“So, how does it feel being back?” my friend asked. We were meandering through the street after a gorgeous dinner at a trattoria nearby, basking in the evening air. I surveyed where I was. “Surreal,” I replied. “The last time I remember being on this street, I was praying to make it home alive.”
Twelve years ago, I was a 20-year-old student from a Scottish university doing an immersive exchange program in Bologna, Italy, where I had nine months to become fluent. On a night not unlike this one, I had been walking home in the middle of a dense student area that buzzed with activity—people smoking, drinking, laughing, stirring up trouble, as all young people do. Hurrying under the porticoes, I heard drunk voices calling out to me, yelling racist and sexually violent slurs to my back. I picked up my pace, waiting for one of those voices to catch up. I braced. I just needed to make it out of the area, to somewhere less lit so I could ride the shadows all the way home.
Even at the best of times, for many people I encountered in Bologna, I was unfathomable, a Russian nesting doll of identities: Asian, but American, and a UK student. Not only did I confuse my host country’s bureaucratic institutions, but my limited Italian made it impossible to explain myself as I wanted, on my own terms. I was also young—a fledgling adult learning to codeswitch across cultures and languages (and suffering from punishing loneliness when I couldn’t do so successfully), while navigating that blank-canvas life stage when my personhood was entirely impressionable to my surroundings.
Growing up Asian American in America, there was always an implicit otherness assigned to my likeness, but at least I found communion with other people of color through it. Our ideas of race and racism were crudely shaped by the reductive jokes (and, sometimes, harassment that threatened to turn into more) that we had to learn to weather. Us children of immigrants especially were easy targets, as the sharpest barbs were directed at our families and cultures for their foreignness, their “unlike-us-ness.” But it was normal—or, normalized—and we were raised together in the harshness of that shared experience. It was how we learned to understand ourselves. This was the allure of leaving home for Europe, I’d reasoned: to be fashioned into something else by new cultures, histories, and ways of thinking—to see if a different context beyond the one I was born into could accommodate more of me than just my foreignness.
This summer, I RSVP’d to two long-awaited weddings on the continent, and since the pandemic had robbed my friends and me of a 10-year college reunion, the weddings afforded an excuse to organize one in the country where we all studied abroad. We chose to meet in Bologna, my former host city. It was my first trip back to Italy in a decade, and also my first real travel since before the pandemic. After shrinking my universe to fit within the walls of my Los Angeles apartment for the last two-and-a-half years, the thought of emerging into a forcibly reopened world was more terrifying than exciting. As Jess Zimmerman writes in the closing essay of the new anthology Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, “It is terrible to hang suspended over the pit and try not to look down.” Body Language, according to its editors, was assembled “to recognize and celebrate human bodies in their myriad beauties and braveries.” It is laden with stories of bodies as sites of both betrayal and stunning beauty. Even when I couldn’t recognize the writers’ experiences, I could—as Ross Showalter does in his essay on being a deaf queer writer—engage with them in conversation; they were worlds into which I ventured as a guest, and in them, I heard familiar echoes of heartbreak and transformation.
Since the formative years of my time as a student abroad, Europe had been sculpted by the outbreak of war, right-wing populism and xenophobic sentiments, and the nightmarish arrival of covid. Coming back this summer, I didn’t know if I would recognize it, whether it had changed—and if so, if it had changed for the worse. I wanted to prove that I had changed, and for the better. The anthology, I thought, would give me the language to articulate my own experience through the prism of others’. At the very least, I hoped it would help me feel less alone. So I brought it with me on this trip, to learn how to celebrate my body as it carried me back to a place where I had first gone to war with it.
