Born and raised in New York City as a Chinese American, culture has surrounded me my whole life. I’ve had a love hate relationship with my own culture, and it has taken a while for me to fully appreciate my background. Growing up in an elementary school with mainly Asians, moving on to middle school with mainly Caucasians, and then high school with mainly Hispanics and African Americans, I’ve been surrounded with various types of people my whole life. In the city, I never thought of myself as different because the city is so diverse. It wasn’t until high school that I started to distance myself from my own culture, because classmates would question me about my cultural foods and language. I remember in high school, my mom would pack me food for lunch, such as noodles, dumplings, and leftovers from dinner. I was never ashamed of my food until people wanted to try or called it “disgusting” or “looks weird” or “smells weird.” I felt it was embarrassing and started to make myself more “American.” I pretended I didn’t know my language or the “weird” types of foods we eat. Going to school here in Geneseo has slowly allowed me to accept my culture and be myself again. I joined a couple of Asian culture clubs and made a couple of friends that are just like me. I’m able to share my foods and everyday life with them.
Being abroad in Italy taught me about culture shock. Being in Geneseo, I know I’m a person of color, but I don’t think I’m any better or worse than anybody else. But being in Italy, the first few days in Rome, I felt fine. Rome was pretty diverse with various types of tourists from around the world. It was just like the city: busy, lots of people, and diverse. Moving onto Pisa, I felt fine too, as there were many people from different parts of the world, so I never thought of myself as different. There were many parts of Italy that were cities like Florence and Naples, which felt like home. It wasn’t until we arrived in Siena where I fully experienced culture shock.
Siena is a small city in Tuscany with lots of kindness, tradition, and history. The city is lovable and small, and everywhere is walkable. The people there were super sweet and welcoming and almost everybody knew each other in the different districts. Siena is different because the city is divided into seventeen districts, also known as contradas. Each district resembles an animal. I happened to live between two contradas: the owls and the dolphins. My abroad group happened to be very close with the Onda (dolphin) contrada because our professor was a part of it. We were invited to the contrada’s dinner and parades to celebrate the upcoming Palio Festival. The Palio is when the contradas race horses to see who wins at the end of June. Many people on the trip participated in contrada events, but I distanced myself. Being Asian, I felt like all eyes were on me. I felt different because I didn’t look anything near Italian and was afraid that I was being judged. Everyone on the trip mingled with locals and danced, while I sat on the stairs watching people. Of course, I may have been the only one thinking about myself as different, but it was just a different experience. During the contrada parade, I stayed in the hotel because I didn’t want to include myself. Everyone during our trip abroad felt like they were a part of the contrada and bought the contradas’ blue and white scarves. As much as I wanted to buy a contrada flag, I just never felt like I fit in, so I distanced myself. I know everything was just in my mind because everyone was super friendly and welcoming. Though I distanced myself from many of the events held by the Onda contrada, just watching and living in the city for two weeks taught me a lot about the Tuscan culture.
Overall, Italy is a great country. The traditions, culture, and people allowed me to reflect on my own ideas and perceptions of what I learned. I hope to return one day and experience things I couldn’t during my time abroad. There are many places I wished I was able to visit that I couldn’t. Being raised in a city that is very diverse, it just felt different being one of the few Asians walking around in Italy. Perugia was a tiny place and there really wasn’t much to do. Sitting around, watching the people pass by, I realized how much more diverse this area was compared to all the other places in Italy I’d been to. The area was filled with people all over the world. This was when it really reminded me of New York City because New York is a very diverse place. Walking and sitting around, I felt comfortable, because I felt like someone who belonged there. I felt like I fit in. The area in Perugia was diverse because of an international school located in the district. Without the school, I don’t think the area would’ve been that diverse. When I was going around different places in Italy, I always felt like I was being stared at because I looked like the basic tourist. I didn’t feel like I fit in because I didn’t look Italian and I looked different compared to everybody around me. Plus, not knowing Italian really made it harder for me to fit in because it showed I wasn’t from there. I remember in Siena, at the Duomo di Siena, a museum chaperone was trying to ask us where a couple of us where from. She knew little English, and I knew little Italian, so the conversation ended quickly because we couldn’t communicate with each other. My abroad experience was fun, but I wished I learned more of the language to fit in and being able to talk to locals.
Cindy Li is a senior Psychology major / Biology minor who attended study abroad during summer 2019. She’s from Queens, and is affiliated with the Alpha Sigma Tau Sorority. She currently volunteers for a comfort care, and hopes one day to become a nurse. Photo credit: Cindy Li