Stranger in a familiar land

I have traveled to the Dominican Republic, my parents’ native country, almost every summer of my life. Over the years, I’ve grown to deeply love and appreciate its culture. While in the Dominican Republic, I have always felt a stronger sense of identity, as if I was reminded of who I am. I felt as though I belonged there and called myself a true Dominican. Except for my occasional blunders when speaking Spanish, I felt mostly at home.

As I grew older, however, I found my summer stays more challenging. I was increasingly aware of how different I am from native Dominicans.

This summer, when I visited my parents’ homeland once again, the identity I claimed crumbled.

Like many first-generation Americans, I have had trouble choosing how to identify myself: with my parents’ native country, or wih the U.S.

I was Dominican before I was American. I spoke Spanish before I learned English. I giggled at Spanish cartoons before I watched American ones. I danced to merengue music before I discovered hip-hop music. I played traditional Dominican children’s games before I played hopscotch. Before I said “I love you,” I said “Te amo.”

As I grew older, though, there was no denying that I am American, because I was born and raised here.

When I visit the Dominican, it’s obvious I’m not from there. The way I dress is the first indicator. The second is my Spanish: I don’t have that true-blue accent. I’m often asked where I’m from; the native Dominicans seem to have ingrained radar and as soon as I get close, it goes haywire.

I have often felt like an outcast among Dominicans. And it’s never hit me as hard as this summer, when I realized how little I know about Dominican society.

My ignorance of slang terms was one example. I have a childhood friend whom I hung out with a lot this summer. As I spent more time with him and his friends, the list of Dominican terms unfamiliar to me grew to an alarming number. I found myself silenced because I had trouble following their conversations.

I also realized I needed to work on my body language. One night, I went to a town carnival with my friend. An acquaintance of his walked past us and briefly greeted him. He nodded at me and I reached my hand out to shake his, introducing myself. After the guy left, my friend pulled me to the side and told me to never do that again. Alarmed, my mind raced as I wondered what I did wrong. He said that unless a guy reaches his hand out to shake mine, I don’t shake hands. Doing otherwise looks as if I’m offering myself to him. I gaped at him in shock. For the rest of the night, I kept my hands to myself.

I felt my identity as a Dominican American threatened while I was there, too. I remember when I was younger, I didn’t like to be labeled a “gringa,” a sometimes derogatory slang term for an American.

In the U.S., there were times when I felt like an outcast. I didn’t want to feel that way in the Dominican Republic as well, so I desperately searched for a place where I felt at home.

I can best describe this summer as an awakening. I realized the tremendous importance of culture, and that it’s learned by living within it. Culture seeps into you: It’s in the threads of your clothes and the aromas drifting from your house. Culture lies in the gaps of your teeth as you speak. It’s found in the dirt beneath your fingernails. It isn’t something you can learn from a textbook or a series of lectures. It lives in your heart.

After I landed back in Orlando International Airport (there are no direct flights from the Dominican Republic to Tampa), I turned my passport over to an airport agent at the final checkpoint. As we chatted for a bit I told him about my wonderful trip and that I also missed my life here. He stamped my passport and said with a smile: “Welcome home.”

Walking away, I was struck with a realization: As much as I love the Dominican Republic, returning to Florida also meant returning home.