Wednesday 28 September 2016

Let's Talk About...

cuteness. But not in an attractive, pleasantly pretty way. That definition we know. That definition is the cat-falling, hundred-laughs-a-minute, regular You Tube dose to which we submit during our working day (oops, sorry, for turning you in. Didn’t mean that).

No, the cuteness I want to discuss tonight is not that one pertaining to little toddlers giving you the two fingers (or the middle one, in the States). Let’s talk about the other cuteness. The one with a sinister – albeit unintended – connotation and detrimental effects.

After my first ten years living here in Blighty, I realised that I had acquired an unasked-for trait: that of looking at my own country and its population through British eyes. It was a strange sensation. One minute you were still the Cuban in London, the next, you were back in Havana, looking at your birthplace through foreign eyes. There was no warning or rehearsal. The transition was swift and unexpected.

This is where the “cuteness” factor kicked in. I began to notice how “cute” we, Cubans, looked to non-Cubans (now, from my resident-in-Britain vantage point). My reaction was a mix of amusement and irritation. The latter was born out of a frustrated attempt to explain our way of life to foreigners (regardless of where, on the political spectrum, they sat) through a non-romanticised, more reality-based lenses. The former came about after listening to some of the “comrades” and “free-marketeers”. Occasionally both amusement and irritation got mixed up, resulting in a concoction I would term amuse-ritation (sue me, Oxford dictionary, I dare you).

In between working as a free-lance interpreter, translator and tour guide for a few years in Cuba and becoming an (in)voluntary immigrant in London, I amassed enough experience to formulate a hypothesis as to why we, Cubans, are so “cute” to foreign eyes. Not to all foreign eyes, I hasten to add. There are people who "get" us from the word go. The, again, these are the people who are not interested in "cute" locals, regardless of the country they visit. Any note of sarcasm you find in this article is completely intentional.

So, why do so many visitors to Cuba find us cute?

-         Because we’re not just cute, but “so fucking cute” (you have to say this in the same voice as Thom Yorke in Radiohead’s “Creep”)
-         Because of the way we pile up in cars (especially American cars). Eight, nine, ten; they always seem to grow extra seats, these cars. Never mind that the temperature is infernally hot and some people pass out during the journey. The whole situation is so “cute”.
-         Because of the way we walk in the middle of the road at a leisure pace, shaking our money-makers (both men and women, by the way. Money-makers know no gender boundaries in “cute” Cuba). Never mind that the reason for walking in the middle of the street is because of the risk of being buried under a derelict building, pieces of which are usually found… on the same road.
-         Because of the way we use our horns liberally when we drive. Hesitate behind the wheel for a split second when the light changes to green and the driver behind you (usually a bloke) will let you know in no time that you have to move off. On the same note, American cars have a funny beep. It’s so “cute” that it makes me cry.
-         Because of the way men leer at women. Women of all ages, from middle-aged to pre-pubescent (unacceptable, in my opinion). But, then, again, who am I to say it is not OK to look at an eleven-, or at a twelve-year-old lasciviously? I’m just a Cuban and Cuban men are doing what Cuban men do: be “cute” to foreigners.
-         Because of the way ”parqueadores” insist on telling you how to park your car, even when they themselves do not know how to drive (see previous post).
-         Because of the way we sound as if we are doing you, customer, a favour most of the time, when all we are doing is our job.
-         Because of the way children laugh. Once, back in the 90s, I took a British couple around the city on a sightseeing tour. That night, sitting on El Malecón, under a starry night and with a full moon on the sky, we discussed various topics. A group of Cuban children played nearby. Did you know, the man said to me, that in London children don’t laugh? My face must have shown puzzlement because he pressed on with his comment. Nope, children don’t laugh. And you can’t see the moon either, added his wife. You can’t see a full moon like this. Imagine my surprise a few months ago and many years after that meeting, when I saw a strawberry moon… in London. As for laughing children, well, at the time of writing my son is cracking up upstairs and has done so for the most part of his eighteen years. Must be the Cuban genes!
-         Because of the way we are, one minute, complaining about the state of the country, and the next minute, we are praising El Comandante. The fact that we fail to join the dots make us “cuter” than “cute”.
-         Because of the way our machismo is the in-your-face type. All hand-waving and crotch-grabbing. What would normally get a ticking-off from feminists everywhere in the western world gets a free pass in Cuba because Cuban men are so “cute”. Even when they hit their wives/girlfriends/partners.
-         Because of the fact we insist on carrying on living in dilapidated Instagram-perfect, old buildings (not that we can do anything about it). Those faces poking out of buildings that look as if they have just been subjected to an air strike are photo-cute.
-         Because of the way the “internet zombies” (copyright, moi) gather near hotels and tourist hotspots, holding their arms aloft, hoping to get an Etecsa signal to update their Facebook status or watch the latest reggaeton video.

