There is a small rural village in Southern Italy called Maione. Time doesn’t play by the rules. When I visit, the past and the present collide like tectonic plates. I bring the volcano as a carry on item, tucked into the overhead compartment until we land.
You see, everyone in Maione is related, which means that as you walk along its narrow cobbled streets, you feel like you’re following the map of a family tree. You start to realize there are certain features that crop up: smiles that unfold like sentences, from left to right, the same head tilt when they ask you where you are from. I am the only person in Maione who has ever been asked this question- Da dove vieni?
“My grandmother lived here,” I want to tell them. “She was born in the house up on the hill that still stands today. My mother’s mother.” But I never do, because my face contradicts my words before they’re even formed. I am Chinese. When they point me out to their neighbors, their fingers land on my eyes first. The mark of a foreigner but also evidence of my blindness. I will never see things the way they do. I will never be one of them.
That is where my mother chimes in, explaining away the confusion with her reassuring Mediterranean complexion and Italian that rolls off her tongue. She explains the adoption, the trip to China, and there is a rumble in the earth. I can feel the different countries and eras and histories converging noisily as they come together under my feet.
I sulk over my glaring Chineseness, weary of the stares and the whispers. As my mother comes more alive with each passing day, joyfully meeting cousins she never knew she had and poring over old photos albums with them, I feel like I am slowly disappearing. Where do I belong in this strange place, with my Chinese face and American clothes and Italian name?
One evening, I venture into the piazza, the central hub of the night. A group of teenagers sit in a circle smoking cigarettes and laughing loudly at a video on someone’s phone. I observe them quietly, thinking, “These are my grandmother’s people. Her blood runs through their veins.” As if they can hear my thoughts, one of the girls spots me and raises a lazy hand in greeting. “Finalmente arriva l’americana!” she crows. The American comes at last!
Thus begins my interrogation. Am I enjoying my time in Maione so far? Do I have a boyfriend? Did I bring any American snacks with me? Do I want a cigarette? The words come faster to me as I try to answer everything quickly, desperate for validation, terrified that I will bore them and they will discard me to the side.
“Why you hide from us?” someone finally blurts out. He is my age, lanky, and his hand causally cradles a beer with the kind of confidence I could never pull off. Silence. They all gaze at me, again regarding my eyes. The mark of a foreigner. “Because I am not from here,” I tell him. Below me, the earth rumbles.
He regards me coolly. “Let’s play nascondino,” he says. I blink. “Cosa?”
“How you say-hide and seek!” Out of all possible responses, I do not see this coming. Hide and seek at midnight in a town of cramped alleys and steep hills and no street lights? “Perfetto,” I hear myself say. They cheer wildly.
Crouching behind a decaying gardening shed, a girl presses up against me, her cigarette dangerously close to my hair. It’s then I realize that my grandmother must have played this same game at some point. I eye the shed more carefully, noting the vegetation that completely swallows the roof. She could easily have tucked herself away exactly where I am now. I suddenly know she is here, with me now. For the first time, our timelines overlap and I stifle a laugh at the absurdity. It is during a game of nascondino that I feel the most seen.
I am found that night. I am found when they discover us behind the shed, but I am also found as I tear through the streets chasing someone who had taken off with my phone. Laughing, I picture another image: my grandmother running down these very streets chasing someone, breathless and annoyed and maybe even secretly pleased all at once.
The moon hangs fat and yellow in the sky when we finish. It is well past midnight by now, and we lay on the grass together to gaze at the sky. My grandmother’s children and me. No, I correct myself. My grandmother’s children, period.
For the second time that evening, somebody hears my thoughts. The girl who hid with me, who almost lit my hair on fire, jumps up and pulls me to my feet. “Francesca, vieni,” she commands. Ears still ringing with the sound of my name on her lips, I follow her to the ancient drinking fountain in the middle of the piazza. She thrusts her hands into the gushing stream. I stare at her, then follow suit. The water is shockingly cold and I cry out. “Direttamente dalle montagne!” she laughs. Straight from the mountains!
Her face glowing in the moonlight, she asks me, “Vedi questa fontana? Questa è vecchia come Maione.” A pause. “La tua nonna ha bevuto quest’acqua.”
Do you see this fountain? It’s as old as Maione itself. Your grandmother drank this water.
So I cup my hands in it again and I don’t know who I am talking to when I say, “Poi bevo anche io.” Then I drink too.
The water tastes of airplanes and oceans and steamboats. It tastes of the thousands of miles between Maione and Ellis Island, between China and New Jersey, between the womb I was pushed out of and the arms of another woman. I drink hungrily, each sip a prayer that my Italian will roll off my tongue, that my smile will unfold like a sentence, that when I am asked Da dove vieni? I finally have an answer.