“Are you sure you don’t ride a horse to school?” one of my students’ parents asked, eyes growing larger by the moment.
“Positive,” I responded, with my usual smile.
That’s just a snippet of one of the many conversations I had with Italian coworkers, friends, and acquaintances while I was exploring the Alps of Italy. While the majestic mountains I lived in created a picturesque scene similar to that from the Sound of Music, I was constantly bombarded with questions about my Texas accent (or lack thereof), my “inevitable” stance on controversial issues, and my “desire” to work all day everyday. Many of the people I met were very surprised that I happily lived in “a place like Texas” as a black female, that I didn’t want my pasta super-sized, and that I wasn’t disgruntled at the fact that work was a secondary part of Italian culture.
“No, I don’t want everything to be bigger. That portion of pasta is perfect.”
“No, the last time I rode a horse was when I was 7 at a petting zoo.”
“No, not all Texans have the same political views, but I’d rather not express mine while at work.”
Some preconceived notions that Texas travelers are bigoted, foolish, or constantly working couldn’t be further from the truth. I went to Italy to learn, grow, and explore a culture that has been the inspiration for governments, architecture, and social structure around the world. Surely, a place that gets nearly 50 million tourists a year knows a lot about various cultures.
And they did. Most that I met were inquisitive, excited, and happily surprised when I negated some of their preconceived notions. When they realized how wrong they were about certain ones, they were impressed and surprised at how friendly I was about correcting them. I noticed a familiarity. Italy was not the first to question what my Texan characteristics were. Other states in the U.S. have done the same. This ability to quickly adapt to stereotypes about my Texas heritage was due to me experiencing the same questions from visiting other states where, yes, people also believed that I went to high school on my pet horse.
Those experiences, being the brunt of U.S. jokes, only made me more adaptable in a country very different than my own. I knew these stereotypes were about as valid as me believing that all I would do in Italy was drink wine and stock up on cannoli. While these are certainly aspects of the culture, Italians were much than the characters in stories given to us by The Godfather, Roman Holiday, and Pinocchio. In the same way, us Texans know that we are more than what stereotypes have been passed around about us.
My Italian confidants had every right to ask me what they wanted, as with any other culture. The fact is, their knowledge of various American states is what they’ve read in books, and, probably more than that, what they’d seen on the internet and television. You can't capture a culture like Texas' purely through those mediums.
The thing about Texans is, we will always learn how to adapt. Whether it’s through reverse stereotyping, or through negative, small town perceptions, we understand that the most important part of traveling is learning, and that fact is true on both ends of the conversation. Asking questions and being curious doesn’t signify ignorance or insensitivity. It shows that someone truly cares about your culture, and, if you’re willing to travel thousands of miles to learn about someone else, you must be willing to let them learn about you. That is something us Texans certainly know how to do.