April 11, 2014, by Guest blog

Challenges of making connections in Cuba

Posted by Lucy Kirkup.

Cubans are known for their open and friendly nature along with their zest for life. Despite this stereotype I have found it considerably harder making connections with the locals here than I did in Germany. Obvious reasons for this are the difficult Cuban accent, which I still struggle with, and the very apparent cultural differences between the locals and the foreigners, be they tourists or students.  Whereas in Germany I felt I was able to blend in very well with the other students and interns at work, in Havana we stick out somewhat more. Additionally, the fact that we only have lessons with other international students means that it is more difficult to integrate naturally with the Cuban students. In recent weeks, however, I have met more Cubans of my age and I am therefore now trying my hardest to set up a tandem partner with whom I can practise my oral Spanish with, the element I struggle with the most.

The lack of regular internet access also poses an interesting question. While the absence of daily internet and an almost complete lack of mobile usage mean that we spend more time socializing face to face, it also means that contacting and therefore socializing with the Cubans is not as easy as it could be. The use of social media should not be underestimated in making new friends, especially in new countries. On my last placement I used Facebook and my phone frequently to organise social events and also to ensure we stay in touch after the placement was finished. Interacting and making connections here is therefore very much more like how it used to be, before the days of social media being a mere button away. This type of communication is very refreshing and contributes to the neighbourhood feeling that is very apparent here. In that respect it is a wholly unique experience.

There are clear differences in life experience between the international students and the average Cuban, in that many of them have never travelled outside of the island. Talking about past placement experiences and travel, while interesting to them, is somewhat limited as one has to be culturally sensitive so as not to come across as arrogant. I think the fact that there is a sizable group of British students here also means that we tend to hang out altogether and are not forced to speak as much Spanish as we may have been had we been on separate placements. We have, however, met many locals on our street and do now feel somewhat part of the neighbourhood. Being my beginner’s language too, Spanish doesn’t come as naturally to me as German. I therefore endeavour to go out in search of friendly Cuban students and to try to get past any embarrassment I still may have. As experience has proven, the best way to improve is to go out and speak to natives. As mentioned above, this seems harder here, but it is by no means impossible and I believe that travelling outside of Havana will open up a new world of possibilities.

Posted in Making connections