I turned around to look in the mirror and saw the skin-tight, stretchy denim constricting my legs with two feet of extra fabric pooling at my ankles. Twinkling lights caught my eye and I squinted at the source: a combination of silver studs and glimmering rhinestones sprinkled generously over the front and back pockets, screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” Not that I needed such drastic measures to get funny looks from people around me. In fact, the sparkly jeans helped my 5’3, redheaded self to blend in with the tall, slender, raven-haired women that strutted past me, clicking effortlessly in four inch stilettos. Suddenly, Miriam Gierotto threw open my dressing room door with a wide, toothy grin and a determined expression as I jumped back, recovered from the shock, and then tried to take a laborious step forward in my jeans. When I couldn’t achieve this, I shook my head, gestured helplessly, and pleaded, “No bene…No bene.” She clucked and shook her head, left to get a different size, and then barreled into the dressing room to help me tug and yank and squeeze my way into the second pair. “Si, benissima!” she concluded, and after peeling the pants off of me, she strode over to the cashier with a look of satisfaction and accomplishment to pay for my new outfit. One hour fresh off the plane and now I was officially Italian, changed completely from an average American to a trendy European.
However, to Miriam’s dismay, other changes didn’t happen as quickly. I may have looked Italian on the outside, but on the inside I was still unabashedly Western; asking for explanations for her rules, voicing my opinions, and acting with independence—or as she would say with a shake of the head, “Che Americana!” We fought over everything, and as we grew further apart I sank into absolute confusion; if I was right, why wasn’t I happy? One night after a particularly intense fight, I burst into tears, so frustrated with the situation I was in and utterly clueless on how to fix it. My host father, Mario, sat me down, dug out our faded, beat up Italian-English dictionaryand said, “Mery, sei qui adesso.” I flipped through the pages, translating the words that were supposedly going to fix everything. “You are here now.”
I am here now; not in America. Not under my mother’s roof, but under Miriam’s. In order to truly immerse myself in the culture I needed to stop comparing—a difficult task for a teenager who was raised to question everything. But I wanted to commit to the exchange so that is exactly what I did. I obeyed all of Miriam’s rules and soon found that life was a lot easier when I simply did what she asked and followed the unwritten decorum of the culture. And yet, even amidst the newfound peace in the Gierotto house, I still wasn’t happy. After a month of simply ceasing to speak my mind and trying to remain as neutral as possible, I had begun to lose what once defined me, and then I realized I had to refine this epiphany even more. Yes, accepting a new culture is essential to truly understanding it, but it is also counterproductive to stop accepting oneself in the process. Being open to Miriam’s beliefs was a key component of immersing myself in this culture, but part of the experience was figuring out exactly who I am, and who I don’t want to be. I learned that I am ambitious, but I don’t want to be selfish. I am passionate, but I don’t want to be consumed by obsession. I am independent, but I don’t want to be immaturely rebellious.
Miriam and I may not have resolved all of our differences, but we came to appreciate the compromises we both made for the sake of understanding each other’s cultures, without sacrificing our personal beliefs. Whether she knows it or not, she made me realize that I could balance my defining qualities and develop them into strengths rather than weaknesses, and for this reason I wouldn’t have changed our relationship for the world.
Every now and then, I flash back to the day that I left Italy to return to America. I strode into the Malpensa airport and joined the group of fellow exchange students in the departure area, and one Californian girl sized me up with an amused expression. “Where in God’s name did you get those jeans?” she asked while raising an eyebrow. I smiled in remembrance and proclaimed with pride, “My host mother got them for me on my first day here, aren’t they great?”
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