One of the questions I was most frequently asked prior to going abroad was, “Why?” More specifically, “Why so soon?” given that I was just entering my sophomore year and would be one of the youngest in my program of around 90 students. I often replied with relatively simple and obvious answers including, “It will be a great learning experience!” “It’s the land of wine and gelato!” and my father’s personal favorite, “Have you seen Italian men!?” While these were all valid reasons for my desire to study abroad, it was actually largely due to the fact that I wanted to grow up; to figure out who the hell I was and who I wanted to become, away from the familiarity and comfort of home.
Fall break is now coming to an end, and with midterms over I am beginning the second half of my semester. While I have definitely pushed myself and learned an immeasurable amount in such a short period of time (not only about myself but about people as a whole) am I really any closer to ‘growing up? In the US, we often measure adulthood numerically, 16 to drive, 18 to vote, 21 to drink (come one guys, seriously) etc. However, I don't have my license even though I'm almost 20, and I still can't have a glass of wine with my friends when we go out to dinner, so in spite of my newly acquired life skills (one of which includes fixing an Italian dryer, which is really quite a feat), in the United States I'm not much more impressive than a seventh grader.
Another problem with numerical adulthood is that it doesn't translate across cultures. For example, in Italy it is legal to drive a 50cc moped at 14, but only an actual car at 18. Fermented drinks, like wine and beer, are legal for Italians to drink from the age of 16 on, while distilled alcohol can be legally consumed at the age of 18. While it may be legal to drink, drive, and buy cigarettes at 18, many Italians chose to live at home late into their twenties, whereas many Americans move out when they graduate high school and often even leave their hometown.
I recently visited local elementary schools with my Human Development class, and (with regards to an observational study) had to attempt to teach the Italian children one aspect of American culture. While we were there, my classmates and I were told that the third graders had just gone on a field trip to a local winery, and were drawing illustrations of their time there. As Americans, we first noted that we never would have gone on an elementary school field trip that had anything to do with alcohol. After looking at the student’s work, we noticed how talented they all were, and that with the exception of one or two future Van Goghs, our third-grade work looked nothing like theirs. For these students, competency in the arts seemed to be more valuable than it was in our school systems, and artistic expression was another aspect of growing up and developing academic and life skills.
So what is it that defines adulthood? Is it when you can accurately convey a vineyard in your artwork? Is it being able to successfully book a flight and land in the desired destination, or rather figuring out how to bounce back when you miss it? Is it when you no longer have to use spellcheck? Is it finding somewhere comfortable and settling in, or deciding to challenge what you know and jet off to a foreign country? Most importantly, is it when you stop asking your parents for money (because if so, I am once again about as useful as a seventh grader).