Identifying My “Culture”

When a person gets asked the question “Where Are You From?”  there should be a pretty straight forward answer, right?  It’s a simple enough question and it usually gets a one-word response.  But for me, it’s probably one of the most complicated questions I get asked, and often leaves people feeling a bit more confused about who and what I am, which in turn frustrates me a little.

The question starts out innocently enough, asking me where I am from.  When I reply “I’m from California”, it then turns into “No, but where are you actually from?” and then I have to regale the whole hullabaloo:  Long story made short, my parents are Chilean, but I was born and raised in the US, and I can live in Italy because my grandfather was Italian and I was able to get citizenship through him.

And then sometimes more questions follow, like “Are you ever going back to America?” “Which is easier for you to speak, Italian or Spanish?” “Do you feel more American, Italian, or Chilean?”

It’s not that I mind being asked questions like this, although I admit that in my line of work, I am constantly having to re-tell my life story over and over again and it does get a bit redundant, and there are times when  I feel like if I have to explain “what” I am to one more person, I’m gonna stab myself in the ear with a spoon.

It comes with the territory of being an emigrant, or expat.  As expats we emigrate from one country to the next, sometimes more than once. And for me, movement is in my blood.  I probably wasn’t bred and born to stay in one place, considering the story of how I accidentally got here:

My grandfather was from a little fishing village on the Italian Riviera called Camogli.  During WW2 his parents sent him away from Italy so that he would be safe, and they put him on a boat headed for Peru, where he was supposed to go live with some family friends.  Since this was before the Panama Canal was built, the boat had to go aaaaalllllllll the way down the coast of Brazil and Argentina, around Tierra del Fuego and back up the coast of Chile.  The boat stopped in Valparaiso, Chile to let some passengers off / pick up more passengers before it continued on to Peru.  But my grandfather Guiseppe, being an 18 year old curious kid who spoke no Spanish and had no money, got a bit distracted watching some sort of funeral celebration thing for the famous Argentinean tango singer, Carlos Gardel.  So he forgot to get back on his boat and it took off for Peru without him, leaving him stranded in Chile.  Long story short, he met my grandmother, they got married, and had my dad.  Some 25 years later my dad met and married my mom, and when my mom was super pregnant with my sis and I, they moved to the US, and I was born in San Francisco.  Just to tidy up and close the circle of emigration, I moved to Italy 8 years ago and just to really complicate matters, I went and got dual citizenship.

Beautiful Camogli.

Beautiful Camogli.

By the age of 25, I have been extraordinarily lucky to have lived on 3 different continents and 3 totally different cultures, and I am in no way lamenting any part of my life.  The only thing is that all my life, I have struggled to pinpoint exactly what I am because I have never felt like I am any one thing.

Growing up in the US as the child of immigrants is a story that any number of people can tell you.  My parents were pretty conservative and old fashioned and they fought an extremely difficult struggle to bring my siblings and I up as Chilean.  This was extremely tough in our teenage years when we naturally rebelled against anything my parents tried to teach us.  And although I felt like a regular American teenager, I also knew, and was constantly reminded, that I was different from other kids whose parents were brought up in the US.  Any child of immigrant parents will tell you that this is really difficult and heart breaking sometimes, because my parents had a really hard time relating to us and understanding what we wanted.  Why did we want to move out of the house and go away to college?  Why did we want to go to sleepovers at friends houses?  Why did we need new clothes for school all the time when the clothes in the closet was perfectly fine, even if it was a year out of fashion?  Why did I refuse to speak Spanish to my parents?  All of those things were huge points of contention in our house, things simply not done in a Chilean household.  As far as they were concerned, America stopped at the front door and the inside of their house was Chile.  End of story.  Of course now I understand and appreciate what my parents were trying to do, but as a hormonal, emotional, bitchy 15 year old, I thought they were trying to ruin my life, when really they were just trying to keep my roots right where they belong:  in my home.

Of course on our many family trips to Chile, I never felt like I belonged there either.  To my Chilean family, my siblings and I were always “los gringos” from the United States.  We talked funny, we didn’t understand the (brutal, honest, and overly blunt) Chilean sense of humor all the time, and we were pretty timid and shy compared to our more outgoing, loud and funny (read: very Latin) cousins.  Even though we all spoke and understood Spanish perfectly, we didn’t have the same accent as everyone else or know the new slang terms that Chileans are (in)famous for.  We get along great and as much as we felt welcome to the family, we were always treated a bit differently, as if we always needed translations, looking-after, and even a bit of “dumbing-down”.  It was always with the best of intentions of course, but it was a constant reminder that we were outsiders and different.  Being different is great when you’re an adult, but when you’re a kid, it’s the worst thing in the world.  As a kid or teenager, all you want is to fit in somewhere.

