When I look back at my childhood, I realize that I was saturated with the very American messages about the joys of individualism. “You can be whatever you want to be,” my teachers and parents beamed, as they patted me on the back or placed a shiny gold star on the top of my homework. I could be anything, I thought. An astronaut! A world explorer! A trapeze artist!
Furthermore, American history reinforces this concept of rugged individualism. As Americans, we are pioneers. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. And we persevere. With a history like that, how could one deny the endless possibilities for self-identity?
Maria Christina Gonzalez tells us that this individualistic perspective is a luxury of the United States (Painting the White Face Red, p. 311). Gonzalez explains that because we are members of a culture that encourages the self, we are able to seek new opportunities when meeting people from other cultures. If we are unhappy with our routines, we can seek out alternatives. So, in effect, we can be cultural sponges and soak up these outside perspectives.
Now that I have been in Urbino for almost a month, I begin to wonder if I might be seeking out cultural alternatives. Scanning over my past entries, I notice that most of my blogs deal with anxieties about fitting in when I am so out of place. Whether the subject is the language barrier or a difference in stereotypes, I can’t help but tune in to some of my insecurities about being a foreigner.
In one of my first entries, titled “Universal Language,” I described a situation where humor transcended the difference in native tongues. Although the circumstance ended up in a good lesson, I notice my extreme discomfort in the beginning. I wrote, “I am terrified of being seen as one of those Americans. We all know who they are. Those Americans: the ones who talk louder when they realize that a request was lost in translation; those Americans who flee to McDonald’s when they find that not all Italian restaurants serve spaghetti” (Although I apparently got over my abhorrence for McDonald’s since I blogged about that later). This association with my place of birth tells me that I might be unhappy with my cultural norms, just as Gonzalez describes.
Following this pattern, I realize that my subsequent blogs document my experience trying to absorb different cultural perspectives like the before mentioned sponge. While my entry “A Stranger in Florence” touched on these ideas, the most emotionally cathartic moment for me was when I was able to pray in Assisi.
About two years before Assisi, I set out on a somewhat spiritual quest (as cliché as that sounds). My father died suddenly in 2007, and the death turned my otherwise orderly life upside down. Since then, I have found myself redefining my identity. I began to travel. I began to push my limits. And Assisi served as the culmination of these fledgling feelings.
In “Prayer in Assisi” I wrote that I envied the faithful’s “ability to believe and their ability to pray.” However, after my experience in Urbino I can say that I don’t feel envious anymore. Instead, I feel calm. And I feel at peace.
Patricia Geist writes in her piece Voicing Identities Somewhere in the Midst of Two Worlds, “the process of reconstructing is an emotional, challenging, and often rewarding struggle” (p. 190) These past years I’ve felt like my being was split into two pieces, both emotionally and culturally. I’ve begun to realize that I can’t be anything I want, despite what my kindergarten teacher told me. But I am fine with being me. Now I feel like my two halves are beginning to come together in a completely different way than before. And though the process was scary and emotionally exhaustive, I’m happy that it happened.