Living in two worlds
Having an Italian Australian identity can be challenging. I am also vision impaired. I lived in two worlds growing up in a non-English speaking household. My parents are emigrants from Italy. They didn't leave the country because they wanted to. They left because they wanted to make a better life for their future children. They came to Australia in order to survive, in order not to starve. My parents left their beloved culture behind.
I am the eldest in a family of three children and was born totally blind. My parents did not know English. This caused them severe disadvantage. As a child with a vision impairment, it was difficult for my parents to help me with my homework. As time went on my mother took it upon herself to learn English and was very successful.
It was difficult and heartbreaking for them to accept the diagnosis of my eye condition. My parents were unable to gain access to interpreters because their knowledge of English was non-existent. In this new country of theirs, doctors and hospitals frightened them. Communication was poor between my parents and the hospital. So poor that they couldn't even work out how much I could see. My mum and dad thought I was only partially blind. This was very confusing.
Adapting to new ways
It was hard for my parents to adapt to an Australian way of life. Just as it was hard for me. However, mum and dad were very self-sufficient. They made their own wine and salami. They grew their own vegetables. They often got together with other relatives and killed their own meat. My friends at school were horrified. I grew silent and withdrawn at school. I couldn't talk about Italian traditions. I hid my identity. My mother always said to keep our customs a secret because we were different.
I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s. I often endured racism. In primary school the students labelled me
spaghetti eater. As a young girl I went through a period where I refused to eat spaghetti. I told my parents,
I'm not Italian, I'm Australian. My mother cried. My father raged but I was adamant. I walked between two worlds.
During high school I had one particular English teacher who used to mark down the Italian students' essays. She said we wrote like Italians. I went through a lot of self-blame. My mum went to the school and confronted the teacher. The harassment towards me stopped. It was hard enough being a blind student and not having access to braille textbooks in a timely manner. I certainly did not need to experience racism as well.
By the time I got to adulthood I was ashamed of my culture. I stopped speaking Italian. I moved away from the northern suburbs where I grew up. Although I had Australian friends I felt lonely and isolated. But as I grew older, I again became passionate about my Italian culture. My interests and friendships changed. I understood having an Italian Australian identity is a wonderfully diverse experience. I now embrace Italian culture as being part of my own identity.