When I think of the word “stereotype,” I think of the negative connotation that it is widely associated with. However, after reflecting more upon the meaning of stereotypes and why they often come to mind, I am starting to think otherwise. They don’t always have to be negative. I believe that it is natural for a traveler like myself to assume things about one’s host culture before truly getting to know it. We sometimes depend on stereotypes in an effort to understand the culture we are about to immerse ourselves into, especially when we are nervous for the lifestyle adjustments that lie ahead. I would be lying if I said that I had no preconceived notions of Italian culture before arriving here in Perugia. My personal experiences both back at Quinnipiac and here at the Umbra Institute have helped me readjust my worldview about my host country’s culture.
This past summer, I had the opportunity of being an Orientation Leader for Quinnipiac University. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned during our week of training was about the consequences that come with microaggressions. A fellow Orientation Leader recently wrote an article for the Quinnipiac Chronicle titled “Microaggressions Have a Macro Impact.” I had the chance to read it and refresh my memory about the definition of a microaggression: “A microaggression can be a verbal, nonverbal or environmental slight that—purposely or not—hurts a person who is part of a marginalized group” (Kasam). For instance, my new study abroad friends and I were talking about our ethnic identities over dinner one night. Many of them could “see” the English, Irish, and French Canadian in me given my fair skin, blue eyes, and collection of freckles on my cheeks, but they were so taken back by my Middle Eastern Albanian ethnicity. “You don’t look Albanian, though?!” many responded as they looked at me head-to-toe. This is what you would call a microaggression — a statement that comes out nonchalant, but holds underlying discrimination based on one’s skin color. Erin Twomey and Daniel Brown, the Orientation Program directors, along with a few informative speakers, taught us how we must think before we speak so we can respect the identities of all the incoming students so we can foster a diverse, yet inclusive community at Quinnipiac. Little did I know then that this knowledge would be taken with me beyond America’s borders.
I have not only learned about handling microaggressions and stereotypes back in the States, but I have also learned about those regarding the Italian culture in my classes here at the Umbra Institute. For example, in my Education in Italy Seminar, we were asked to read a chapter from Martin J. Gannon’s Understanding Global Cultures: A Metaphorical Journeys Through 23 Nations titled “The Italian Opera.” This reading was very eye-opening since it presented common stereotypes of Italians through the use of metaphors pertaining to musical pageantry. For example, one of the assumptions I made from spending a great deal of time with Italian friends of mine was that Italians are speak loudly and with their hands. The picture shown on the right conveys this American stereotype of the Italian culture. I never knew the reason behind this stereotype until I read what Gannon had to say: “[…]like the opera, the sound and cadence of the communication play a role at least equal to the content of what is said in getting the message across[…]Italian gestures are based on natural and instinctive movements and can therefore be understood by inexperienced at first sight” (Gannon 49-50). After reading this excerpt, I realized that I, too, tend to speak loudly, especially when I am excited or believe in something wholeheartedly. It is likewise for Italians who speak with the utmost passion. As a student studying the basics of Italian, the use of hand motions while ordering a meal or expressing a thought tends to be very helpful, too! After having the opportunity of living in an Italian city where they rarely speak English, you begin to truly appreciate the beautiful language that is like music to your ears.
My History of Italian Food and Culture class has helped me in distinguishing between the fact and fiction of Italian food, along with the stereotypes Italians hold regarding American cuisine. I am going to be honest, after admiring the adorable, short, and rotund Italian grandmothers that I have seen at the local Italian market back at home, I always thought that the general Italian physique was the same due to their large appetites. I stood corrected as I saw tall, slim natives strutting down Corso Vannucci like models as I stood at the top of my street’s hill, huffing and puffing from the hike. As I have learned from my class, the Italian cuisine is comprised of simple ingredients with no preservatives or GMOs like in the States. Traditional ristorantes may expect their customers to indulge in six full courses, but each course is portioned perfectly so as to save you from gluttony and food comas. Needless to say, I will never judge an Italian by their cuisine ever again.
Italians also have their share of stereotypes based on American lifestyles, especially on our attempts at imitating their second-to-none cuisine. One of the major lessons taught in my History of Italian Food and Culture class was that Italian food does not exist. The country of Italy did not become a unified country until 1861. Thus, there is still a rivalry between the Italian regions’ varying food cultures, fueled by each one’s campanilismo, or passionate regional pride. The physical landscape and climate of each region influences their food culture and what dishes they are most known for. For example, the northern Italian city of Bologna is known for their fresh meats and dairy because they have the vast plains to domesticate animals to produce them. Southern Italy’s regions are the homes of bright and bold vegetables due to their warm climates. The island of Sicily is the haven of all seafood pasta dishes thanks to their fresh catch. Thus, the generalized term “Italian food” derives from American culture. Ever since the Italian immigrants settled in small, close-knit neighborhoods in America, we have been trying to imitate their irreplaceable cuisine, a cuisine that was a melting pot of regional differences whether we knew it or not. We have come to Americanize Italian dishes, like topping pizza pies with buffalo chicken instead of the simple mozzarella and basil, or pairing spaghetti with meatballs even though they are considered two separate courses in Italy. All in all, Italians are proud of the unique cuisines that they have crafted in their different regions, and, because they uphold tradition, they cannot fathom their prized dishes any other way — not even the American way that we have come to know and love.
Hafez Adel, a University of California at Irvine student who studied in Barcelona, Spain, wrote an article entitled “Slashing Stereotypes” for the magazine Abroad View. Now that I have thoroughly explored the stereotypes rooted in the American and Italian cultures, I, like Adel, have learned that “what we [lose] in certainty, we [make] up for in understanding” (Adel). I have discovered that study abroad students like myself should not solely depend on our preconceived notions of our host culture. Instead, we should leave our assumptions behind and let our curiosity be our guide.
Adel, Hafez. “Slashing Stereotypes.” Abroad View Spring 2009: 26-28. Web.
Gannon, Martin J. “Chapter 3: The Italian Opera.” Understanding
Global Cultures: A Metaphorical Journeys Through 23 Nations. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications, 2001. 42-65. Print.
Kasam, Afsha. “Microaggressions Have a Macro Impact.” Www.quchronicle.com.
Quinnipiac University, 2 Mar. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.