When I arrived in Italy 12 years ago, I booked a hotel to serve as my home base while I searched for an apartment. On the third night, the hotel receptionist on shift knocked on the door to my room. He asked if I had ordered more towels. I hadn’t. Still, he used the opportunity to strike up a conversation and ask if I needed anything. I didn’t. He returned anyway, with Campari in hand. After an uncomfortable exchange, in which he insisted that I “try” it in front of him, I managed to get him to leave. The bathroom was located in the room next to mine, so I waited silently by my door, listening for when it was safe to venture out to use it. When I peered out to see if the coast was clear, I discovered that he had been listening for me, too. He invited me into his room, which I politely declined—and I did feel the need to be polite so as not to invite more trouble. I hid behind my locked door till daylight.
As Eloghosa Osunde writes in her devastating and beautiful essay “Don’t Let It Bury You” from Body Language, it was safer to deny my body as a thing that was “alive and desirous.” And the shame of having a body that provoked others’ wants was a lesson I would learn many times over the more I ventured out.
Over the course of that year, I would be followed home by a man because he took notice of the tank top I was wearing, and then groped on the bus by a group of three men while other passengers averted their eyes, pretending not to notice. My attempts to date also failed miserably, so it was those encounters alone that shaped how I understood my own beauty and, by extension, what I thought I deserved. What’s more, my body’s borders expanded as it desperately tried to adapt to the new stresses of my life abroad, developing fuller curves that I didn’t know how to manage. In addition to my abysmal language skills and obvious foreignness, my body became another thing to be ashamed of. I blamed it for taking up too much space and attracting the ravenous stares of strange men. I blamed myself for being too greedy, too desirous of those indulgent travel experiences that brought me to Italy in the first place.
While I was in Italy, I ached for my family, longing to retreat back to the familiar. But when they’d visit or Skype me, I would invariably be ridiculed for having gained weight, adding new dimension to my loneliness. Ostracized for disrupting the expectations of my own culture, I reached for the impossible task of trying to integrate into another that felt just as exclusive, contorting my unruly body to fit within an Italian frame and make it look like it belonged there. When I failed, my body turned into a site of haunting, because it provoked disgust—or, as Aricka Foreman writes in her essay “In Praise of Fast Girls Who Just Want to Dance” on her own body’s betrayal, that “twisted and relentless” something that, in my early adulthood, I mistook for desire. The attention I received felt wrong, but that feeling wasn’t enough to challenge the belief that male attention in any form was the measuring stick against which my worth was determined, as well as the space I could afford to take up.
As Forsyth Harmon writes in her essay “Cut Knuckles” on bulimarexia and the cruelty of body dysmorphia, “being inside my own body was an unbearable experience.” I had held fast to the belief that I could displace myself from what I looked like long enough to see myself newly, to blend into Europe as much as possible, but my racialized body, I learned by the end of my program, was inescapable. I wouldn’t feel safe in it for another decade.
“It isn’t just a memory of the feeling that lingers,” Gabrielle Bellot writes in her meditative essay “The Year of Breath” on survival. “It is the thing itself, the sensation and all that surrounds it.”
Before the pandemic, even after my body had shrunk and tidied itself back into what I was taught to believe was an acceptable size, my relationship with it hadn’t changed much since Italy. Deriding it was ritual by then—even a social habit I shared with my friends. Otherwise, I ignored it altogether: its wants, its care. But sheltering in place forced me to study myself as a matter of public safety.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, I was lucky. I managed to avoid getting sick while covid ravaged my city, overflowing morgues and moving funerals into parking lots. But as much of that was fortune, and the privilege of a livelihood that allows me to work remotely, it was also the quiet, imposing understanding that my safety was precarious and largely dependent on how small of a space I could take up. If I restricted my world to my most basic needs, I would survive this unscathed. Indoors, in my room, I built a fortress and fortified myself inside. I began working out, if not to pass the time then simply to distract myself from what was raging just outside my window. And for the first time in my life, I did so consistently. I became preoccupied with building body mass. Somewhere, deep down, I knew invisibility wasn’t an option anymore; there was no chance of going unseen by this virus—nor by the random passerby who could be triggered by an Asian person in a mask. If I was to be seen, then I needed to be formidable. I needed not to be easy prey.
