In the 1930s, the retired British governess Mary O’Neill lived in Florence in the company of her female co-nationals. A close-knit diaspora of English aristocratic intellectuals and bohemians, they sought to spread English cultural traditions to the Italian masses. They tried to help ordinary Italians enjoy Shakespeare and Renaissance art, not only to dream about glamorous cars and other pleasures of the Jazz Age. Mary O’Neill and her friends greatly contributed to the upbringing and the artistic rise of the young Franco Zeffirelli. But did they manage to gain prestige within their Italian community? Known for their poignant wit, those expat women, whom the locals sarcastically called ‘Scorpions’, were, in fact, totally alienated from a wider Florentine community.
Depicted in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini, this story of cultural resilience finds a lot of resonance with diasporic reality today. In the large volume of studies on diaspora, an issue of concern is that many expats who speak culturally and civically on behalf of their homeland find zero reciprocity within their local community (Nye 2004; Watanabe and McConnell 2008).
Why do highly intellectual expats, who seek to morally enrich their host society, often fail to be accepted by their local communities? This question is explored in-depth in our Identities article, ‘Reflections on diaspora and soft power: community building among female US expats in Southern Europe’, which looks at life experiences of highly educated US-national expat women in Italy and Greece from the 1990s to 2015. They all hold degrees from leading US universities. Many of them are married to local men. And all of them seek to spiritually invigorate their local communities by showing them how to take care of the public space, such as to clean streets from litter and set up shelters for stray dogs and cats. They see these as typical ‘North American civic values’ that they are teaching to their ‘unenlightened’ neighbours.
Our findings show that the informants’ cultural practice of environmental protection remains, in many cases, the matter of concern for American expats rather than for local Italians and Greeks. The American zeal for cleaning streets is understood as ‘oddity’ by Italians and Greeks, who are far from being persuaded to develop identical patterns of behaviour:
I cleaned the street and it just ended littered again. I often hear from local people in the street, 'You are definitely a foreigner: a Greek would never do anything like this'. They often come to watch us cleaning the stuff in the street or cleaning after our dogs in the park because this is what they themselves have never done or seen. (Miriam, age 45, a US citizen, married to a Greek man and now living in a small Greek town.)
This happens not only because Italian and Greek people have a different understanding of what the community may need, but also because they have a different understanding of American culture itself. The American model of civic engagement is something that local Greeks and Italians do not associate with ‘being American’. The effect on the host society is that of a rather negative surprise, leading to the rejection of offered ‘American’ values. Does the receiving community really need it? What does the local community expect from expats? Our informants remain misunderstood and disintegrated by never posing such questions and instead making fast assumptions.
One may further ask what the local community may, in fact, need. What does it need that expats may not see? What exactly did the local people expect from the informants that the latter failed to do? And where exactly did they make their biggest expat mistake? As our article shows, these expat women engage in a process of ‘reverse integration’: they expect the locals to adapt to them, rather than them engaging with the mores and habits of their new environment. They are unable to see that what is ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ is culturally defined and that engaging with the different views of their in-laws and new friends does not necessarily mean abandoning their own civic culture.
Blog post by Irina Isaakyan, European University Institute, Italy; and Anna Triandafyllidou, Ryerson University, Canada
Read the full article: Isaakyan, Irina & Triandafyllidou, Anna. Reflections on diaspora and soft power: community building among female US expats in Southern Europe. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1291000