FEBRUARY 15, 2015
AS “JINGLE BELLS” PLAYED on repeat, I plunged into a bowl of equally dispirited noodles. I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant with the unlikely yet seasonably appropriate name of “Evergreen,” one of only a handful of eateries of any kind open in Midtown Manhattan on Christmas Day. A young Chinese waiter navigated the tables taking orders in English and Mandarin. His white shirt looked withered. Though clean, his black pants, supported by a tattered belt, were several sizes too big. I sipped my tea and wondered. What drives someone to move across the globe to work for low pay in an establishment that likely needs to stay open every day of the year just to stay afloat? Did he come alone to New York? Did he plan to return to China some day? In her new book, Meet Me in Venice, Suzanne Ma, a Canadian journalist of Chinese descent, examines questions like these. Despite its sappy title and bright purple cover, the slim work reveals a deep search for understanding of the contemporary Chinese immigrant experience abroad.
Driving the investigation is Ma’s curiosity about what has motivated so many people from her husband’s home county, Qingtian, in China’s Zhejiang province, to emigrate abroad, mostly to Europe. Ma boldly moves to Qingtian to investigate why the people of Qingtian have been leaving their small county in disproportionately large numbers for 300 years. Few people from Qingtian choose the United States, but they move to places as far away as Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, taking up many lines of work and enduring many hardships in their quest for financial security. Ma charts the journey of a young woman, Ye Pei, who migrates to Italy hoping to strike it rich. Despite her dream of one day opening a lucrative bar in Italy and then returning to China a wealthy woman, Pei finds herself lonely, overworked, and underpaid, washing dishes in a Chinese-run bar in the small town of Solesino. Like many young people in Qingtian, Pei had yearned to see the crescent-shaped bridges and gondolas of “the water city” — Venice — which, in her imagination, constituted all of Italy. As time passes, Pei discovers that her job in Italy affords her neither mobility nor the opportunity to improve her broken Italian, much less to visit Venice. Pei lands another position at an Italian mushroom farm that almost exclusively employs Chinese laborers. Though the farm offers regular Italian lessons and a greater sense of community for its Chinese employees, extracting mushrooms from beds of manure for hours on end makes Pei’s dream of becoming a wealthy entrepreneur seem even more elusive. Ma uses Pei’s story to illustrate the lived migrant experience, and Pei’s journey serves as an entry point into many fascinating issues for Chinese migrants — linguistic and geographic displacement, the outrageous cost of being smuggled overseas, separation from family, hardship, and economic uncertainty.
One particularly interesting chapter reveals that many Italian fashion houses contract their production work to Chinese-run sweat shops in Prato, Italy. Here, people like the Qingtian immigrant Jimmy Xu work 15 hours a day sewing garments to pay off the $15,000 debt he incurred moving to Italy. Ma frames Xu and other emigrants’ experiences in terms of the history of Chinese migration abroad from the Ming-dynasty transoceanic voyages of Zheng He to the recruitment of thousands of Chinese laborers to Western Europe during World War I. Against this backdrop, Ma portrays Italy’s mixed response — a blend of intrigue and xenophobia — to the influx of low-skilled Chinese immigrants in the 1990s and early 2000s.
However, the 2008 economic crisis sent many Chinese back to China, as restaurants were forced to close and factory orders slowed. Chinese returned from Europe to open Spanish-style coffee ships and Italian eateries in rural Qingtian, yielding a unique European-Chinese hybrid culture. Alongside restaurants serving local cuisine emerged swanky “European” bars and hotels featuring young women in form-fitting qipao (a traditional one-piece Chinese dress with a high collar and revealing slits) serving French baguettes, Spanish ham, and Italian espresso. This ability to adapt to changing circumstances demonstrates how Qingtian emigrants persistently navigate a sea of ever-shifting tides.
Ma’s book fits nicely with other pathbreaking journalistic works on migration and modernization in China. Ma’s case of a cooking school — comically named Exit the Country Chef Training Center — that trains aspiring emigrants to cook so they can secure jobs in restaurants abroad brings to mind anecdotes in journalist Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. Like Chang and Hessler (two of the talented writers whose praise appears on the back cover of Meet Me in Venice), Ma’s analytical lens zooms in and out, introducing her readers to individual migrant lives while illuminating the larger historical and sociopolitical context. She lacks Hessler’s humorous touch, however. Her book is beautifully crafted and poignant but rarely funny.
As she explores rich circuits of immigration between Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia, the book should appeal to anyone interested in the universality of the diaspora experience. Ma also meticulously introduces readers to Chinese and Italian expressions, cuisine, culture, and history, and in the process explores her relationship to her own Chinese roots.
Having read Meet Me in Venice, more questions about the day I dined in Manhattan gnaw at me. Was the waiter, or at least his boss, from Qingtian? How had he gotten to the United States? Was the sacrifice worth it? I will never know. But Ma’s book illuminates the humanity of those immigrants so often unseen.