A Tale of Two Chinese in Italy

FT.com Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan (許知遠) wrote a story about a Chinese emigrant’s perspective on life and that of his son since they landed in Rome, Italy seven years ago. While the father fully appreciates the comfort and opportunities his new place of domicile has to offer and thoroughly enjoys his new experiences, the son struggles to find his true identity and station in life in the strange land, often depressed by unhappy personal experiences which he believes have something to do with his ethnicity.

Lao Wang is described as a typical middle-aged, pragmatic and hard-working Chinese emigrant from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, who is in the food trading business and who now lives with his son in Rome. He set up his own trading company in Rome in 2001 with a staff of about 10 persons, using his hometown as a food exporting base which employs a few hundred workers.

The following is a shortened translation of the story:-

“His 54 years of life has been a combination of new endeavor after new endeavor. Although it is interlaced with successes and failures, no one can deny that his horizon has been a process of unceasing expansion, and the pace of expansion is almost dizzying. But he loves the pleasant surprises that such novelty and expansion has brought. He likes Rome. Compared with the murky grey sky in Wenzhou, Rome’s brilliant sunshine makes one want to purr with content. He also enjoys going fishing. His computer screen shows a picture of him hugging a big fish. What he specially likes is the relatively simple way of doing things here. ‘As long as you do business legally, there’s no need to engage too much with government. In China, the issue of connections is just too complicated.’

As much as Lao Wang likes the new things that he has come across in life, he also shows his homesickness through the décor of his office. Chinese old classics, sheets of Chinese calligraphy are littered on his desk; Chinese landscape paintings with poems written on them are hung on a wall; the room is furnished with the sparsest of furniture. The wall-hung calendar, the wooden chairs and the miserable pale white light of the room reminds me of China – in most Chinese cities or towns, one cannot miss such kind of décor, light and color – devoid of finesse and comfort. China no doubt is in a spiritual void, but even with the lessening of the material void, the deep sense of insecurity still shows no sign of abating. Even if people want to decorate their living environment, they don’t know where to look for cultural inspiration – the Roman style round columns and inferior landscape paintings that appear inside buildings everywhere in China only tells people that China is at this moment a rootless country.

If Lao Wang is still interested in practicing calligraphy and hanging landscape paintings on the wall, none of these are of any interest to his son, Xiao Wang. Neither does the young man want to understand the ancient Rome.

‘I like modern cities like Brussels and Amsterdam,’ he said. In fact, after having lived in Rome for seven years, he still feels no affection for Italy.

The reason for leaving Wenzhou is that his high school performance is not good enough to get him into university. He is the youngest of Lao Wang’s three children.

Xiao Wang’s first job when he arrived in Rome at the age of eighteen was that of a dispatcher. By now he is a seasoned driver and knows the European road network like the back of his hand. He has already got his residency right and speaks simple but fluent Italian. He has no problem at all communicating with government departments, which his father will never be prepared nor have the ability to do. But he has never planned to stay here. ‘It’s only because of our business – I need to accumulate (experience and savings).’

Unlike his father, Xiao Wang has no lack of material resources. In fact he does not even have to thirst for opportunities – when he was growing up, his father offered him choices so that he could come to Rome when he had been unable to enter university; when he arrived, he didn’t have to worry about renting a shelter or finding a job; his father does not need him worry too much about the family business either.

But for Xiao Wang, rather than taking this as a kind of convenience, he feels it is more like a burden on him. ‘He thinks that I don’t have to worry about the business, but how can this be? I’m always thinking. In fact, I’m under a lot of pressure. I don’t want to disappoint them. My actual mental stress may even be greater than what they experienced when they arrived.’

At first I thought Xiao Wang was just overplaying his so-called sadness as youths often do. But then deeper into the conversation I discovered that the young man had a scarring experience soon after he arrived in Rome.

One evening in the spring of 2001, Lao Wang brought Xiao Wang on a tour of the city of Prato (in Tuscany), which is known for the high concentration of ethnic Chinese residents. ‘An Italian riding a motorcycle came up from behind and spat on my head,’ he said, apparently still bitter about the incident that happened seven years ago. From that moment on, Italy and Italians are only abstract nouns as far as Xiao Wang is concerned. He is willing to ignore the intricacies that these nouns embody, that each person is different from the other. All they imply is insult and unpleasantness. Such an emotion has grown with time, rather than diminished.

Then he angrily recounted another incident that took place in the spring of 2007. In a Chinatown in Milan, there was a confrontation between the police and Chinese people over a policeman battering a pregnant Chinese woman. ‘The incidence was left open-ended and nothing further was done.’

Over the dinner table, Xiao Wang spelled out his opinion on the incidence. On the one hand he was mad at the Italian police in Milan, on the other, he complained about the weakness and inertia of the Chinese embassy, which complaint was extended to cover the entire Chinese government. But when I changed the conversation topic to the Tibet riots, he showed a change in attitude and said he would support the government taking even stricter measures to enforce the law without paying too much attention to the Westerners.

Lao Wang would point out that the Chinese society in Milan has it own issues. He knows very well that in the cities, Chinese communities are always overcrowded, dirty, with gang disputes escalating all the time, stirring up resentment from people in the vicinity. On the other hand, the Chinese communities are not cohesive enough to fight for their rights as a group.

It is without doubt that both father and son were anticipating a strong and powerful Chinese government who would be able to give real support, be it emotional or practical, to the Chinese people living overseas. Their disappointment is understandable. The relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens is not one where there is mutual trust; rather, it is one where the former and latter neglect and dislike each other.

After dinner, Xiao Wang offered to drive me and others back into the city. On the way, he revealed that he had once been put under house arrest for 8 months for being allegedly implicated in a gang crime, which turned out to be a case of wrong identity. For him, it was a case of gross injustice.

His anger, anxiety and melancholy filled up his Golf. It made me ponder on the nationalistic emotion that has been growing among many Chinese youths in every corner of the world. They must be feeling that they are being marginalized and want to have their voices heard but cannot seem to find their way of expression. This feeling is different from the nationalist sentiment of the first half of the 20th century – the youths do not have a clear adversary target to resist; they do not have a clear path and ideology to pursue; they are disturbed and rootless.

But the overseas Chinese youths are spawning an enormous force to be reckoned with. When they cannot find an appropriate release valve for their emotions, they would only resort to violence or self-imposed exile.”