You grow up not knowing the English words for a lot of normal stuff
I was very much grown up before I learned the English words for an undershirt and a baby wipe. To this day, there are some things I know better by their Italian moniker, and this penchant to say garbled Italian words instead of the English versions have raised many an eyebrow.
You’ll realize that most of your classmates have no idea why you can’t come to their houses for sleepovers
If in nothing else, your parents believe in stranger danger. If they’re not from the same culture, your friends are not parent-approved. No friends at family parties, no sleepovers if they’re not blood-related. Growing up, I was told that my cousins were the only friends I needed. Go play with them if you’re bored. In my day we didn’t have boredom.
“Family” is a word akin to “God”
Family is God. God is family. Nothing comes before either of them, except the other. Does that make much sense?
Your food doesn’t look like anyone else’s
As an Italian, my food is recognizable, but what isn’t clear is people asking why my ham has white holes in it (it was mortadella) and why I’m eating a chocolate sandwich (it was Nutella, before the brand went mainstream. Yes—I was a second-grade Nutella hipster). I fielded these questions until high school, when I made my mother give me a five-dollar bill instead.
There are a lot of expectations
These expectations vary across cultural lines, but in my experience as a first-gen Italian American, these expectations were to be top of the class, all the time, and behave impeccably. There was no freeform thought until you were good and 30.
Tradition means everything
Old-world philosophies that mean nothing to you, your friends, or even your “mother” country’s youth is the law of the land. Tradition permeates into every aspect of your life, from how your parents planned birthday parties, made Sunday dinners, and chose schools for you. Your life was dictated by how your ancestors did things a hundred years ago, in a crumbling town some thousands of miles away.
The world seems smaller to you, and more interesting
Growing up knowing that a part of your identity is firmly rooted in another world entirely, you start to feel more worldly. This happens especially if you visit the motherland often; you grow up having experiences that change your worldview, experiences that many of your American friends will never have as vacationing children. You belong in more than one place.
You’re constantly in awe of your parents
They were young when they left their homes, friends, and sometimes even their parents to make an entirely new life in a place where they didn’t even speak the language. Can you imagine doing that now? I get nervous when I have to place an order in the drive-thru for goodness’s sake.
You have a “home away from home”
Traveling to your ancestral country is an emotional experience. You know you belong to this place and its history, but you’re also proud and lucky to be an American. You’re multilayered, doubly blessed, and you can always move back for a while and come full circle. These are your roots.