It’s crazy to think that I’ve already been in the Dominican Republic for over a month. As quickly as this month has passed, it’s difficult to demonstrate the progress and transformation that comes with it. But if there’s just one way to sum up my adjustment so far, I think it’s with a small glimpse into my understanding of family.
I’m terrified that the rest of this year will pass just as quickly. But if my remaining time is anything like this past month has been, I gladly welcome it.
As part of my experience living and working for a year in the Dominican Republic I have the fortunate opportunity of living with a warm and loving host family. As I learned during my semester in Costa Rica, living with a host family is one of the most valuable immersive experiences, and one of the greatest ways to learn another language. So when I learned that I could once more practice my Spanish and learn the culture with a Dominican family I was thrilled.
Family is everything in Dominican culture. Immediate and extended family members usually live close by one another, or even in the same home. You can really on family for anything from loans, favors, transportation, gossip, entertainment, and food. And visiting is constant.
I live with my host father, Dante, and host mother, Luma, in their pleasant home in Piedra Blanca. Their house sits towards the top of a hill, overlooking the town below where many additional family members live.
Expanding from the base of the hill, and and expanding in family lineage, are other homes with various children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, and friends. The roots in Piedra Blanca go back many generations, and over the years several homes have become the designated gathering places. Family members are constantly coming and going in these homes, and even Dante stops by nearly everyday after work.
And when I came into the family, it was only customary for my Dominican Republic experience to meet my new Dominican family members as well.
This started gradually, beginning with the immediate family like Dante and Luma’s daughters and grandchildren. But it quickly expanded to meeting closer cousins, aunts, and uncles. But no matter how much I practiced my Spanish before arriving, the rapid pace, cut syllables, and slur of Dominican Spanish made it difficult to simply catch names, let alone actual lineage and background. With this language barrier, on top of the anticipated cross-cultural differences, I felt like even more of an outsider, unable to understand and connect with my own family.
With time and practice my ear improved. But much was still lost in translation. One night about three weeks in, Dante mentioned something about going to Bonao (a larger town to the north) for church and family, but I didn’t quite catch everything that was said. And as I would soon find out, I would spend the entire following day meeting my EXTENDED family.
The next morning we headed to Bonao with a full car and met up with more of our Piedra Blanca family at a catholic church. I was frustrated with myself for not being able to decipher everything during the car ride over, but after understanding the majority of the priest’s message in the service I felt confident and ready to try again.
Our group left the church on foot heading towards another family home down the street, which I had visited once before. I prepared myself to make the most of a great day of expanding my Spanish and getting to know more about my family members. But all bets were off when our group burst into the house, greeted by a dozen family members, unfamiliar to me.
As usual everyone made the rounds of hugs and handshakes. Primos and primas, tíos and tías lovingly greeted one another. I timidly followed behind Dante like a lost puppy dog, politely shaking hands, repeating the Spanish pronunciation of my name, and explaining just what a gringo was doing barging into their family gathering. Finally, Dante jokingly added “hijo mio/my son,” causing several family members within earshot to laugh. Fortunately for me, one of Dante’s brothers caught on: “Sobrino/nephew!” he boomed, and pulled me into a big hug. I had already committed to making the most of family day, so I shot back “tío!”
It worked. From then on I was addressed as just another of the primos: “sit down, primo,” “water, primo,” “‘ta to’ bien, primo?”
After a bit of conversation, which I still couldn’t fully comprehend, someone in the group yelled “vamos,” for us to leave. But before we could go, someone wanted a group picture. I knew my duty as the outsider to take the photos. So I grabbed the phones and snapped picture after picture for anyone who wanted one. And then one of my new cousins jumped in to take the phones from me and demanded that “primo” get in the picture. I never did see the pictures, and I’m sure I look distinctly out of place. But my luck was improving.
From there our group split into three full cars and two pairs on mopeds. Through the streets of Bonao we paraded, weaving around traffic and potholes. And soon we arrived at another house. I noticed there were more cars already spread across the driveway and lawn.
I followed the group into the patio where more family members welcomed our group with hugs and kisses. I prepared to explain myself yet again over polite handshakes, but before I had a chance someone yelled “el hijo de Dante!” And just as before, another new cousin pushed my hand aside with a hug and beamed, “primo!”
Soon, Chairs were brought out to accommodate our now larger group under the shade of the patio and garden foliage. I found an open seat out hidden in the rear, where I could listen without drawing too much attention. An introvert’s paradise. And even more, behind my seat was a large birdcage, attached to the fence with rebar, where over a dozen parakeets of various shades were chirping and fluttering back and forth from their built-in birdhouses and perches.
Our own group had begun fluttering in and out of the house with chairs and plates, scattering into open seats forming a circle on the patio. The chirping of both the birds and family members trying to speak over one another made it difficult to pick out a single voice, let alone translate it. And for a while I just bounced between conversations like I was watching a ping pong match of indistinguishable noise.
But somehow amidst the chaos, lunch was served. Plates, cups, food, and drinks passed around the circle, and the conversations died down to only the sound of the parakeets and clinking of silverware. But that peace didn’t last long, however, as plates quickly emptied and the conversation started up once again.
I heard enough to know that the theme of the conversation was politics. On top of that, with my brain working at full capacity all morning, the warm temperature on the patio, and a full stomach, I finally began to drift off. My cousin closest in age and familiarity, and sitting closest to me, noticed this and tapped my arm. She directed my attention to the birdcage. She was pointing to a beautiful parakeet with a collage of yellow, green, and teal feathers perched quietly and elegantly above the other parakeets chirping below. “Mi favorita,” she said.
In my broken Spanish I replied that it was beautiful, just like her. She smiled, both at my compliment and my poor Spanish. I also added that I was understanding the conversation of the parakeets about as much as the conversation of our family. She paused, then pointed to another parakeet not far from hers. “Eres tú/that’s you.” It took a moment, but I noticed she had picked out the only parakeet in the group with white feathers.
Above the conversation in Spanish and the chirping of the parakeets, the two of us burst out in the universal language of laughter.
Not too long after, coffee was served and it was again time for our caravan to speed off. We would end up visiting three more homes that afternoon, with more food, drinks, and conversation. But with each additional visit our caravan arrived with fewer members and vehicles.
Finally, as evening approached, it was time for our own original group to hug and say goodbye and head back to Piedra Blanca. But I was no longer hugging and shaking hands with strangers. I was promising “nos vemos/see you soon,” to my own primos, primas, tíos, and tías. And I sincerely meant it.
By the time Dante and I dropped everyone off and returned to the house at the top of the hill I was exhausted. Being an introvert and an intermediate Spanish speaker in what felt like an all-day cross-cultural marathon, it was a relief to finally be back in the quiet house. But the true value of a host family experience is greater than just a comfy bed, delicious food, intensive Spanish practice, and a group of locals to serve you an immersive cross-cultural experience.
What I have is the fortunate opportunity to spend a year in the Dominican Republic sharing life, both the highs and lows, as part of a true family, in a house filled with love.