My Italian Diary: The Language

I owe a great deal of the Italian I have learned so far to Davide and his mom. When we were living with her for the month and a half over the summer, there weren’t many other options of communication. I have to understand…it’s not something I can hide from nor is it something that’s going to go away. She would often get frustrated with me when I wouldn’t understand something, even when she was aware that I’m learning a new language entirely from nothing. 

I knew going into this that it would be difficult. It’s no secret that the Italian language is extremely complex, but I did not even know to think about the challenges that come along with learning a new language — the challenges of being an immigrant. Immigrant. A word so vehemently tossed around in the US, and one I thought I understood very well being that my descendants immigrated to the USA from Italy many years ago. I thought because of this I was able to understand the thoughts and feelings of the immigrants in America today. “Immigrating” to Italy has taught me is that I don’t know shit. My struggles with the language, finding work, and housing are only windows into the challenges of what other immigrants face each day. This experience has opened my eyes to how completely helpless they must feel every day…again, something I thought I already understood, but I will never understand. Because of my challenges here, I can only simply try to understand and try to help. 

I feel like a small child. I am lucky enough to be able to understand most of the conversations, but I am often forced to sit and observe them because I don’t have the vocabulary to contribute. It’s especially frustrating when there are conversations about things I have very strong opinions about, like racism, feminism, and immigration and I can’t say much beyond, “Don’t say that,” or “That’s just not the truth.” I’ve often had to escape social situations in a fit of anger that I need to hide, and keep tucked away because I can’t explain to them how racist or sexist they can be, and how important it is to change. Then when I give it a try, everyone gives me the same wide eyes and nodding of the head as they do to a little kid telling you about a dream they had. 

It never crossed my mind about how much of our identities are carried with the language we speak. Even something as simple as my own name. I say my name with an accent because the “y” sound in “Alyssa” doesn’t exist in Italy, and thus neither does my name. I pronounce it as ah-lee-sah, but even that doesn’t work. My name has become Ali, a nickname I loathed growing up. It just always sounded so harsh. It’s also become Elisa, which I don’t mind, and Alessia. Maybe it shouldn’t be so important, but I feel a confusion of identity without a name. I’ve finally started to feel comfortable in my own skin, and there’s a part of me that feels a disconnect to friends and colleagues here when my name doesn’t exist. I’m often hesitant to even mention it because then it opens up the “why the hell did you move from New York to Reggio Emilia” conversation, which often results in laughter at my dispense, and not being taken seriously. In America, I’m Italian and have been for my entire life. In Italy, I’m American…which is an entirely new identity to take on even though I am American. It’s fastidious to redefine the woman you have been building up for 25 years, but I’m trying to learn how to use this challenge in my identity to help myself grow both in patience, and security within myself. 

Working in an Italian office has helped me learn the language tremendously, but I still often feel ostracised, even when it’s of course never their intention. When introduced to partners, I’m “Aleeesa the American,” not Alyssa the Video Producer. Fortunately, I have finally found a job where I can creatively express myself without limits, and colleagues who genuinely respect my work. And for this I understand that to them, being American so cool. Like, “yeah, that’s right…we have an American working in our office.” I’m often so quick to say, “well, I’m also Italian,” because of all the negativity and stereotypes that the world associates with America.

Being a descendant of war veterans, and knowing the sacrifices my family has made for my sister and I makes me very proud to be American (even if we have a lot to work on). So for that, I want to just own it — to change the stereotype. Be the badass American woman who put it all on the line to follow her dreams. Show that America is more than violence, and gluttony. I want to close the umbrella that the world holds over us that we’re all the same, and celebrate our differences. Because to me, that is what being American is supposed to be about.