On She Goes

Defying & Growing with La Familia: A Dominican American Studies Abroad

What does it mean to be a “A good Dominican daughter” when you want to move away?

Carolina Batista
Carolina Batista
October 24, 2017
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A good Dominican daughter is many things. She will stay at home until she gets married. She will know how to cook and clean well. And she will help Mami and the tias in serving Papi and the tios. She can be loud as long as she is obedient, and she dresses feminine yet modest. In my house, there was the added expectation that I would be successful: earn a college degree and gain financial security. While I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I was always surrounded by Dominican culture at home and in my everyday life.

These were confusing expectations because they seemed contradictory. On my own, I had to figure out scholarships, college applications, internships, and so many other aspects of my education. Over the years, I spent less time helping in the kitchen or worrying about my appearance, and more time scrambling to understand how I would manage to be all the things my family wanted me to be.

Over the rainbow on my way from a short trip to Okinawa.
photo by Carolina Batista

Being successful and good
I remember the moment at the end of my first year of college when I declared to Papi that I would be spending the summer in Japan. I had a C- in my Japanese class, work-study money saved up, and a loose plan to work in the Japanese countryside in exchange for food and housing. I remember being surprised he was not as excited as I was about my “plan,” and I remember the first thrill of defiance when I said I would go with or without his permission. Most of all, I remember how incredibly determined I felt to make this dream a reality.

Within a few days, I received university funding to take an internship position at a nonprofit in Tokyo and confirmed my plans to study abroad in South Korea the following semester. I would get a great internship and semester abroad, and the entire stay would be fully funded—yet my parents were not thrilled.

I can look back years later and understand the love, worry, and shock my parents must have felt. I thought my parents refused to be supportive and that they were disappointed in my choices—and most of all, that I did not live up to their expectations. In reality, they were just as confused and worried as I was. While I researched international insurance and secured housing, they were trying to understand how to support a daughter going off to do things they had never considered desirable or maybe even possible.

Happily exploring Yoyogi Park during my first summer in Tokyo.
photo by Carolina Batista

Being vulnerable with Papi and Mami
Because of the fighting and because I tried to exude determined confidence in the weeks leading up to my departure, I was afraid of sharing my own worries and moments of crisis with my parents, at least at first. When I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, I stood in the middle of the train station, wiped tears off of my face, and thought to myself, Why did I even come here? When I spoke to my parents, I never mentioned the slightest issue or worry for fear that they would lecture me to “come back home” and give me the dreaded “I told you so” speech.

When I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, I stood in the middle of the train station, wiped tears off of my face, and thought to myself, Why did I even come here?

One of my most distinct memories is looking at my reflection in the window of a train car during morning rush hour: a curvy girl in a hot pink dress and big frizzy hair amidst a sea of salarymen in almost identical white button-up shirts and black slacks. My inability to blend into the crowd because of the way I looked made me increasingly comfortable with standing out and embracing the things that made me different, not just in Tokyo’s subways but in my family as well.

A few weeks into my first summer, part of my scholarship money did not arrive on time to pay the next month’s rent. I cried and called my parents in desperation and they surprised me by encouraging me to stay when I wanted to leave. Not only did they lend me the money I needed, but Papi stayed on the phone for almost an hour talking me through the situation until I was calm. I did eventually hear the “I told you so” speech, but only after the university’s stipend came in three weeks later and the real emergency had passed.

A soft sunset on a school night in Rabat.
photo by Carolina Batista

Love and disagreement
We still disagree, and travel remains the flash point. In my junior year when I decided to study abroad again, this time in Morocco, my parents were scared for my safety and could not understand why I would want to study there. Despite all of the information I showed them about the study abroad program, they remained scared. If I’m being honest, my time in Morocco was difficult: I struggled with the constant pressure to cover up my body, learning Arabic, and the culture shock that comes from studying abroad. But the friendships I found there restored my faith in people’s goodness. And I learned so much in my classes on immigration, which completely changed my understanding of the world and myself. The most frustrating yet comforting lesson is the ubiquity of the immigrant experience.

Early on my program took us to Amsterdam for a week, where we spent time with Dutch-Moroccans hearing about their experiences as the children of immigrants or as immigrants themselves. In their stories, I heard my own, and I also caught a glimpse of my parents’ immigration experiences that I had rarely asked about. Returning to Rabat after our short trip made me see it as more than just a historical city; I began to see it as the homeland of those we had spoken to in Amsterdam. My daily routine largely consisted of eating warm msemen (a type of pancake, but a million times better than the American version) and drinking mint tea for breakfast with my host grandma, basking in the sun on a roof while listening to the call to prayer during the lunch hour, and watching the Atlantic Ocean crash into the shore only minutes away from my home of three months. Sometimes, back in the States, I’d be walking and wrapping the scarf I used to wear then, and those memories would come flooding back.

It’s difficult for me to explain to him how the challenges of studying in Rabat are precisely the reason my time there is so precious to me, because I grew so much as a person.

But whenever I mention my time in Morocco to my dad now, he rolls his eyes. He cites the few moments of vulnerability that I shared with him over the phone about how I sometimes felt afraid to go out alone or how angry I was with my program. Whenever I say something positive about my time there, he says, “Sure, sure, I know you didn’t really like it.” It’s difficult for me to explain to him how the challenges of studying in Rabat are precisely the reason my time there is so precious to me, because I grew so much as a person.

In the midst of a demonstration of Moroccan pride down the main street of Rabat.
photo by Carolina Batista

Dominican parents—and really, many immigrant parents—hope that their sacrifices will lessen any struggle that their children might have to face. I have slowly realized that so many of my parents’ frustrations with my experiences abroad come from a place of loving me and fearing what they cannot protect me from, including the consequences of living a life different from what they know. What I have learned is that while a good Dominican daughter might help Mami cook or listen to Papi’s advice here and there, the real hallmark of a good Dominican daughter is treating our own dreams and ourselves with the same respect and love we show our parents.