inside. Sometimes they start putting the items in plastic bags and then inside my bag, which defeats my purpose of saving bags. Regardless, once I have filled my big tote, I get lots of comments about how such a small girl can carry such a big bag, et cetera. I just smile and nod, as always, and lug it home.
5) You arrive on time to a social event or meeting.
I’ve made this mistake of arriving to an event at the appointed hour many times – it’s just my habit – only to be the first one there. But I’m learning to relax and arrive when I arrive. As I mentioned in my last post, this does not apply to business meetings, but for social events, it is OK to be a little late, in fact, it’s even expected. I’ve learned to make plans slightly earlier than possible and arrive ‘on Dominican time’ and everyone is totally happy and fine! People are relaxed and they don’t worry if you are late. It takes the pressure off.
There you have it – if you’re a Dominican, you probably have seen a ‘ gringo’ doing some of these things! Please help us with directions, call a cab for us, and explain when we look confused. We’re doing our best, and as for me, well, I hope to just smile and nod. The best I can do is respect (and not offend) the culture that is hosting me.