My father was born in Antigua, Guatemala, and grew up in the country’s capital. He and his friends made balls by wrapping pantyhose around a wadded-up newspaper core and played futbol for hours in their courtyards. They watched the garbage man collect the city’s refuse in a mule-drawn cart. They swiped candies from the corner store, called Bugs Bunny “El Conejo de la Suerte,” and relished the El Quema del Diablo festival because it meant they could unleash a year’s worth of pyromania. One year, they chopped down a neighborhood tree for their offering; it burned until the next morning.
My mother was born in Milano, Italy and grew up in Colleferro; a suburb of Rome. She helped her aunt gather snails for the evening’s pasta sauce and was often sent to the baker to fetch bread. She remembers her mother making homemade pasta every night (minestrone on Mondays; lasagna or canneloni on Sundays), and dealing with a woman called “Nannina” for farm-fresh chicken and eggs. My mother spent every Sunday afternoon until the age of 12 embroidering and praying with the nuns at the local convent, called Mickey Mouse “Topolino,” and had no idea that Camaleonti, Dik Dik and Gianni Morandi were only recording covers of American pop songs.
My parents met as teenagers on Terracina Beach when my father was a student at The University of Rome. They were married shortly before my father emigrated to the United States, following his childhood dream. They had two children; my brother and myself. They instituted an “Italian only” rule in the house, fed us panini con prosciutto e mozzarella instead of PB&Js, gave us Befana presents every January 6th, threatened us with wooden spoons, and made sure we received a healthy education in the old school Catholic superstitions. And yet, one day – probably when my brother came home with platinum blonde hair or when I made it clear that I would not live at home past the age of 18 – they were most likely both shocked to learn that, despite their best efforts, their children were American.
American children! How could this be? It defied all possible logic. They weren’t American; why did their son have a tattoo of a stallion on his groin, why did their daughter think she could support herself financially? Why did their children speak Italian and Spanish with gringo accents and why did they both have an appalling penchant for Kraft Mac and Cheese? They’d fed us the foods, given us the Italian and Spanish comic books, brought us to their home countries … and yet, Americans. Where had they gone wrong?
It’s been over 30 years since my parents emigrated to America and for all of the surprises my brother and I have given them, they’ve naturally picked up some American attitudes as well. My mother is disappointed if there are no yams at Thanksgiving and drinks cappuccino after dark (not done in Italy). My dad has followed my brother into a passion for golf and will even willingly watch an American football game. These new habits are somewhat jarring to me but 30 years in a foreign country will do that to you, I suppose.
Sometimes I wonder what I’d be like if I stayed in Japan permanently. In Japan, only fully Japanese people will ever be considered “Japanese”, regardless of what their residency status is. Nonetheless, at nearly 2 years here, I unconsciously nod “ah so,” and have taken to pointing at my nose when I want to point to myself. Maybe after 30 years I’ll have developed a taste for anko and oden. Maybe after 30 years I’d no longer think it was a pain in the neck to have to take off my shoes before entering a home. Maybe by then I’ll have mastered the art of putting society first. Or maybe by then I’d even have an Italian/Guatemalan/American-Japanese child of my own. She’d look like me – or at least somewhat like me if I had her with a Japanese man – but culturally she’d be nothing like me. Homogeneity is king in Japan; because of her foreign or foreign-ish face, she might even try extra hard to be as Japanese as possible. So she’d think nothing of eating the shells and tails off of shrimp or the insides of a chicken. She’d wonder why her crazy mother wouldn’t let her walk to school by herself at the age of 6 like all her other friends. She’d beg me to pack her onigiri and ume for lunch instead of a humiliating panino con pomodoro e mozzarella. She’d hang out at karaoke booths with her friends, cite “Japanese pops” as her favorite music and have a wall plastered in purikura. She’d confuse her l’s and her r’s, her si’s and her shi’s, her b’s and her v’s. She might often pick the most neutral-colored pen. She’d probably jump to speak for me in public places because she’d be embarrassed by my accent or funny foreign ways. She might be disgusted by my culturally-sanctioned self-absorption and not understand why I didn’t try harder to fit in.
Me: What do you think of this skirt, Lucia?
Me: Oh come on, sweetheart, I wasn’t being that loud. Don’t get all old Japanese man on me now.
Me: I was just asking you a question; there was nothing rude about it. Besides, there are worse things than speaking above a whisper in public.
Me: I’m speaking English because it’s important that you learn it properly. My parents always spoke Italian and Spanish to me and I’m extremely grateful that they did. O preferesti che parliamo Italiano?
Lucia: モウ！ どうしてそっなにはずかしいの？？？
Me: Oh, you think this is embarrassing? Playa, you’ve known me your whole life; I think you know how embarrassing I can really be. For example … Ahem … Ooooooooooooooohhhhh say can you seeeeee …!!!!
Or maybe she’d be proud of her origins. Maybe she’d be happy to bring a thermos full of minestrone to school, enjoying the attention. Maybe she’d speak Italian and English with zeal, if pronouncing “spaghetti alle vongole,” “supageti are bongore,” and “mac and cheese,” “makku ando chizu.” Maybe she’d consider herself an authority on Italian food and scorn her country’s attempts to approximate it, as I always did while I was growing up. Maybe she’d be at constant odds with her Japanese sides and her Western sides, the way I sometimes wished I were just one thing, like most of my friends. Or maybe her father and I would have done a good enough job of raising her that she’d consider her mixed heritage and multilingualism to be the thing she was the most proud of. The way I do.
But it’s really all a moot point, I suppose; I faxed headquarters my 5-months’ notice last Thursday.