Always the Outsider Inside Cuba

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Maybe it’s me, but certain zingers people have sent my way 10, even 25 years ago I just can’t shake (note 1). There was the time in elementary school when the Mean Girl said: ‘ever wonder why you have no friends?’ I responded: ‘I have friends you don’t even know about.’ Pretty clever in my 10-year old estimation, but she didn’t miss a beat. ‘That’s because they’re imaginary.’ Ouch.

Then, some years later, a different Mean Girl (yeah, I was the one everyone loved to pummel – metaphorically and literally), shot my ego to shit when she told me I’d be better looking as a guy. This memory floated to the surface when I was covering the Cuban disaster team in Haiti and a doctor in our camp nicknamed me Tom Cruise. He meant it affectionately and now we’re friends, but it kicked up the dust in that toxic corner of my consciousness.

 As an adult, here in Havana, what sticks with me is something a stranger said back in 2003. I was researching the Lonely Planet Cuba guide and had rented a car for the eastern portion of the trip. I was in Santiago de Cuba, the heroic city, when I went to return the rental. I still had half a tank of gas, for which there would be no reimbursement. Claro que no. So I walked up to a group of guys clustered around a Lada drinking beers (a popular pastime on this side of the Straits) and proposed selling them the half-tank of gas I wouldn’t be needing.

 “Where you from?” one asked me.

 “The United States.”

 He whistled and cracked his index and middle fingers together in that rapid-fire way Cubans have that looks like they’ve burnt themselves and sounds like bubble wrap popping. “A yuma who knows our mecánica. ¡Peligroso!

And he and his buddies proceeded to siphon my tank.

I was getting it, beginning to grok how this place works. My gas buyer in Santiago called it dangerous, but I considered mastering the mecánica as my first step towards integration. The first sign of acceptance.

 How much I still had to learn…


 Some 8 years on, I have a different perspective. Today, despite my mastery of many things Cuban, it feels less like acceptance and more like I’ve got partial membership in a club dubious of my credentials. A club, furthermore, which doesn’t extend full membership to any foreigner, ever (El Che and Máximo Gómez notwithstanding). The heart of the matter is the unalterable fact that I’m not, nor will I ever be, Cuban. Consider the saying:  ‘those who aren’t Cuban would pay to be’ and you have an idea of how deep nationalist pride runs.

I’ve got some things working against me to be sure. First, I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed, making it impossible for me to “pass” as Cuban (at least in Havana; see note 2). Thus, my outsider status is constantly called out. I’m also from ‘los Estamos Jodidos‘ as my friend Mike likes to call los Estados Unidos (see note 3). Hailing from the nasty north carries its own particular baggage in the Cuban context – some good, lots bad – and I pay in a way for that too.  Lastly, I’m from New York, a city that makes you feel if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere (except maybe in Havana ironically). When someone takes me for a mark or accosts me on the street like happened last week, it’s an insult to my hometown, as if the archetypical concrete jungle didn’t properly prepare me, as if my urban armor were insufficient (see note 4).


In the peculiar social hierarchy that reigns here foreigners are on the bottom rung. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here – even friends who’ve clocked 20 or 30 years in Havana struggle with this reality to some extent or another. It’s damn disheartening. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have either since everyone will assume you have mucho.

Allow me a moment to vent about the ‘all-foreigners-are-rich’ stereotype that dogs me. This is an assumption I confront everywhere, every day. In the street and at the market; in conversations with friends and encounters with colleagues. I hate to say it, but this myopic view exposes the ignorance many Cubans have of the real world – that world beyond free education and heavily-subsidized housing, electric bills of 35 cents a month and nearly gratis public transportation.

For me, this rich foreigner perspective is akin to the ‘Kmart is cheaper than the farmers market’ argument: when you factor in all the health, environmental and transportation costs Kmart lettuce is actually much costlier than a similar head bought from farmers. In my case, when you factor in the $60,000 of student loans I’m still carrying, the 30% the US government takes in taxes, plus the 20% cut the Cuban government takes in the exchange rate, my earnings are actually quite paltry. And let’s not forget: la yuma doesn’t have a ration card. (Soon few will, but that’s another post.) I realize I’m better off than some, but I’m also worse off than many others, something beyond comprehension here apparently.

It’s not that I expect Cubans to understand my situation – most know not the wrath of the tax man and certainly nothing of the student loan burden. But just once, I’d love for someone to understand that there might be other factors at work, that I’m not the goose that laid the golden egg or an ATM with legs.  

In my youth, I was often told I was spunky, a girl with pluck. Here, (as recently as last week), I was said to lack ‘guara‘ – another of those impossible to translate Cubanisms, but pluck and moxie come pretty close. What is it about this place that makes me feel like I’m 12 again, beating back the Mean Girls every day after school? Is it like this for all foreigners living far from home I wonder? Drop me a line with your experiences; I’d like to hear other viewpoints and try to ratchet down this loneliness a bit.  


