"Sono Con Voi?" by Adero Kauffmann-Okoko
Third Place for High School Prose
I usually go to visit my family in Italy during summer breaks. We fly into Milan where my grandfather, Nonno, picks us up from the airport and proceeds to take us to the apartment. My grandmother, Nonna, is on the balcony seven floors up waving a towel with one hand and yelping ecstatic shouts of “CIAO! BUONGIORNO!” Milan’s rapid, upscale atmosphere is something I quickly adapt to.
One time, the family decided to go out for dinner. Nonno called the restaurant earlier that day to reserve a table for our family of twelve, and then as the sun began to go down, we walked through the mostly empty streets to the pizza restaurant nearby. My cousins, my sisters, and I raced ahead of the group of parents, aunts, and grandparents. We dashed through the parked, compact Italian cars, racing to reach the building first. As we arrived to the restaurant, I noticed the awning overtop the few outdoor tables, shading them from the setting sun. Behind the tables, large windows gave away soft, yellowish light. Walking into the restaurant, I noted pictures of smiling people hanging on the wall behind the host’s podium; the stack of empty pizza boxes by the bar waiting for an order to be made; and the thin, white, table-clothed tables occupying the floor space. The waiter greeted Nonno and happily began seating the family. First Nonno, then Nonna, then my aunt, my mom, my great uncle, my great aunt, my older cousin, my younger cousin, my baby cousin, and then he turned to my two sisters and I.
“Sono con voi? (Are they with you?)” Facing my grandfather, there was a prominent crinkle in the waiter’s forehead as one eyebrow rose above the other. Nonno quickly said yes, giving a light laugh as he explained that we were his grandchildren. I laughed it off, too, my eight-year-old brain not immediately understanding why the waiter did not know we were related. Looking around the table, I observed my cousin’s pale features as if for the first time. I realized how their external appearance is different from my own and began to feel uncomfortable because I felt as if I was an intruder.
For the rest of that trip, and for almost every trip afterwards, I would subconsciously hold my mother’s hand or walk between my cousins when we walked in public together, as if trying to prove to the rest of the world that I am not some random girl stalking them. Even today when shopping with my mother, I sometimes worry that passersby do not know we are related and could possibly think that I am trying to rob her.
Once when I was shopping at TJ Maxx with my mother over the summer, I decided to leave my phone in her purse while I went to try on clothes, and so when I was finished, I came out of the changing room looking for my phone. I reached into her bag while her back was turned and noticed someone looking over at me. Immediately, I called for my mother’s attention and began talking to her and hugging her. That middle-aged, suburban lady probably just made eye contact with me while scanning the store, or she was examining the line of shoes behind me, but I perceived her as looking at me.
Although these worries seem ludicrous, the reality is that race has always been a big part of my life, subconsciously or not. The constant underlying feeling of not belonging increases my general and social anxiety, affecting various parts of my life. I was finally able to relate my struggles as a multicultural person to others this past summer. I joined a club where we discussed how others perceive multicultural and/or multiracial people and how those perceptions affect us. As I sat on the hard, plastic chair, I listened to an Ethiopian-Indian student’s story of not being sure whether to join her school’s Black Student Union since she was not completely “black.” Her story reminded me of how I have ignored the African-American Student Barbeque emails since my freshman year. Only recently have I been able to attend Black Student Union meetings, the question of how I can claim to be an African American student when I never identified as such always plaguing my thoughts. Her conflicting emotions were so similar to my own, and hearing how she felt finally validated my sensitivity to racial characterization.
Being able to legitimize my experiences allowed me to relax when I have feelings of not belonging to a certain group. I now know that it is not unusual nor is it unreasonable to have such feelings, which permits me to discuss them and learn to accept who I am. Even with the newfound knowledge that my feelings are not abnormal or irrational, the events in my past are always lurking in my mind. Shopping trips with my mom still elicit hyper-social awareness and BSU meetings still evoke anxiety.
Having this experience made me think of all the other people who go through similar ventures. No matter the scale or context, the feelings are the same. When I see timid students visiting my school or meet frightened immigrants who have recently come to America, I try to validate and be perceptive of their struggles so that they can be less anxious or uncomfortable and more able to be productive in other areas of their life. I have and currently do struggle with confronting my own racial discomfort, and even though I am not sure it is something I can completely eliminate, sharing similar stories and showing empathy towards others can lead me towards a future of commonality and assurance.