What My Italian Identity Crisis Taught Me About Happiness

I am not Italian but sometimes I would try to be.

“Are you Italian?” some would ask.

“Not that I know of, but my dad was adopted so I might be.”

“You could be, you’re kind of tan so you look Italian.”

My spirit would fly a bit higher every time I heard someone say it. That’s why when I decided to enroll in my very first college language course, Intensive Elementary Italian, I thought my genes would get me through the grunt work that goes into learning a language. Even though I had never thoroughly studied a language before (and yes I’m blaming you for letting me get away with that, public high schools) I thought I would be able to easily pick up my native tongue. I was ready for the challenge: two semesters worth of a language crammed into one in one course geared towards students with at least some background in the language. Who cares if I couldn’t roll my R’s? What did it matter that I can barely remember the names of my classmates, much less an entirely new set of vocabulary? I was determined to learn Italian, study abroad in Italy, and retire on a beachfront villa with my beautiful Italian husband.

What first got the idea in my head was a nine day EF Tours trip across Italy my senior year of high school. As far as I knew, in those nine days I saw the most beautiful places, things, and people in the world. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. Sadly, the only thing keeping me from being Italian was everything about me. An awkward American, shuffling the cobblestoned streets of Florence with a camera pressed to my nose, I cursed my existence. The mere thought of coming back to this beautiful country as myself was mortifying. The only thing I hated more than admitting I was American was feeling like a tourist. Simply ordering a sandwich and forcing a cashier to speak in English to me because I didn’t even know the most basic Italian was almost enough to let me go without food for the afternoon. I wanted to get lost in Italy and find my own way out with the language, culture, and grace of a true Italian.

Idealizing one’s future is a truly dangerous thing, especially when basing your entire future on a nine-day bus ride across a country you had never been before. By the time I left Italy I had decided I wanted to be an Italian journalist and I would do anything to go back there and live there. This dream floated on with me to my freshman orientation at UMass Amherst where I picked my classes and decided to enroll in my first godforsaken Italian class. Little did I know, easily coasting by in high school did not carry over into the realm of college languages. I didn’t even try to kid myself that high school Latin would help me because I knew it was the biggest joke of them all. I counted on my own work ethic to get me through the next year of language learning, and it was just about the only thing that didn’t fail me.

Intensive Elementary Italian was the hardest class I had ever taken, that is until I took Intermediate Intensive Italian the following semester. I knew after the first week that I hated the class. I knew I would struggle, I knew that I would have to actually study and I knew that the possibility of failing was very real. This didn’t matter to me though because I wanted so badly to be Italian and to be part of that beautiful culture. I thought because my intentions were pure it meant that all my hard work would pay off. I thought that because my dreams stretched beyond my GPA that I would be some success story of hard work and dedication to be shared by Italian classes for years to come.

I was so focused on my dream that even changing my mind was just an obstacle to my goal. A story I wrote for the Daily Collegian had me interviewing the Asian Arts Director and an accomplished Indian dancer. She talked to me about her trips to India, and how she would even bring students along to study dance. I asked if any journalism students visited too and she said they often do and find the experience very rewarding. Leaving that interview I was convinced I had to visit India. I was so excited I almost quit Italian that afternoon to study Hindi. I hadn’t felt that excited about a country or a language since my infatuation with Italy, but my heart was already taken. I quickly forgot about India and refocused on Italy with ever more vigor than before.

I kept my head above water first semester, but second semester was a washout. I applaud myself for sticking with it as long as I did even though failure was eminent. Three weeks until the end of second semester I dropped Intensive Intermediate Italian knowing that my GPA would take too large of a blow for me to handle. I dreaded class each morning, or rather, two and a half hours of me feigning interest to disguise my complete lack of comprehension as a professor shouted condescending Italian phrases at our class of thirteen. One night my boyfriend woke me up to tell me I had been muttering in my sleep about all the assignments I needed to complete and the study abroad scholarships I had to apply for. That morning I skipped my Italian class and it was the happiest I had felt for months. The stress put on me by my beautiful language was getting unhealthy and I knew something had to change. I met with an adviser the next day to drop the class and she marveled how I didn’t quit sooner. I said I wanted to be fluent in Italian. She said that was nearly impossible to do without immersion learning. Her eyes said she was sorry for me.

I was three weeks away from earning twelve credits of Italian, but after all my hard work I only kept my first six. It fulfilled my language requirement so it was not a complete waste of time, but I knew I had promised my heart more and it ached to fill the void. Thankfully I knew another passion I could ignite: my dreams of India. Only time could tell if this dream was my own or another idea that had been planted in my fertile, overly ambitious, dreamer mind, or if this was actually what I wanted to do.

So far I am happy with my decision. India doesn’t have any language barriers; most everyone speaks at least some English and there are even English language magazines I have already looked into for internships. Dropping a language gave me time to pursue my other interests and so far I am a lot happier and stress-free. I know that in my future there will be hard work but this time I will be sure that in working hard I still feel like I am accomplishing something. For now being happy is my first priority.

A dream is only a dream if the journey there is as happy as the destination. If it is not, how can we know that it will be worth it in the end? There is a reason they call it “living the dream” rather than “working really hard so one day you might be able to accomplish the dream”. My idealized Italy was only an idea hatched from a begrudging tourist. I was unhappy with myself and my situation so I decided to change into what I thought was the perfect person. I ask myself now, what was so wrong with being a tourist? Why did I have to work so hard to change who I was? More time and effort could have been spent on making me happy with who I was, not changing who I was.

My lesson in Italian has made a roundabout trip through a sea of clichés. Be yourself. Do what makes you happy. Don’t take double-credit language courses in a language you have never studied. All lessons drilled into us from birth, and lessons I am just now learning. I guess it is never too late to learn them, or even a preferred speed to learn them at. It took me eighteen years and two semesters of college to learn that my happiness always comes first and so far it’s the most important thing I have learned in college.


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