1. I wish our mental hard drives had a ‘delete permanently’ function. Yes! Send to trash, damn it!

2. There are plenty of people who look like me here (thanks largely to French immigration in the early 19th century). Unfortunately, the majority of them are in Holguín and other points far to the east.

3. I’ve always loved this play on words which more or less turns the ‘United States’ into ‘We’re Screwed.’

4. I did open up a big ole can of NYC whup ass on the guy that grabbed me from behind, thrusting his hand between my legs. He was scurrying away fast when I was done with him, but that and a couple of bucks will get me on the subway.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks

60 responses to “Always the Outsider Inside Cuba

  1. 1. I still remember the time when a girl told me in 8th grade that I was bossy and I realized for the first time that not everyone liked me. Ouch.
    3. Never heard that… but I love it too. I’m now adopting it and will credit you as often as possible 🙂
    4. You get my respect (worth yet another nonexistent cup of coffee or a subway token… do they even use tokens anymore? haven’t been to NYC in years)

    Conner, as another guera here in Mexico, I know how you feel. I even dyed my hair darker recently, but it doesn’t help. I’m still a foreigner and still a walking ATM machine. I’m not sure what is worse… feeling like an outsider in a foreign country or feeling like a foreigner in your own country (because you’ve lived outside it for so long, you have a hard time going back…). I’m about to find out.

    I guess we’re part of another tribe… wanderers, nomads, those who are (were once?) comfortable traveling far from home, seekers, adventurers, observers. At least we have the internet and each other 🙂

    Abrazos de Mexico… you are NOT alone.

    • what that tween wench calls bossy, I understand as “together” – as a helluva together mujer! I wonder where that girl is now? the one who told me I only had imaginary friends was waitressing at Friendly’s last I checked. She got her just desserts!

      It IS a great saying isn’t it? But I can’t take credit…

      Nope, no more tokens. Sad, but true.

      So true about a foreigner at home. Ive written some about this but am determined to hash it out here at a later date. \

      Thanks chica!! abrazos habaneros para ti!

  2. Billy Cohen

    this is my precious time to work on my novel. so, i can only write a tiny fraction of what i’d like to. not that more would be better, just that, you deserve a substantial response.

    you are brilliant and beautiful.

    the artist is always outside. the expatriate new yorker is always outside.

    you have chosen exile. though, it wasn’t the 60’s, and we joined with one another, our hippy youth was to be outsider from our westchester prep existence. you likely would find yourself outside anywhere, observing, writing. so, you have chosen exile in cuba. don’t try so hard to fit in. live it! love it! FUCK EM!!

    you belong to nowhere and everywhere! we who are with you are with you always!

    i can be very lonely in a crowd at home. i understand exile. i am your brother the jew.

    “By the rivers of Babylon, where we laid down. There I wept as I remembered Zion. A wicked man carried us away, captivity. Required from us a song. How can we sing Ashem’s song in a strange land?”

    we embrace exile

    • Milión de gracias Billy. Between you and Ellen, Im feeling world’s closer/connected/understood.

      My family recently discovered our secret Jewish past which made me immensely happy (the being Jew-ish part, not the WASP part that felt it was something to hide)

      I would love to read your novel….keep me posted and Happy Writing! (surely you will be a client for my impending t-shirt line one of which reads: Rewrites Suck).

      • Billy Cohen

        another hidden one. interesting…

        rewrites, what are those? may just post novel for free download. forego publishers and re-writes. though, like the work, may want to do the crazy dance. am only in middle of chapter 2, but i know the characters, and most of their stories have played in the movies in my mind.

        the script, i will re-write, someday, but need to write this novel now! am good for a 2-4 pages most weekday mornings. col loves chapter 1. i can’t wait to have people read it. though, am dearly loving writing it. have several projects, in addition to the script re-write, that i am also itching to be doing.

        love working in music, and love earning a living, but now acutely aware that it is a day job….. shit, i am a writer.

      • “shit, i am a writer.”

        Emphasis on shit! In all seriousness though, I do agree with Andrew Carnegie: “the dainties bred in a book lead the mind from shade to sunshine.”

        Await your rayos del sol….

  3. Zoe

    Hi Conner.

    I can sense a little sadness from your post… I’m sorry you are feeling some lonliness. I certainly feel that way at times.