My sis and I at our baptism in Chile, with my mom and auntie. That's right, 4 hot feisty bitches.

My sis and I at our baptism in Chile, with my mom and auntie. That’s right, 4 hot feisty bitches.

So in America I wasn’t exactly “fitting in” as an American, and in Chile I wasn’t exactly “accepted” as a Chilean.  I have always been pretty content with this, because I thought it made me more interesting and unique and was, at the very least, a great conversation starter.  When I moved to Italy, I never expected to be accepted as an Italian either.  And, I am definitely not Italian, nor would any Italian consider me to be one, even though I have a passport that says I am.  There are definitely parts of being Italian that I have openly embraced, but after 8 years of living in Italy, and growing up in a different country with parents who tried to raise me in a bubble, I’m having a hard time answering the question “Where are you from?”

I can tell you that I think I have a very American mentality.  I like things to be sweet, short and to the point (unlike this blog post) and I want to be as pragmatic and practical as I can at times, which is weird because that is the complete opposite of life in Italy.   Feisty, angry impatient American, right over here.  I like freedom and giant closets.  So sue me  (which would also be very American! wink wink).

In my soul, I am like, super hot-blooded South American mega-bitch.  I don’t always have a filter and I say what’s on my mind most of the time, even if it’s inappropriate (which I think is so, so Chilean).  I am reserved most of the time because I have to be, socially.  My temper is normally pretty chill; I have a very long fuse, but when it blows, it freakin’ BLOWS.  I am extremely feisty and loyal to my family and friends, to the point where I will dislike someone just because my best friend dislikes them, even if I don’t know them.  And even though I am not a good dancer like my cousins are, I pretend that I am when I am at a party.  I really like this part of myself, I have to say.

I think my heart belongs to Italy though.  There was something that called me over to this place and I fell in love with it the minute I got here.  Maybe it’s because I never met my Italian grandfather and I don’t know very much about him.  And I have definitely adopted some Italian-ness.  I have embraced my inner fatty and I think that there is nothing better than good food and wine, enjoyed slowly, and made to last.  I appreciate the more peaceful things in life and despite my brazenness and feistiness that come from my other two “selves”, I have learned to just be more chilled out about stuff and takes things a bit slower in life.  Coming to Italy as a student for a study-abroad program changed the course of my life, so Italy will always be a huge part of who and what I am.

I think moving from one country to another is exciting, and I’m not done yet!  I won’t say where we’re going next, but we are moving to a new country (well, new for me, anyway).  So I will have been an immigrant several times over, which I think is awesome.  Interpol should have a great time with me and all my passports and ID cards, eh? (wink wink, I hope that doesn’t get me arrested).  The other day an American woman on one of my tours at work asked my if my parents were upset with me for having moved so far away, and I told her that although we do miss each other very much, my parents can’t exactly forbid me to emigrate to a new country because my parents did the exact same thing as me:  Went to a new country to pursue a better opportunity.  For them however, it was way scarier, because back then they didn’t have the internet to keep in touch with their families, they had less money, spoke very little English, were all alone and knew no one in the US when they moved, and on top of that they had kids with them!  So the woman said to me “Wow, yea, that’s great, but you’re not an immigrant.  You’re just a visitor, right?”  Her tone was like, eeewww, immigrant, not you, you’re American so how can you be an immigrant?  As if immigrant is a dirty word or something.  I had to correct this old lady and I replied, “Well, I may have started out here as a visitor but I have full-blown immigrant status now:  I have citizenship, I vote and I pay taxes in two different countries.  What’s wrong with that?  I like my immigrant story.” And that shut her ignorant ass up.

So in short, I don’t know if I’m “from” anywhere i particular.  I know I don’t fit in with just one thing, so I try to answer the questions as briefly as I can without sounding pompous, precocious, or weird.

I do wonder what my kids would be if K and I ever decide to have a family.  Half Irish, Half American-Chilean-Italian… what? Poor kids.  They wouldn’t have a clue!  🙂

I feel like I should get a James Bond-like silver briefcase to carry these around.

I feel like I should get a James Bond-like silver briefcase to carry these around.

