Part three of my wonderful time with the Italian high school students. To continue on my saga I will delve into somethings that stood out to me while I was there. Namely some uncomfortable moments and what it means to be an American.
One of the major differences in culture that I experience was the amount of personal space. Americans are known for their (our) need for personal space. Two Americans who are strangers will only talk to each other with about 3-4 feet standing in-between them. Get two Americans who come from the Midwestern states (Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, etc.) and you might see the personal space extend to about 6-8 feet.
Being raised Chinese myself I grew up with a personal space similar to that of American culture. So when I first met the Italians it was all a little weird with all the teenage boys and girls hugging and holding each other (to my knowledge, all of them were straight).
Yes, there was a lot of hugging and arm holding. guys-to-guys, girl-to-girl, girls-to-guy (platonic friends).
I remember in the beginning of the two weeks my co-camp counselors and I thought that there were at least 5 couples among the kids. It turned out there was only 2 because apparently it’s accepted that among platonic friends (of both sexes!) to have a close if not no personal space at all.
Also in the beginning we hosted the first of a couple of “disco nights” (dances in the American vernacular). The theme was – get this – “Cross-dressing”.
Yes. You heard that one right, the theme was “cross-dressing” and it was the kids’ idea, not of the camp counselors.
After getting over our initial misgivings, the camp counselors got ready for the dance. I of course, being obligated since I was basically the “host” to the kids, went and got the appropriate “attire” for the event. No, I didn’t go the full 9 yards (I had a pair of gym shorts and T-shirt underneath) but basically I went in appropriate attire.
It was at this event that I got the full experience of the personal space different between the American and Italian culture. At one point I was dancing with my fellow counselors. All of a sudden, one of the group of Italian boys rushed up to me and starting dancing with me, cutting me off of my co-workers. The boys got within inches of me (while I was in costume) and…it was a little uncomfortable with 10+ guys dancing around you practically rubbing against you while you’re wearing a dress.
I basically did a ducking maneuver and got out of there and joined my co-workers, away from the boys. The same group did the same thing twice, with me being able to politely remove myself from their presence. Looking back I realize perhaps that wasn’t the *nicest* thing to do because those boys were simply being nice and celebratory towards me for *participating* in their fun.
But hey, that theme wasn’t my cup of tea.
Uncomfortable feelings aside, I will say the greatest feeling that I got from this experience was the one of being independent. Here was the situation: I lived an hour away from home (where I’m living with my parents), in a situation where I had to be present on campus 24 hours in one day.
I don’t know, but I never felt so free and dare I say, responsible for myself in a long time. Not since college had I been free from my parents and from what my parents expected of me. There’s the sense of self-reliance, self-expression, and self-accountability (with the exception of the whole co-worker fiasco) that was present in the situation, and rather, something that I had to overcome.
I remember thinking to myself in the first few days how under-qualified I was to handle the job. At the end of the two weeks, I had done things – however subtle – that were critical and essential to my personal growth. Looking back I feel that perhaps I was indeed crazy enough to accept the job offer in the first place.
After the program ended, one of the only things I could think of was “I need to have more experiences like these”. Experiences that are just outside my comfort zone yet manageable enough so that I don’t completely collapse mentally or emotionally. I think that last part is subjective, but it’s the “just outside my comfort zone” thing that counts. My current teaching position is challenging me in ways that I would not have anticipated a year ago while I was studying in the classroom. So in most ways it is fulfilling these requirements. I can only hope that this trend will continue through the foreseeable future, even after the end of my program.