    Your posts always make me think.
    I was wondering why you feel like an outsider in Cuba. First, I suspect your experience of feeling like an outsider because you are not Cuban– because you are a foriegner– is commom to most people who live abroad. Although I have never lived abroad ( I really regret this; but I have traveled extensively ), I’ve heard that in most countries one is not ever fully accepted if one is a foreigner. Even if the people are very friendly– you are never fully a member of the club. I have expat friends say this to me about France, Italy, Mexico, Japan… Perhaps its because these countries are for the most part homogenius ( spelling?). I’m from New York, and Cuban-American, but I have always felt accepted in the USA–as an American( not that I have never felt any discrimination or stereotyping as a “Latina” –I certainly have–but for the most part I mean…) My friends from New York are literally from all ethnicities. But I guess New York is unique in this way. In other words, I don’t think what you are feeling in Cuba is unique to Cuba–most countries are probably like this.

    But mostly I think you feel like an outsider Conner– because you are a strange bird Conner. And I say this with all affection!! 🙂 Who else actually moves to Cuba– (most people are trying to flee).
    And I swear I don’t mean this to sound at all condescending– but I really like you. I do. At least the person who comes through these posts. And this says a lot because I find the polical system you admire so much in Cuba to be abhorent.– ( please keep reading…PLEASE…)but I still can’t help it,– I like you. I sense your politics comes from a good place, and is well intentioned. I also consider myself anti-materialistic.

    I find your posts to be very insightful, and most importantly HONEST. And you are an incredible writer.

    But I think regrardless of where you go–you will always feel like an outsider, because you are very unique– you see the world very differently, and act accordingly. You are an artist. But there are those out there who will LOVE you for it. Most just won’t get you. Too bad for them.

    Funny, how you feel that the Cubans don’t admire your “spunk”. My Cuban parents also felt I lacked “spunk”–although I think most people would think I was kindsa spunky. I will throw out a hypothesis– I think its because you are so honest. Spunk to Cubans might involve some guile–( is that the word?). Some kind of hustling vibe. To be spunky as a Cuban you need to be “flirty” a little?. I always felt this was one my parents percieved me as not”spunky”. I was too honest or something–un poco boba. I’m just throwing this out there. I don’t know.

    Anyway, Conner, I hope you don’t dismiss me because of the politics thing. I suspect that despite it we could be the best of friends. :-).

    A kindred-soul perpetual outsider

    • Not at all S – you bring up some excellent points.

      1. New York is different. If you struggle and devote and defend NY you eventually become a NYer. This is screwing with my wah here bc I come from some place that accepts outsiders and live in a place that really doesn’t.

      2. I lack GUILE. yup, that’s the word and you’ve given me some very nutritious food for thought. Maybe my honesty – something Ive always rabidly maintained here, stating from my first days: the moment I start lying/obfuscating Im leaving Cuba – is what really threatens people here? So many people are inventando, resolviendo or en algo por la izquierda, maybe my frankness is screwing with their wah? Im also not flirty – well, only with one very definitive end, but since Im married…

      I very much appreciate your post. Thanks for reading!!

      PS – for anyone wondering: in almost 2 years of this blog, I have never censored a post/er. Must be a record for a Cuba blog!

  4. ardom

    Hello , I arrived at your blog as I have a Google alert for Cuba . I started it in March last before our 3 week trip in June. We spent 4 days in Santiago , walked Pico Turquinos and then Viaxul to Trinidad. From there with rented car via Topes de Collantes, Cienfuegos and Matanza (Rio Canimar) to Vinales for 4 days of walks and a day on the beach at Cayo Jutias. We had an interesting meeting at the Media center in Pinar del Rio of Pedro Pablo Oliva. We have stayed in touch with the family we stayed with in Santigo (and sent them two more families. My Spanish had 40 years of rust but managed. We are a couple in our 60’s from Israel (though I was born in The States and am not Jewish -but a Socialist/Ancharist) All this to give you an idea where I am coming from.
    So you have been involved with the country for years -how did that happen? Are you living there now? What do you think of the transition that is starting? I will see any comment you add or I can be reached at Yours Nimrod

    • Pico Turquino – Cuba’s tallest mountain (at just under 2000m it’s really a molehill and if you’re Swiss it’s an anthill) and historical site is a definite must do and trophy experience around here. Great that you got to it! And I love Pedro Pablo’s work.

      Glad you landed here N. You can learn all you wanted to and more by browsing the blog posts (hit the About tab for a little of my story), visiting my website, and checking out the articles I write on Cuban health & medicine.

      Happy travels!

      PS How odd (in a nice way!) all this Jewish-ness popping up on the blog today….

  5. Cort Greene

    Granted I don’t know you that well but the word I would use for you is indefatigable.
    You have the beauty of a goddess of greek yore like Athene, your practical, powerful with wisdom and a freedom loving human being attribute that is most admirable.
    Possessing both reason and an indefatigable warrior spirit.
    Rojo Rojito

  6. Ole

    Hey , Conner.

