Long story short, working somewhere where you don’t speak the language is really, really, really, really hard.
But I knew that going in. And that’s exactly why I decided to get an internship here in Rome.
I’ve said many times that I really want Rome to feel like my home vs. just a place I’m staying for three months. I feel like the best way to solidify Rome as a home for me is by working in it. I have had a job ever since I could at 16 years old. It’s a crucial part of establishing myself in the places I’m in and feeling like I’m part of the community I’m living in. That’s why I’ve gotten jobs both in the Whitman and Walla Walla communities back at school–I not only want to feel connected to Whitman, but I also want to feel connected to Walla Walla, too. For me, it’s important to be a contributing member of each community I’m in, and the way I do that is by working.
I also think it’s really, really easy to get boxed into American culture while abroad. In my program, you take classes at the same center everyday with all Americans, live with Americans, and hang out with Americans. I took this internship so I could push myself out of my comfort zone and interact with Italians.
That I have done. And I never thought it would be so challenging.
I work at La Maisonnette, a tri-lingual preschool that integrates French, Italian, and English into the school day. Each age group is split into a class, and each class has three teachers: a French teacher, an Italian teacher, and an English teacher. All the teachers speak Italian, but only the English teacher speaks English in addition to Italian. I was expecting the kids to speak at least a little English, but most of them are so little they can’t yet. The only group that speaks English regularly seems to be the 5-year-old group. I was originally assigned to the 4-year-olds, who speak a little English, but then I got switched to the 3-year-olds who speak zero English. I still try to interact with the 4-year-olds whenever I can because it’s much easier to communicate with them (plus I really love them).
I’ve realized that interacting with the kids at the preschool has mimicked the same kind of culture shock that’s supposed to happen when you first arrive in a new country.
First there was the honeymoon phase. When I first got there, the kids thought I was so interesting because I couldn’t speak their language–I represented newness, excitement, and difference to them. They were all over me and wanted to hang out with me all the time. They laughed at everything I said–they laughed at my English because they were hearing new, different sounds. They were hearing English from a native speaker for the first time, sounds that are so different from their native Italian, sounds they thought were so funny.
And they laughed at my Italian because I pronounced everything wrong, absolutely butchering their native language. At that point, I could only say “come ti chiame?” which means “what’s your name?” because that’s what we had just learned at my first Italian class only the day before. By the end of the day, I got really good at pronouncing “come ti chiame?”, but I absolutely butchered the pronunciation of their Italian names. Some got super annoyed and frustrated because they couldn’t understand why I was pronouncing it wrong (geez it’s so easy! Why can’t I get it?! It’s not like I speak a completely different language or anything), but others just thought it was funny.
Since these kids were a little older than the kids I have now, they taught me Italian words by pointing to things or body parts and having me repeat what they say. They would also say random Italian words and have me repeat them, then burst out laughing. At the time I thought they were just laughing at my horrible pronunciation, but looking back I think they were just taking advantage of the fact that I didn’t know what I was saying and were making me say naughty things. Oops.
The kids take advantage of the fact that I don’t speak Italian alllllll the time. They constantly say naughty things in Italian and test my reaction to see if I understood. They say “caca” (which means poop) allllll the time in casual conversation and then look at me and giggle to see if I understood. I know that one now, buddy! One kid even called me “bruta” (which means ugly brute) in casual conversation to see if I understood. Sometimes it’s cute and funny when they try to see if I understand stuff, but when they say things like that it can be hurtful. I feel so helpless because I can’t ever tell them that it’s not okay because I don’t know how to. Even when I try, they don’t respect it because it’s in broken Italian. I learn not be offended because they’re only 3 years-old, but it’s still not fun to be called names all the time, especially when you don’t know what they’re saying.
Not speaking the language makes you so vulnerable, even to 3 year-olds. A lot of the time I know they’re insulting me because they’re saying things in a mocking, mean tone, but I don’t even know what they’re saying! It’s beyond frustrating and I’ve never felt so helpless around kids before. When I first got to the 3 year-old group, they all tried to test my boundaries because I was someone new, so they climbed on top of me and slapped me and bit me, and the girl who called me an ugly brute even punched me straight in the eye. I kept telling them to stop, but either they didn’t understand, or they found my English funny and didn’t find what I was saying to be valid because it wasn’t in their language. Either way they didn’t stop.
I’ve found that there are four types of reactions from kids when they hear my English:
- They find a person from a new culture super interesting and are eager to interact with you. This is mostly with the older kids since they actually understand that there are people from different cultures who speak different languages. One kid sung a song about America once I told him I was from the U.S., but he sang it in a mocking tone so I have no idea if it was positive or negative. Other kids asked (in Italian, their English teacher translated) if Minnesota was in the south once I told them where in the U.S. I’m from. They really have no idea–it’s so cute! Some kids thought New York was equivalent to the U.S. and that the entire U.S. was made up of New York. A bunch of kids went over to the map and I was showing them where I’m from. That was super cool. A lot of the older kids will sing popular American songs–top 10 sort of stuff. Even the younger kids are so into American superheroes and princesses, and Mickey Mouse, which is cool to see.
- They are curious about a new person from a different culture, but don’t know what to think. This manifests in them trying to mess with you by taking advantage of the fact that you don’t speak Italian. These kids are sweet and are trying to get to know me in the only way they know how. Sometimes the ways they try to interact with me can be mean, but most of the time it’s all in good fun.
