Earlier this week I found myself chatting in Chinese with two Italians — Italian-Chinese, to be exact — because it was the only language we had in common.
This is one of the things I’ve loved about living abroad: the swirl of different languages. I remember going to a party two years ago, soon after I’d moved to Beijing, and being baffled and delighted by the novelty of Chinese as the lingua franca. I used my rusty Mandarin in a conversation that included a Belgian colleague, a Brit, and a Beijinger. The Belgian and the Brit both had Mandarin that put mine to shame.
Back to the Chinese-Italians, two fun, affable fellows named Francesco and Bai. Francisco’s an expat in Beijing. Bai, who was in town for work, lives in Prato and heads up the Associazione Seconde Generazioni Cinesi — The Association of Second-Generation Chinese.
We met up at the Pavilion bar at the end of a blazing hot day, the kind that reminds you that Beijing is actually next door to a gigantic desert. If I had any questions about whether Francisco and Bai were more European or more Chinese, their two-cheek kiss-hellos gave me my answer. (The Chinese greeting would have been a light handshake.)
Speaking in Chinese — and occasionally to each other in rapid fire Italiano — Francesco and Bai told me how they had immigrated as children to a new country. Just as my family left Taiwan for the U.S., their families followed a well-trod path from Wenzhou, a city in southern China, to the European metropolis where Wenzhounese had been settling for decades: Paris.
Francesco told me his parents were soon lured to Milan by the promise of Italian greencards. They worked in restaurants for a few years, saved up money, then opened up a business of their own. Bai’s family ended up in Prato, where many Chinese immigrants work in garment factories.
We compared notes on what it was like growing up. In elementary school Bai and Francesco were among the few students who were italo-cinesi, and at the start they didn’t even speak Italian. But things worked out, and they didn’t have any real problems.
Me, I suffered what I’d consider a normal amount of teasing. It wasn’t just because I was a different ethnicity. I spoke English, but I had the misfortune of being bookish, wearing uncool clothes and being flat-chested in a classroom with plenty of pubescent, curvy Caribbean girls. Still, I had many classmates who were immigrants themselves too, and all in all, I came out relatively unscarred.
Italians have a tight-knit, somewhat insular community. So do the Chinese. What happens when the two are forced to coexist?
In today’s Italy, Bai said, there are more and more Chinese immigrants, and problems have cropped up. Some are minor cultural scuffs, like some Italians complaining that Chinese dried meats are stinky. Others, like the recent police raids, reflect deeper conflicts.
It’s not like in the United States, Bai pointed out to me. Italy isn’t a nation of immigrants, even though it now has four to five million residents originally from Romania, Albania, Morocco and other countries. Plenty of Italians have emigrated to other places, but the country simply isn’t used to having immigrants, he said. For example, children who are born in Italy to immigrants have to wait until they reach 18 years of age to apply for citizenship.
“You grow up someplace, that country should be yours,” said Bai. “But sometimes the small things get at you.”