Cultural Identity Narrative
“You have to tell them Sofia.”
Joey’s big brown eyes stared deeply into mine. He was using that new expression of his, the one that could make him instantly mature into someone who could be taken seriously. I knew that look. It was the exact face I gave to him about 100 times a day to get him to stop bothering me. I knew that look, yet in that moment, I also knew that there was no getting out of this one.
I stared out the bedroom window, avoiding his gaze. Outside, the cobble streets were alive, people dancing in the sunlight or stopping to admire the brownstones. It’s not that I wouldn’t miss this place. Of course I would. I just craved something more. What harm could come of that? I repeated that to myself a few times, each time allowing myself to feel more a little more humane about my choice. I turned to face Joey,
“Fine,” I said, fighting to keep the exasperation out of my voice, “but you better get ready to back me up, okay?” He nodded his head and I walked out the door before he could change his mind.
As I walked down the stairs, I breathed in the smell of freshly baked dough. It was a familiar smell, more than that, a safe smell. At that very moment, the child in me wanted to curl up inside of it, to cover myself with it until I disappeared. Upon reaching the kitchen, the first face I saw was my mother’s. She was all business, even at 9 am on a Saturday.
“Morning Sof, do you think you could give me a hand? we’re running kind of behind.” I blinked the leftover sleep out of my eyes and shrugged on my favorite purple apron from the hook on the door.
“Actually Mom, I really need to talk to you about something” I tried not to sound guilty, or too impatient. I needed her at her best.
“Of course honey,” my mom said, “what’s up?”
“College actu-” At that moment my dad walked in, hitting my mom and I with rapid fire Italian. She fires back, until I’m in a war zone of foreign tongues and hand gestures. I can’t take it. I can’t take any of it.
“I want to go to med school.” The words come out a few decibels over a whisper, but it’s enough. The guns retreat, replaced instead by quizzical expressions on both faces. “I want to go to med school, I’m not going to work at the restaurant.” That time I say it with more force, leaving it to sit in the open air.
“Why?” my dad sounded weak, like the breath had been ripped right out of his lungs. “I just don’t understand.” I’d never seen him like this. No matter the situation he always packed as much emotion as he could into everything. He was the most Italian man I’d ever met, and I’d met plenty. When he was happy, he shouted, when he was sad, he sobbed uncontrollably, when he was angry, his yells could be heard a mile away. But this was different. He looked almost defeated, as if my career plans were going to send him to an early grave.
I almost wanted to laugh. I knew that there were kids in my school who had parents that would have killed to hear their children say that to them; parents that would most likely cry if their children gave up all the time and effort they’d spent studying in order to work 12 hour days at a restaurant that was little more than a corner pizza shop.
But those parents weren’t mine. Instead, I had grown up surrounded by people who had constantly preached the importance of a tight knit family, of a community filled with families that had been running the same businesses for generations. And as horrible as it sounded, I didn’t think I could live that type of life anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered “I’m so so sorry.” The last thing I saw before I ran was my mother burying her head into my father’s shoulder.
Running hurts. To be more specific, running hurts like hell. But I guess that’s why I did it. When my lungs were screaming for air and my legs were throbbing it helped me distance myself from my problems, to put them into perspective. As much as it was going to hurt me to stay with my parents, I realized I was hurting them so much more by not staying. Not only was I rejecting their home and love, but I was rejecting their culture, the one thing that had kept their families together through everything.
Having rethought my decision I headed back home. The fall breeze pushed me inside, leaving me to dart in between waiting customers in my effort to reach the kitchen. I began to apologize before I had even pulled the door all the way open.
“Mom, Dad, look I’m sorry about befo-” I stopped short at the sight before me. Amid the clatter of pots and pans my parents were sitting at a small table, peering down at some information on a laptop. The light from the screen reflected onto their faces and at a closer look, I realized that they were smiling; smiling at the screen, smiling at one another, and before I could peel my eyes away from the spectacle, smiling at me.
“Sof, you shouldn’t be the one apologizing, we should. Being part of our family doesn’t have to mean being a part of the restaurant you know.”
“I know. I just…” I trailed off and my mom’s gaze locked onto mine, holding its grip as tightly as possible. She had gone from smiling to serious in a matter of seconds, silently letting me know that there was nothing I could say to convince her otherwise. It took me a few seconds but I recognized her look. It was the one I always used, the one Joey too, was starting to learn.
I smiled back at them, not to thank them for their apology, but because I knew that I would always share these qualities with them. If I always carried pieces of them inside of me, I knew that I could make it anywhere. And on top of that, if they could learn the same thing, then one day they’d be ready, if not exactly today, to let me go.