It’s been almost a month since I came to live in Florence to study abroad, and I can say now that I’ve adjusted to life in Italy. The cars and Vespas that never seem to follow any traffic laws regarding pedestrians, the ridiculously late dinner times, and the aperitivo (sort of an Italian happy hour) have all become routine to me. Aside from all of these nuances and customs that I have adjusted to, there’s just one cultural difference that I absolutely have not gotten used to. I’m a Korean-American in Italy, and there’s nothing that will keep locals from seeing me as a foreigner. No matter how much Italian I learn and no matter how many of the local customs I adopt as my own, my outward appearance as a Korean leads to immediate judgment.
When I walk through the farmers market in the Mercato Centrale to buy groceries or the San Lorenzo market to buy leather goods, the local vendors yell at me in broken Korean to come look at their products. Because of the booming tourism industry in Florence and the millions of people who flock to Florence from Asia each year, the shopkeepers seem to have become accustomed to groups of Asians coming by their shops. I’ve heard the vendors shout phrases in Korean ranging from “hello, pretty lady” to “please try this!” I know they are using these tactics to attract more customers, but to me, they’re pretty offensive -- especially when they shout at me in Chinese or Japanese, another situation that happened to me one too many times. I know that countless numbers of tourists from Asia come to their shops and that there is no way for the shop owners to know if I am one of the tourists or if I live in Florence. More often than not, the Asians that come into their stores are, in fact, tourists, so I do know that the locals cannot help but put me into the same category.
I am currently taking an Italian language class, and to practice my Italian I have been trying to ask shop owners questions about their products in Italian before buying, and I have been trying to order my coffee and meals strictly in Italian. However, despite my efforts to speak to the locals in their tongue, without fail they always respond in English. This has been especially disheartening because it made me realize that despite my greatest efforts to try to blend in, my appearance is an immediate giveaway that I'm a foreigner.Outward appearance is something that can’t be changed, and stereotyping is inevitable. I know that I stick out like a sore thumb when I go to areas in Florence that aren’t frequented by tourists, and that my elementary Italian isn’t enough for me to truly get by as a local. However, some of the “hospitality” of the Italian locals border on racial ignorance. I experienced even more of a culture shock in these moments of ignorance because I was born and raised in New York City, one of the most racially diverse cities in the worldI know that my situation cannot be changed and that I can try to get the most out of my experience here in Florence by simply ignoring the locals' remarks. One of the perks to this unfortunate phenomenon, I guess, is the look on the locals’ faces when they ask me where I’m from and I reply, “Io abito a Firenze.”