- They don’t know what to think of someone who is radically different from them, so their discomfort with the situation translates into lashing out at you. Sometimes when I speak English, kids will just walk away. Other kids have said “blah blah blah, inglese, blah blah blah” or “ugh parle inglese” (“blah blah blah, English, blah blah blah” or “ugh she speaks English”). Sometimes these kids will even get physical and punch me when they get frustrated, but that’s pretty rare.
- They simply don’t understand the fact that I don’t speak Italian. No matter how many times I say “no capisco” (“I don’t understand”) or “Parlo inglese, no parlo italiano” (“I speak English, not Italian”), the message still doesn’t get through to them. So I just pretend I speak Italian and nod my head to whatever they say. I can oftentimes infer what they’re trying to say be reading their tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. This has honestly made me a lot more perceptive and patient, which is really good for my future career since I want to be a mental health counselor for children and teens and being perceptive and reading body language, tone, etc. is a huge part of the job. It’s actually really cool to be able to transcend the language barrier and communicate without speaking–solely by reading tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. But it’s really hard.
Some things just can’t be inferred, however. It’s so heartbreaking when a child comes up to you crying, but you don’t know what’s wrong because you can’t understand their Italian. So you can’t fix it or try to help. It’s also sad when they come up to you super excited about something, but you don’t know exactly what they’re excited about. I miss out on these kinds of connections.
It’s cool that I am able to get a feel for their personalities within even knowing what they’re saying. It’s super cool. And it’s even cooler when I am able to build deep bonds and connections with kids who don’t speak English. I can’t understand what they’re saying and they can’t understand what I’m saying, but I feel like I can still understand them as people. When I walk into a room, and there’s kids who can’t speak English who come up to me and give me a big hug, or want me to play, or hold my hand, or are generally excited to see me, that’s super rewarding. I was able to form a strong connection without even knowing what they’re saying.
However, I can’t help but get a little jealous when I see the kids interact with the other teachers and the teachers laugh at something cute they said. Or when a kid is crying and I don’t know what’s wrong, so another teacher has to come over and handle it because I’m useless in the situation. Or a kid is doing something wrong and I try to discipline or redirect them, but they don’t understand so another teacher has to fix it, and then I get in trouble for not fixing it even though I tried. There’s a layer of disconnect there that I can never breach. I want so badly to connect in this way, but I just cannot.
Each week gets better, however. I’m picking up Italian super quickly since I’m constantly immersed in it (they love to play this game where they try to put me in jail, so I’m learning lots of vocab words about jail, like prisoner, cage, police, etc. Classic). Little by little I use more and more Italian with the kids, and they get more and more comfortable with me. It will only keep getting better.
And you really do grow the most in the most challenging places. Even though this internship is SO difficult, it has definitely made me a much better, more understanding, more accepting person. I was trying to figure out for the longest time why the kids would lash out at me so much. They were so physical in the beginning especially, crawling all over me, rubbing my face, and even punching and biting me for no reason. I thought an explanation would help ease the frustration that their behavior evoked in me. I came to two conclusions.
- All kids are not the same. Kids from different cultures are different and that influences their behavior. Sure, they might be the same in some ways. They all love Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Anna and Elsa from Frozen, Peppa Pig, etc. We play similar games–kids in the U.S. and Italy love to put me in “jail.” But Italy is much different from the U.S. And these kids are being raised in Italy, not the U.S. They have been immersed in and are growing up in a culture radically different from the one I have been immersed in and grew up in. Italians in general are a lot more touchy than Americans. It’s their way of showing affection and connection. People will even touch me to gently move me out of the way on the street, or kiss me on both cheeks to say hello or goodbye. It’s just a natural part of their culture. I see this at the preschool, too. Teachers will kiss, hug, and cuddle with the kids. That never happens in the U.S. We’re too strict about that stuff (for a good reason, but to a certain extent, lack of physical touch limits connectivity). Anyways, the preschool emphasizes this kind of physical affection, and it always emphasizes movement as a way to explore your space and new surroundings. My theory is that because I don’t offer that same kind of physical affection (because I’m so not used to it!), kids compensate for that lack of physical connection by crawling all over me, rubbing my face, biting me, etc. For them, it could be a weird way to form a connection as well as explore a new space. I’m a new, different person, and maybe physical exploration is the way they get acquainted with me.
- Differences can be scary, especially when you’re a kid. As someone who doesn’t speak their language or come from their country, I am the emblem of difference for these kids. Differences are confusing for kids; they have no idea how to interact with me. They can’t talk with me, they don’t know anything about me. I look different, I act different. I’m new. Putting myself in their shoes, when I was 3 years-old, I could barely grasp the concept that there were other countries out there in the world, nonetheless people in those countries who talk differently than me, in a way I can’t understand. I have to give these kids some credit. I can see how that would be scary and I can see how they could respond to that by lashing out. In this way, the kids are helping me understand a radically different point of view, helping me be more empathetic and understanding of different perspectives. They’re inadvertently teaching me what I’m supposed to be teaching them!
My internship is equal parts challenging and rewarding. For every negative thing that happens, there is something really cool and positive that happens and balances it out. I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know so well that working with children takes so much energy as is. But I have to put a million times more effort into this internship than I have ever had to put into any other job or internships. And I have had some really challenging internships! I think doing this is really good for me and will really build character, but boy it’s exhausting. I know, though, that I will look back on it and see it as one of the most transformative experiences of my life.