"Cute" people galore
All this and a lot more are the reasons why we, Cubans, are “cute”. Or as Thom Yorke would probably say, so “fucking cute”.

© 2016

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 1st October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. "cute" isn't the word that springs to mind when I think of Cubans. Versatile, resourceful ... and children all over the world are appealing. But I suppose I've visited a number of countries now that have economic and social challenges, and feel humbled by the way so most people make the very most of the opportunities available to them - even when these are limited. (But I like to think I'm a traveller, and curious about people I meet, and not simple a tourist gawping at them).

  2. Heard there wasn't much internet there, can picture all the facebook junkies huddling around indeed where the hotspots take seed.

  3. It's insightful for you to describe this thing that I think happens when one culture encounters the reality of another. A reality that we can't quite understand. We have usually romanticized that culture and in experiencing it, in most circumstances we can't quite let that go and subsequently dive under. I know I do with my enamor of Asian cultures. I find them so beautiful and charming and just damn "cute", until I really researched what their history was and the impetus behind this, sometimes, facade. I still can't let go of this notion completely, but I've also come to understand the reason behind it -- for my behavior. I think, without research, I would do the same in Cuba. And probably, even then, I would still do it to some extent because I can't be Asian, I can't be Cuban.

  4. I am v glad to realise that cute is not a word which I use on a regular basis. Or indeed often.
    Your new header is confronting. A reality for too many, which slides by so many.

  5. I've been to London and have seen laughing children.

  6. For some reason, every time I think of Cubans, Desi Arnaz comes to mind, and this makes me smile, so I can live with it. :)

  7. Thank you all for your comments. As I specified in my column this is not a phenomenon that happens with all tourists, but with the majority. There are a lot of people who go to Cuba and don't find us "cute", but normal.

    Two anecdotes involving tourists on different sides of the political spectrum. The first one took place here in London several years ago at my previous school but one. I had a colleague who had been to Cuba and on finding out I was Cuban myself began to tell me about her trip to the island. When she started talking about the beauty of the crumbling buildings in Havana, I had to jump in to remind her that people lived in those buildings and that people died when those buildings collapsed. Never mind, she said, those buildings are still cute. That was the inspiration for tonight's post. I had to stop the conversation there and then.

    The second anecdote concerned an American businessman who was visiting Havana when it was still very difficult for Americans to go to Cuba. He had to go via Mexico. This gentleman, from the moment he landed until he left, wasted no time in laying into Fidel and the Cuban government. Now, I have been very critical of Fidel, but there is something called "amour propre" and on that occasion my inner, latent, ever-sleeping socialist/communist woke up. We had an argument, which was not advisable as he was my client, and in the end he just said: "You guys are too cute to have someone like Fidel in power. You need freedom."

    I understand many of the comments made so far. I would also add that this cuteness is based on stereotypes and stereotypes apply to all nations. The difference is that when the stereotyping is done from First World country to Third World country the latter usually ends up being infantilised, belittled and unable to respond properly.

    Greetings from London.

    1. I agree completely that many people in First World countries infantilise those in those in developing countries - and make the assumption that our way of life is 'better' than theirs and must be aspired to.

      I just don't see it like that. But, like you, have met many of those who do. So I see where you are coming from.

  8. An important and revealing piece about islands, 'other' and being an immigrant to a different culture. Well done!

  9. I have that too, an inner, latent, but not quite sleeping socialist/communist side. And I understand the "amour propre" of Castro, I think, as I see it amongst the Chinese for Mao. Maybe not the best comparison, but I think you know what I mean. There is nothing "cute" about either of these regimes, most especially in light of the brutality of Mao. But it's a double sided sword and both countries deal with it in their own ways - as do so many others. Respect, that's the first thing to pack in your bag when you travel.

