I recently fulfilled my lifelong dream of going to Italy, but many (including my husband) wondered….
As many of my long-time readers know, I’m half-Vietnamese. My mom is a refugee from Vietnam and her native language is not English. While I grew up in an English speaking home, my mother struggled to adapt to her non-native tongue. Not being able to fully communicate with my mother made me feel like a stranger in my home.
Since I cannot speak Vietnamese, many of my friends often assume that I was not exposed to Vietnamese whatsoever. However, while my mom never spoke Vietnamese directly *at* me, the language was actually all around me growing up. My mom watched Vietnamese music videos and dramas constantly. In fact, whenever I hear the string of an erhu and guqin with the long winded cry of traditional Vietnamese singing, I am immediately taken back to my childhood living room.
As a child, I used to cuddle up with my mom and watch Vietnamese movies with her. I think I saw this is as a way to bond and become closer with my mother, and she loved to have me nearby as she watched her shows. Despite hearing Vietnamese day-in and day-out, however, I was deaf to the language.
Believe it or not, I didn’t learn how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in Vietnamese until I was 18. The only word I could understand in Vietnamese was ‘oh my god!,’ because my mom said it to me constantly.
Suffice to say, I developed a complex: I thought I sucked at learning languages. Even though I listened to Vietnamese for hours on end, I picked up nothing. This created a long-held fear in myself that I sucked at learning languages. In junior high school, I outright refused to enroll in a foreign language class.
In high school, however, I couldn’t escape the foreign language requirement. My high school only offered Spanish as an option for foreign language. Two of my friends, people I would consider “soft-rebels” of society, said that they didn’t want to run with the crowd and learn Spanish–they were going to study Italian at the nearby community college. I joined them in their rebellion.
How I found my calling in Italian
To say my Italian community college class was hard is a massive understatement. I am not exaggerating when I say that I studied verb conjugations late into the night, only to wake up in the morning in the same position clutching a cluster of flashcards. The speed at which we learned Italian was crazy–in fact, many of my classmates (actual college students) submitted formal complaints to the school because it was their Italian class (not Chemistry or Calculus) that was causing them to flunk. I kid you not when I say that, by the end of the year, we could read Pinnochio (a full blown novel) in Italian.
Our professor was a crazy linguist with aspergers. While he was socially-incapable, he was somehow fluent in seven languages. Essentially, he was the entire foreign language department at the community college.
Despite the difficulty of the class, I excelled–in fact, I kicked ass–and relished in it. I loved studying Italian. The pattern of the verbs, the construction of sentences, the way we rolled our r’s and sung the intonation of the words–I was in love. Italian class was the highlight of my day.
“Maria, your pronunciation is flawless and your conjugations are always correct. You alone scored 100% on our final exam… now, if only the rest of the class could perform up to Maria’s level…”
I soon earned the ire of the class, but I didn’t care. In my other high school classes, I was either a few steps away from the top or trailing far behind–but not in Italian. In Italian, I reigned supreme.
Around this time, I gained the confidence to approach Japanese. Although I had always wanted to learn Japanese, I was afraid. Since I was unable to learn Vietnamese and pick it up from my mom, I thought that learning Japanese was a pipe dream. However, Italian made me realize that I wasn’t just good at learning foreign languages–it was my competitive advantage.
In other words, Italian helped me discover my true strength. My trump card.
A Dream Come True
It only took 16 years, but I did it. For our long delayed honeymoon, husband and I went to Italy.
Like Japan, Italy had quite the reputation to live up to. I imagined a boisterous and passionate people, pasta and pizza of the highest quality, and vast landscapes of rolling hills with cypress trees and the glow of the Mediterranean.
Well, I must say Italy lived up to the hype.
As I sat on the patio of our hotel that was perched on the hills of Florence, waiting for our morning taxi to pick us up, I stood and looked out to the city below. The dome of the Opera Santa Maria Del Fiore. The bridges near Palazzo Vecchio. The vineyards and hills that stretched on beyond the city limits and to the horizon. The birds were singing. I was full from the breakfast of fresh honey and fruit from the local villa garden, and the morning mist was clearing up into a beautiful, blue day.
I almost cried in the moment. Everything came full circle.
I always thought I was useless, that I wasn’t good at anything, that I was stupid for not even being able to pick up Vietnamese and communicate with my mother. However, Italian showed me that I was not only good at learning languages–but there was nothing I enjoyed more. Although I didn’t learn to speak fluent Italian (I switched to Japanese in university and went that route instead), Italian gave me the confidence and skillset to excel in Japanese… and later, Chinese.
Like Japan and Ireland, I have a feeling I’m going to go back to Italy many, many times in the future. While Italy does have some stunning natural sights, it’s the history and culture (and food!) that really connect to me. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to visit and travel around Southern Italy soon.
I’ll write up some posts on our travels throughout norther Italy soon. In the mean time… arrivederci!