Being in Cuba was a surreal experience for me; sometimes it almost felt like being in Malaysia, where I grew up until I left home for the United States two and a half years ago. In the midst of the struggle to make myself understood in Spanish and the relearning of social cues that comes with being in a completely different culture, I would have moments of familiarity. Once as we left the city of Havana for another province I was struck by how similar the scenery in Cuba was to rural Malaysia. Coconut trees, palms, and tall grass waving from the sides of the road reminded me of home. Or even just walking down Calle C from our residence I would pass a frangipani tree and a bougainvillea creeping up a neighbor’s wall; all flowers that grow in my garden at home.
However the similarities went deeper than environmental; despite being a world away, I felt very close to home. I found myself identifying with the problems that young Cubans face, in fact talking to one of my classmates about his frustrations in Cuba gave me a sense of déjà vu; he was telling me how he didn’t see Cuba changing for the better and how he really wanted to leave. At this point I felt alarm bells sounding in my head, we had been warned that some Cubans who were very friendly might be looking for a way out via marriage. After thinking about it for a while I realized that I had felt the same way three year ago about Malaysia; I had even joked to my friends that I was going to marry someone while I was backpacking through the South of Europe.
However wanting to leave changed after I went to college in America, the time and space away from home allowed me to see that Malaysia is really home for me. Unfortunately, most young Cubans are not allowed or able to afford the privilege of leaving their country for a year to reflect on where they come from. Which brings me to the uncomfortable topic of privilege that is inherent to the whole study abroad concept. I might have lost you here already, after all who needs another lecture about privilege at Sarah Lawrence? If you’re still reading, then please hear me out. The fact that a group of American students is able to travel to and study in Cuba legally despite the US blockade against Cuba is in itself a huge privilege. Particularly since a similar opportunity does not exist for Cuban university students. To add to the privileged position we were in there was a sense of entitlement to the knowledge and opinions of Cubans about their country.
I saw this happen a lot after our weekly CEDEM (Centro de Estudios Demograficos) class tailored specifically for the Sarah Lawrence program where we learnt about various aspects of Cuban society. Typically we would have a lecture followed by a question and answer session; this was supposed to be modeled after the Sarah Lawrence seminar as much as is possible in Cuba. Possibly because people were expecting it to be a Sarah Lawrence seminar there was a lot of frustration expressed at the fact that there was very little discussion involved, it was more of a lecture with some space for questions, which were usually clarifications of the facts already presented. There are a number of reasons that I think discussions did not take place. Firstly, Cuban professors are used to a lecture style class, there is rarely discussion in university classrooms. Secondly, the context of a group of American students trying to learn about Cuba immediately puts the Cuban professor on the defensive. While there was definitely pressure to stick to the official facts I can only imagine that any Cuban who loved his or her country despite its shortcomings and contradictions would be unwilling to present a critical view of it to us. Particularly since we represent a small minority from the US who are able to stay in Cuba for an extended period of time.
The difficulty in making friends was another frustration rooted in this sense of entitlement. It was undeniably harder to make friends at the university, and people complained about Cuban students not being friendly. In the beginning of the semester there was almost a competitive spirit to ‘acquiring’ Cuban friends. It was unconscious of course, and unfortunately symptomatic of the concept of study abroad as a whole. It is something that goes beyond just Sarah Lawrence, and to me is extremely problematic.
This sense of entitlement to knowledge and culture in a foreign country, particularly a developing country, blinds people to things that might otherwise actually give insight into not only another culture, but their own. What lay behind some of the hostility or unwillingness for our Cuban classmates to engage with us was the context in which we existed as foreigners in Cuba. Tourism exploded in the 90s during the ‘special period’ when Cuba’s GDP dropped by 34% after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; and along with it the existence of jineteras and jineteros, the pejorative word for prostitute, that can include any type of association with foreigners that gives Cubans some kind of benefit. It’s still common to see old white men walking around with young Cuban women. And that’s how, despite how uncomfortable it was, we were in part, contextualized.
Over the course of the semester as the day we left Miami receded further away I think there was an idealization of America and its problems, or rather a very abstract grasp of problems to do with race and gender. Which begs the question, how are you to gain any insight into a foreign culture if many parts of your own country remain alien to you? One observation I heard about Cuba was that it was so racist; an observation that comes from the fact that Cubans are not at all PC about race. Black Cubans still face discrimination on many levels. This open racism was something I grew up with in Malaysia so it didn’t shock me as much as it shocked my American peers. However, when I told a Cuban friend in front of some people in the group that I didn’t like living in America because of the way I am treated as a person of color she seemed incredulous that I might have experienced racism at Sarah Lawrence. Similarly, some of the girls were upset about getting cat called on the street. While they certainly got more attention because they were obviously foreigners, while I tended to blend in more, this kind of attention is not unique to Cuba. Some people were genuinely surprised when I told them the same thing happens to me when I am in Brooklyn.
These problems extend to all study abroad programs in the developing world. Although I have never participated in a study abroad program that has a service-learning component to it, I can only imagine that these problems are heightened when coupled with the misinformed good intentions that accompany those types of programs. Good intentions are certainly a place to start, but they can only go so far and in fact when they are followed by cultural ignorance (both of your own country and the place you are visiting), they do more harm than good. Service learning programs that fail to take into account what local people really need versus what the developed world thinks they need effect short term change at best and are counter productive at worst. While I do not regret my semester in Cuba and think it is important for more Americans to see Cuba for what it really is, I am wondering if a semester abroad is an effective way for everyone to do this.