What Being "Foreign" Taught Me About Being Foreign

I still remember the feeling. I can’t remember what I was wearing, although the little stuffed bunny I clenched in my arms is still clear as day (and safely tucked away in my attic). My grandma had gifted her to me, dressed in a polka-dotted red dress, to remind me that even when I couldn’t hug her, bunny would be there to remind me we weren’t all that far away. At eight, your world feels so small and yet so incomprehensively big, as those escalators did when I came off my very first flight and descended to the Miami International Airport. I distinctly remember not being able to make sense of the signs, as my mom held my little brother’s hand and my dad looked attentively down at his notes, scribbled on a leather-bound notebook. While I knew we were moving, I didn’t realize the implications of that type of move, one requiring a nine-hour flight, and countless luggage and countless items left behind. As we drove off toward our new home, we passed the iconic “Welcome to Miami Beach” sign, and little did I realize then what a deeper meaning that sign would take.

At first, everything felt so much like a vacation that I had few reasons to focus on what had changed. There’s such beauty in the resilience of a child, and yet, such an innocence, such potential to be impacted by so much. My first realization that while this was our new home, it was going to be a long while for it to replace my home, came on my first day of school. Walking into a classroom of eager and curious eight-year-olds was like being dumped into a pool of ice water. My parents enrolled me in a school that did not have an ESOL program, so there I was, immersed in English-speaking classes without a single reference of what it all meant and few kids I could ask for help. Looking back, it was probably the best thing to happen to me, since I was forced to adapt quickly and picked up English seamlessly, albeit with a lot of frustration and tears, but I digress.

I had never felt “foreign” until then, and now that label was beginning to define me. To these kids, I was foreign. To this new culture (at least as encompassed in a third-grade classroom), I was, seemingly, an oddity. I’d go home and explain to my mom how weird I was for bringing a full pasta dish for lunch and for having perfectly wrapped notebooks (no one wraps their notebooks here, mom!) and for quoting Topo Gigio and not knowing anything about Sesame Street. Some kids even questioned why I was blonde and how I could possibly have green eyes when my skin was so tan after just a few hours in the sun. In their defense, I suppose they had an “image” of what foreign should look like, and I didn’t fit it.

Those years marked a chapter of growth, a coming into my own in terms of a new identify of sorts. I was foreign, and being identified as such taught me about who I was and who I would become. Owning that part of me has led to 30 years of a life I’m proud of and an upbringing I wouldn’t trade for the world, no matter how weird it seemed to others at times.

1. I’m Quirky – and a Great Conversation-Starter.
Inevitably, I’ll sometimes reference things from my childhood that are, well, foreign to others. When I first taught my college roommate one of Topo Gigio’s many songs and dances, she laughed for days (but in turn, now calls me Topo nearly 10 years later). I still mispronounce certain words and will never, ever understand the difference between a long A and a short A, nor why K is silent but H is not, and it wasn’t until college that I learned that the phonetic sound of salmon and almond are quite different (thanks, Kate!). It makes for interesting conversations, good laughs and in many occasions, fun conversation-starters with strangers who pick up on my foreignness.

2. Food Is the Way to My Heart.
I grew up in Buenos Aires, with a half-Argentine/half-Italian mother and a full-blooded Southern Italian father who has pasta sauce (and red wine) running through his veins, which meant every Sunday was a formal pasta feast, during which my great-aunt would roll up gnocchi on the dining room table, as my loud-mouthed aunts and uncles took turns at the giant pot, reducing the tomatoes to their sweetest taste, adding in garlic (always more, always more) and shredding parmesan cheese as a side rather than a condiment. My grandma, born in Catalunya, would make dulce de leche from scratch and always have something sweet to follow every meal, which naturally was followed by espresso (sometimes topped with cream). Because of this, I’m the least picky eater in the world and have found food to be the surest way to expose myself to other foreign cultures – a delicious discovery! Today, I’m a lean, mean empanada-making machine, and it has become the way in which I pay tribute to my mom every time I cook for friends.

3. Family Means Everything to Me.
Because I’ve spent most of my life living far away from my affectionate and vivacious extended family, I’ve built a really strong network of friends who have become like family here in the States, complete with friends of my parents who have become second parents to my brother and me in their own right. Along the way, I’ve even discovered and connected with extended family living in the U.S. and more than ever, I’ve found ways to be close to my family in Argentina and Italy through the beauty of technology, helping me feel like a well-integrated piece of that hearty whole.

4. I See the World through Technicolor Glasses.
I often wonder what the world would look like to me had I never been brought out of the one I knew. There’s a wanderlusting spirit that runs deep within and makes me appreciate the multicolored tapestry of the world. Because of this, my network of friends is brilliantly colorful, representing the Philippines, Cuba, France, Venezuela, Colombia and the U.S., to name a few. I couldn’t imagine it not being this way, and being the Argentinian in the group provides a mutually vibrant sharing of thoughts, customs and food, lots of food. When I married my husband (and his German-Polish ancestry), I vowed to someday raise our family in just as diverse of an environment (he’s already taking Spanish lessons by way of Rosetta-Stone).

5. Aiming for Achievement Is a Way of Life.
My mom used to tell me I had always been a really wide-eyed and inquisitive child, so when she and my dad made the decision to move us to the U.S. in the early 90s, she knew deep in her heart that I would ultimately take to the change really well and make the most of the opportunities and the challenges that arose. Looking back, I never knew there was an option otherwise. Seeing all that my parents went through to get here, to build a life for us here with the hope that it would be better than theirs propelled me to be the best version of myself imaginable. I knew that despite my parents setting the foundation, if I was to make anything of myself, I would have to do it on my own accord – pursuing, excelling, accomplishing and earning my way through the world. It was that mindset that allowed me to become the first in my immediate family to graduate high school, the first to go to college and the first to unimaginably pursue a graduate degree in, ironically, communication in a language that was once as foreign as I must have been to some of those kids back in that classroom 22 years ago. And as life would have it, that foreign girl became the epitome of her parents’ very American dream.

Because I don’t know whether I would’ve learned all of this not being deemed foreign, I can only be nothing but grateful for the experiences – the bumps, bruises and beautiful surprises – that have popped up along the way since I adopted and accepted that definition of myself. Ultimately, I’ve learned there’s really nothing all that foreign about being foreign, and perhaps that has been the most grounding discovery of them all.