About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Always an immigrant

"Immigration is such a shocking experience in the history of a family that even the grandchildren are still grandchildren of immigrants." -Amos Oz, Israeli writer

My father and his three brothers with my grandparents and great-grandfather.
I was listening to a PRI interview with Amos Oz this morning, and found his comments about immigrants interesting. This past week my mother glanced at my CV, which has a short bio-like paragraph at the top of it. In it I say that I come from a family of Italian immigrants. I have considered myself the great-granddaughter of immigrants since I was a child. It has played an enormous role in my life and in my identity--to the point where I actually moved to Italy when I was 19 to study Italian and then traveled down to Sicily to research family records and re-establish connections with relatives who had remained in Italy. So it came as quite a surprise when my mother took exception with my saying that I come from a family of Italian immigrants. In her eyes, this statement is simply not true. It is a misrepresentation of who I am.

Amos Oz's thoughts about immigrant families resonated deeply with me. It is true that I was not born in Italy, and that neither my grandparents nor my parents spoke any Italian while I was growing up. But there was always this weight of collective amnesia hanging in the air whenever we spent time with family. My great grandparents did not really insist that my grandparents learn Italian, and they in turn did not insist that my father learn Italian, and I have spent a good portion of my life trying to uncover where we came from....who we were and what our family stories were. I think because my great-grandparents never really learned enough English to communicate clearly with my father and his brothers, so much was lost between generations due to lack of language skills. While in Sicily I wandered along the main beach, wondering if my great-grandfather had stood in the same spot I was standing, and what he must have been thinking as a young man only a few years older than I was at the time when he boarded a ship away from the poverty of Sicily toward the hope and promise of a new life in New York. I spent many hours researching in an old records office. The staff let me come back behind the desks and into the long narrow hallways lined with shelves. I climbed ladder after ladder, pulling enormous, hand-written ledgers from the shelves and meticulously leaving through page after page of beautifully written Italian records of birth, marriage and death records. Eventually I found enough information to connect with family in Italy, and ended up connecting with some distant relatives that, at the time, still owned a family bar/gelateria on the town's main street.

Reconstructing the past and forming a personal relationship with it has been very important to me, so yes, I very much still feel like being the descendant of immigrants is an integral and essential part of who I am. When I was almost six, my family moved to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. We did officially move there to serve the local Baha'i community, however from my perspective as a six year old, the process was indistinguishable from that of an immigrant. We sold all of our belongings and moved half way across the world with three large suitcases. We had to learn a new language. We were a different faith from most of those around us. My parents struggled financially to make ends meet. And I grew up wanting more than anything in the world to fit in with those around me.

My family remained in Cyprus from almost 16 years, and I completed my elementary and high school education there. When I arrived back in North America for college I felt as if I was entering a foreign land. Apart from visiting family every few years, my family had not maintained strong ties with the US. I lost contact with any childhood friends I had known, and when I returned I had a British accent and no idea how anything worked in the US. I distinctly recall going to try to buy something and having someone tell me that I still needed to pay a nickle, not knowing what that meant, and being embarrassed to ask, because the person behind the cash register seemed to think I should know; spending hours looking for books on the first floor of the library before finally asking a librarian for help, and not understanding why she stared at me when I told her that my book was on the first floor, but that I couldn't find it (not knowing, of course, that in the US the first floor was the ground floor of a building, and I was on the second floor); and getting papers back from professors with words circled throughout the text, and a note at the top of the first page in red ink that read "This is America, not England," in response to my use of British spelling. These were just a very few of the cultural differences and misunderstandings that I overcame that first year back in the US. 

By the time I decided to do my Master's degree on Prince Edward Island, in Canada, I had become familiar enough with North American life that a good deal of what I experienced was relatively easy to adjust to, but there were still new ways that people related to each other, new uses of English, and cultural practices that I had to adjust and adapt to.

Back in California this year I have realised just how much I had adapted to my Canadian home I had become. How the softening of my demeanour that was a way of making sure that I did not offend anyone living on the small island of PEI in Canada meant that I was bulldozed by those around me in California who have no qualms about speaking their mind, and expect those around them to deal with whatever they have to say. It has been an interesting journey of adaptation and re-adaptation. One that I am sure will continue to develop and evolve as I experience cultures that I have not yet experienced.

Listening to Amos Oz this morning just made me realise that as human beings, we are an eclectic collection of the cultures and stories that have influenced our lives. I will always be the great-granddaughter of Italian immigrants, the product of a British education system in Cyprus, my time trying to understand my past in Italy, my adventures in Canada and my mix-matched adaptation to life in the United States. I will perpetually doubt myself when the program I am using underlines how I spell a word because I am using the British spelling, and will probably always have some words that I sometimes spell the American way, and other times the British way.

How about you, friends? Have the stories of your ancestors or your own migration patterns influenced who you are or who your children are? In what ways? If you would like to share, please do so in the comments section below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Have a great weekend!!

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