I became fiercely devoted to this routine. I needed to feel eviscerated, fearing, as Osunde writes, that “my body would disappear into nothing if I didn’t move it aggressively.” Somehow, in the private laboratory of my apartment, through that ceaseless kneading, I learned to commit attention to appreciating all the movement under my own skin. I quietly grew to love my form, especially as it grew.
“The world is a strange place for women who love their bodies,” Haley E. D. Houseman says in her essay “Mapping My Body with Sewing Patterns.” I knew this, and it made me even more fearful to test that love out there, back in the world, revisiting places that I once wanted so desperately to claim me—or, at the very least, not to harm me. Still, I needed to see how much we’d both changed. And I would use this trip to find out.
Before anti-Asian violence made headlines in the U.S., I heard about them happening in Italy. Asians in the rest of the continent weren’t spared from attacks, either. I wasn’t sure if wearing a mask would be the same hair trigger that it was back home; I didn’t want to get sick, but I was afraid of how hypervisible I would then become. To my surprise, people masked more in Italy than in any of the other countries I’d visited on this trip. Bologna, particularly, appeared more diverse; I was no longer the anomaly I once was marauding its streets. People were warm to me, and more forgiving and patient with what little Italian I could remember. In addition to keeping my mask on, I made other choices, like wearing a tank top when it was warm outside.
One shift in particular struck me: When I told strangers that I’m American, the first question that followed wasn’t, “But where are your parents from?” For the first time, the fact of me being American was taken for granted; there were no further probes into my identity. Instead, I was asked whether I thought it was safer there or in America, a question that was at first a reaction to the Uvalde shooting, and then to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Their questions almost sounded pleading, as if they needed me to comfort and assure them that the country they envisioned in their dreams was closer to the actual America than what they saw on the news. My response remained the same: Safer for whom?
Many of the stories in Body Language take place in the U.S., where marginalized bodies habitually are sites of violence, politics, and culture. They reflect how exhausting it is for the people living inside them, who have their own wild wants and desires beyond what is too often aggressively impressed upon them. It is no less dangerous inhabiting this body at home than it is abroad.
Returning to Italy, I was reminded of who I had been, what I had weathered, and how those scathing experiences nonetheless shaped me for survival. And the pandemic only assured me that whatever happened on my travels, I would endure. Being in my body has meant being acutely attuned to my surroundings wherever I am, because, akin to other racialized and marginalized bodies, its visibility comes with the constant threat of danger. To allow ourselves to be seen anyway, despite the harm it can invite, is, lamentably, an act of resistance, of courage, when it shouldn’t be; in a perfect world, we could just be.
But as long as I’m exposed, I might as well dare to let myself experience joy in my own body—to no longer feel like a stranger in it.
“Bodies are wild,” Houseman writes. “Mine has carried me across continents and gotten me lost in cities. It is joy and warmth and scent and sweat, and I refuse to be ashamed of it.”
Body Language accompanied me back into a reopened world. I found recurring words across the essays—“betrayal,” “disturbing,” “unsafe,” and “lonely,” but also “space,” “shape,” “move,” and “grace”—as if the experiences were speaking across the anthology to one another. I’ve sampled all of these words over the course of my relationship with my body, and seeing them on the page reflecting my body’s “thereness” (as A.E. Osworth wrote in their essay on transformation, self-determination, and the visual record) has held space for me. Good storytelling does that; it gives you permission to heal. Even though my body has been historically a site of pain, as it has with many others, Body Language helped model language for me to see it as more than the passive setting of past harms. “Bodies endure,” the editors write. But, “most importantly, bodies carry us through our one life.”
In Italy this summer, by some wild miracle, I didn’t feel out of place. Or, if I did, I felt perfectly at ease in my difference. “I guess that’s what happens when you interact with past experiences from a safe place,” my friend told me. As Foreman writes, “This is what I came here for. To feel myself inside my body, without the aid of anyone else’s to call back to.”
I finally feel at home and in good company under my own skin. Whatever happens, I trust that my body will still carry me.
Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.