It’s 10pm on a Wednesday night and I’m on the bus making my way home from uni. It’s dark, I have a seriously heavy bag and my uncomfortably tight jeans are begging to be peeled off. I opt to call my parents for a lift home. Unsurprisingly, they don’t pick up. I’m left with only my most dreaded option…to call my grandfather.
“Nonno, could you pick me up from Holborrow street?” I ask, calmly and clearly.
He freaks out.
“Where… where is ’Olborrow street? I not know this place! Dove sei? Perche…’ Where are you now? Non capisco.”
I breathe out deeply. Take an old person, with English as their second language and try to reason with them on the phone—it’s about as stressful as listening out for your coffee at Taste. In vain, I repeat my question, now with an intense focus on my diction.
On the other end of the line my Nonno switches to Sicilian dialect, he becomes stressed and begins to scream hysterically into the phone. My cortisol levels are rising too. “Nonno, it’s one street away from where you live!” Looking up I realise everyone on the bus is listening into the conversation. Feeling like a complete idiot I repeat, “Holborrow street” shaking my head apologetically at my audience of commuters.
These are the woes of growing up in a migrant family; a constant frustration in basic communication. Even after 45 years in Australia, my Nonno still has a very limited grasp of English. For most of my childhood, I communicated with him in broken English, even adopting an accent with a flavour of “it’s-a-me, Mario” to ease the flow of our conversations. Like most migrant families mine is very close (we live next door to each other) which is both wonderful and incredibly frustrating.
Living within a five kilometre radius of my many, ethnic relatives certainly has its challenges. In high school, if I was hanging out with a guy in the neighbourhood, I needed to be constantly on guard, in case Nonno came zipping around the corner and took a mental photograph. And if it wasn’t him, then it was another relative or an obliging family friend who would take it upon themselves to report me. More times than not, after hanging out with said boy, I wouldn’t get past the doorstep before my mother would begin her interrogation, thanks to ‘so-and-so’ ratting me out.
As most ethnics know, privacy is not an option.
Neither is personal freedom. Our Sunday ‘extended family dinners’ consist of eating and screaming—in true Italian spirit—before kissing goodbye and doing it all again the following week. I know many people would kill to be at an Italian feast, and I’m no brat… I definitely don’t take Nonno’s delicious homemade sausages for granted. But there is always a sting when my friends organise plans for Sunday night, plans that I consistently turn down, because of duty to tradition. Traditions, particularly involving food, cannot be escaped.
As a teenager, I relieved my ethnic angst by reading Looking for Alibrandi and finding friends at school who understood the frustrations of a strict, intrusive family with broken English. My first friend in high school was Chilean and together we would bond over our hairy legs and quirky grandparents. “My grandma said I should pinch my nose to make it smaller,” she told me once. We both laughed… but then secretly pinched our noses each night before bed. Well, I did anyway.
As long as I can remember people have always spotted my ethnicity.
I know I’m no beach-blonde, but sometimes I wonder if WOG is printed in large letters on my forehead. Recently I was scanning an elderly man’s prescription at the chemist where I work, when I noticed him silently observing my thick, black eyebrows, olive skin and of course, standard ethnic nose. “What’s your nationality?” he asked.
I was pretty damn sure he already knew.
“I’m Italian,” I replied, smiling politely.
“Ahhhhh! Of course!” he exclaimed, his eyes brightening and a big grin spreading across his face. Ethnics love their own, and the bond of meeting a kindred who speaks their language and understands their culture is something that they never cease to appreciate. Even after years living in Australia, the bond they have to their countries of origin doesn’t weaken. Perhaps because I’m born and bred in Australia I don’t share this overwhelming nostalgia, but I guess there is still a comfort in knowing my family’s history.
Like most, my Nonno joined the migration wave of the late 1960s. He left Italy, the hardships of poverty and its few opportunities at a time when Australia was still welcoming masses of people to start new, prosperous lives.
Back in Sicily, my Nonno began full time work in the butchery at the ripe age of eight. It was tough. He left school in year four equivalent to be the breadwinner for his family, who were dirt poor. His education was swallowed up by his duties as the eldest child, so he began work and didn’t stop for the next fifty years.
When Nonno came to Australia it didn’t get much easier. He washed dishes in a hospital for the remainder of his working life, with fellow migrants from Vietnam, Greece, China and India.
He always moans to me; “I worked like a donkey all my life,” and I sigh, feeling the same wave of guilt that washes over me after I get frustrated about his broken English.
At first it might seem that my grandfather’s migration was in vain. I mean, life was supposed to get easier, right?
I think many migrants have felt this sense that their entire lives have been spent working, constantly handicapped by poor English skills and limited education. Whenever Nonno needs to write a letter, he has to sit down and give me the pen. The task of stringing a few sentences together is completely impossible for him to do alone. When Nonno had to chop meat for a living, there was no value in learning flowery language, nor was he given the opportunity… so he never did.
Three generations on I am the first family member to make it to university.
So no, Nonno will never be able to look over one of my essays, but he has a cracking sense of humour, a strong work ethic and a commitment to his family—far more valuable attributes in my opinion.
I wonder what Nonno thinks of his own life—was it worth it? Was my life worth it?
I’ve tried to fight it, because frankly it pisses me off a lot, but I’m secretly immersed in my ethnicity. They have made me and I am one of them. I owe everything I have and I am to my Nonno and what he did two generations ago.
I hop off the bus into the dark street and begin trudging my way home. A speeding car’s headlights blind me as it pulls up, and I get in. At the end of the day, I always know that he will be there, ready to give me lift… because when he was growing up, there was no one there to do that for him.
“Why you get home so late?” he asks me.
Classic Nonno. I smile as we drive off.