There and Back Again
Stories From a Semester Abroad
Published: Friday, January 18, 2013
Updated: Friday, January 18, 2013 01:01
Of course, this is exactly what study abroad is supposed to be about. To be sure, Cuba pushed me in ways that I could not possibly enumerate here. But for all of the differences, for all of the unfamiliar aspects of the new culture, what repeatedly struck me over the course of my semester abroad was the sameness that I encountered.
Before my departure, I would often joke that I’d be “so close but so far” while in Cuba; the island, despite being only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, would be like another world.
Yes, there were old cars. The government is socialist. There’s been remarkably little contact with the United States since 1962. Business has little presence. Different, to say the least.
But at the end of the day, the most striking thing about Cuba — and perhaps the hardest thing to illustrate — is how familiar the country was. Cuba, like anywhere else, is a country full of people living lives — wholly ordinary lives. It has many quirks, but none of them makes the place any more or less of “another world” than do those of any country with which the United States has normalized relations.
One thing that did set Cuba apart, however, was that people have to live these ordinary lives with so few resources — often times due to the embargo but more generally due to poverty.
As a result, sometimes things don’t operate optimally; sometimes you have to wait in a long line, the finished product isn’t what you expected or accomplishing what you need to is impossible for reasons beyond your control. This is what was most challenging for me, and I originally attributed it to my impatience.
Cuba made me realize, however, that what I had been thinking of as impatience was probably something closer to entitlement: although I never knew it, I felt that I was entitled to smooth operations and the absence of the obstacles I would encounter, and I got frustrated when reality wasn’t commensurate with that belief. And although a gut reaction for myself and many American students was to resort to blaming a backward economic system or a clumsy bureaucracy, the lesson for me was that I’ve had the privilege of being accustomed to conditions that much of the world could never have access to.
Obviously, I knew that going in. But being in Cuba made it real; it put my entitlement into stark relief. I suppose I wish that saying that you’re going to study abroad in Cuba got the same reaction as saying you’re going to Barcelona, London or Buenos Aires. But if it’s not going to get that reaction, I wish it weren’t because of the perception of Cuba as some foreign, incomprehensible world. Instead, I wish it were because of the depth of our first-world entitlement and the distancing effect that it can have vis-a-vis the world’s most vulnerable populations.