Monday, November 30, 2015

"What do you think of Americans?"

Photograph by Carol Gagliardi
The question I ask every time I get to know someone enough in a foreign country. Of course, it is hard not to get a biased answer, as they know that I am myself, American. But the answer always seems to follow along the same lines.

I think that travelling abroad is something that a lot of people associate with the rich. Because they are the ones with the money to travel. This foreign exchange program that I'm part of, is not for rich kids. The cost of the trip was only the plane ticket. In fact, most of the students on this exchange are not upper middle class.

Italians, (foreigners in general,) have this idea of, "Americans," that isn't truly accurate. The idea that they have in their heads, (tall, blonde, affluent,) is not in fact an image of an American but rather that of your average rich person. For them, rich and American are synonymous. It is not their fault however that they have this idea, the media feeds them a dreamy image of bourgeoisie America and nothing else. I mean, here and there they'll see a minority or two, a prole, or a working class hero in a movie but primarily, these people are not given the spotlight. The respondents of this question are not being lied to necessarily, but the truth is being hidden from them. Therefore, it is easy for them to assume that all Americans are like the ones they have seen in the media. They are left to conclude that this image is all that we are, when in reality, it is only a very small portion.

Out of the 13 American students on this exchange, only one fits the tall, blonde and rich image. 1 out of 13. Anytime that 1 represents 13, there is a disproportionality. Why is it that this one, (the minority,) represents the other twelve, (the majority.) It is not only numerically wrong to represent the whole group by the minority, but it is blind and ignorant to do so. In describing this case, "numerically wrong," is an understatement.

If we have given anything to these Italians on the foreign exchange trip, brought anything to them, more than the American-English slang and pop songs, it is the hard truth of who were really are. We are dark skinned, we are brown eyed, we come in all sizes. For the most part, we are not rich. We are not MLB players or movie stars.

We bring you our dark faces and rough hands and this is more than any education anyone could ever give you on the America of today. We are the "Stories Hollywood Never Tells." We are the ones who are asked,
"You're American? All American? And nothing else...?"
"No, I mean really...where are you really from?"
"American...? Are you sure?"
We are the ones who are asked if we are "sure," of who we are. Because of course there is always someone richer, blonder, who knows better than us, who can confirm our citizenship.

We are the tired. We are the poor. We are the huddled masses "yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the teaming shore." And if there is in fact a poor and dirty, but tall and blonde boy in America, he is not American for his white skin. He is American because someone sometime in his family scaled the highest of mountains to arrive at the pedestal of lady liberty who lifts her lamp beside the golden door.

We are all American and everything else.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Italian School - The American Student

Many of the people here look familiar, as if I've seen them before, as if I know them from before. I do know them. I know her, the very smart girl at the front of the class and the boy who sits next to her just to copy her work.

And I know him, the smart boy who sits at the back but doesn't try. The boy who wears the mask of someone stupid, so that no one expects anything of him.
"Ah, Federico? Lui non fa niente."
But I see through him. I know him. I've know him from America.

I know her, the pretty girl on the side, the one with the red lips. The principal's daughter who talks back to the teacher and fixes her makeup in class.

I know the professor of philosophy, "Il Pazzo," they call him, Crazy. Everyone stops talking or using their phones when he starts talking about il verbo essere. In Italian he says existentially,
"Come state? Tell me how you are. I mean how you truly are. How you exist." Veramente.

Most of all though, I know the girl to the left of me, at the back of the class, Carol. She's intelligent but she doesn't sit at the front with the others. She prefers to watch from afar. Observant. From here, she can see everything. She is quiet because she doesn't feel she can say anything until she has a view of the entire room. She is lost. She is different. I know her well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cosenza, Calabria - The American Foreign Exchange Student

Photograph by Amanda Marie Martinez
Carol and I, Photograph by
Christian Gagliardi
Life here is simple, to say the least. People are always making fun of each other, but they never mean bad. Their intentions are good, I mean. Maybe I've already forgotten how to speak English. Allora, it seems as if these Calabrese never worry about anything. The image is fresh in my mind of this afternoon, when my host student, Carol (you're supposed to say it with an Italian accent,) and I were getting out of school today. As we were leaving, her father was waiting for us in his very small car and Carol's little brother, Christian waved from the window, "Ciao Carol! Ciao Amanda!" You'd think that I'm describing a movie scene, but I'm not.