  10. My contact with Cubans primarily has been with a number who fled the country in various waves after the "Castro Revolution," including relatives by marriage and also including some who actively attempted to "make war" with the Castro regime, so my view of all things Cuban is very politicized and rather nuanced. The result is many preconceived notions .... which makes me all the more curious about how I would feel when walking the streets of Havana.

    I would prefer a "cute" guide, using the more conventional definition, when I do so ....

  11. Interesting, because would not describe what you describe as "cute" although "picturesque" is an adjective that often seems to be applied to the crumbling buildings and old cars of Cuba, by thoughtless people. And it is tiresome indeed to read the travel company blurb about it. Americans often describe things as "cute" when they are not being entirely flattering, but I haven't noticed English people doing it.

    As for kids laughing - hm, not sure I agree with you that there is no difference. Not that I know about Cuba, since I've never been there, but in other countries there does sometimes seem to be a difference between their young people and ours. Kids do laugh and have fun in England of course but light hearted fun has never seemed to be an English characteristic (at least not in my lifetime) and I am often struck by not exactly surliness but a certain cynicism and stroppiness here, like we're sneering at things all the time. And this seems to show quite early on in life.

    I remember being inside in Syria and hearing children aged about 12 outside in the street laughing and really actually being quite mischievous, but having a good time. It struck me as I listened to them from within the house that it sounded unfamiliar.

    The more one tries to pin down national differences the harder it seems to get.

  12. I am still puzzling over the word 'cute'. As for children, most I know or have met have the ability to laugh regardless of where they are/were.

  13. Ah yes - that word is such a double-edged sword, is it not?

  14. Mayitoooo ¿qué te pasó? ¿alguien se orinó en tus cereales this morning? (joking). Entiendo tu cabreo, pero estoy segura que podrías hacer otra entrada hablando de personajes de tu vida en La Habana que despertaron tu ternura, y que no son precisamente los que se encuentran los turistas por tu ciudad.

  15. "Cuteness" is indeed a double-edged sword!
    When referring to a child or pet, yes, I guess I get that.
    But referring to a nation? Absolutely not!
    I have to say, I detest the self-opinionated notion of foreign cultures being described as "cute" or "quaint"...when what is really being implied is "inferior".
    No race is superior to any other...we are all human beings and, as such, should never disrespect each other.
    I am beginning to intensely dislike the word "cute"...

    Many thanks for another great and thought-provoking post! :))

  16. Ah, you have such a great perspective, as a native, and an emigrant, returned to visit with new eyes, and old traditions still in his blood. I confess when I visited Italy after eight, and again after twenty five years, each time the old patterns irritated me, and yet, I couldn't quite put my finger on the reasons for my reactions. For instance, a tour guide, put me in my place in such a curt way that embarrassed me. She wouldn't have said such remarks to "real" foreigners in her tour group, and yet, she took a stand with me that really irked me. "You, after all, left Italy, not appreciating all this culture!" She said in Italian. I wanted to have a come-back, but my Italian was not up to par.

  17. Oh man, this is a big dose of reality.

  18. I'm not familiar with anyone using the word "cute" as you describe it, but it's insulting when anyone looks down their nose on another culture based on ignorance and a misplaced sense of superiority. In my eyes, the people of Cuba are amazingly resourceful and resilient. I'd like to think that children all over the world have cause to laugh. Alas, I know that isn't necessarily the case.

  19. A very biting post and very perspicacious. I guess tourists are always searching for what they see as authenticity--it is pretty crazy. Thank you for this. k.

  20. Where I grew up, and in several other places during my teens and beyond, the "Ugly American" was often a feature of the landscape, loud, looking down their noses at everything and everyone or using euphemisms to describe things or people about which they were ignorant. Because of my coloring and skin tone, I would often look at them and utter the phrase, "No hablo," while walking away in embarrassment. An incomplete phrase which would lead them to think I did not speak or understand English. I still find embarrassment from this country and fear that things will only grow worse. I appreciate your question and will answer in a blog post rather than a comment. Thank you for your interest.



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