    A very poignant post straight from the heart, and on the money, as usual.
    You always need to remember that the highest Cuban, with nothing whatsoever in common with the lowest , will Still side with him against the extranjero.
    A streetsweeper in Cuba is absolutely Convinced that he knows more than the visiting Neurosurgeon from Canada.

    After you square your mind with that, then realize that it will Never change, so you put up with it, as infuriating as it is, or you leave.
    That is why you rarely see a Yuma last longer than 4-5 years maximum in Cuba.

    The arrogance gets to be a little too much.

    Beautifully written piece, and oh so true.

    • Ole! I was getting worried about you. ‘Tis too true what you say about foreigners bailing from here – those of us that stay have a little bit of the sadist in us, I think.

      Sometimes I think it’s arrogance and then sometimes I think it’s a deep-seated inferiority complex gone awry. Either way, estoy cansa’ viejo.

      • Ole

        Probably more of the masochist than the sadist, I would suspect.

        And I agree that the cuban arrogance is a product of deep seated-and denied- insecurity problems. Except for my Wife!

        PS- Fast boat that hubby of yours and get the Hell out. You’ll soon find out more about him than you now know , once in the Yuma.

      • We don’t have to fast boat it out O – we’re married. He’s had the legal option to emigrate since 2004. But we’ve both always wanted to make our life here. Still do, despite all my griping…

        PS – he’s been to the Yuma many times. He knows the grass ain’t greener.

      • Ole

        Had to revisit this post- in my memory it seemed a little snide, but it was not intended as such.
        Your husband must be a pretty unique guy to have You as his life partner. I look forward to meeting him and yourself in the not too distant future.

        Have you checked out Fatima’s yet? I swear I may invest with her to start the first non-gov’t, fast food chain in Cuba- it would be So much better than any cookie cutter type US chain. And home grown, to boot.

        What stops me is the years of knowledge I have about anybody trying to do business with the Cuban authorities- it never ends well for the extranjero. Ask the Melia Hotel group!
        But, forewarned is fore armed. We’ll see.
        Saludos, y vayanse bien.

  7. Ole

    A short PS- I love the photo!!!
    At first I thought it was a wave that you had reversed and put in the emblem, but then I read the caption. I guess it is the Surfer in me! LOL!

    Anyway, a great shot.

  8. Ellen, I got called “bossy” too early on, and was just as surprised! It smacked me down for a few years. Now sometimes I try to rein it in; sometimes I don’t.

    Conner, I can relate. When I lived in Egypt, I got my intelligence insulted at every turn. Egyptians are truly kind and hospitable, but they tend to think foreigners are total idiots who don’t even know how to cross the street or eat a falafel sandwich (or how much to pay for a kilo of tomatoes). Which is weird, considering most of them are absolutely obsessed with foreigners and will get all in a tizzy just to walk near one in the street. And forget it if you’re blonde.

    But after what all just went down in Egypt, I realize now it’s not that much about me. It’s about how sucky it is to be Egyptian in the modern world, and how as a reaction, you always have to be asserting you’re good at something/smarter/whatever. Or it _was_ sucky, before people stood up and told Mubarak off. I’m very curious to go back to Cairo now and see how the attitude has changed. (Or maybe it hasn’t–maybe I’m putting too much on a couple weeks of protests.) But maybe if/when people feel a little more control over their own lives in Cuba, it won’t be such a chore to be an outsider there? One can hope.

    • Hiya! I see what youre saying, but the thing is, I dont think Cubans feel sucky. I think they truly feel superior (see Ole’s note below). By lefties/poor/indigenous/oppressed around the world they are revered for having stuck it to The Man Uncle Sam for so long. (the exception of course are those countries – Ecuador, Italy, Miami – where immigration is becoming a bit too much). For those against the “regime” they are heralded for withstanding it. When I travel abroad with my husband, people literally fawn over him. A real live Cuban! From la isla! It’s especially comical to watch the lefties – whom I call ‘putas socialistas.’ There are other factors of course, contributing to this arrogance or superiority (or inferiority on steroids – Im not sure I can tell the difference) like having a nearly fully educated society, having birthed greats like Jose Marti and Arsenio Rodriguez, the triumph at Playa Giron. But I digress. Two issues I want to look into around this is: Cuban Americans and how they’re received/perceived here (Cuban with benefits?) and the thousands of foreigners studying on free 6-year medical scholarships here. I know people of some countries (Pakistan, China) don’t feel as at home as the Brazilians or Hondurans. One thing I do know: it’s complex.

      I bet you’re itching to get back to Egypt!! Your post is fascinating. Happy travels!

      PS – Visit Zora’s blog! She is a seriously funny lady. I can’t stop reading about her Egyptian hijinks. Deadline be damned! I need to laugh a little.

