An American in Cuba


The other night, I went out with the other students on my program (there are only five of us). We were walking along the Malécon trying to find a bar to go into and we ran into a few American students from another program. They invited us into the bar they were going into and we sat down and started talking.

Considering the tiny size of my program paired with the constant strain of trying to understand a new language, I’m practically desperate to get to know any new students I meet. On this occasion, things were going smoothly as I sipped my mojito and we swapped opinions on how the Spanish placement test went the previous week. Then I asked them what their favorite place they had visited in Cuba was so far and one guy (who shall remain nameless only because I don’t know his name) piped in with, “I’ve hated it all.”

Slightly taken aback, I asked him why.

“It’s all just been lame,” he responded. A wave of jumbled thoughts immediately flooded my mind. Part of me felt anger while another part of me felt defensive. This was fun! What did he mean by “lame?” Of course, I had noticed that the drinking culture was not as fast-paced and heavy as the United States, and the bars and clubs are certainly not packed with American students. And I can understand if he felt bad about his dancing skills when watching Cubans bust a move at a party, but why pass so much judgement?

I was too heated to respond with anything, so I just sat back in my seat while I angrily watched him smoke his lucky strike and roll his eyes in a bored manner. We sat in silence for few minutes while salsa music played loudly from the speakers. Then, after eyeing me slowly sipping my mojito, he exclaimed, ” Chug that shit and let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“You guys go ahead without me,” I said. And with that, they left with their handle, or what’s called a “rifle” here in Cuba, of Havana Club rum. The students on my program stayed with me.

“What was wrong with that guy?” I asked incredulously as soon as he left.

“He has expectations,” Chris, a friend of mine on my program, said.

It reminded me of when Ahmed, one of my Cuban friends here who is a student of the Tourism department at the University, said to me that American students sometimes just seem uninterested in learning the culture and talking to Cubans. I thought of how the maquina (local taxi) driver laughed and mocked me in the cab when I said I was a student and insisted he charged me cuban currency rather than tourist currency. In that moment, I felt angry. I felt like the driver was being a jerk. And although I still believe that, I also recognize now that part of my anger stemmed from a dark place of foreign entitlement. Of feeling like I deserved to seamlessly be accepted into this new culture just because of where I came from. A place where there are always options in the grocery store and I waste toilet paper removing my nail polish.

Can I get angry with that American boy for passing those judgements? Or in reality, am I mad at myself for, in some ways, agreeing with him and wanting life in Cuba to be like the comfortable, easy one I had back home? For fantasizing about how fun and simple it would be to walk into a bar where everyone was speaking English and playing beer pong? For guiltily wanting a salad for dinner when I am aware that my host mom spent hours walking in the heat to different grocery stores to cook me rice and pork?

It’s difficult to know when I am representing myself and when I am representing my country.