I met John through his blog Italian-Born Chinese, and was surprised to discover that his family has been in Italy for three (!!!) generations. Here’s his story.
Name: John Tai
Birthplace: Milan, Italy
Location: Shanghai, China
Occupation: System Admin
How did your family end up in Italy?
My grandparents on my father’s side emigrated from Taiwan to Italy in the 1960s, so my father went to high school in Milano. My mother, also Taiwanese, went there in the early ‘70s to study opera singing at the conservatorio.
We were one of the first Taiwanese families in Milano. At that time there were few people from China; China wasn’t open yet.
What was it like growing up Chinese / Taiwanese in Italy?
During my childhood there were some Taiwanese families in Milano, sometimes I would see them at events. Most of these families had Chinese restaurants, including us. They branched into trading and other businesses, and some worked for the Taiwanese government. Through the 80s to early 90s there was a small religious community, started by my mother. A bunch of Taiwanese people met every week at our place for worship.
My closest friends were my Italian classmates. Growing up I really didn’t feel ostracized too much. Obviously they made fun of me, but not more than any kid. I definitely felt Italian and I had plenty of friends, despite being introvert. I think the few other kids from Taiwan had similar experiences. At that time I definitely felt more Italian than Chinese.
My mother had a few Italian friends from church, but she moved back to Taiwan 10 years ago. Can you believe that she doesn’t have an Italian ID? She lived there 40 years, and she has nothing to show for it! On the other hand, my grandparents are still in Italy because my two uncles married Italian women.
How’s your Chinese?
My grandmother taught me and my brother Chinese once a week when we were kids. So I have a basic level, but I really can’t read or write Chinese, even now.
Italian is obviously my mother tongue, but I didn’t realize that I had a Milanese accent until I went to the South for a summer, and the people there told me I sounded Milanese.
How have things changed for the Chinese in Italy?
I honestly don’t know how the recent Italian born Chinese feel. It’s different for them, because they have a huge community now, whereas at my time there were only a few Taiwanese families.
What’s most Italian about you?
When I speak Italian I gesticulate a lot. I’m sure you’ve heard of Italian hand gestures (some normal, some very offensive). But when I speak in Chinese, I hardly move my hands.
Will you go back to Italy?
In 2002 I joined my Taiwanese/South African wife in Shanghai and unfortunately I haven’t been back to Italy. I will definitely go back to visit relatives and friends; that’s what I miss most about Italy. It’s just a matter of logistics and finance, what with having two little kids and living in China. Being away from Italy, the culture, the language, it makes me feel less and less Italian.
On the other hand, I don’t feel Chinese or Taiwanese either. A man without a nation, or to put it nicely, a citizen of the world. I don’t even want to think about what my kids will feel like, having an Italian passport, but not even speaking the language!
Cover photo of Italian stamps by Flickr member Lutrus.