  9. papertrail23

    Oh, Conner. This is the first time I’ve ever said this aloud (and, I fully realize, the stakes for me are entirely different than they are for you, as I’m only dropping in and out of Cuba on a semi-regular basis): Cuba is the only place where I have traveled or lived where I feel I will *never* quite fit in, and like you, every visit kicks up my shit from the past. No matter how much “Cuba cred” I build up, it never really seems to be enough. But I think that’s as true within Cuban expat communities as it is in Cuba itself- the psychological/political/emotional/mental overlaps and rifts between Cuba and the US have had profound effects in so many types of relationships and lifestyles and sociologists haven’t even begun to touch this stuff… not the really interesting stuff like what you’re writing about and living.

    As a guera with blonde hair who lived in Mexico for a while (and would still live there by choice if my Cuban husband didn’t have a totally fucked up immigration [non]status), I never felt the same kind of outsiderness that I feel in Cuba.

    Anyhow- would write more but have a baby pulling at my leg and asking for attention. Can’t wait to meet you in person during my next visit.

    • Great, just great. Is there any hope? Jajajaja! Just kidding. Thanks for sharing Julie. The sociological thing is SO interesting. I admit I don’t read enough in Spanish outside of my day job, so maybe folks are publishing on this (anyone? anyone?) but it is fascinating – the mental health angle. there are some movies coming out and next week the Joven Realizadores (young filmmakers) series begins in movie theaters here but nothing Ive yet seen quite peels away the layers. Im also very interested in the psychological effects of Periodo Especial – another issue which no one, Im pretty sure, has written about in any in-depth way.

      I can’t believe you feel this outsiderness with that re-chulo baby of yours (people, trust me, Ive only seen photos, but this boy is killer cute!) This is another angle Im thinking about a lot lately since my Argentinian brother in law (of Cheasere) has a new, darling Argentinian-Cuban baby. I think he’s feeling this outsiderness too – part of the reason he started his blog!

      Yes, we must hook up!! Email me when you have dates. Abrazos….

  10. Hi Conner,
    I know about being treated as an outsider. It happened when I studied abroad in France, back in 1998, and I would stand there at the post office, or the bank, or wherever, struggling with my French while they looked around the room bored and impatient, and not once did they try to help me.
    When I lived in Hawaii, I had it a little easier, as there was no language barrier, I had an uncanny knack for learning Pidgin, and I was assumed to hapa-haole. (I wasn’t, but let it ride, as it made life easier on me!)
    However, I was never in a foreign place long term, for years on end, or permanently. I can imagine that the sense of not belonging could have a particularly bad sting after a certain amount of time.
    But then again, you wouldn’t have the incredible vantage point and perspective if you’d been born there. You wouldn’t be you. And you’re an incredible person who’s had great adventures and travels. So if I were you, I’d let the insults go. Not that it isn’t valid to feel the way you do. But just remember that you are paving your own road, and it may not always be smooth, but it’s definitely rich. And I’d choose that any day.

    • Thanks Jeneka and howz it?!. Your words are truly appreciated. As are everyone’s who has written in.

      My road is in dire need of a crew to help me along! I view all of you as part of it.

      PS Hawaii is an interesting case as there is a dash of racist attitudes among some eh? depends what island you’re on I suppose – I know the Big Island best.

  11. Beth Kubick

    Conner–“Is it like this for all foreigners living far from home I wonder [you ask]?”

    Well, having lived in nearly a dozen different towns (over 7 decades) in close to as many states RIGHT IN THE SAME U.S., it’s been my experience that for “natives” in any place, those who arrive from elsewhere–even if it was decades ago–are somehow always from “away”. And if the place you live is a LITERAL island (and not just a psychological/sociological one), I think that phenomenon is even more potent. So in the same way that we may never be AT HOME again once we leave our natal place, I think we can never QUITE “belong” anywhere–either in our own minds or in the minds of those who may have much of their identity invested in THINKING they are the ones who truly belong in space that we share. Dunno: I’d love to hear from people who’ve stayed their whole lives in the home/town/culture they were born into; but in fact the world around us, even in the same place, changes. So do we FOREVER grow away from home, and never completely belong again?

    • Excellent food for thought Beth. thanks for writing in. The way you write “away” makes me think you’ve spent some time in Maine?

      I think being from New Yrok definitely colors my perception of these matters – that IS home if you make it home. Even those from “away.” Contrast this with SF which is snob city to newcomers.

  12. Andrea Lee

    ok – what I would say is said, I won’t repeat. I will add that I have felt so outside my existence, at times, that I wondered whether I belonged there at all. It was disconcerting, for sure. I think it happens even if you move to Maine or – god forbid – South Jersey. It just takes a resolution to be your own self no matter what, no matter where, and to be kind to yourself on days (weeks, months, even YEARS) when that is hard. A trip to the beach, instead of work. A cold drink in a cafe to stare at the boys. or girls. 😀 It’s fun to live somewhere different, but IT’s not different, we are.

