The Watered-Down Italian

italian heartOne can’t be Italian everywhere. I hadn’t realized this until it came out of my mouth as a disclaimer for my fire-y personality.

At an after-work gathering, I let my hair down and began to tell animated stories, sans censorship with plenty of wild gesticulations. I was rewarded with a circle of wide eyes, dropped jaws, and robust laughter. The collective response was one of surprise. ‘We had no idea about you,’ they remarked, and I hoped it was well-intentioned.

Being raised in a purebred family in a homogeneous environment, I was steeped in Italian culture. It was a generation during which travel or relocation outside of a 20-mile radius was unheard of. When I grew up and married a non-Italian, or ‘mutt,’ as he is affectionately referred to, it was a bit of shock to the system.

My first dinner with husband’s family in their dimly lit dining room with china place settings and soft music was a stark contrast to my own house with bright lights and multiple concurrent conversations. I distinctly recall the indigestion I suffered as a result of the undivided attention I received when speaking. Why did everyone stare at me? Attention felt like scrutiny, not respect. Thus we blended cultures, and to this day, struggle with our opposing communication styles.

Growing up Italian was a gift I took for granted. There is sense of security when one is enfolded in an expansive culture. Absent is the pressure to be anything other than oneself. Unlike some of my classmates who struggled to identify with a certain group during heritage week, I knew exactly who I was and where I came from. There was no ambiguity in my ancestry.

But as I aged and became self-conscious, the dilemma of trying to be acceptable in the world took over. I surrendered some of my passion in the name of political correctness. I tried not to scare people with opinions that had always flowed freely and without inhibition. I cut and pasted myself like a paper doll in order to ready myself for the world.

The arrival of children renewed my desire for cultural connection. I wanted to pass on the sense of security that comes from inclusion in a like-minded group. It hasn’t always been easy in a modern and blended family. My kids are watered-down Italians who, gasp, refuse to make homemade pasta with me. But they are proud of it none-the-less and eat it with enthusiasm.

We all look forward to our annual family reunion. It’s a time and place where Italians can be fully Italian and those that aren’t, (we call them wannabes), do their best to survive the level of intensity that radiates from a very passionate people.

I love my blended country in which cultural dividing lines are blurred enough to allow for inter-racial marriage. We combine the best and worst of many worlds and end up with a whole new set of people who are, hopefully, a little less exclusive and prejudiced. But I also love that I have a pedigree – even if it gets me into trouble once in a while.

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