As we get into the car, Christian gives me about 20 kisses, lips, cheek, and all. He's only nine years old and if he were any other nationality I suppose it would be a bit weird. Every time I get in the car with Carol's family, the windows are always open. I'm going to be honest here and also say that no one ever wears their seat-belt. I wasn't so surprised by this, as it's familiar to me because my grandmother, (very European,) has to be forced to wear her seat belt every time she gets in the car with us at home. But this sort of habit enforces what I said previously about not having any worries. I didn't mean it in an entirely romantic way. It's just a way of life that, for me, is very difficult to understand. I worry constantly and curse my life a lot for a person who always wears her seat belt. I mean, if my life is troublesome, what do I have to lose? Why do I not do as they do? They are happier overall, I think, without all these worries, so if anyone should be wearing their seat belt it should be them, (if you've seen the way Italians drive, you know another reason why they, specifically, should wear seat belts.) But perhaps it is I, who has a style of life that doesn't make sense. One in which I worry so much that at times I think of ending it all, yet I take all of the cautionary measures that prevent such a thing.

My school - Liceo Bernardino Telesio
At school there are all the types of people we have in America. You've got the nerds, you've got the jocks, the rich, the poor, But I've noticed that here, the people aren't separated, as they are in America. American society, I think, is very split. The students who make an effort, are friends with those who don't, the rich are friends with the poor. Mostly, because they are all in the same class. Unlike in the U.S. It's so interesting to see how much these Italians like to stay together. I've thought that maybe, it's because they're all Italian. After class, after all that effort or lack there of, every Italian goes home to his/her Italian mother, or father, or grandma. Whereas in the U.S, one American goes home to his Chinese family while another goes home to his Mexican family and another to his Polish family. And we let these differences separate us. It's a choice.

(hypothesis to be further developed during my time here.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The American Student

If you would have asked me only a year or two ago, whether I would ever consider being an exchange student, I would have said definitely NOT. I would have laughed in your face. I would have given you some lame excuse about how my Italian is not good enough or that I wasn't American enough to be somebody's "American foreign exchange student." And that when my Italian host would introduce me to her friends, they would say that I'm not white enough, or blonde enough, or beautiful enough, or clean enough to be American. Like the Americans that they've seen in all the films. Like Marilyn Monroe or Betty Paige. All of which may be true.
It may very well be true that my Italian is not very good. That they may laugh at me because I stumble over words and verb conjugations. Or because I don't look like the Californians on their TV screens. But I will die before I believe that any one of these reasons, is a justifiable reason for me NOT to go out and see the world. I've realized that. That's what's changed about me in the past year.

It wasn't the fear. I'm scared out of my mind but it's a good feeling. I've grown so fond of this feeling, one that's unparalleled to anything I've ever felt before. Perhaps only to being in love. The same wonder, and passion, but also overwhelming fear.
What is life if we don't do the things that scare us most? Cosenza, ci vediamo presto.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I Viaggi in Cina - The China Travels: Dolls and Movie Stars

It was raining less than a month ago, as my little sister of 10 years old, and I were preparing to set out into the streets of Xian, China amidst the puddles of water and the uniformity of blue and white umbrellas, shielding masses of shiny black haired men and women as they rushed to god knows where they're always rushing to. They were always rushing.

Great Wall of China - Beijing
It was a view that must have looked aerially corrugated. Bunches, and then trios, and then couples of people, huddling along beneath a grey sky. Patterns of people, on little streets, with their little blue and white umbrellas.

And then there was us.

And immediately as we stepped out into the street, masses of Chinese elementary school children began to pass us in groups of fifties. Little Chinese boys and girls whose mouths dropped and eyes widened at the sight of us, one I even remember, pointing and saying,


One little girl with her hair tied back in a neat ponytail pushed her way through a crowd of her classmates to tap my little sister on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," she asked, adjusting her glasses. My sister turned to her, although sure she must have been talking to someone else, and she continued, "May I please take a photograph with you?"
My sister, Angelina, turned to me, confused, however I insisted to her that it was okay, and that I would explain it to her later. Only, I didn't know how I would explain it. I don't think I can explain it myself, even now.

The girl called her friends over and handed me her camera. I took a photograph of them all and the Chinese girl turned to Angie and said, "You're so beautiful, like a doll I used to have." The girl thanked her and disappeared with her camera back into the sea of umbrellas.

Angie looked up at me and said, "Were like movie stars." We kept walking, passing all of the smiles and the wide eyes. We smiled back. They waved at us, and we waved back. Angie began to laugh, and we went ahead.