Monday, February 3, 2014

What am I?

I don't remember at what age I found out that i was Italian, as most children don't think about such things. As a legally blind child with liberal parents, i never really noticed the difference between people. Some people had darker skin, and not everyone talked like my mom did, but it was all the same to me. I didn't know that some of my mothers closest friends were Chinese, Korean, or African-American. I didn't know that their were multiracial children in my preschool class. It wasn't until I was about 6 or 7 years old that I met someone who actually presented themselves to me as an immigrant. My family had left New York City for the affordable and (at the time)safer woods of rural Pennsylvania, but my fathers aging parents stayed behind. My family decided that the best course of action would be to hire a caretaker, so we did. She was a pleasant, younger woman who only recently moved to the United States from central Africa. I was fascinated by her stories about the rainy season, and how everything was much different in her home country. When we would visit my grandparents, I would listen to her tell me stories for hours on end. She was the first person to open my eyes to the idea of America not being all there was. It was around this time that i vegan to ask my parents questions about who we were. "What does our name mean?" "When did we get here?" "How many countries is our family from?". Always, I was met with the same answer: "You're half Italian, a little German with a German last name, a little Native American, and probably a little bit English." I took pride in my heritage, and boasted about it whenever I could. "I'm Italian! That's why I love spaghetti and pizza so much!", I would proclaim.

As I grew into my teens, I learned more about other cultures and realized that a lot of what we did at my home was indicative of a family with Italian roots. We had salad every night, and we always ate it after our main course, and there was always antipasto before that. Large family gatherings meant that there would most certainly be copious amounts of cheek-kisses and hugs. We went to a Roman Catholic church. And, most notably, we were all dark-hared and dark-eyed, with both of my parents having slightly darker skin. This was all of the evidence I needed to know that I, Felicia, was Italian.

When i moved to Finland in 2011, it was the first time I ever had my heritage questioned. People would I ask where I came from, and I would say America. They would ask me about various American stereotypes, foods, and other topics, and my answer would always begin with explaining that I was Italian, and things were done differently in our subculture than, say, the Southern culture, or the Chinese-American culture. The following questions were always the same. They would ask if I'd been to Italy, if I spoke Italian, if my mother spoke Italian..and I would always answer "No." The topic would always immediately change. In 2013. I even a few people flat-out tell me that I wasn't Italian, but that I was American. This is a position that i don't understand, and that leads me down a very dark mental path.

There is no such thing as being American by blood. One can only be American by nationality. My passport is American, but my blood is not. No one's blood is, unless they are pure Native. America doesn't even have it's own language, so how can I be ethnically and culturally American? There is no such thing.

This, and this alone, is the single hardest thing about being an American abroad. In my Finnish language school, we are constantly asked to describe our home lands, our traditional foods, our religious traditions, and anything else that would be "unique" of where we come from. These kinds of questions alienate me on a level that I don't think anyone can ever understand. They remind me that I have nothing that is actually my own. Everything I know is actually just borrowed from somewhere else. I never know what I'm supposed to talk about. Every state has different rules, and I've lived in 5. Every culture has different traditions, but according to people with actual cultural heritages, we third generations are just grasping at straws. I don't really belong to any group.

What's even harder is that, even though I've lived in Finland for almost three years, have adapted well to the culture, have lots of friends and genuinely love this place to a point where I've never felt more at home, my blood isn't Finnish, and my language isn't Finnish, so no one will ever even see me as Finnish. No matter how comfortable and welcome I feel living here, I am still reminded every time I go to the unemployment office and every time I try to find a job or do simple bureaucratic things, that I am an "ulkomalainen", or outsider.

I just want to feel like I belong to something. I never felt that way in the US, and whenever I try to feel that way here, I'm shot down. My one wish is that people outside of the United States would understand that Americans are not all the same, and that the only thing we all have in common is our passport.

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