    Big hugs! xxoo

    • While I do agree to some extent with the “anywhere that isn’t home, isn’t home” idea that some readers have mentioned, it disregards a factor which weighs on me fairly heavily: language. As a writer, I like having 14 different ways to say things. Here, I feel like a 5-year old sometimes and Im what people call fluent in Spanish! Of course, ‘Cuban’ is a bird apart from Spanish and I have mexican, guatemalan, and argentinian friends who have trouble speaking/understanding Cuban.

      Its compounded, I think, by the fact that I get no break from it: interviews for work, lovemaking with my husband, phone calls, concerts (where EVERYONE is singing along) and on and on – all of this is conducted in Cuban.

      OK, end of whinge. I really DO have a massive deadline! thanks for writing in (again!) Andy.

  13. Drives me crazy when I travel around the world and because I’m a gringa people automatically think I’m rich. I hate being taken advantage of, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. I never forget zingers either 😦

  14. Billy Cohen

    interesting posts. they would have me as one of there own, these san franciscans. i have fathered one, which is cool. however, i won’t have them. i am other. i am new york. i know better. i am the jew.

    the talmud says to change the world, you change your perception.

    burn bright little sister. no one else in cuba can have your perception, your take on cuba. all those cubanos, they have the cuban perspective. you, have your own!

    • Ole

      You are a weird Bird, yet your last paragraph was nice.
      Dial it down, and we’ll talk to you later, eh?

      • If anything B should dial it up!! Keep on truckin’

      • Billy Cohen

        got your attention, good. sometimes, when i speak to people from the island of my birth, manhattan, they tell me there are no new yorkers left. do you know old new york? do you know any of my people? twenty years in san francisco has mellowed me. though, i can dial it up when need be. thank you conner for that.

        my sister sounded down. so, i stoke the flames in her heart, in our language from our home. should i be guided by your perspective, or by what i know because we come from the same time and place?

        i am not looking for argument, but on a level, i do battle every single person who has made conner feel this way. i am on her side forever. that is family.

  15. Cort Greene

    As someone who has lived in Miami several times, I can tell you there is somewhat of a difference between areas of the city with the question of a air of superiority in Cubans.

    In Little Havana where there is somewhat more of a working class, its not as bad but still prevalent whereas in South Beach, Homestead and Doral it is a lot worse. Sometimes I just want to hit them upside the head.

    Now I have been to Venezuela also and really never got that feeling but in Doral where the escualidos mainly live in their gated communities you feel it hard.

  16. sharmex

    Hey Connor,

    I can totally relate to feeling like an outsider as a Canadian living in Mexico for the last 27 years. I found that I was able to make some very special Mexican friends who I feel do consider me “one of them” but I
    certainly do not feel that from the general population. On the other hand I dontfeel at home really in Canada anymore either. I have just come to accept all that for what it is and I am so glad i have had the opportunity to explore and experience other countries and cultures. So I try to find ‘home’within me as opposed to outside of me ( as in a counrty) and this works quite well to stay grounded 🙂


    Hang in there

  17. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    Hey Connor

    It was great to meet you in the flesh and discover that you are as lovely off line as you are here! Thank you for sharing.

    Just to say that remember that you don´t just live in the country, you married into it. I think that adds another layer of frustration and believe me I understand.

    The thing of feeling like an outsider , well I have always lived with that. But you know the great thing is that all the best people hang out around the edge.

    • Thank Jo! And thanks for the coffee.

      I too, have always lived with being an outsider. I think part of what bothers me is that “outsider-ness” was always because of who I am. Here it’s because of where I was born – which while contributing to who I am, it’s not the end all be all. Pero bueno, !tu verás!

      It’s true, I think, what you say about the best people hanging out around the edge – too bad and so sad how many of us eventually fall off it and into the abyss.

  18. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    I have now had chance to read through all the comments here and what food for thought. I was a social psychologist before becoming a mother and hope to return to it soon! Anyway all this stuff fascinates me and reminds me of when I went to a great conference organised by the OPUS organisation in UK. We had seminars about identity (where incidently I discovered most of the other people at the conference were Jewish and it was me who was the outsider!).

    I think it is hard to be from the US right now in many parts of the world, not just Cuba. Your image outside the US is probably at an all time low. It is not easy being the only superpower and self appointed police of the planet.
    Over the course of my life I have always been interested in meeting people from the US as for a lot of us you are our most difficult anthropological challenge. I know there are lots of good guys up/over there but in general your society scares the hell out of me. Obscene consumerism, morbid obesity, arrogant jingoism, worship of the dollar and people who have lots of them…..

