“Mi piacciono the Obamas!” Meaning “I like the Obamas!” were some of the the first words that came out of my host dad’s mouth. I noted this mentally but brushed it off as him trying to make me, a black woman in a majority white country, feel comfortable. Eventually this seemingly nice sentiment would come back to haunt me. After meeting my host family and roommate, I went into our nearly 90 degree room to drop off my luggage and get somewhat settled before our welcome dinner. Little did I know this distressing study abroad experience would change me for the better.
As I got into the groove of things, I got use to my daily activities which included learning the Italian language through classes taught entirely in Italian and volunteering. As I volunteered with the locals, it allowed me to truly learn the language and slang. Speaking with the locals, it also allowed me to understand that staring isn’t seen as rude. In the small Italian town I was in, walking to class everyday was accompanied by stares as I was usually the only black person. Luckily in the program there were 2 other black girls, one of which I related to often before her time in the program ended and I was left to be the only black person in the program.
This was my first experience in a foreign country and it allowed me to learn about myself more. I am extremely close with my family and in my times of debilitating homesickness, I learned that traveling only made our bond stronger and that my host family, like any other had their problems. At least once a week, my roommate and I would hear them arguing, either in front of us at the dinner table or in the late hours at night. On top of their arguments, the host dad increasingly became more and more irritated and irritating. One time arguing with me because I’ve never heard of a particular Italian dish. Everyday after dinner I would take a walk and call my family, telling them how much I missed them and how my day went.
Confiding in the friends I made in the program allowed me to discover another part of self that was more vulnerable. I came out of my shell and learned to be less shy. In addition, I saw that Italians are very nice people that are open to talking with strangers. These transformations fostered interactions with locals and the improvement of my Italian. The locals were very helpful with me by being very patient when I spoke my Italian. They corrected me nicely and were very interested in America and for the most part, I was happy to have conversation with them. An experience I had was on the beach with the other black girl I had gotten close with. For fun we decided to build a sandcastle and as we were talking, we spoke about our hair, the songs our family played at cookouts, and the soul food we missed so much. While we were building, a man came up to us and asked us about politics. He asked us if we voted for Trump and we said no and then proceeded to tell us that he was going to win the next election. We were dumbfounded and angry that he said this. This was one of the many microagressions that I’ve experienced throughout my time in this country.
Through strained conversation, speaking with my host family everyday improved my Italian immensely. If my host dad wasn’t telling me how much he loved Michael Jackson or the Obamas, it was him keeping me updated on the latest person of color that was shot by the police in America. Everyday I would speak with them during dinner and I would also listen to the conversations and pick up slang from them as well.
The improvement of my Italian over the course of 6 weeks gave me enough confidence to not be scared to make mistakes. I would be able to order food or ask for things with ease and confidence. After having my hair touched without my permission twice, I had gained more self-assurance and sternness in saying “no.”
This transformation is valuable to my life because I would to become an interpreter and a translator. After the hardship I faced, I want to help marginalized groups like the immigrant population in Italy. For the past year I’ve studied Romanian as a part of my Romance languages degree because Italy has a high population of Romanian immigrants. To be a translator or interpreter you need an intimate knowledge of the language and this study abroad experience is a step closer to my goal. Being up, close, and personal with the natives allowed me to pick up colloquialisms and words and phrases I wouldn’t pick up in a strict classroom setting. I am very fortunate to have had this opportunity.