As a child, I easily understood myself to be both American (by birth) and Italian (by dint of growing up there). In my early years, it seemed natural that I could and should and would be both; it was my reality, and how could anyone deny that?
The older I grew, the more I realized that this wasn’t the case. In fact, by middle school, I felt neither American nor Italian, accepted partially but not fully by both places. I had evolved into a full-fledged “third culture kid,” someone whose dual experiences in two cultures forces them to create a third, individual culture.
My American friends and family missed me, but in my absences life continued; there were new pop culture references to confuse me, new celebrities making waves whom I’d never heard of, new memories the country seemed to have forged together, without me.
Meanwhile, I lived in Italy, sang Italian songs, learned Italian grammar and had Italian friends, but I was indelibly American, from the way I dressed to my red hair to the things I celebrated.
It seemed there was no way to reconcile the two identities, and I had fallen into an existence understood by countless expats before me: that of straddling two cultures while never being fully either.
And then came Thanksgiving. It’s an essentially American holiday, especially since it celebrates both the intrinsically American specialty of taking what isn’t ours and the joy of a family festival. That’s something anyone can understand, be they American or Italian. While in America the focus is mostly on the nuclear or barely extended family, in Italy family is large, boisterous, and an important facet of existence. Family is most important—this is why new parents will buy empty apartments near their own to accommodate their future-grown children; it’s why sons and daughters remain with their parents far later than American sons and daughters do. It’s a familial society. So they can absolutely understand a celebration where the whole family comes together.
The fact that Thanksgiving is also a festival celebrating some staples of American food—like green bean casserole, stuffing (or dressing, if you’re from one of the weird places that calls it that), pumpkin pie—only seemed to make it more intriguing to our Italian friends. Italy is a food country. You know that; I know that; they know that. So Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to bridge the gap.
In middle school, right as I was beginning to feel truly unmoored and stateless, we began inviting our school and church friends over for Thanksgiving dinners. We held it the Saturday after the real celebration, and my mom spent a whole week whipping up American delicacies I could only dream about for the rest of the year.
Our friends came over and we gathered, a group of 20 or so, in our spacious pentagonal living room at the end of a 17-meter hallway in our weird-ass apartment, held hands, and said a blessing.
And then we dug in.
In those moments, it was as if the barriers were disintegrating. English mixed with Italian as the cultures clashed and, instead of sparks flying, they were simply laid to rest together. Our Italian friends, true connoisseurs of good food, spoke with amazement about the American cuisine. (It was, truly, a holiday miracle.)
Plates were passed and compliments were bestowed upon the chef, friendships were strengthened while new ones were formed, and for once I saw my two identities coming together. I was no longer American-but-not, I was no longer Italian-not-really — I was simply Karis, born in America, raised in Italy, seeing her two cultures come together.
Maybe that’s why I love Thanksgiving so much; why I look forward to this year’s celebration with butterflies in my stomach. These days, I’m even more full of identity crises, wondering who I am now that I’m no longer living in New York, at least pretending to be a grad student. I’m spending three months in Italy, but I’m still based in America…it’s confusing.
Hopefully, Thanksgiving will soothe some of that confusion. It always has in the past.