As American kids living in an immigrant household, we were always straddling two cultures. There was the culture our parents brought with them and raised us in, with all its comforts, traditions, and things that (we thought) would never make sense outside our house. Then there was the outside world–that place we tried so desperately to fit into, yet in which we always felt one step behind.
I spent much of my childhood trying to decipher what others considered normal, and what I should keep to myself, lest I wanted a thorough mocking from my classmates. Somehow, in a not-quite-English, not-quite-Italian–speaking household, we kids managed to figure out which words fit with which language, and then used the right ones with the right people. Whew. I honestly don’t know how bilingual kids do that on intuition alone.
The language was never the difficult part. It was the small stuff that tore at me…those things that I had no way of knowing whether they were flown in by my parents on their Sicilian space ship, never to be recognized or appreciated by others, or actually part of the normal world. I could tell that my favorite TV show, Topo Gigio, was not fair game among others. That was easy: the little mouse didn’t speak English. But what about My Little Pony or Care Bears? Did other kids know what they were, or did they exist only in my bubble? Yes, the little ponies and bears spoke English, but did other kids get these shows on their American TVs??
Food was especially tricky…all of my favorites were cause for stress when I considered them outside our house. Did normal kids eat liver? What about peanut butter and jelly? Brains? Turkey sandwiches? Mortadella sandwiches? Rabbit? Who knew??? This became especially stressful when I started kindergarten. I’d go to school every day dreading what was in my lunch box. Did my mom know what was normal? I had no idea. What if I opened my lunch in front of everyone, and it was something mortifying? What if I didn’t even know I should be mortified by whatever I had? The pit in my stomach would grow all morning until I lost my appetite by lunch.
Something told me that eating lamb brains wasn’t normal. I understood that the fact that my brother Joey and I would fight over the lamb’s head at Easter was something I should keep quiet about. Okay. I could do that. The rest of my world was not so cut-and-dry.
An especially stressful lunchbox item was Nutella. For most of kindergarten, Nutella felt like a dirty little secret. I loved the stuff dearly–obsessively, in fact–and I was quite sure this was normal. My cousins all ate it (eaten by others–check), it was a standard fixture on supermarket shelves (not flown in on the Sicilian space ship–check), and by God, it was chocolate (popular ingredients–check). How could the world not rejoice in unison over Nutella? But no. I learned on one particular Monday in 1985 that this is not the case.
There I was, eating my Nutella sandwich, feeling happily average, when a freckle-faced girl with a boppy ponytail walked by my table. Her name was Dena or Dana–I’m glad I don’t remember. As I went in for a big bite, she stopped with an abrupt horror, as if she’d spotted a rat right there on the story time rug. Only she was looking at me, pointing at my sandwich.
“Ewww, she’s eating BLACK JELLY! EW EW EW!”
She actually screamed this to the entire class. Honestly. And then she called over the teacher’s assistant to have her inspect the horrific contents of my sandwich. I’m not sure what she expected. For me to be wheeled away in handcuffs? Detention on account of unidentified sandwich fillings? In retrospect, it’s amazing that this girl made me feel like the freak. For one thing, it’s not exactly normal to go around inspecting other classmates’ food and reporting them. And even if I had been eating something freaky–which I was not–I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one in the room. I was not the only immigrants’ kid in town. In fact, I later learned that the class was peppered with first-generation Italians, not to mention Russians, Chinese, and Indians. This was Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, after all: one of the city’s biggest immigrant hubs. My classmates were probably shielding their own mildly ethnic lunch from the wrath of Dena as they watched us. I just happened to catch the eye of the one All-American girl with a big mouth and a yearning for someone to humiliate. I likely could have teamed up with my fellow first-generationers and turned the tables on her, had I only realized.
Thankfully, our teacher’s assistant was slightly more attuned to the ways of the world than boppy ponytail girl. When she came over to investigate the fuss, she was thrilled to see my sandwich. “Oh, Nutella!” she said. “My kids love that stuff!” With that, boppy girl’s bubble burst, and I was able to peel my mortified soul off the floor. God bless you, teacher’s assistant whose name also escapes me. Your love for chocolate spread has more power that you’ll ever realize.
It’s funny to look back on all that stress now. How magnified everything became in my tiny world, how much I’d panicked over every last thing. And ironically, so many of the things I was ashamed of are the very things I’m now most proud of about my upbringing. Those moments of mortification have evolved into a badge of honor. I’d try to hide the fact that we didn’t speak English at home. Now I feel lucky that I was raised bilingual. Brains for Easter? I enjoy inviting friends over for the holiday–not to freak them out, but to share this favorite tradition with them (even if they won’t eat it).
Not every stumbling block translates nicely into a source of pride, but they each played their part in assembling me. I no longer mind if I’m slightly out of tune with the crowd. In fact, it’s the only way I know how to be.
Could I really have gotten all of this out of Nutella? Maybe. I guess there’s just something about school lunches that sticks with a kid.