    But there is no-one better to explain this than people from the country itself, of course. And I am always learning. In fact right now when I should be reading about Cuba I am reading a book about the story of Britain and America. Old World New World by Kathleen Burk, a Californian educated at Berkeley and Oxford. I still think Henry James was one of your greatest writers who I advise everyone to read as he really captured a lot of social history and nuances that feed into identity issues.

    One thing you do have to realise is that some of us are maybe more used to dealing with other cultures, and we do not have your expectations of integration. I spent many years living in London which is now officially more cosmopolitan than NYC. I do not expect to find the integration and tolerance that you find in London and NYC anywhere, not even California to be honest.

    But hey what do I know!!!

  19. Estas peligrosa nena… te sabes la mecánica y todo!! seriously now.. great post! You are going to my rss 🙂

  20. Jane


    I spent 7-8 years in Asia, mainly in Japan. If you think you “stand out as foreigner” in Cuba where there are many people of European origin, then imagine being a blonde European in Tokyo for 5 years. Having said that, I was totally assimilated into local life (i.e invited to take part, but I do speak Japanese, which helps, plus I learned the customs damn quick), but I was only ever partially accepted (i.e it was evident that I was different, but they still accepted me into their lives). Aside from Japan, I spent time in China and Singapore. I always learned the language and customs, and held myself deferentially to the locals- it was their country, not mine, so I was not entitled to impose my beliefs, or standards upon them. I didn’t rebel in any way against their societies, no matter how little I agreed with them. It is always important to remember that you are a “guest”, and they may eject you at any time. I’ve lived in many countries, and never had difficulty assimilating by following my own rules, but I also know that you will never be treated as a local (being treated as an “equal” is a different matter, and recognises that you are of equal status, but from a different country. I always managed respect for that, and I think this is the best you can expect in many countries). I never experienced a problem I couldn’t deal with.

    Aside from Asia, I’ve also lived in other countries, including USA (I’m not American), and my experience was little different. I was a friend – but from another country – and therefore my opinions of that country’s politics, government, etc. could only be entertained so far, because it was assumed that despite being 35, I did not have 35 years experience or knowledge of that country, which was true.

    I’ve also spent a lot of time in Cuba, and it still irks me that when I am with my Cuban man I suffer no problems, yet when I am alone, it is a nightmare. My overall conclusion is that it is not something that an outsider can influence directly, but merely that country’s knowledge, or opinions, of cultures beyond its own. The reception is a factor of the country one is in, is a factor of its notions and its conception of the other nationality.

    I think you need to accept that while Cuba remains as it is today, whereby 99%+ of people have no detailed knowledge of life in other countries, the assumption of rich foreigners will only change the more exposure they have to other countries, and understnd that life in other places isn’t easy either. I opened my guy’s eyes when explaining how my monthly paycheck was spent and how little I had left over. He now has a very different perception of life in other countries, especially once he understood the price of goods in my country.

    Don’t feel too hard done by – it’s not your fault.

    • Hi there and thanks for joining the conversation.

      No, not my fault but more interestingly, also not an isolated or individual experience judging from the testimonies other people who have lived overseas are sharing here and in my inbox. All women incidentally, which I think is worth noting, including from a woman who had to make the “long considered and heartbreaking” decision to leave Japan after three years due to the “constant staring on the street, fending off the perverts on trains, or having to make my personality small in order to ‘not make waves.'”

      There – like here – passing is out of the question. It must be extraordinary difficult for western women to live happily, fully in such a context and some do leave as a result.

      There are different gradations of xenophobia I figure and Cuba – for all its international programs (huge, fully operational since 1963), education, tourism, returning Diaspora and other factors that you’d think would temper the xenophobia, hasn’t all that much. I guess I just expect more and better from what I consider a pretty evolved society…..maybe that’s where I’m at fault.

      • Jane

        I would suggest that Japan is a LOT easier to deal with than Cuba. I never once felt intimidated in Japan. Yes, I hated the stares and the comments, which I understood them all, having majored in Japanese, but there was never any threat. Having said that, Japan is a much safer society than in many countries, including my own – but that discussion would launch us in another direction. Anyone intimidated by Japan wouldn’t survive a day in Cuba. My response to perverts on the train in Japan was a gentle smack in the face, or else grabbing his hand, holding it aloft and declaring “This man is a pervert”, to his utter shame. Worked a treat every time……but also because I knew he would never retaliate, as I knew it was their culture. Any woman who put up with it, and did nothing, has my sympathy.

        I’ve never let “being a Western woman” interfere with my life. If I’m not accepted, I simply move on – I certainly don’t sit and dwell upon it. Nor do I complain about it. I just accept that that particular country has its own views which do not concur with mine, and I move on. After all, who am I to change their status quo if they don’t want it? (I’ve lived in about 10 countries).

