23 and Thriving: Despite Being Taught The Opposite

by Sumaia Saiboub

Growing up in Italy comes with great advantages: historic art & culture; exceptional cuisine; the luxury of experiencing the mountains, the country and the sea without having to cross borders; and of course, an enviable sense of style. It’s an exceptional experience for a kid to see the snow in winter and clear waters in Summer. You begin to live under the impression that the whole world is just a few hours away and it speaks your language! If you are the child of immigrants however, your coming of age story differs from that of fellow 18-year-olds. Through my own experience growing up in Italy, I learned my story began when my baggage is realized, unloaded, and unlearned. The weight and bulk of which, collected in the place where I spent most of my time growing up: school.


Growing Up in Italy: Elementary School Offered Me a Bumpy Start


The first time I realized I was different, or rather, displayed something different was in elementary school. Back then, the kids in my class were all puzzled by my skin tone. We were between 6 and 7 years old and we used to have creativity periods where we were instructed to draw ourselves, our day, and our friends. Whenever someone had to color a drawing of me, the question of which color they should use always arose. “Is she black? Or is she white? During some parts of the year she’s white, and after Summer she’s black. It can’t be just a tan!”. Maybe I was naive at the time, but I saw it as my superpower, because I felt I had the best of both worlds. 

I would be painting only a portion of the picture if I failed to mention the reality of my relationship with peers growing up in Italy. All throughout elementary and middle school I was repeatedly left out from sports teams, day trips, and often the last to be selected for group activities. It became a regular theme where my teachers had to force the other students to include me. Unfortunately, I was not the only one to be overlooked.

Despite looking nothing like the other outcasts (also known as non-white Italians) we all had one thing in common:, we didn’t meet expectations. In my case, I had a name and the features that many Italians considered foreign, but “foreign” was far from the truth. I had no trouble understanding Italian, because it was my first language as much as everyone else’s. I didn’t need academic help because I was at the same level as everyone else. And above all, contrary to common stereotypes, I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t take anything for granted. I was curious, I read a lot, absorbed a lot of knowledge and cared about my grades. Back then, I guess it was hard for Italians to accept that communities who were always portrayed by the media as those in need, could reach your academic level. At the time, only my teachers were encouraging.


In High School I Felt Less Alone


Contrary to my expectations — most of which were admittedly based on TV shows seen growing up —  my high school experience was much better. There were small groups of friends who stayed within their circles, but I often floated between them. I guess it was probably because everyone had passed the age where their knowledge is a reflection of what you hear at home. In fact it’s in your teenage years that you start to explore, you look for yourself and in many cases you also realize that maybe the lenses through which you’ve been looking at the world need adjusting. 

The Impact of Differing Lenses

In high school I had started wearing a hijab (if you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the headscarf Muslim women wear.) When I decided to put it on all of a sudden my support system changed completely. Because everyone my age was struggling to express their truest self, I was no longer the different one, most of us were different in our own way. But on the other hand, the warmth and the encouragement teachers used to show me before, wore off. The reason was pretty clear. Most had this very limited idea about what I would have done with my life once I graduated from high school – many of them not so secretly. As it came out from some of the remarks they made, they thought I wouldn’t  want to pursue a degree or a career, or even if I had managed to finish university, finding a job would be difficult, so I would have probably settled for less. 

Unfortunately, these misguided opinions became clearest as I approached my final year. My scheduled future studies counseling hours were postponed and delayed until they never happened. This was contrary to students who had put half of the effort were simultaneously being pushed to unleash the maximum of their potential. I never let any of this stop me.

I have my sense of curiosity to thank for that. This and the countless books I read, along with the fact that I could read them in different languages. It opened my world to a large community of third culture children. Of course much of these narratives were tied to the particularities of the country in which they were raised. In regards to identity, they brought to life, the words I felt for years. Seeing black women and visibly muslim women running for offices was a turning point for me. To see people of color elected as leaders in the States, in the UK and so on, calling themselves respectively American or British was monumental. It was then I realized I needed to stop letting anyone but myself define who I was and from where I came. If someone couldn’t accept me calling myself Italian, that was on them not me.


Now I Know…


I think I was about 17 when I knew what kind of woman I wanted to become. Growing up in Italy, I didn’t have a clear picture of who I wanted to be. There were plenty of things I love, but could never find a profession which included them all. Despite being told the opposite, I never felt like I was asking for too much. I was surrounded by too much mediocrity to believe otherwise. If anything, the wrong expectations gave me a clearer idea of what to expect whenever I was the “different” one in the room, or the first one “like me” they ever met. This was a frustrating never ending reality. On the contrary, it came in handy. After the umpteenth time, the responses become second nature with so many former identical encounters.


Over time, I learned to analyze as best as I can every word in every sentence or question that involved me. When I was looking for my own answers, I knew I could only find them within myself. I realized I shouldn’t care about the reaction that they would insight once said out loud. Those who I could shock, are the same people who struggle with forcing me into stereotypes. All of this only left me with two choices: 1) to squeeze in all that I am into some prepackaged idea of who I should be; or 2) let it all out, exercising the freedom I learned in school and become the woman I know I want to be.

I chose the second. Now more than ever I know the reality that identity is fluid. You are not what others say you are. You are the product of all of the experiences that marked your life. As such, you get to say who you are. Nobody can dictate it for you. Nobody can define you or what you can or cannot do or be. We are all individuals. We have nuances and differences to be seen and celebrated.

Remember This…

So if you’re reading this and you find yourself at a similar crossroad, remember this. Listen to yourself, your instincts, your guts and all that you’re feeling. Only you have the answers. Because when it comes to your identity, nobody can have a say about it. Growing up in Italy, I learned that we are the product of a multitude of life’s unique experiences. Don’t spend your life trying to prove that unmet expectations are the foundation of who you are. They are the precedents that set you apart.

Images: Courtesy of Sumaia Saiboub

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