I've been back in the US for a little more than a year now. My family's cross cultural moments are less than they were at the start, and in general are funny, centering around food and matching socks. But this morning I was reminded of one of the hardest cross cultural challenges I faced during my years in Italy. This came about in a translator's forum, places that I generally dare not haunt or show my face. But I lost my hard earned detachment and responded to a posting that frankly made me angry. And the ensuing can of worms reminded me of this one ever so difficult sticking point that I saw time and time again in Italy.
When I arrived in Italy so many years ago, I didn't realize that I was landing in the land of America Experts. Many of the Italians I met, especially my husband's long-haired friends, were great experts on America. Countless dinner conversations would eventually turn to me, asking me if I preferred the US or Italy. This was always a loaded question, and the harbinger of the ills of America and how the US was the devil. I would sit through a stream of comments about "people sleeping under bridges", "dying on the sidewalk", "racism and segregation", "savage capitalism", and on and on. These people were so sure that America was the Anti-Christ, and that she was in some way the cause of all the sorrows of the world. Nearly all of these people had never set foot on American soil, didn't speak or understand English (I personally believe that knowledge of the local language is key to even beginning to comprehend another culture) and based their knowledge of the world on television and newspapers. The problems facing down Italy, many, complex, convoluted and creeping through so much of their everyday lives, were nowhere near as interesting as the evil America. Needless to say, the early years of my stay in Italy were bearable from this point of view as compared to the final seven, when Americans had somehow placed an imbecile in the White House. After a time I found this conversation monotonous, boring and tiresome. I gave up.
Today as I responded to the forum posting of an Italian commenting that Americans cannot speak proper English, I realized that I was going nowhere fast. Her retorts were quick and self assured. She had spent four years in New York. She knew what she was talking about. Her reply even included the long suffering comment about people sleeping under bridges.
This latest cross cultural flashback happens just as I was contemplating a post about another more surprising cross cultural moment. My husband is just a bit mystified about my enthusiasm about the upcoming election. I mean, they're politicians! He was dumbstruck by the tears on my parent's faces as they watched Ted Kennedy speak at the convention. The swell of hope and thirst for real change, and the belief that it is possible, is hard for him to comprehend. He knows more of America than the Italian translator with whom I quibbled ever will, but I wonder if he will ever understand that thing that comes up in my throat when I see images of Marin Luther King. My pride overfloweth. That's when I feel truly, deeply American. And that feeling is something I could never convey during those dinner conversations in Italy, nor in my forum reply this morning. It may be something so intangible and fleeting, that it is best kept to myself.