Wednesday, April 2, 2008
where I am coming from
"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller
Do you ever think about who you really are when you walk out of the door in the morning? What is it that makes you that person? What is it that makes you fit in or stand out? That makes you feel like yourself? Or feel like an impostor? What is it that makes you feel comfortable? Authentic? Insecure? A phony? Like you belong? Like you don't?
What did you eat for breakfast and what are you wearing? Did you watch the news? Did you read a paper? What language did you hear and read these in? What language did you read in your favorite book as you fell asleep the night before? What language did you dream in? Where were you?
What is expected of you today? Will you be met with challenges or will you be bored? Will you understand what is being said to you, not just the words, but the meanings behind these words, meanings coming from afar and the passage of time? Will you know where to go? Will you know how to navigate? Will you find a friendly face, or will you find a stranger? Are you the stranger?
I started this blog as I left the life of an expat that I had lived for fifteen years. I still cannot comprehend that I was abroad for that long, and all the introspection in the world will never help me to understand what the impact of that time was on me. My life as an expat was a lot like being a child again, learning a language, a culture, the rules and unspoken rites of another country. I have written here before that in my early years in Italy, I was confused as to my own identity. I suddenly found myself ironing pillowcases and eating my salad at the end of a meal. I suddenly felt at a loss when trying to get dressed in the morning. I suddenly found myself in a world without my own language. Living without your language, the language of your parents and dreams and memories, is at first terrifying, bewildering and frustrating. In retrospect, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I try to remember that as my husband struggles today. It was also one the greatest gifts I gave myself and my children.
My last post here received several comments about me generalizing Italian women. I really don't think that particular post had any generalizations in it, though I may have been guilty in the past of generalizing. What struck me about these comments were the same generalizations they contained, such as Italian women are.... as if all Italian women are (fill in the blank). Are all American women strong? Are all Italian women smart? Are are American women stupid? Are Italian women weak?
Living in Italy for so many years gave me ample opportunity to talk about my own country, since I was consistently asked that question- do you prefer Italy or America? I hated that question! How hard it that to answer? My experience living in Italy was uniquely mine, and had just as much to do with my own upbringing and disposition as it did the people around me. I strongly believe that the introspection born of living abroad has given me a clearer sense of who I am. Who I really am, regardless of the language I am speaking or the place where I am living. My need, or readiness, to leave Italy and change my life was rooted in my family and my own sense of urgency. Maybe I was incapable of staying in Italy, or anyplace at all, for that matter, for such a long time. And I was truly tired of feeling like a foreigner, which was a feeling that grew over time and went from gently knocking to banging down the door. As I stopped trying valiantly to fit in, I realized that my differentness was an innate part of who I was. In a certain sense, I think it is arrogant to even suggest that I could ever broaden or change anyone else's world at all, whether an American or Italian or Martian. We are our own pilots. We blaze our own trails and reap the fruit or pain of our decisions.
That's where I am coming from.