Of Meatballs and Mafia

I was recently told that I would make a terrible Italian because I am a vegetarian. The thing is, I am Italian and there is a lot more to my culture than meatballs and the mafia. But the question hovered over me as I seethed with annoyance, “What Is my Italianita?”

Am I any less Italian because I don’t like mafia movies? Do I need to hide who I am because I prefer spinach to meatballs? Am I more than someone’s stereotype?

According to cultural psychologist Chi-Yue Chiu, “People are active cultural agents, rather than passive recipients of cultural influences. They create, apply, reproduce, transform and transmit their cultural routines in their daily actions.”

Who we are is formed within us from the time that we were children. When we look at why we behave the way that we do we have to go back to the culture we were raised in.

It’s no secret, food is heavily emphasized in Italian culture. But is it so greatly emphasized because we are the children of Bacchus or is it because a well-made meal comes with long nights of laughter with family and friends? Culture gives meaning and construction to behavior. It determines not only what is made but how the meal is eaten and the reasons for it, whether it be a holiday or a Sunday supper. But the role of culture goes beyond food, it can even shape how we perceive the world around us.

In childhood development, the ability to look toward future events is fully formed by the age of five. For example, at that age, a child can understand that a birthday comes and it is this thing that happens every year. However, it is the child’s culture that shapes what happens during said birthday. From the games that are played, if there are any games, to the guests that show up, whether the guest list is comprised of friends or family. It’s that child’s culture that shapes their expectations of the event. Our culture not only shapes the events, it shapes how we experience them.

In “Why should we all be cultural psychologists? Lessons from the study of social cognition.” Qi Wang conducted a study exploring the differences between how Asian children and European children see the world. Through Qi Wang’s findings, culture had an influence on how we remember events. Where the European children remembered how they felt or what happened in relation to themselves, the Asian children remembered what was expected of them in relation to the group.

Even as adults we see our culture has long-lasting effects on who we are. For example, to many non-Italians, my father would be perceived as a workaholic. However, when we view his work ethic within the constructs of Italian American culture, we see that hard work is something to be valued. It is the individual who works hard that is respected and idealized, not the one who lays around on the couch all day.

Qi Wang states, “Human behavior unfolds as a dynamic transaction between an active individual and his changing environment.” That environment is our culture. The fact that my grandfather was a truck driver and my grandmother was a factory employee who worked long hours was not lost on my father or aunts and uncles. The work ethic of my grandparents created a work ethic within their children. It is a work ethic that can be traced beyond the early immigrants who sacrificed to create this country.

Our culture is why we develop the way that we do. Scientists are finding that our culture even goes so far as to shape the things that were previously thought to be caused by genetics. For example, I like things on the bitter end of the flavor spectrum while my Irish American husband can’t stand anything remotely bitter. Beyond never having to share my coffee, he was not raised in a culture where bitter flavors were a regular menu item.

The point is, we are as much our culture as our culture is us. So, even though I will not spend a weekend binge watching the Sopranos and pass on the plate of meatballs, I know that I am more than the stereotypes that others project on me. I am comfortable in my Italianita because I know it came from centuries of traditions and not some box at the supermarket.