I love my Cuban friends. They were absolutely the best part of my 4-months studying abroad in the country. They are the reason I keep going back to visit. There’s always beauty in building a deep bond with someone else, but it’s particularly special when it is with someone from a different of the world. My Cuban friends teach me so much, not just about speaking Spanish, Cuban culture and how to enjoy Havana (though they have definitely helped a ton with all three of these categories), but also with respect to learning new social customs and values.
I am very lucky to have the friends I do. Unfortunately, other American students aren’t so lucky. Upon arriving in Havana, many struggle with making Cuban friends for a number of reasons. In this piece, I’ll talk about those reasons and offer some simple tips and solutions to help you meet Cubans and build powerful connections!
The “I Don’t Want to Mess Up” Trap
A key reason some Americans struggle making friends – and something I had to work through when I first arrived – is the fear of “messing up”. By “messing up”, I am firstly referring to speaking Spanish, and secondly referring to not knowing Cuban customs and thus seeming like an outside.
Learning another language is hard. And the truth is that no matter how many years you’ve spent in Spanish classrooms, nothing can 100% prepare you for using those skills in the real world. You’re going to mess up. We all do – me perhaps more than anyone. When I arrived in Cuba, I had only been learning Spanish for two years and could barely understand anything that people said to me. I constantly messed up, and yet I didn’t stop trying. And then one day something amazing started happening – I began to improve. A lot. Within time, I was talking Spanish comfortably and non-stop. By the end of the semester, I had become fluent (though I continue making small mistakes and learning from them). You can too. The trick is to work through the mistakes, laugh at them and learn from them, and keep talking.
The other fear in “messing up” is embarrassing oneself by not knowing the customs and looking like a silly foreigner, or yuma. Cuba is a very different society with different day-to-day customs, so again, you’re going to mess up by not knowing an everyday custom and looking like a silly yuma. That’s fine! You should laugh about it! No one’s going to hate you for it! Be a silly yuma and start conversations, because, while you might convince yourself that Cubans hate you for not being Cuban, many Cubans in fact love meeting Americans, practicing their English a bit and learning about our country while also teaching about theirs
Escaping “The Bubble”
Perhaps, the biggest thing that prevents some American students from making Cuban friends is that our tendency to spend all our time with American friends instead. The two things don’t have be exclusive, but they become that way when Americans travel around Havana in a group, speaking English and sticking close to each other at all times. It’s completely natural that Americans form these bubbles – when everything is new and unknown, there is comfort in surrounding yourself with the familiar – but that doesn’t mean that they should. Believe me, “the bubble” is a trap.
The trick to making Cuban friends is daring to stray away from your group and speak Spanish with the people around you. And if your American friends come with you, make sure that you all speak Spanish to avoid excluding Cuban peers (unless of course they want to practice speaking English with you all). After an initial awkwardness, you will soon be comfortable outside of “the bubble” and will be spending lots of time with new Cuban friends.
Cuban Social Life
I was lucky when I was Cuba, because through the first few friends I made I was introduced to literally dozens of people. However, this is not too uncommon – most people I met in Havana were very friendly and social with each other. It was nerve-racking hitting up Cuban friends at first, like it can be in the U.S., but everyone I contacted was totally cool with hanging out. Soon, my Cuban friends were calling me all the time – sometimes every other day to invite me to do things. When you go out with Cubans, you should know a few things:
1) The U.S. dollar and the CUCs you will have converted them to are worth much more than the Cuban peso, used by locals, and thus when you chose a place to go to you should always keep in mind that your Cuban friends won’t have as much money of you. Oftentimes, it’s not a big deal to buy them a drink every now or then, or pay for their entrance fee – just make sure they are ok with it first.
2) Unlike our society, which is very individualist, Cuban society is very communal and this affects daily social customs. For example, when you go out with Cubans and someone buys a drink, in my experience that drink always ends up getting passed around so that everyone can have a sip. Also, it’s considered rude to leave early when other people in your group aren’t ready to leave yet (this one took some getting used to for me).
Besides these few tips of advice, I don’t think there’s anything more to say. In the end, we’re all human and Cubans, like us, like meeting new people, making friends and having a good time hanging out! So get over that initial shyness, put yourself out there (outside of “the bubble”), speak Spanish, make mistakes, be ok looking like a silly yuma now and then, and you’ll have a great time!
~ Daniel Marion