        In many ways, I feel a little like that about Cuba, since I am strong and have opinions, but I know they won’t be accepted just yet. However, like all countries, I am willing to give them grace, it is their country after all, not mine, and adapt my demeanour to accomodate theirs, a little, but there are limits. I will give it time………

      • Hi Jane. You bring up some interesting ideas. What especially intrigues me is the question of X place being harder to live in than Y and for what reasons. I’ve only lived in Cuba so I can only speculate. What’s your take on the 10 different places you’ve lived? Also, your comments put me in mind of the words of Martha Gellhorn: “Cuba is no place for a self-willed, opinionated loner.”

        Another issue which I find intriguing and which this discussion is bringing into focus for me is the role of women in expat scenarios in general. Almost every single person offering personal experiences on this topic has been female. There are many possible factors at play here, something I hope to address in a future post.

        As for complaining: I accept responsibility. It is tiresome, but writing is my mechanism for processing (or trying to) the difficult times Ive been facing personally and which Cuban society is confronting always, but especially now. Your solution – leaving – isn’t the practical or preferred option for me. So I write and gripe. Unatttractive, I know, but maybe we’ll stumble on to some insight that will prove helpful to others.

        For more ‘upbeat’ posts, may I suggest
        Things I Love about Cuba
        Es Cuba Mi Amiga

  21. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    Jane it seems you have a great attitude that I wish I could have all the time. Very impressed with anybody who learns Japanese. I also lived in many places and speak 3 foreign languages. I lived in Asia but unlike you, never learnt the local language which obviously helps a lot. My expectations were low but I left with two good friends after a year and that is all I ever expect. Incidentally they were both women married to westerners so already you knew they were in for a pound ……

    We have brought up a lot of discussions around identity and acceptance and interesting that it us women that worry or think about these things more, which doesn´t surprise me.

    My parents brought me up with a healthy shame for the atrocities of the British Empire and I was prepared for a lot of animosity when I started travelling outside Europe, which incidentely I didn´t really get. In fact I would say that I feel the most animosity here in Guatemala. WHy it that? I have been thinking these last few days. Is it because I married a Guatemalan and have had 3 children here that I feel I have a right to be more accepted so therefore my expectations are higher. Or is it because here in Central America everyone assumes I am a gringa (dollares, estados, comments about my country) and I rarely bother to correct them anymore as I know that I am just a white women who speaks English and therefore must be wealthy etc etc. IN fact the only time I mention my nationality is when I meet a Byron or a Nelson or a Shakespeare and I feel compelled to see if they have any idea who their namesakes´s are!

    I am arriving in Cuba in August and looking forward to being in a country where am unlikely to be shot ………. and living in a country where my husband was not born or nearly died in a failed revolution. When you are in a relationship with someone from the country where you live I think everything is more intense. My day to day struggles with learning how to live in Guatemala and have a family weighed heavily on my husband´s shoulders. Now at least I can speak Spanish albeit not Cubano!

    all these discussions are great and I am already thinking of possible research topics. IN the UK now 1 in 4 mothers were born outside the UK. I truly hope they are able to assimilate more than I have!

  22. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    I suppose that due to relationships and jobs sometimes we can not just get up and go and move on somewhere else when things get us down. I certainly couldn´t, unless I wanted to deprive my children of a great father and myself of a great husband.

    So yes, like you Connor I have had to sit and dwell on things a lot.

    But I am getting worried, am I going to hit a wall of unbridled machismo and groping and patronising?????

    • That all depends where you’re coming from, how you live here, what you’re used to (and are willing to tolerate). I have expat friends here who have little “contact” with the real Cuba: they never take a bus or maquina or (gasp!) have to walk for miles when neither is available, have their staff do all the shopping/cooking/cleaning/resolving, don’t have to worry where next month’s rent/food/medicine will come from etc. This insulates a lot of expats here. Obviously, the more you’re in the street and maneuvering the mecánica, the more of this you’ll see/experience.

      There is machismo to varying degrees – from apalling/disgusting to partially evolved I would call the spectrum. Patronising is something else. Did you see the comment about the average street sweeping Cuban knowing more than a Canadian neurosurgeon? This pretty much sums up the context of this country of “sabe lo todo” (know-it-alls).

      As for the groping, I think there might be a misunderstanding out there about my experience getting groped here in Havana since a couple people have commented on it: this was an isolated incident, the one time anything like this has happened to me in 9 years living here. I consider Havana, still, one of the safest destinations to travel and live.

  23. macan

    when i was living in the UK, my co-workers apologized to me profusely for their “faux pas” during lunch when one of them claimed to never master the chopsticks. i am not chinese nor japanese.
    an old drunk shouted “go home, you japanese f*ck!” when i ignored his pleas for change.
    so yeah, despite my english proficiency, i was sometimes made aware that i was an outsider. the irony is, now whenever i travel people thought i’m english.

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