The Skin I’m In: The Expat Dilemma
A few weeks ago, our little hamlet held what comes closest in rural Umbria to a block party, if by block party one includes events that begin with Mass, end with a costumed drum corp, and have tables laden for food for the 150 guests (though only 11 actually live on the block). We had guests staying at Brigolante on the Sunday of the party, and—as we do every year—we invited them to come join in for food and fun. As one of the party’s organizers, I spent the evening serving food, filling glasses, herding children, hunting down extra chairs, bantering and gesticulating, joining in when the accordian started busting out with Ecco maggio, è venuto! and pretty much leaving our American and English guests to fend for themselves, which they did with aplomb.
The next morning one said to me, “Wow, you sure have assimilated after all this time living here!” which stopped me short. Have I?
1. to be or become absorbed.
I am coming up on my 40th birthday (Though they say that 40 is the new 30, which is fine by me. While we’re at it, can we throw in grey is the new honey-colored highlights and muffin-top is the new six pack?), and predictably I’ve been reflecting about where I am in my life…a large part of which is the experience of being an expat. In fact, in just a few short years I will have lived more years outside my home country than inside. I would love to say that I have assimilated, that I have become so seamlessly absorbed into the culture and language here in rural Umbria as to be virtually interchangeable with someone who was born and bred here. But I know that’s not the case.
Culturally (let’s not even get into the language issue) I will always be set apart. I may live here another decade or another half century, but there are some fundamental differences in world view that are so part of who I was before I arrived here that no number of years could change. I see this in how I raise my children, who I gently but constantly edge toward the side of the nest to test their wings while Umbrian parents tend to gather their own children as tightly as possible under their own wings. I see this in how I divide the gender related work in our nuclear family, and even in how I identify a nuclear family separately from one which includes second or third generations. I see this in how I instinctively—and surely naively–trust institutions of government and administration instead of viewing every figure of authority with automatic suspicion. I see this in my cravings and comfort foods, which are completely different than the craving and comfort foods of most Umbrians I know. I have yet to meet an Umbrian who has craved a bagel and I will never–never, I say–crave Maccheroni Dolci.
I have not assimilated, and never will. Over time I have come to peace with this…in the big soup pot that is Umbria, I will always be the odd bit of turnip. But I am part of the soup, so perhaps I have integrated.
1. to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.
I can’t deny that I participate in public life here. I have never been a shrinking violet, and that didn’t change once I moved. I actively and vocally volunteer in my sons’ schools, I have worked with charitable organizations organizing drives, I have taken salsa dance classes and scrapbooking classes and photography classes and kickboxing classes. I have participated in the comunity theater and the parish. And during all of those activities, I have made many, many acquaintances and also some dear friends. But does that mean I have integrated?
My idea of integration presumes a contribution of ideas or beliefs or customs or recipes or secret handshakes or anything of the like—something of yours that has been adopted and incorporated into the bigger picture. Sure, I have done my civic duty, taken my classes, kicked the piss out of the punching bag, but always within the parameters of what was acceptable and expected in each context. No revolutions happened, no innovation, no newly minted traditions.
I have been a worker bee—an important member of the hive, but one known less for lofty improvements and more for humble adaptation.
1. to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.
If I have honed any skill over the past 17-odd years, it has been that of being a chameleon. I can be the bantering and gesticulating waitress at the block party. I can be the mom fretting about her sweating son getting a fever at the soccer game. I can be the pizza dough recipe swapping housewife in the schoolyard. I can be the graciously nodding and assenting professional’s wife at the business dinner. I can be the sunny and welcoming hostess at work. I can be the polite tongue-biting foreigner at the police station. I can be, and often am, all of these things in the space of a few hours.
A life far from your home culture is one of constant adjustment, like the fine tuning of the dials on a radio to get just the right music to fit every situation. It’s a talent, but it’s also hard work. The bottom line is that I am a guest here in Umbria, and good guests don’t pick fights at the dinner table, aren’t rude to the hosts, and leave the bathroom clean–even if what they really want to do is debate politics, spit out the awful roast, and forget to flush—to avoid being ostracized and even more isolated than what they already are as the odd man out. Or, even worse, projecting that fate on their half-foreign children.
Are any of these chameleon colors I wear really who I am, or are they all who I am? Where, in the life of constant accomodation and adaptation do you bend so out of your original shape that you find you can no longer get back to it? Or is what seems like shape-changing really just growth? With the accumulated wisdom of 40 years, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea.
So, I’m a turnip. No, I’m a worker bee. No, I’m a chameleon.
No, I’m just an expat, doing what we do.