An Italian Cultural Experience in Wudaokou

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Italian and Chinese flags

This past year at W&M I lived in the Italian House or La Casa Italiana as we liked to call it. It was a wonderful opportunity for students studying Italian to be immersed in the language and culture.  The house tutor, Giulia, was a constant mentor, friend, and source of information whom we all greatly admired and loved. I felt very fortunate to have lived in such a loving environment with other students who were also interested in Italian culture.  I did not take any classes in the Italian department since all of my time is consumed by Chinese and International Relations classes.  My father is Italian-American and I took four years of Italian in high school so living in the Italian house enabled me to keep up my Italian.

There have been times in the past when I would confuse Italian and Chinese. Despite their obvious differences in alphabet (or lack of one), pronunciation, grammar, and idiomatic expressions, I would confuse Italian and Chinese more than Chinese and English.  Since high school my brain has been trained to not associate the foreign language I’m learning with English.  So when I started learning Chinese, my brain’s first instinct was to compare Chinese to Italian. For example, instead of saying “对” or “是” when giving an affirmative answer I would instinctively say “sì”. After I was accepted into the Casa Italiana I feared I would confuse the two even more since Italian became a greater part of my everyday life.  It turned out that as I advanced further in my Chinese studies and knew how to say more, I confused the two languages less. The more I learned, the greater the differences became and my brain could no longer could compare the two.

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Fabri Fibra from the music video ‘Tranne Te (Rap Futuristico)’

This past weekend I went to an Italian restaurant in Wudaokou called Eatalia: La Dolce Vita.  That day I wore my Casa Italiana t-shirt which has the Italian flag printed largely on the front. As I was enjoying the delicious vegetarian pizza my friends ordered, the owner came to our table and asked if our everything was alright. Upon seeing my shirt he asked in Italian if I were Italian. I responded in kind and told him that I was half Italian.  He asked me where my family is from and he told me the name of his city.  It was a very friendly interaction and he seemed genuinely happy to speak in Italian with me.  I was happy to speak Italian since I hadn’t had a single thought in Italian since before this program started.  After a little while of eating in the restaurant, I was very surprised to hear a famous Italian rap song called ‘Tranne Te (Rap Futuristico)” by Fabri Fibra. I first heard this song from a slideshow on the Italian House that was presented at International Dessert Night. It blew my mind that this song was playing in a restaurant in the middle of Wudaokou, Beijing.

Once I heard that song after speaking in Italian to the owner, I felt the very familiar sense of confusion wash over me as my Italian world and Chinese world collided.  I hadn’t been confused about Italian and Chinese for a good year and all of a sudden the feeling came right back.  My reaction to this feeling was to laugh: laugh at the fact that I hadn’t heard this song in a while, laugh at speaking Italian after a full month of Chinese immersion, and laugh at how I hadn’t confused the two languages in a year. Although ‘confusion’ isn’t usually an emotion associated with good feelings, I welcomed the confusion because it is a feeling I am used to.  It brought me back to all those days back at William & Mary where I would confuse Chinese and Italian. In this moment I really felt how small the world is; cross cultural interactions can happen anymore and in the most unexpected places.