That would be me, Mrs. Moglie. Married to a native Italian, Mr. Marito.
Mother to a daughter in high school, Ms. SmartyPants and a son in middle school, Mr. Uometto.
Employed at a private British School as an English teacher and Coordinator of Children's Studies.
Part of a small, but growing Protestant church in Frascati, a small town in the hills just outside of Rome.

This is where I sometimes gripe, complain and grumble about the things I dislike, have yet to get used to or simply don't understand about bella Italia.
I do, however, have many people, places and things that I dearly love and I am more than aware of being blessed by each and every one of them.
Also - a few helpful posts for visitors to Rome or for newly arrived ex pats. Check the side bar for tags. I've even some recipes that I've borrowed, tweaked or invented. One thing I've come to love about Italy is how it's changed the way I eat - slow food !! Although ... I do miss Taco Bell ... and Jack in The Box ... and KFC ... and ::sigh::
Thanks for stopping by !!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Y'all Look The Same

I realize the following will sound entirely made up. I assure you, it is not. This exact exchange has happened to me on four different occasions. Exactly. In this exact order. Japanese. Chinese. Filipino. Once at a bancarella (street stall), once by a stranger while window shopping and twice in alimentari (food stores).

"Are you Japanese?" - No
" Chinese?" - No
"Filipino?" - No
"What else is there?" - Um ... seriously?
(image source)

I'm not saying all Italians are this daft. I am saying that I have never experienced so much cultural/geographical ignorance as I have since coming to Rome, Italy. I use the word ignorance in it's traditional sense, not as a means to insult or mock.
"ignorance: noun the state or fact of being ignorant; 
lack of knowledge, learning, information, etc." 

I've had my share of negative experiences in the realm of "you: deaf, dumb, uneducated chinaman; me: Jane" - but all in all, I have to say, being orientale, has had many more positive perks and reactions. It's a sort of double standard, I admit, but as an Asian of the fairer sex, I often get the long end of the ignorance stick. Rather than being feared, patronized or tolerated, I've been befriended, courted and favored. But short end or long end, it's still the same stick. Essentially, all these attitudes stem from the same source: objectification. 

A blogger by the name of The Korean has, on occasion, written about this very topic. In one article, he says that "objectification" in this sense means (bold purplish are mine)
"treating a person like a non-person or a half-person. This is the incessantly recurring reality for Asian Americans Asians in Italy: instead of being treated as a whole person, they are treated as an abstract representation of their ethnicity. We may breathe, walk and talk like real persons, but we are not quite a real person like white Americans Italians are real." 
He goes on to say, "the questioner cannot get past her looks. In the eyes of the questioner, she is no longer a person with real experience, real emotions -- she is an object, a representation of her ethnicity, a scale-model of Asian-ness."

That second quote is in response to the question, "Where are you from?" or similar queries that the Asian American may encounter in the US. According to The Korean and more than a few of his followers (subscribers), Asians in America get that question regularly and often. Honestly, I've never ever had that experience. Well, no, wait. Actually, I recall a few people asking me that while I was in Austen, Texas visiting a friend. I just assumed it was more, "You're not from these parts. Where are you from?" And I still think that's what they meant. I answered that I was from California and then they asked about Los Angeles and the beaches. Anyway. My point is, I've never had that question asked in the way referred to by The Korean. That is, not in the US. Here, I've had that asked way too many times and with much different results than those from my time in Texas.

"Where are you from?" - The United States
"No, really. Where are you really from?" - I'm really from the United States
"No, I mean, where are you originally from?" - Monterey Peninsula, California, United States ... do you want longitude and latitude?
"No, no. Okay. I get it. You lived in the US, but where are your ancestors from? You know, your people?" - If you wanted to know about my ancient relatives, born and deceased long before I ever came along, why did you ask me where I was from? Geez. So how far back should I go? 

I mean, I understand that Italy is not the USA. (Although, you would expect more understanding from a nation of people who themselves were formed by many other cultures and ethnicities ... Roman empire, anyone?) I understand that the majority of foreigners you find here, today, are not only physically from their home countries, but also have a tendency to be ethnically/genetically related to their home countries. The Swede comes from Sweden. The Moroccan comes from Morocco. It happens, but not often, that the (ethnically, therefore visibly) Vietnamese, but nonetheless German comes from Germany. Why should he have to say he's from Vietnam if really, his father or grandfather came from Vietnam and he, himself was born and raised in Frankfurt? I understand that, generally speaking, we will initially identify a person's origin based on his or her appearance. What I don't get is when the olive skinned, dark curly haired, ethnically full blooded Iranian woman says she's from Canada, these Italian people aren't satisfied until she humbly admits that  no, she is not really from Canada after all, but has only been born there, raised there, schooled there, employed there, etc. No, indeed. Where she's really from is Iran. 

