Last week I visited a friend in the Dominican Republic who is serving in the Peace Corps. After a treacherous week at work, the vacation was an opportunity to gain perspective on what little right I have to complain about my life. Stationed in Barahona, a seaside town in the southwest region of the country, my friend Dustin lives in a steamy apartment with no running water. From noon till midnight Merengue and Bachata, the dance music of the region, play at full volume from the colmado (a tiny store where people gather and drink alcohol) across the street. The apartment windows, tiny slits in the concrete walls, offer little relief from the pounding music and roaring motorbikes outside. Still, with cable television and four plastic chairs for guests, Dustin is the king of the block. A steady stream of locals drop by to watch television and lounge in front of the fan. Although I appreciated that Dustin’s standard of living was much higher than many people in his community, I was pleased to return to an apartment with a working shower and internet access. The trip yielded the result I had anticipated – a greater appreciation for American life – but also gave me something I had not expected. Thanks to an evening I spent in a Dominican English class, I learned that my life defies translation.
The students in Dustin’s English class range in age from 16 to 28, although most are in their late teens (or at least they looked that young to me). We arrived early, and four girls were already seated, chatting in rapid, abbreviated Spanish that I struggled to follow. My comprehension of Spanish is limited, and the pidgin dialect of the Dominican people sounds like a completely new language to me. I sat in a chair in the front of the room and put on my friendliest gringa smile as the students filed into class. Once everyone had arrived, Dustin introduced me as his friend visiting from New York, and invited them to ask me questions.
A 20-something boy in the back of the room quickly raised his hand. “Hi Gina,” he greeted me. “Do you have a husband?”
“No, I do not have a husband,” I replied.
A girl sitting at the table closest to me raised her hand. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.
“No, I do not have a boyfriend.” A couple of the boys smiled. A girl from the back of the room raised her hand.
“How many years do you have?” she asked.
“You mean how old am I?”
“Yes, how old are you?”
“I’m thirty years old,” I said, and the students spoke to one another in Spanish. “Vieja,” I added, my smile weakening.
“How long are you in the Dominican Republic?” a boy from the front of the room asked slowly and thoughtfully.
Relieved for the change in topic, I smiled again. “I am visiting for five days. Cinco dias,” I added for punctuation. The first boy raised his hand again.
“Why do you not have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Well,” I started, “I do not have a boyfriend because…” I looked to Dustin for help but he was suppressing a grin. Because I’m waiting for the right person to come along? Because I hang out in gay bars? Because I’ve had several boyfriends, none of whom worked out, so now I’m very picky, avoiding self-involved musicians, boys from Connecticut, and pot heads?
“Because I don’t have the time. No tengo el tiempo,” I finished. The students looked puzzled and muttered to themselves in Spanish. I shifted in my seat and drank a throatful of bottled water.
“Do you like Dominican men?” the boy seated near me asked.
“Sure, yeah, I like Dominican men. I don’t know very many, but, yes.”
Everyone laughed and the boy quickly added, “It’s not for me. It’s for my friend.” They laughed harder.
“You are very pretty,” the boy from the back said. I felt my face get hot and drank more water.
A girl seated near Dustin asked him a question in Spanish. His answer sounded a little something like this to me: “Porque… no blah blah blah… el clima.”
“What did she say?” I asked him.
“She asked why you drink so much water,” he replied. “I explained that you’re not accustomed to the climate.”
I felt like an old maid who couldn’t handle the tropics. I desperately wanted this game to end. I shot Dustin another pleading look.
“So, any more questions for Gina?” he asked, flipping the lid of his marker.
The girl who wanted to know my age raised her hand. “What is your job?”
A big pain in the ass? Once again, I struggled to find words. I work for a direct marketing company? I’m an under-appreciated email list-broker? I’m a has-been from the glamorous days of the internet and I now sit in front of an excel spreadsheet for nine hours a day?
“I sell internet advertising,” I said, but no one understood me. All I recognized in Dustin’s interpretation was “el internet.”
“Ahh,” the girl replied, staring at me blankly.
“Very good, class. Now let’s move on to this week’s lesson,” Dustin said. I was off the hook. Finalemente.
As Dustin taught the lesson, my mind wandered. I knew their questions were innocent, but couldn’t help but feel that, at least by Dominican standards, I had nothing to show for my life. No husband, no kids, and a job I couldn’t explain. Dustin had told me earlier that many of the girls in the class had husbands, children, grandparents, and houses to care for. After their day’s labor, they went to class, and then returned to their homes for more adult responsibilities. I was older than all of them and felt like the most immature person in the room.
In the break before the next set of students arrived, I confessed to Dustin that I felt like a loser. “They just asked you about what they know,” he said. “Don’t worry, they liked you.” I searched his face to see if he was humoring me. I couldn’t tell.
As the next group of students entered the room, I considered inventing a husband and a job, something that would translate a little easier. When Dustin opened the classroom to questions, a boy in front raised his hand.
“Do you have a husband?” he asked.
I took a long sip of water and sighed.
Posted by GxxP at 04:00 PM