Before we arrived in the DR, we were advised to pack only long pants as men and, as women, avoid shirts that show off shoulders. In other words, we told to wear clothing that fit in with Dominican culture. Of course, in the stifling heat of the DR, it seemed counterintuitive but I was more than happy to oblige as I felt that it was important to not appear American and to attend to foreign cultural values. Easy enough.
As I spent time here, I began to realize that there were more subtle cultural differences. Some I noticed, and others were pointed out to me. For instance, in America we were cultivated in a culture of excess. Ordering two double cheeseburgers, swallowing down a liter of coke and completing that with a milkshake is almost normal. So when we are in a country where this culture of excess is not so prevalent, our consumption could be seen as a way of showing off our privilege. Sitting at the corner store or Collmado and relaxing, we may feel that it is normal to suck down an entire cigar. A $3.00 or so cigar means very little to many people in America. But in the DR, in some areas, a 100-peso cigar is more than a days wage. It took someone who has been here before and is experienced with Dominican culture to point out that our cigar consumption could be seen as a symbol of our excess.
It's difficult to navigate these situations. For me, I think it is very important to understand the implications of how we present ourselves. For instance, does smoking a whole cigar reify American stereotypes? And if so, what are we to do about that? An advisor pointed out that some people in the Dominican treat cigars as a delicacy and will smoke a 1/8th of a cigar a night. Would it be culturally considerate for us to do that? On the flipside, we decry the effects of hegemony. For instance, when someone moves to America and without being able to afford it, buys an Ipod. Granted, there are long histories of unequal power dynamics that come into play here.
There is much to learn from these situations and it has been stimulating to see the ways that people have been trying to adjust their presentation. Some, like myself, have really tried to be hypersensitive to these concerns but still questioning myself. For instance, I found myself telling a peer to stop taking flash pictures in the club because it was very American. I don't know if this is useful or necessary. On the other hand, other group members have thought it over and continued living, presenting, and consuming in the way that they always have
. But one member of the group proposed the question: "Is our very act of being in the DR, regardless of what are doing, an affront to Dominican culture and does it perpetuate and further the power dynamics between the two nations?" I can see how this question could come of out of the discourse that we have had around attempting to be culturally sensitive and avoiding appearing like a "fat" American. I can see how on the surface that this would make sense, that we are out of our place, and by using our privilege to come here, we may be perpetuating that privilege.
However, I believe that it is these feelings that paralyze people from caring and from action. To some point, if I am constantly worried and guilty about being culturally offensive, politically correct or of hiding my privilege, I am ignoring the differences in individuals and cultures. People are different, cultures are different, and it's over this that we can connect. I believe that finding the way of negotiating these differences is a constant process, and I may screw up one night but be successful another day. By attempting to blur cultural lines, I am submitting myself to the western American assimilistic paradigm.
The worst thing that I can do is paralyze myself in fear of appearing American or of showing off your privilege. To me, it is more important to understand how my actions represent myself and rather than trying to change my appearance because I feel guilty, change them because I feel the need to, because I am not satisfied with how I present myself. This can only come out of discussion with individuals from the Dominican republic or any other place that I am visiting. This change should not only occur while I am in the DR, but also while I am home. It would only be insincere and insulting if I were to go home and go back to my normal ways as if I was only changing my actions, in the DR, for the sake of other people. It should not be an act put on temporarily but rather, a sincere commitment.