What Happens When You’re Not a Native of Anywhere?

I’ve been living in Italy so long that I seem to be losing what minimal ability I ever had to pass for a “real” American. My accent is becoming indefinable, or so I guess. Some Americans have told me that I sound vaguely British, and a few years ago in Dallas, someone asked me if I was a foreigner. I catch myself using a hybrid language, translating Italian idiom far too literally into English (and vice-versa).

I’ve become Italian in my sense of personal space. Italians have an extraordinary ability to block public thoroughfares, for example stopping to have a chat at the top of an escalator, or in the only patch of sidewalk that isn’t already blocked by parked cars. But at least they don’t take it amiss when you brush past them, as you often have to do. Life is lived smaller in Italy; we’re crowded together, so some physical overlap is to be expected and must be tolerated. I’m used to it. Other Americans evidently are not.

When my daughter and I set off for our US trip this summer, we had a stopover in Paris. I hate airports, so I try to get through them as quickly as possible. My tactics for doing so include taking stairs two at a time rather than standing behind people on the escalator, and zipping around and through crowds to get to whatever point comes next. I don’t cut lines, but I do try to be first to where the line is forming.

So Rossella and I were racing through the airport, when I heard an American woman I had just passed say sniffily: “Huh! This is just like being back in Italy.”

The same thing happened while we were waiting for a plane in Austin. We discovered we were supposed to be lined up over there rather than over here, but the path from here to there was blocked by a long line of people. I chose an opening that looked large enough (to me), and ducked through. The woman I had passed in front of glared as if I’d molested her.

My problem in dealing with my fellow Americans is that I look and sound American, but am not, quite. Culturally I’m a mishmash, a Third Culture Kid. I just don’t notice many of the American cultural cues, so I don’t respond the way Americans expect me to. They sense vaguely that something is wrong, but can’t quite put their fingers on what. Of course I miss cues in other cultures as well, but non-Americans make allowances for the obvious fact that I’m foreign; indeed, they would be surprised if I acted exactly as they do. (Americans usually extend the same courtesy to obvious foreigners in America.) For me, though, it’s different: in America I’m actually a foreigner, but camouflaged as a native, so I don’t have the privilege to screw up that someone clearly foreign would have.

Most of the time I don’t even realize that I’m doing something “wrong.” I eventually notice that I’ve rubbed people the wrong way, but I have no idea how that happened. Several Americans have told me, after knowing me for a while: “When I first met you, I thought you were a real bitch.”

2 thoughts on “What Happens When You’re Not a Native of Anywhere?

  1. Greg

    Fascinating! So many questions… (sorry, gonna geek out on you a little here 😉

    Have you managed yet to identify what it is that makes you “look” American? Is it just a skin tone thing because different European cultures do dress differently so I would think you style of clothing would have something to do with it. Also your neutral accent doesn’t raise eyebrows? (over here in OZ they think I’m Irish, which I take as a compliment)

    Do you find yourself adapting to a given culture the more time you live within it? Picking up new specifically unconscious habits from that culture, stuff like that?

  2. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Interesting questions! (Note that I left Italy almost four years ago and now live in San Francisco.)

    I definitely did not dress like a typical (stylish) Italian woman – in part because, as I have written elsewhere on this site, I have the wrong body shape to buy clothing in Italy. But I think it also has to do with attitude, gestures, my way of carrying myself. Part of it is plain old genetics: by descent I am roughly half Scottish and half German (with bits of a bunch of other “races” – we’ve been American for a LONG time), so I definitely don’t look Italian. I was often mistaken for German or Dutch in those countries.

    As for adapting, I probably unconsciously took on some cultural norms when I was younger and my self was not yet fully formed. Probably not much from my childhood in Thailand, because we lived largely in an American bubble. But lots from my adolescence in India – when I visit there now I am startled at how much I know (or think I do) and take for granted. By the time I moved to Italy my personal norms and behaviors were largely settled, and I was more conscious of the bits of Italian culture I chose to assimilate.

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