Let me start off by saying that I count myself to be an extremely lucky, privileged person because I got to experience many different cultures firsthand. Our family friends in the US, the people I grew up with, my virtual aunts and uncles and cousins, are from all over the world. I remember when I watched “My big fat Greek wedding” I spent the entire movie going OMG, that’s so familiar, even though I’m nowhere near Greek and had never been to Greece until a few years ago, but many of my Mom’s girlfriends are Greek so, for example, we would often celebrate Easter at our house and (usually) a week later Greek Easter at one of her friend’s house. I went to a French International school for seven years, I had friends from Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, Pakistan, Iran, France, the US, Algeria… I could go on and on, but you get my point. I lived and breathed so many cultures, each family had it’s own different quirks and customs that being slightly different was totally normal.
But now… well now I live in rural Italy, where being different is just different. And the thing is that the longer that I’m away from “home” and, absurdly, “home” to me is still Houston though I haven’t lived there full time in fifteen years the harder it is for me to define my own identity. I look and sound Italian, in fact, I am Italian, although I’m actually not, not really. I don’t have any of the shared childhood experiences that Italians have. I don’t recognize half the stuff they talk about, they don’t know half the stuff I talk about, there’s no common ground. My childhood has much more in common with American kids… but I’m not American (incidentally, I will never forgive my father for refusing to apply for citizenship, which we could have done, about a million times!).
I have a friend here who is me, in reverse, she’s American but grew up in Italy, her dad’s American her mom is foreign. She’s been here since she was seven. She is way more Italian than me, and I’m way more American than her, yet our passports say otherwise.
It got me thinking about how important, how much of an impact the way in which we spend our formative years is. Overall, I’ve lived more years of my life in Italy and yet my Italian friends often wonder how I could possibly be so foreign. This led me to believe that the greater part of our character, our opinions, our belief system is created when we’re young. As adults we can tweak, we can use our more mature rationale to improve ourselves, possibly to let go of some insecurities or to develop our strengths, but the core of who we are is a result of our childhood and young adulthood.
The other day I was talking to my new therapist, and I was telling him that I got some very negative reactions when the Husband got sick because I needed to talk about the possibility that he could die. I felt it was important, imperative even, for me to know what he would want should he die. When my Dad died my Mom knew exactly what he would have wanted and not having to decide anything, just having to follow directions was a huge burden off her shoulders. The husband knows me and agreed that it was necessary and had no problem discussing it with me. His family was appalled. My therapist commented that of course his family was appalled, I’d grown up in a culture where death is not danced around too much. It’s a fact of life. Of course, different people react to it in different ways, but there’s much less stigma about death in the US than there is in Italy. In Italy death is something one doesn’t mention, it’s a huge taboo, he said it probably has to do with the extent to which the Catholic Church permeates everyday life. I tend to agree. (He also informed me that in Italy there’s no such thing as a DNR order, this freaked me the hell out.)
Most of the time I walk around feeling foreign in my own country, the other half of the time I walk around feeling foreign in the US cause I haven’t lived there in so long. It’s exhausting. I remember when the whole Janet Jackson Super Bowl debacle happened and the ensuing uproar in America, I was like, what the hell, y’all, it’s just a boob! – A very Italian reaction. So every once in a while I wonder, who or what am I?
When people ask me where I’m from it makes me want to jump off a bridge screeching because the answer’s so drawn out and complicated. And believe me, I’ve tried simple. For example, I get to talking with a new mom at the park and she inevitably asks where I’m from cause my accent in Italian is slightly different from here as I lived for many years in Milan. So I’m like, oh, I’m from Milan. Short, simple, sweet. But then the Boy will come up and ask me something or I yell at him to not push his sister off the slide, and I do it in English, cause I talk to my kids in English, reflexively. So the mom, raised eyebrow, says, wow your English is really good, so I have to answer oh, I grew up in the US and I swear to you, somehow, the conversation spirals from there into something way more convoluted than you’d want with a total stranger at the park. I can’t seem to avoid it.
I don’t know, maybe this whole mental mayhem I’m going through right now is just a consequence of having been gone from the US for far too long (three years (shudder) up until the husband got sick I had always gone at least twice a year). I used to always find a balance between my Italian, my American and my (albeit small) Brazilian side and now I just need to recharge my American batteries for a while. In fact, lately I find myself teary-eyed every time I hear that Michael Buble song “I want to go home”-
To this end I’ve finally decided I’m going to Houston in November! For a month! Maybe even six weeks! I’ll be there for Thanksgiving! Oh my god a real, honest to goodness American Thanksgiving, with my family, in America! In Houston! Where you can wear shorts at the end of November and there’s no snow to speak of!
And wow, I actually had to write the longest post ever written just to slip that in!