It is hard for pretty much everyone to escape their own context. It is an instinct that we have to fight against constantly if we want to keep an open perspective. Sometimes the different perspectives catch you completely by surprise. Sometimes, by not realizing that you are making assumptions based on your own cultural perspective, you can fall into a big steaming vat of sweet, sweet irony.
Last year, I was visiting my aunt and uncle in the States, which is something I do every few years. I was sitting next to my uncle at the dinner table, at which time my great-aunt (grandaunt?) came up in conversation, whom I will call Lucy for the purposes of this story. Lucy had visited me in Italy a few times. My uncle told me that he, of course, had been very worried about Lucy when she had traveled to Italy to visit me, and was happy that everything had gone alright.
I was confused. Why were you worried? Because she’s getting on in years, and the trip is a long and tiring one? Because she’s not in the best of health? Because she is a bit of a picky eater, and might not find food to her liking? He chuckled at me. “No”, he said, “because of what she’s like”. I still didn’t understand. “Because she’s, like, a man. She dresses like a man, acts like a man, she’s basically a man, and we were worried that she wouldn’t be accepted. We love her for who she is, of course, but you never know in other countries how people would react to someone like that”.
I was at a complete loss for words. The conversation ended there, because I was stumped for what to say next. It was not because I was offended that he assumed that Italy was less accepting than the US, I had gotten plenty of questions filled with assumptions that my country was stuck in the middle ages while I was staying there. Just the night before, one of his neighbors asked me if I got a lot of shit in Italy for going to college while being female. I was not offended, but deeply confused.
Until that moment, I had never, once, thought of Lucy as being “manly”. The concept of her coming off as a man had never even crossed my mind.
I sat there, pondering it for a while. Does Lucy not conform to her gender in a stereotypical manner? I suppose she wears pants, but lots of women wear pants. I wear pants, my aunt wears pants, most women I know wear pants. I guess I have never seen her in a dress before, but I never really sat and thought about it. I suppose she doesn’t wear makeup, but I don’t wear makeup, my grandmother doesn’t wear makeup, very few Italian women wear makeup when they get over a certain age, at least, very few Italian women I’ve ever met. And what does he mean, act like a man? How does one act like a man? Then I wondered, is it a generational thing? Is it that this is something perfectly obvious to my elders, but that I missed by being born in a different time?
As soon as I flew back to Italy, sat my then 91 year old grandmother and 65 year old aunt down at the table. Can’t get any more old school than that! I thought.
“Nonna, Zia”, I asked, “Do you remember Lucy? When she came to visit a few years back?”
“Sure”, they replied, “Very nice woman. Always smiling. Always laughing. We couldn’t really communicate much, but she was lovely. So cheery, put you in a good mood”
“Right”, I said, “But… but… did you ever consider about… like… did she seem manly to you? Like, that she dresses and acts like a man?”
They stared at me, blankly. “What?” they asked, “What does that mean, act like a man? She didn’t belch or anything”.
“Well, never mind the act part then, but, did you get the impression that she dressed like a man?”
They stared at me blankly again. “No, I don’t think so”, they replied, “I mean, she wore pants, now that think about it. But so do we, it’s just more comfortable isn’t it? We… I… no, I don’t think there is anything manly about her.”
They looked at each other, perplexed. They looked at me, confused. I saw the same bewilderment that I felt that evening all over their faces.
To this day, I have no idea what particular characteristics Lucy has that made my uncle assume that everyone saw her as a gender nonconforming person. I wasn’t able to ask him, because the subject had wandered well away from Lucy at the table during my confused silence, and I had the impression that, if I brought it up again, he would see it as an accusation of being intolerant. He had stated it so plainly, as if it was as obvious as the fact that Lucy wears glasses, that my probing questions would have most likely been met with scoffing. This is why I still have no idea where the cultural difference lies, but I did notice the incredible irony in the whole exchange.
My uncle was worried that Lucy would not be accepted, or be met with derision in Italy, because of her not being stereotypically feminine. Instead, not only did this not happen to her, no one who met her had even ever thought of her as unfeminine to begin with.