Shedding light on the meaning of growing up between two cultures
Is a twenty hour flight a long journey? Is it tiring and potentially dangerous? Of course it is. But what if instead of twenty hours you had to travel on a ship for three months to get to a place such as Australia? Is it difficult to obtain a visa, to move to a far away country, to speak another language, to stay in touch with your friends and family in Italy when there are eight, nine, ten hours and several thousands of kilometers between you?
All of these are challenging tasks, but everything is certainly easier than it was not too many years ago.
I’ve been living and working as an Italian language assistant in a school in the east of Melbourne for the past six months: as such, not only have I been sharing my language and culture in class, but I’ve also learnt a lot about Melbourne’s Italian community. As a matter of fact, I’ve been chatting a lot with my second-generation Italian colleagues and I found out that, back in the days of their childhood, being an Italian in Australia wasn’t as simple as it is today.
Right now we’re admired for our beautiful country, culture and food and Melbourne teems with Italian restaurants, cafes, delicatessen shops, cultural events (such as Italian film festivals), clubs and associations. There’s also a Museo Italiano, which you can visit to find out more about the Italian culture in Australia, a broadcasting company that has a special section in Italian and print newspapers in Italian (like Il Globo).
However, none of these things would form part of the heritage of this place if our compatriots hadn’t moved and decided to continue their traditions here. I would like, then, to share with you some of their stories through the words of their children.
I hereby acknowledge the contribution of three Australian second-generation Italians, Anita, Julie and Paul, who have earned the opportunity to belong to more than just one culture. You might already know some aspects of immigration, but I’m sure others will surprise you.
Long journeys, hardships and hope for a better future: Julie’s story
“My father traveled to Australia alone in 1950. My parents married in Italy and then my dad came to Australia; so for two years they were separated, as it took my mum two years to pass the medical test to be allowed to travel. She was underweight.
My dad had a difficult trip on a ship. It was overcrowded, passengers were treated badly by the crew. There was not enough food and there was a severe lack of hygiene; many people got seriously sick and there were even some deaths on board. The trip took three months. Once he arrived he went to live in a shared house in Carlton with three other men. Life was hard. He was lonely, homesick and struggled with the language. In my dad’s words, Ho anche sofferto la fame, which means ‘I’ve also experienced hunger.’
My mother finally joined him two years later, but she cried constantly for the first six months of her stay in the new country. They only had a small suitcase each and shared a fork, a glass and a plate to eat from. They used them in turns. Between the both of them working hard they ended up buying a house in Carlton and life slowly improved.”
Many Italian migrants married their spouse “remotely”. Usually a young man who had moved to Australia, after having obtained a job and bought a home, would ask his relatives to find him a wife: this latter would then marry her husband by proxy and join him afterwards.
This happened in Paul’s family: “My paternal grandmother, who was a matchmaker extraordinaire, Margherita, came to know of my mother through an acquaintance who was my mother’s uncle. She saw my mother and felt this beautiful young girl would make a perfect match for my father Giuseppe, who had migrated to Australia. As a result of this meeting my mother was married by proxy to my father at the age of sixteen.
Giovanna left the comfort of her hometown in 1958, against her mother’s wishes it must be said, to move to Australia to meet her husband, who she had married two years earlier. This young impressionable girl was placed on an aeroplane, and in three days time she found herself in a completely foreign place with people, including my father Giuseppe, that she did not know.
She had been told that Australia was the land of milk and honey, but as we all know we need to work hard to make the milk and the honey, and this she found out very quickly.”
Being different: racism
Being Italian meant being different and our communities abroad had to endure racism. Julie (Giulia, to be more precise) recalls her experience as the daughter of Italian migrants:
“I was born in 1955 and spoke no English until I went to school. My name is Giulia and on the first day of school the teacher told my mum that this is Australia, and my name cannot be Giulia but it must be Julie. She put a red line through my name and so the racism and bullying began. I didn’t speak English, I looked different and my lunch was completely different. Many days I didn’t want to go to school but there was no choice.
When we moved to North Balwyn I was 14 years old, and it was a very Anglo-Saxon and prestigious suburb, someone painted with red paint in the middle of the road “we do not want wogs in our street.”
Just like Giulia is called Julie by everyone, Paolo is Paul and Caterina is Cathy.
Today racism is not an issue as strong as it was before, but terms like wog (which is not only used for Italians, but more in general for dark-skinned foreigners) still form part of the English speakers’ vocabulary.
The heritage of second-generation Italians
I couldn’t help but ask my colleagues about their relationship with the Italian language and culture, and I invited them to reflect on whether they feel more Italian or more Australian.
Anita, whose dad comes from Veneto and whose mum emigrated from the UK, commented: “I feel totally Australian but enjoy my Italian side. It comes with a different language, wonderful food, a beautiful landscape and rich cultural heritage. I have always been surrounded by lots of other Italians, as my mum’s sister also married an Italian man, and even my cousins here were Italian.”
Julie instead said: “As a child I felt very Italian since I knew not much else. As an adult I feel more Australian because you can’t help but adapt and embrace the Australian way of life. Sometimes I feel neither. When I go to Italy I don’t feel Italian. In many ways I am not sure that I really fit in anywhere. I am an Italo-Australian.”
The experiences of the second-generation Italians I spoke to are all unique, but at the same time very similar: in fact, they went through challenges which are also comparable to the ones that Italians faced in other foreign countries. Our history of immigration is absolutely fascinating in that it is tangible and it connects different parts of the world.