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  • Reply
    Jace Gifford
    February 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Nice post, Bea. While my background story is a bit different from yours, I share your feelings about being asked, “Where are you from?”. I’ve got the short answer: California (for people I might not really get to know). The medium answer: I grew up all over the place (for those who I might talk to more than once), and the long answer: which is too long to write it all here (for those who really get to know me). I suppose you’ve got something similar, otherwise you’d forever be retelling the whole story over and over again.

    • Reply
      February 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      Yea of course, I definitely find ways to keep it short and simple when I don’t want to tell someone my whole life story. 🙂 Hope you’re well, Jace! Congrats on your baby, that’s amazing!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Great story ! You are so true about How weird it feels to never fit to one place. (Comment form a French girl married to an American and living in NYC )
    I guess the next step is to define what citizen of the world means…
    I can start with who you are Bea: curious, generous, with an appetite for adventure and the need to think out of the box!
    Great post, once again. Moua (sounds of a kiss in many languages)

    • Reply
      February 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      Gah! I love you Ann-So. We are two peas in a pod, I miss my little French sister 🙂

      • Reply
        February 20, 2014 at 5:04 pm

        me too me too!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    I love this one! I actually wrote my university thesis on a similar concept called “double un-belonging” (stemming from the situation of youth with North African roots growing up in France). Although in your case, it is more like triple (or quadruple?) un-belonging! 🙂 Funny you mention your future kids…JM and I always talk about how our future Persian-Spanish-French children growing up in the United States with four passports will turn out. But then again, you turned out to be an amazing, worldly person…so fingers crossed! 🙂

    • Reply
      February 20, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      Thanks Maryam! I know, we should start our own club, right? And yours and JM’s future offspring are gonna be the coolest, hippest kids ever, can’t wait to meet them (if you decide you’re having them, that is) 🙂 xoxo

  • Reply
    February 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    Love it! I never even thought twice about this question till we moved south. It was so simple when all of my life had happened in a 50 mile radius. Now when someone asks- especially when we are on vacation- I can’t tell if they want to know where I’m from or where I LIVE. I can’t imagine adding the layers of complexity you have. 🙂 love your posts! Keep it up!

    • Reply
      February 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm

      I miss you! I bet it’s weird for you too. I think you’ll always be a Bay Area girl 🙂 xoxo

  • Reply
    February 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    I LOVE this post Bea! Your experience as a kid trying to fit in breaks my heart, and yet in the end it’s made you such an amazingly open, vibrant and interesting person. It’s such a great reminder that what adults might consider cool, i.e. being ‘different’, can really cause pain for kids. In North America, your story is so much more common and widespread than here in Europe. I know being here has totally made me think so much more about my identity in terms of blood, nationality and ethnicity than before. And that long story about your grandfather was cut way too short! What happened from the time your grandfather was stranded until he met your grandmother?? Now that has got to be a great story!

    • Reply
      February 20, 2014 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks Michelle! There were definitely times it was hard, but overall I think even as a kid I knew how lucky I was! As for my grandfather, the truth is he’s a bit of a mystery to me. I don’t know a lot about him because he died young, I know he met my grandma really soon after being stranded though! I do wish I knew more about him though, after all I have him to thank for my citizenship status here which saved me quite a bit of trouble 🙂

  • Reply
    March 1, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    I think this is my favorite of all of your well-written posts. Maybe it’s because I deal with the same questions about my own identity or maybe it’s just because I love the humor that’s so nicely mixed into your writing, as exemplified in this post. Great post, from your Iranian-Canadian-Californian friend -AB

    • Reply
      March 2, 2014 at 8:28 am

      Thanks to you, equally-culturally-ambiguous friend 🙂

  • Reply
    Antonio Ethan Milian
    March 5, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks for writing this! I feel the same when I’m asked ‘where are you from?’. It’s an easy question for most but I find it hard and makes me feel slightly uncomfortable (because it’s sometimes followed by ‘when are you going back to your country’?, even though I’m a citizen here in UK).

    I also have two passports and identity is a complex issue. I guess at the end of the day we’re what we do and what we believe in.

    Great post 🙂

  • Reply
    The Chilean – Irish Connection | BeaSpoke
    September 18, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    […] the connection is, it runs deep.  When I moved to Italy 8 years ago, I felt I had somehow brought myself full circle, because I had a grandfather who emigrated from Italy to Chile → my parents emigrated from Chile […]

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