Now, I know you may be thinking, "What's the big deal? Just say you're from Korea and be done with it." But why should I? I'm not from Korea. I don't know anything about Korea outside of what my parents have told me, what I've learned from my friends from Korea and from what I've read in Wikipedia. In that case, why don't I just say I'm from Japan? Or China? Because I'm not from either of these countries and would be a foreigner there? I would, likewise be a foreigner in Korea. Sure, I may blend in superficially, but I couldn't just mosey on over and live there and expect no one to notice. I speak Korean with an American accent and what would I do if I found myself in the hospital there? I don't even know how to say half my body parts in Korean because... well, growing up in the US, having depended solely on my parents for my Korean language skills, we just didn't talk too often about our gall bladders or spleens or inter-vertebral discs. I only know "so much" about Korea, and it's mostly second hand knowledge, at that. I know about Korean traditions, customs, foods, culture and so on, but that's an entirely different thing from actually growing up and living there. At this point in my life, I know much more about Italy than I've ever known about Korea. So why should I lie and say I'm from Korea? To make it easier for the dim-witted Italian questioner? To satisfy his frivolous curiosity? To assist in his uneducated assumptions? To encourage his stereotyping and objectifying of non Italians? Please. 

Of course, people with whom I have meaningful relationships (friends, colleagues) - relationships that have been built over time with mutual trust, understanding and exchange, will come to learn (quite quickly) that my people are Korean. But the man who stops me on the street and says, "I love Asian women. Where are you from?" is not entitled to know my family's personal history. The vendor who's making idle chit chat, the one I've never met before and will unlikely ever see again, what exactly is his motivation to stubbornly dig deeper when I answer that I'm from the USA? Why is he not satisfied with that? If it's a simple matter of making conversation to fill in the silence, then why not just move on to the next subject? Where are you from? The US. And when did you come to Italy? In 2001. Tadaaaa! That's making idle chit chat. This other thing, the thing that makes me and countless others go bonkers is the knowledge that the perfect stranger continues to badger us with essentially the same questions because he can not get past the fact that we don't look like Baywatch characters. Seriously. I had one experience where a man, in his mid thirties, said to me, "But in California, the girls are blond." Yeah, and in Italy, the guys are all greasy haired mobsters or henchmen with 24k gold St. Paolo e Pietro necklaces and chest hair the length of spaghetti spilling out of their unbuttoned dress shirts. Riiiiight.

So you see, I believe that the person who asks me where I'm from, but is not satisfied until I tell him where my grandparents are from, is not merely making polite conversation. Perhaps his intentions are such when he begins, but when my answer does not fit his narrow minded idea of people-who-look-like-this-are-from-here and people-who-look-like-that-are-from-there, then apparently the foundations of his safe and tidy world are threatened and he must do all that is in his power to stop the evil Asian woman and get her to tell him where she really, really, no, really, is from. Why does he, a perfect stranger, need so desperately to know to which haplogroups my mitochondrial DNA belong? Why? Now, if he is a researcher with the International HapMap Project, fine, my sincerest apologies. But if he is selling me a soda while I wait for the bus, his insistence is, more often the case than not, because of:
  1.  prejudice: noun  any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, esp. of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group. OR
  2. racism: noun a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individualachievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others. OR
  3. ignorance: noun  lack of knowledge, information, or education; the state of being ignorant 
OR he is

stubborn: adjective unreasonably obstinate; obstinately unmoving; 
fixed or set in purpose or opinion; resolute. 

And that leads us back to the first word I threw out there: objectification. I'm reminded of something I read, and changing the verb from celebrate to acknowledge, we get this, "It's one thing to acknowledge a person't ethnicity and heritage as an integral part of his/her character, but quite another thing to acknowledge it at the expense of all else." 

Thankfully, I've also had plenty of Italians ask, "Where are you from?" and when my answer was given, the conversation took a more natural course and they asked me things like, "What's it like there?" "Do you miss it?" "When's the last time you've been back?" And so on. The person who can hear the words, "I'm from the USA," while staring into my Asian face and not become confused or flustered is, I think, awesome, albeit normal. If friendship or close acquaintance is established, my Korean-ness will eventually emerge, but so will my love of music and playing the guitar and photographing - in other words, because our rapport grows, so our knowledge of each other grows, as well.  

On a lighter note: 
What's with the whole, "Y'all look the same" thing? I mean, c'mon. 
We totally look different! See?

I'm obviously Korean - She's obviously Chinese!


jojofromvictoria said...

Just found your blog through pink ladies. Can't wait to read more! Keep it up girl!
Talking about stereotype, I am tall, red blonde hair, and middle aged. I am Canadian, but people here in Calabria tend towards me being German. When I tell them that I am Canadian, they refuse to believe it. Oh well, German I am! HA HA.
Look forward to more entertaining reads. Cheers!

Rεḓ ṧhüʟαмїтα said...

i hear ya.
to the italians here i speak puertorican and not spanish.
", i speak spanish"!
then i say, "ok ok, you're right i speak puertorican"

Mrs. Moglie said...

jojofromvictoria Thanks ! I only recently joined up at PinkItaly. It's interesting to hear how even the non-asian foreigners get put into a box. argh. A friend of mine was always being mistaken for Polish (she's English) and she'd get quite the mistreatment because of it!! Seriously ... what on earth can we do? *exasperated I added your blog to my blogroll, hope you don't mind. Thanks for stopping by ^.^
RedShulamita how about a compromise --- puertoricanish?