In the Divine Comedy, the character of Dante Alighieri finds himself lost and alone in a dark wood. Dante the poet began writing his epic poem when he was infamously exiled from Florence in 1302. He was devastated and spent the rest of his days wandering throughout Italy, waiting for his city to call him back home. He never returned, but as he settled in various towns that offered him refuge, he began to explore the notion of community abstractly. He believed that the purpose of life centered around community, whether local, global or spiritual. Active participation in one’s community forges a profound connection with mankind in life and, upon death, with saints and sinners in the afterlife. Only love can bring people together, for it is the only force that grows when given away.
We all get lost in our own ways, especially when we lose community. I was lost during my junior year. My best friend had graduated and was living on the other side of the world, and I was growing apart from my other friends. My peers had high-paying job offers from New York while I, an English major, was still exploring my options. I felt like I was falling behind, and no one cared. I was lonely and confused, and my only moments of clarity were during my Dante lessons with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta. Upon his encouragement, I began to consider graduate school for the first time to study the idea of community in Dante’s texts. I finally knew where I was going, but it was April, and I wished I had more time to consider the path before embarking on it.
Then I realized that I could simply make the time.
Why not take some time off from school, go to Florence, take Italian classes at a language school, meet local students and professors and try it on for size? With seven years of Spanish classes, I figured that learning Italian wouldn’t be an impossible task, and my professors happily offered to connect me with their colleagues abroad. My dean approved my leave of absence with a smile, happy to see this formerly-pre-med English major set to visit his Tuscan hometown. But I couldn’t quite pack my bags yet.
As a first-generation Korean-American and a first-generation college student, I understand that my Yale acceptance is as much my parents’ as it is mine. When it comes to my education, my parents take the road much travelled; after all, their families could not afford college for them in post-war reconstruction-era Korea. In the past, we have argued about my academic path: they value stability, while I am more of a dreamer. And so I developed my plans before speaking with my parents, assuming they would not support me or my bank account if I left without their blessing.
I decided that the best way to support myself financially would be as an au pair, a live-in nanny whose main task is to teach a foreign language to a host family’s children. Au pairs get free housing and meals in addition to a modest stipend every month. I made a profile on an au pair website and matched with a family living in Florence. As my plans fell into place, I approached my mother cautiously with a rehearsed speech about my proposal. I expected it might be the last time we spoke on good terms for a while.
To my surprise, she offered her support. My parents’ financial backing was helpful, but it was the comfort of their Skype calls that proved to be most crucial in the coming months.
While my friends began their senior year, I settled down in Italy. My host family was warm and welcoming. My Italian father was a lawyer and an honorary consul to a neighboring country. My Italian mother worked part-time in real estate, and their 12-year-old son Gianluca was in junior high. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and was starting to develop his prepubescent brand, taking pains to match his shoes and outfit every night and to groom his hair with wax every morning. Gianluca already spoke good English and Spanish so we had no trouble communicating. What struck me was how easily he welcomed me into his family. Au pairs had always been a part of his life, and he knew how to make me feel at home despite my moments of hesitation. We spent many afternoons watching movies, playing video games and going through his toy car collection. Within a few weeks he began to ask for goodnight hugs, and we spent weekend mornings together eating cereal and watching cartoons. He was my first friend in Italy, and, though he didn’t realize, his kind gestures helped me adjust to my new home.
My work schedule had me on call every weekday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Unlike other au pairs, whose responsibilities centered around childcare, mine included housework. Every day I helped Gianluca with his English and Spanish homework. Then I would set the table, help cook dinner, wash the dishes and prepare the beds for sleeping. It took me a while to learn the rituals of Italian domesticity. My Italian mother was understanding at the beginning but grew impatient within a few weeks; language and cultural barriers stood between us, and so what seemed like common sense to her was new for me. Sometimes, I would use the wrong plates for entrees I had never seen before or fold the heavy bed sheets incorrectly, and she would snap at me for not knowing her day-to-day routine.
