Before hurricane Sandy put us all under a week-long siege, I was not buying battery packs and stocking up on water. I was taking a trip down memory lane whilst attending the Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance’s eighth anniversary gala dinner. It certainly felt as though I was back in Italy. Besides the fact that we were on an expansive Chelsea Piers loft wrapped by breathtaking views of the Hudson, the illusion was, simply perfect. The gala was held in a space lavishly transformed  – walls were romantically lit by period lanterns, windows illuminated by glimmering candles, tables and chairs draped in crisp white linen, rose petals floated in water vases next to sets of dinnerware so meticulously placed. I knew these were all the magic workings of the hosts of the occasion and founders of ILICA – Susy and Vincenzo Marra. And thanks to them, I had a night I will forever remember.

Having arrived in my bluebell lace and sequin cocktail dress to the din of easy laughter and conversation for the pre-dinner social, my senses were already being pulled in every which way. Visually, I was thoroughly admiring the many dressed to the nines. In the meantime, my auditory nerves leaped to the familiar trills of the most fluid and poetic song I know from the one month of trying to learn it: Italiano. And if these two were not satiating enough, my olfactory instincts were drawn to a third – something waiters were balancing on trays as they milled about: flutes of prosecco (sparkling wine) and bite-size antipasti (starters), including some irresistible Sicilian rice balls.

I would later learn that all the food had traveled across seas and borders to be there, all directly imported from Italy. Talk about authenticity.

Just as I was going for something that looked like kabobs containing olives,salami, and tortellini, two girls came tumbling out of the sea of black and white in my direction. It was Jennifer Ip, my tough sidekick on the trip to Italy, and Alice Moy, the down-to-earth and awesome recipient of the scholarship from the previous year.

What happened next was a whirl of light and action. After meeting up with Diana Lee and Chris Nicodemo, the founders of AsianinNY,  all three of us – Alice, Jennifer, and I – were whisked away to do an interview and photo session with the press. While it was enough to get our adrenaline pumping, Jennifer and I soon felt some nervousness creep in, as there were only minutes left before we had the honor of opening the dinner celebration, in Italian. Yes, you read that right. We would be facing a room full of Italians and Italian Americans and speaking their mother language. On stage.

A quick rehearsal with Alice later, we were soon standing amid applause as Chris introduced us the podium.

And boom, done. Okayokay, we might have had some awkward pauses here and there and perhaps more mishaps in pronunciation than we would like to admit, but, we did it! The warm reception to our opening remarks was just incredible. And, above all, what a surge of exhilaration I felt.  Returning to my seat afterwards, all I could say to Jennifer was, “That was so cool!!!” And a relieved Jennifer replied, “Now, we can enjoy the rest of the evening.” We both knew then, all was alright in the world.

Actually, life was more than alright. It was too good. Just as in Italy, food and company went hand in hand. We were seated at a table of inspiring Asian Americans (though there was a young man seated with us who was 100% Italian but who spoke the most fluent Mandarin. Yes, that killed a little part of that post-speech happy feeling).

Alice, Jennifer, and I might have had the best, most mouthwatering, sumptuous dinners in Italy on a budget, but this was… deluxe. I was first offered a wine selection of either Pinot Grigio (white) or Rosso Piceno (red). The choice was rather easy. I remember beginning my memories in Italy with red wine, and and so, I thought I would symbolically toast to it then and there in red. To Italy, to passion, to love. The first sip brings everything back to me. The memories. The nostalgia.

Chasing it down with crostini dipped in herb, the waiters were circling around us again, this time loading up our table with the primo (first course) – kidney bean and brown rice risotto sprinkled with thin pieces of mozzarella.

Already close to being what Jennifer would call being, “in a good place”, I was gaping as the secondo (main course) came close behind. My order: a huge slab of fish fillet with two kinds of purea di patate (Italian mashed potatoes).

This was the other option for the main dish.

Between mouthfuls of fish and potato, I turn my attention back to the stage. One by one, a number of Italian Americans, took the stage, and each began to tell us their story – about where they came from, about coming to be a part of ILICA, and about why they had joined the organization, whether it be in search of their own roots and ‘identity’, wanting to realize a ‘concept’ or ‘lifestyle’, or simply having a ‘bridge’ so as to pay respect to both nationalities in their DNA. All their words seemed to strike a chord in my life. It was almost as if their words underlined bits of my own story of coming to discover the basic intrigue of being both Chinese and American.

Yet, it was the wordless performance of the night that hit a home run for me. It came from an young pianist, who must have been no more than seven years of age, and who I would later learn was half Japanese, half Italian. He took to the stage with all the traits of a practiced master. When he plopped down on the bench and hit that first melody, chills ran down my back. Every eye in the room was on him. Everyone must have been thinking, Child prodigy, definitely. The skill and technique was evident. He played two pieces completely by heart, his entire little body and head swaying as if he knew and experienced all the emotions that went with the piece. His intuition, poise, ease, and genuine passion at the keyboard told us he was not necessarily playing only for us, but for himself. He loved this.

When he finished, he swept off bench, and bowed. He got a standing ovation. People were calling out, “Encore! Encore!”, thus spurring him to ask for permission as to whether he could return to his seat to get his piano book. Now everyone was thinking, Even child prodigies work hard. The point is: whatever his makeup – natural talent or hard work or both – it was, most of all, a sheer love for music that got him here.  And taken together, his performance seemed to say, “Nature or nurture, this is me. I love what I do, and I am proud of that.” The same goes for being Chinese American. Or Italian American. Or Japanese Italian. Whatever the permutation, if one has come to simply love both halves of their blood, how can one pigeonhole oneself into one definition, one category? And so, that is what both ILICA and AsianinNY celebrates to this day. The diversity of parts in us. And the whole of us.

Before the night came to an end, there was one final revelation – dessert galore. A massive cake inscribed with ILICA’s name rolled in. All along a wall, one could help oneself to shots of tiramisu, various fruit tarts, and panna cotta (custard) layered with citrus gelatin.

Then there were these giant silver bowls of gelati, lined in a velvety confection of pistachio, vanilla, chocolate, and mango. I took a double scoop of pistachio and vanilla.

The crazy part of the night was when the announcement of the winners to a huge raffle was made. Everyone started posing for the camera with their super prizes, which were mostly – yup you guessed right – food. Hunks of it, bottles of it, gluts of it. Wine, prosciutto, olive oil, and more. Should I have bought a raffle ticket? For me, the night had already been a Golden Ticket. Italy had been a Golden Ticket. And I have been most fortunate to live the experience through the generosity and hospitality of both AsianinNY and ILICA. I owe them my deepest gratitude. Through them, through the entire experience, I have rediscovered myself.

[All photo credits go to Vincent Shihchieh Wei]

Love your true self. Dare to dream. Take the leap of faith. Push the boundaries of your life. Step into other worlds and cultures, and find out just how much more you can discover about yourself.

I promise, you will be in for a surprise.

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