As a first generation Italian American, it should come as no surprise that family is an integral part of my culture. And that’s to put it lightly. When I was younger and I had to set the table every weekend for 20+ guests, I would whine to my parents and say things like: Why do I have to do this every weekend? Why can’t we just order pizza like all the other kids do? Why do we always have to have cousins and uncles and aunts over!? Why can’t I go hang out with my friends on Sundays? My parents would always have me repeat a mantra of sorts when I would do this repetitive cycle of whining. They would say: What’s most important in life? And I would begrudgingly answer family and then they would ask: What’s second most important? I would answer family. And what’s third? Family. Sometimes if I was feeling extra rebellious I would say, money or friends or soccer and they would laugh and tell me to be quiet and set the table anyway.
Understanding that this wasn’t the “norm” for other families made me feel isolated. I was always over protected. I couldn’t stay out late with friends. I could only ride my bike in between the two mailboxes in front of my house because “what if something happened?”, as my mom would say. I couldn’t go to my town’s carnival without my mom following me and my friends a few paces behind us because “what if something happened?” So yes, I was very sheltered as a child and the only thing I was not sheltered from was family time. Growing up like this it’s difficult to create an identity for yourself. It’s sort of like your identity becomes interwoven with those around you, since well, they’re always around. I never really had the rebellious teenage phase because rebellion just isn’t something my siblings and I do very well. As soon as a hint, a scent of rebellion is wafted; my parents were quick to notice and quicker to act. They usually used embarrassment as a form of rebellion control. Like bringing up at the dinner table in front of everyone that Jamie wants to dye his hair blue which was met with the ridicule of judgmental eyes and the adult-like smirk that always manages to say “oh you silly kid” without even uttering a word. It’s hard to explore yourself when it’s up for family debate.
As a kid I was always furious with them and their over-protective tendencies. I wanted to be like all the other kids in my class who were allowed to do whatever they pleased. But as I’ve grown, I’ve learned more about my parents and their upbringings and although they seemed unreasonable in my youth; I have come to appreciate their behavior as weird symptoms of over-loving, as I like to think of it. But, as the baby of the family by 16 years, I have always been smothered by not only my parents but by my three older siblings as well. I sometimes think of them as my three extra parents as they have never truly been my peers. So trying to decipher my identity all the while dealing with constant bombardment of company was not easy and it still isn’t. Even my older siblings who are all married now still struggle to find the line between family and personal space and self-discovery.
As I maneuver into adulthood I still do not know what it means to be independent from one’s family. Does it mean monetarily or emotionally or spatially? I don’t know the answer to that. If I one day move far away I still think I’ll repeat that mantra to my kids when I get older. If I am a product of my environment then I am my family. Yes, I am different from them in my own way but I am ultimately a compilation of my experiences and those experiences, well a lot of them, included my family and that’s perfectly okay with me. I think they’re pretty rad anyway. Cultural relativism is important to understand before we burden others from different cultural backgrounds with uniquely American conceptions of independence. I’m a proud Italian mama’s boy and that’s totally okay with me. They support and love me for me and what else can you really ask for as a queer transgender son? I’d say I hit the jackpot being born into this family.