True or False: “The Chinese are very clever. They’re not like other immigrants, who can be pretty thick.“
This quote by an Italian textile manufacturer comes from a lengthy article in today’s New York Times about how the Chinese in Prato, Italy have given Italy’s fast fashion industry a Chinese makeover — at least on the business side.
Is the statement entertaining or prejudiced? Either way, it reflects the attitude of some Italians: Better the Chinese than the Romanians or Albanians, but the Chinese are still a little too clever. Italy’s one in a growing list of countries (e.g. France, Kyrgystan, Angola, Zambia) having trouble absorbing their new Chinese presence. On the one hand, Chinese immigrants work hard, build businesses and don’t make a fuss. On the other hand, they out-compete locals and keep to themselves.
I recently talked about the problems facing the Chinese in Italy with Laijun Song, a former Bain consultant who plans to go into business advising Italian and Chinese companies. Song, who immigrated to Italy from Wenzhou when he was 10, lives in Rome. (Also, see my posts about the Chinese Italians here.)
Q: Why did your family come to Italy?
At that time China was still quite poor. My mother’s sister was already here, so we joined her. We got visas; if you have an employer, regular work, accommodation, then you can apply for family reunion.
The Italians are very warm, but they still keep a kind of cultural barrier. They’ve faced massive immigration just in the last 20 years, so they are less open than some other countries.
Q: Do you see similarities between Chinese and Italian culture?
They’re both very traditional. Italian parents care a lot about their children; they keep their children at home until 30, 35 years old — this doesn’t happen in Northern Europe. Chinese parents are similar, always thinking about their children, always trying to build up their children’s future.
From a production point of view, the Italian system is based on small companies; the Italian clothing industry is very fragmented, mostly made up of small brands. Wenzhou’s business structure is similar.
Q: What’s the relationship like between Chinese and Italians?
The Chinese community here is silent and insular. Even young teenagers tend to socialize only with other Chinese. But if you close yourself off and don’t want to learn Italian, then you put yourself into a lower social status compared to the Italians. Italians can feel this and take advantage of the situation. We must ask for respect from the locals, and make clear how we are contributing to the economy.
I have known people who were very badly treated by the Italian police, but they are afraid [to say anything] because they don’t have the right knowledge, the language or the right skills. The Wenzhounese are very brave. And some are very uneducated. They are able to not only survive but also live in a context in which they don’t know culture, language or law.
I’d like to see in the next future a community that is more confident, more integrated into the Italian community. The first thing to do is to raise the education level among the young Chinese here; we still have a low literacy level. We must open ourselves to the local people; Italy is going to be a multiethnic country.
Q: How’s the Chinese food in Italy?
It’s very standard food, like “Cantonese rice,” “sweet and sour chicken,” fried ice cream. But this is just for Italians, not for Chinese. Sometimes I criticize Chinese people: Why do you all offer the same product? You should diversify!
Q: Do you identify with Italy?
I am a hybrid. My thinking is closer to that of a very traditional Chinese, but my knowledge and my culture is like an Italian’s. I appreciate the romantic vision of life that Italy has, the cultural heritage. I’m lucky that I was brought to Italy, rather than to countries that are more commercial, like the U.K. and U.S.