"Missing Words" by Giulianna Marchese
Third Place for College Prose
There is no feeling quite like that moment when your friend makes a cringe-worthy joke about another race. This is an age old dilemma on which plenty of Youtubers and activists have counseled. Some even offer a turn of phrase you could use to show your disapproval without seeming “uncool.” I can attest that I have found a few quips that I find useful in this situation in the English speaking world. But of course, the United States of America is not the only country with a race problem. I recently had the opportunity of a lifetime to stay in Italy for a month. Despite being an incredible growing experience, culture shock does not even begin to describe my interaction with the racial climate of Italy. It is one thing to be in uncomfortable situations in America where you have the ability to say something. But what can a person do when their vocabulary is so limited, such as my Italian vocabulary?
For most of my trip, I stayed in a little town called Melilli with my nonna (grandmother). Most of my family lives here so I spent a lot of time going from house to house for lunch with different relatives. Almost every other day I would eat with my cousin, Elina, and her three young girls. One of them was sixteen years old and the others were twins at the age of twelve. As I struggled to follow the conversation at the table, I pick up on my nonna telling my zia (aunt) that we needed to buy a shower curtain for the bathroom. My zia offered her a ride to the store as she often did. To this, my nonna replied, “La compreremo dal cinese” (We will buy it from the Chinese). My ears perked up at this and I asked my nonna to clarify in English. Apparently, there was a store in Melilli that sold just about everything you can imagine imported from China and as cheap as could be. Furthermore, the store was run by what I suspect to be the only Asian family in Melilli. I don’t think this is a bold claim, as this was the kind of town where everyone knows each other and, within one month, one begins to feel like they have met everyone.
At the very mention of this family, the twins put their hands to their temples and stretched their eyes so that they were squinting. Without so much as a disappointed glance from the adults at the table, the girls laughed at each other. I, on the other hand, was stunned out of words—Italian and English.
On occasion, I left the tiny town of Melilli to visit the tiny city of Siracusa (Syracuse). These days were some of my favorites. Siracusa is just touristy enough that a person can get around without knowing a lick of Italian and it is just authentic enough that if I wanted to practice Italian, I could.
Through my family, I had made a couple of friends that lived in the city—two thrill-seeking boys about my age, Matia and Andrea. They spoke to me in English most of the time and took me on a few adventures in the little time I had. These guys were all about the adrenaline rush, and I don’t mean the mild kind that you get from riding a rollercoaster. The first time I hung out with them, they took me cliff-diving. This time, they took me rollerblading around Syracusa (I rode a scooter).
As I struggled to keep up, the boys commented on the various people on the street. Anyone walking down a street in Italy is an object for commentary. This was a practice that I became numb to after a while. Matia even said at one point, “In Italy, we judge people on their appearance.” But by this time, I had gotten used to hearing my nonna talk about people as we passed them.
We reached a point where I needed a break. My legs were tired and cobblestone roads are not the easiest surfaces to ride a scooter on. We stopped on the sidewalk across from some vendors selling bags, hats, and sunglasses. Street vendors in Italy were almost always either black or Middle Eastern; these vendors were black. Matia turned to me and asked, “Giulianna, are you racist?”
I was startled by this inquiry. My mind was flustered. To me, this seemingly simple question was quite complicated. I thought, Of course, I am not a racist. But, everyone experiences slightly racist tendencies sometimes. The important thing is that we are conscious of our bias—whether they are innate or socially conditioned—and we fight against them. This is what went through my head, but what came out of my mouth was, “I hope not.”
Matia looked at me and said, “I am racist. But, only since living in America.”
What it was about his experience in America that made him identify as a racist, I will never know, because immediately after saying this he rolled away across the crosswalk and I was left with Andrea, who looked at me as if to say “we better keep up.” It is a very sad thing when you realize that your relationship with someone can be nothing more than a short- term friendship.
If this were a fictional story, I would have written that I eventually caught up to him and confronted him about his statement. I would have written that I explained to him the poverty cycle and the systematic oppression of black people. I explained the incredible history of civil rights and Beyoncé. Furthermore, I would have written that I did all this in perfect grammatical Italian. Unfortunately, I am recounting the true events of my experience in Italy and this is what actually happened; we eventually stopped again on a street corner where I was to meet my zia to pick me up and leave. I hugged both of the boys goodbye. I wouldn’t see them again for the rest of my stay in Italy.
Le Quattro Genti
My nonna and zia once told me about some of the things that they were taught in school as children. My nonna remembered being taught that, in the whole world, there are only four races; black, white, Asian, and Native Americans. Native Americans were referred to as “reds.” Getting my nonna to explain herself fully was never an easy task. It is not that her English was terrible, but that she never thought things through before she let them come out of her mouth. I said to her, “Wow, I’m sure education has come a long way since then.” She seemed confused at my comment. “You know that this is wrong now,” I said, hopeful.
My hope that my nonna had had any realization about the fallibility of this statement was dashed when she broke out into a tangent about how no one can “say what is true anymore.” I am not entirely sure what her point was. It was difficult to follow and some of it was in Italian. But, the most horrifying part of our conversation was when she said this, “The black people don’t want to be called n*****, but that’s what they are.”
Even typing it out using asterisks leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I would sometimes give my nonna a pass when she said something less than tasteful. But, there was no way I was going to let this go and my reply had to be as clear to her as I could make it. I had to use her language. “Nonna! Non puoi usare questa parola” (Grandmother! You cannot use that word).