Both my parents are Italians. Mum came out first with her parents when she was 9. Unfortunately, her mother died, and Mum had to leave school to look after her younger brother and sister. Later, she got married to my Dad, who she had met in Italy. He came to Australia with Mum looking for a better life.
When I was 5, we moved back to Italy, but after a while, Dad realised it wasn’t as good as he’d remembered, and Mum felt our family wasn’t working there. For example, I kept running away from school and couldn’t assimilate. I was ostracised because while I could speak Italian, I was known as ‘the Australian’ and it was pretty cliquey, and tough for a 5 year old.
So after about 8 months, we came back to Canberra. But when we first moved back, I had the same problems! I got called a ‘wog’ and found it hard to assimilate with the other kids again. As a result, I shied away from my Italian background and just wanted to be an Aussie kid. For example, I always went by Joe instead of Joseph. And although my parents made me take Italian classes and Dad would speak to me in Italian, I would answer him in English. I didn’t want to speak ‘wog’! Instead of fresh Italian bread with all the trimmings at lunch, I’d ask Mum to make me Vegemite sandwiches! She was pretty good about it though, as she’d been teased and ostracised growing up here too, being told that her family were wogs who were taking everyone’s jobs.
Later, as I got older, people wanted to have some of my lunch! And I realised it wasn’t all bad. I found more people of the same or different ethnic backgrounds and found I could form friendships through that avenue.
When I was 15, I went back to Italy on a two week cultural tour, and I really felt I fit in culturally, and that I could see where some of my thinking came from. Whenever I go back, I feel the same way.
As I’ve matured, I’ve grappled with where I fit in, and with how I can convey that to my son. I’d like him to be able to understand his background, why we’re loud and crazy at times, other times a little bit emotional!
I still carry an Italian passport, and now I regret that I let my Italian slip. Just like my parents, I push my son to speak Italian! But I also try to give him licence to do some things that I wasn’t allowed to do when I was growing up, and the opportunity to make his own decisions, whereas mine were always dictated by, ‘Well, this is what we expect of you, this is what this other person is doing in their life, you don’t want to be known as that person etc.’
Still, there’s one thing my parents always said to me and that I always say to my son: ‘Whatever you do when you’re out and about will always get back to me somehow, so just remember that!’
Born in Australia
Parents from Italy
Arrived in 1958 and 1970
Photographer: Rowena Hains Hello. Ro. Photography
Read other migrant stories in the New Humans of Australia coffee table books, now available as e-books! www.newhumansofaustralia.org/shop