Culture Shock: Moving to Italy
Culture shock is a phenomenon that you experience when you move to a cultural environment different from your own. Even people who travel often still experience culture shock. No matter how much you have read about the new place you are visiting, you will always learn something new in that new cultural environment. Also, there are things that you will only understand once you are immersed in the new place.
I will talk about my own culture shock when I moved to Italy in 2017. It is not my intention to make platitudes or to promote cultural stereotypes. I am only speaking based on my personal experience of living and traveling in Italy.
Before Moving To Italy
Making the decision to move to Italy was not an easy one. Life in Manila, Philippines was very good for us. At home, we had a good support system. My husband worked for a multinational company as a safety physician. We had a car and a nice apartment. We had a stay-in nanny who helped me take care of my two little boys. So when we found out that we had the opportunity to move to Italy, we had to really think about the consequences of this major life change.
Are we willing to let go of the conveniences of living in the city to move to a medieval town? It’s nice to travel around Europe if you have enough funds… but to actually live there?
Can I be an effective manager of the home without any household help?
Are we willing to learn the Italian language?
Should we move back to the U.S.? After all, we already know how life is like in America and we have friends and family over there. Is it better to move to Italy instead of going back to the U.S.?
Is this God’s will?
So the real reason why we moved to Italy is that there are good relocation benefits if my husband takes the job offer. Salary-wise, there really is not much of a difference. However, we wanted to take this opportunity to travel to Europe and to experience a different culture. And so we decided to pack our bags and leave our beloved country to live in Italy.
The Honeymoon Stage
This is the first stage of culture shock. During the Honeymoon Stage, you can only see the positive things in the new country. It is an exciting, exhilarating stage, and everything seems to be perfect!
Wow, Siena is paradise!
The air smells so fresh… like olives and rosemary!
The wine is delicious and cheap!
The food tastes amazing!
The Italian language is so easy to learn, it’s a Romance language like Spanish…Filipino has many Spanish words… I got this!
They drive so fast…super cool! La Dolce Vita!
Italian coffee tastes amazing! I’ll never order take-out coffee ever again!
This stage is the best stage, but short-lived. You enter your new country with expectations, and then reality hits you in the face.
The Frustration Stage
After a few months of living in Italy, I began to feel homesick. Also, I felt like I have not been making a lot of progress in my language learning journey. Well-meaning friends kept asking me, “are you already fluent in Italian?” What exactly is “fluent”? Yeah, I get by. But can I engage in intellectual conversations in Italian? Can I ever reach that level- or if is it even necessary? Do you know how frustrating it is when you don’t know enough words in the foreign language to say what you want to say?
When my family moved outside the main city of Siena, it became more obvious that we were not tourists, but immigrants. In general, the Italians I have met are very friendly and kind. However, I have encountered some very rude people as well. I have received ugly stares and even mean comments such as “you’re going back to your country”. I have also experienced being inappropriately touched by a taxi driver (while I was with my baby). There was also a time when a middle-aged man followed me around because he wanted to be my boyfriend. Anyway, all I can say is that I think that there are good and bad people in every country so you have to be extra careful at all times wherever you go.
Being A “Straniera” (A Foreigner)
Before moving to Italy, I lived in the United States as a cultural exchange teacher. Generally, in my experience living in the Washington D.C. area, it was awkward to ask “where someone is from”. In Italy, on the other hand, I’ve been asked many times by complete strangers where I am from. Are they asking because I’m not welcome here? Or are they asking because they’re simply curious? How will it make their lives better (or worse) if they know where I’m from? Anyway, I learned later on that “Di dove sei?” (Where are you from?) is a common question to start a conversation.
I asked an Italian friend what Italians really feel about immigrants. She said that sadly, some Italians classify immigrants into two groups: immigrants from “rich countries” and immigrants from “poor countries”.
There was a time when a man asked me where I was from. When I told him I’m a Filipina, he was surprised because he thought I was Chinese! Then he said in broken English, “Philippines is better than Chinese.”
One time when I was at a party and I was talking about how difficult it is for us to find a babysitter/ nanny, an Italian woman said, “Why don’t you find someone from your own kind?” Okay, so that shocked me a lot and she probably noticed that I gave her a look. “What do you mean?” I asked. She looked slightly uncomfortable and said, “Maybe it’s easier for you to find someone from your own culture.”
The Adjustment Stage
In this stage of adjustment, I learned to accept the reality that I am a straniero, a foreigner. Language Trivia: The Filipino word “estranghero” means “strangers” or “foreigners” in English! No matter how long I live in Italy, even if I become fluent in Italian, even if I dress like an Italian, I will never be an Italian. And that is okay! I’m a proud Filipina living in Italy.
Some people will not like that we are living in “their territory” because they think that we’re taking away their jobs! That’s not true at all! My husband is doing work that requires specialized training. His job helps save many lives not just in Italy but all around the world.
The only time it is not okay if I am treated with disrespect because I am a “brown-skinned straniera” or a “second-class immigrant”. It is not okay when my family’s life is threatened because we are stranieri. I can be a Filipino and live in peace with the Italian community. If for any reason we are not welcome in Italy anymore, that’s also fine. We will go where God leads us, and we stand by His promise that He will never forsake us nor leave us. If God is with us, who can be against us? I am not defined by the color of my skin, but by my life in Christ.
My husband and I will continue to practice speaking in Italian. We respect the Italian language and we want to be integrated into society. We try not to complain about cultural differences; instead, we adjust our lives accordingly. For example, because we know that most stores are closed on a Sunday, we stock up on supplies before the new week begins. We also learned how to appreciate the value of rest and recreation just like the Italians. Instead of complaining about how most stores are closed after lunch to 4:00 PM, we learned to adjust by getting our supplies outside those hours. We learned to adjust to how time is relative in Italy, that there is no “black and white”, and that nothing is ever final. (If you have lived in North America, you will understand how extremely frustrating this can be.)
Is it easy to live in Italy? No. Is this a unique and special experience at this point in our lives? Yes. Is it worth leaving the Philippines to live abroad? I would still say yes, not because I don’t love my home country, but because in my heart I have always longed to see the rest of the world.
The Acceptance Stage
I guess this is the part where you learn to accept the reality of your situation. Every country has positive and negative aspects. I really think that you have to learn to adjust and to be flexible if you want to live a happy life in your new environment. While my kids and I were taking a nature walk in Siena’s Botanical Garden, I saw a very familiar-looking flower. It was a hibiscus or a “gumamela”. This flower is endemic to the tropical islands of the Philippines, yet it blooms in the Tuscan hills of Italy! I believe it is God’s way of saying that He will make sure that I will not just survive… I will thrive!
Have you experienced culture shock in Italy or in a different country? Are you experiencing trials or setbacks as an immigrant? How do you survive loneliness or homesickness? I would love to know your story! Please leave me a comment.
This post is part of #DolceVitaBloggers Linkup- Culture Shock