Moving to a new country and attempting to assimilate to a new culture is hard and can be terrifying. When I moved to the Dominican Republic to begin my semester abroad, I immediately became conscious of the way that I walked, carried my backpack, and how my skin was so pale it reflected the sun. Even after a few months, I stick out like a sore thumb carrying around my water bottle while wearing my “We Are Marquette” shirt from freshman year.
Some parts of the culture are easier to cope with than others, like the endless rice and beans or the place that delivers milkshakes to my front door. However, other parts have taken some getting used to.
From a young age, my mother told me not to talk to strangers. Here in the Dominican Republic, when taking public transportation, the driver often points at a stranger’s lap for me to sit on. The intense heat and absence of air conditioning make these moments all the more memorable. Regardless of moments of personal uneasiness that result from these occurrences, they are cultural norms.
These moments, especially the ones spent holding my breath hoping every stray dog successfully crosses the eight lane highways, are part of accepting the new culture in which I live.
As a “gringa” and obvious foreigner, people have different reactions to me. Some have asked why I’m so far from the city when I go to my service site. Others, after finding out I’m not married, offer to be my husband before bothering to learn my first name. Then they blame the spontaneous proposal on “love at first sight.” And then there’s the lady who pours half of her grape soda into a cup for me because she notices my empty water bottle.
In the states, it is normal to flush toilet paper, but in Latin America, the little trashcans next to the toilet are meant for the paper. Not knowing this can lead to awkward moments of hunting down the maintenance guy and stumbling through the situation in Spanish — all while turning an even deeper shade of red.
Every new culture has its pros and cons, but the point of studying abroad is to roll with the punches and accept that things aren’t the same as they are when living in the states.
“Dominican time” is legitimate, and it really comes in handy when I’m running late for class, yet drives me crazy when waiting for a bus to arrive. However, nothing in my power will make the entire population of the Dominican Republic arrive on time, so the only thing to do is embrace it.
This is life in the Dominican Republic: a culture of hospitality, lack of personal space and beautiful scenery. Things might be done differently, but that doesn’t make them backwards or wrong. An essential part of assimilating to a new culture is respecting the way things are done and have been done for decades.
At its core, the point of study abroad is living and learning in a new culture. To do that, you must immerse yourself and adapt as you go. Embrace the new culture for both the good and the bad, and see where it leads you.