Then there were moments of complete misunderstanding. Occasionally, when I was sent to pick up Gianluca from school, we would take the public bus back home. Once, we were fined for having one stamped bus ticket between the two of us. Although I was certain that I had already stamped mine before Gianluca stamped his, it looked like I had forgotten to do so. I was fined €50. When we arrived home, Gianluca told his mother, and she became furious. She suggested that since I had forgotten to use my bus ticket, I was not competent enough to care for her child. I was offended that she thought Gianluca would be in danger under my care. I dug my ticket out of the trash and inspected it, noticing a faint double stamp, and realized that Gianluca had used my ticket as his. I showed it to my Italian mother the next day, asking if she thought I could get the money back as an excuse to prove my innocence. She shook her head slowly and, later that night, gave me €25 as compensation for her son’s mistake. It was the closest she ever came to an apology.
At the end of bad days like this one, I would Skype my mother. Hearing the dejection in my voice, she would relay stories and gossip from home, speaking with zeal and zest to make me smile. We grew very close when I went abroad, perhaps because she saw that I needed it.
While I was never completely comfortable as live-in help, whenever my host family invited me out on weekends I felt like I was part of the larger Florentine community. We would all go to lunch at ZaZa or the Mercato Centrale. On the streets, people would wave hello from their shops and homes. If we stopped for a chat, I would be introduced as the new au pair. Whenever we passed Gianluca’s favorite pastry shop, the head baker would come out and offer us a sweet. I felt almost integrated into Florentine society by way of my host family.
Once I began attending a local language school, I started to make friends. Having these groups of friends gave me the confidence to explore the city without my host family. The au pairs and I could commiserate over bratty children, strict mothers or the inevitable discomfort of living in our employers’ homes. Occasionally I met up with a friend from high school who was studying abroad in Florence. We would find the Internet’s top-rated gelato and talk about school, life in Italy as an American and the downfalls of travelling with other millennials. Above all, my closest friends were the women of color from my language school, most of whom were working in Italy or had married Italians. The fact that we could talk about the everyday racism and sexism we faced in Italy made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
Once, as an au pair friend from Hungary and I were walking back from Mass early on a Sunday afternoon, an older man whistled at us across the street. I gave him the finger and continued walking, but he followed us for several blocks, yelling racial obscenities at me until a young man restrained him. My friend and I tried to laugh it off, but my friend’s laugh was shaky; this sort of thing had never happened to her before, and she did not know what to say. My Dominican and Chinese friends, on the other hand, were outraged upon hearing my story. Perhaps it takes experience to know.
As a working Asian woman abroad, I faced various social barriers which I could not have overcome without the friends I had made. I have now started to explore the notion of community for migrant women in my academic studies, which I see as an extension of my interest in Dante’s philosophy on community. I still enjoy reading Dante, but it is time to explore beyond the Western canon.
I had intended to stay in Italy until March but left in December after realizing that I did not want to pursue my study of Dante. Before flying to Boston for Christmas, I told my mother over Skype that I would be coming home to stay. She accepted the news with quiet surprise. When I asked her on Christmas morning why she did not protest or question my decision, she gave me a knowing look and said, “Now you see how hard it is to pick everything up and go to a different country.” Then I understood why my mother had not opposed my initial decision to go to Italy. She knew that living abroad would be difficult but also felt it was important and inevitable that I experience the challenges faced by Asian women abroad. She herself flew to America shortly after marrying my father and could not return because of the 1997 IMF crisis in Asia. To this day, she cannot speak English and has only a few friends, and so she deeply values her family. She never told me how lonely she was as an immigrant working woman in Boston. I never told her how lonely I was in Italy, but she already knew.
Dante writes that life revolves around community, and I think his philosophy relates especially to exiles, migrants and travelers. My mother learned the importance of community as an immigrant and tried to provide comfort when I experienced loneliness abroad. In Florence, I learned to overcome my isolation by making friends. I keep this in mind as a super senior back at Yale. Even though I am still not sure where my path leads after graduation, I know there will be people who will help me find my way.
*Names were changed in this piece to protect the privacy of my host family.