A month into my time in the Dominican Republic I was fed up with trying to explain why I wasn’t eating elephant-sized quantities of food. Every meal, Rafaela, my host mom, would fret over the amount of food on my plate and pout at me if I refused seconds or thirds. She could never believe that I was full. I didn’t understand how to make her feel better until I started seeing the same types of interactions in other people’s houses too. People offer visitors food multiple times, ensuring that visitors who are hungry but polite eventually accept bread and coffee, or some leftover habichuelas (beans). It seems like hosts assume that their guests won’t say what they actually want, so the hosts go out of their way to offer comfort in as many ways as possible. The offer of food serves as more of an emotional check-in or a symbol of appreciation than a measurement of hunger. In these day-to-day interactions, a huge part of what people mean is not what they say but how and when they say it. Below are a few of the most striking examples that came to mind when I started thinking more about this.
One day at the end of dinner, instead of leaving my food on my plate, I offered it to Rafaela. She happily took my leftovers instead of taking an extra serving from the bowl, and didn’t accuse me of barely eating. Our mealtime interactions have continued in a similar manner. I can’t say exactly what changed, but maybe our casual sharing of food is enough to show her that I am comfortable and happy in her home.
One of the artisans I work with shouted this to me as I was walking away from her house. After she had promised and neglected to call me two times in a row, this sentence clarified a lot for me. Calling my cell phone means she would have to pay to put minutes on her own phone, making her less likely to call me but also proportionally more excited when I call her. Rather than emerging from forgetfulness or disinterest, her lack of communication had more to do with a financial barrier.
The question of piropos, or cat calls, is complicated. During orientation we were told that they are expected here, and not to take them as attacks on female independence. That didn’t help me know how to respond when people whistled or commented at me in the street. I finally noticed that while ignoring comments would sometimes provoke more of them, and explaining that they made me feel disrespected was not a feasible cultural option, responding with a buenos días would frequently lead to a brief and pleasant exchange that was not at all sexually charged. I could use the piropo as a jumping off point into a causal conversation, rather than taking its literal translation seriously.
It’s funny that in order to learn another language I focus so much on the meanings of the words that people are using when in fact the meanings of their words don’t always help me understand what they are saying. I have found that learning about Dominican culture has done a lot more to increase my language comprehension than memorizing new words.