My name is Michela Sottura and I’m an international student from Italy. As part of the ICSP (International Cultural Service Program) here at PSU, I want to share bits and pieces of my culture with the broader Portland community. I’ve been in this city for three years and I’ve learned so much about what it means to be an Italian in the US. Today I want to reflect on how my cultural identity has changed and developed throughout my stay here, and I want to share some tips on how to adapt to the American culture while still remaining rooted to your own.

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But first of all, what exactly is a cultural identity? Much like culture itself, cultural identity is a person’s own identification with certain customs, beliefs, tastes, and traditions. Being aware of your own cultural identity means recognizing what it is that makes you feel like you belong, and what unconscious practices have been instilled in you by the culture you grew up in. In many cases, cultural identity is the same as the culture of a person’s country of origin, where the same cultural practices are shared with the other members of the population.

In my case, my cultural identity has been shaped by my life in Italy. I was born and raised in Orzinuovi, a small town in the Northern part of Italy, and I spent twenty years of my life there. Being Italian and belonging to Italian culture has meant being part of a culture that treasures small familial relationships, food, art and history conservation, and passionate, loud, ways of expression. Family in Italy always comes first. I grew up to prioritize my close family members, believing that the blood that bound us together was stronger and thicker than the connections made outside of my familial sphere. In my culture family is defined by the immediate family, so by parents and siblings, and the larger family made up by grandparents, aunties and uncles, and cousins. I was raised to always count on my family and have respect and gratitude for everything they did for me. Leaving my family to move to the US was tough for this very reason. I felt that I was betraying my parents, who wanted me to stay home and live with them as much as I could. When I moved to the US I realized that’s not the case for most of my American peers. Through my friends in Portland, I learned that most parents and families here usually encourage their kids to move out and become independent by the time they go to college. Of course, that is not everybody’s experience, especially considering the confluence of different cultures present in this country, but many traditionally American families are very individualistic and push their kids to become their own independent individuals. Living with students my age who had such a different family experience, I slowly started to change my own attitude towards family, and in doing so, I also led my parents to think outside of the Italian cultural framework. Learning about the drive to independence from their family that folks my age have here, also helped me in coping with being so far away from my parents and lessening the feelings of guilt that I carried when I first moved here. My parents have also learned from this experience, and have changed a little bit of their cultural identity through my words about the family culture here in the US.

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Another element that is defining of my cultural identity is my relationship with food. Italian culture is known across the globe for its food. We are proud of this reputation, as food to us isn’t only nourishment, but it is rather a love language that brings people together and inspires joy and community. There is an Italian saying that I always share with my friends here in the US that goes “vivi per mangiare, non mangiare per vivere” which translates to “live to eat, don’t eat to live.” The saying highlights how eating, in my country, isn’t just considered as something that has to be done in order to survive, but it is so important and precious that life itself is modeled after it. Food is a necessity, but in Italy it is so much more. It is a moment where everything stops, all responsibilities are set aside, and loved ones sit down at a table to share the joy of a meal. Here in the US food plays a big part in everybody’s life, but, from my experience, eating is not considered as an important practice as much as it is in Italy. That is one of the reasons why fast foods are so popular here, as the flavorful and mouth-watering quick meals offer a short-term satisfaction that can be consumed on the go. Being here and adapting to the American lifestyle taught me that that isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Some days the demands of being a student and working, prevent me from having the time to sit down and fully enjoy a meal. Although this was hard at the beginning, it taught me to choose what I eat carefully, and make healthier choices so that food can become something that nourishes me and gives me the energy to accomplish all my goals, rather than being strictly a way of life. It has helped me focus on more things and have more experiences with my loved ones that don’t involve sitting around a table to share a meal.

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As you can gather from what I shared in this post, my cultural identity has been shaped and adapted to the environment I chose to live in. If you or someone you know is struggling to adapt to a different culture and maintain their cultural identity, my advice would be to look at how a different culture’s take on the issue can open you up to a different way of life and can help you grow into a better person. Coming in touch with a different culture can also help you in becoming more aware of your own, and root yourself in the values and practices that makes you you! I hope my experience has taught you something about my cultural identity and about how living in a different country has led me to grow and learn so much about who I am.

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