Meet Me in Venice: A Chinese Immigrant’s Journey from the Far East to the Faraway West

  • By Suzanne Ma
  • Rowman & Littlefield
  • 192 pp.

Through the story of one Chinese immigrant, this case study is a revealing and eye-opening account of modern immigration and the true human cost of what we wear and eat.

The Chinese are everywhere. There are Chinatowns in almost every major city of the world, and in many minor ones as well. In Gaborone, Botswana, where I grew up in the 1970s, out of a population of approximately 30,000, there were just a few East Asians: me and the family that owned the Chinese restaurant.

On an overnight stay 20 years ago in the small burg of Anniston, Ala., my family ate at the Chinese restaurant rather than the Waffle House and the McDonald’s. On a trip to Sicily two years ago, we passed warehouses run by Chinese businesspeople and browsed the stalls of Chinese hawkers in an open-air market.

Where do all these Chinese come from? Why do they leave the familiarity and comfort of their homelands to endure backbreaking toil, prejudice, and homesickness in foreign countries? Suzanne Ma addresses these questions in her eye-opening, fascinating, and beautifully written case study, Meet Me in Venice.

It turns out the majority of Chinese emigrants come from just a few provinces, one of which is Zhejiang. The author traveled to that province's city of Qingtian, whose "biggest export is people," in search of an aspiring emigrant whose story she could document. Among the language centers, cooking schools, international restaurants, and espresso bars, she found Ye Pei, a 16-year-old girl who, along with her father and brother, was about to leave for Italy to reunite with her mother, a worker at a mushroom farm outside of Rimini.

Ye Pei imagined she would find a job in the fabled city of Venice, but instead ended up in a town called Solesino, working seven days a week at a bar for a Chinese woman who would not teach her to operate the cappuccino machine for fear Pei would use that marketable skill to find work elsewhere. She eventually left to work in another bar in a different town, and then to join her family at the mushroom farm, before finally purchasing her own bar.

It is through Pei's story that Suzanne Ma illustrates the hardships, heartbreak, and quiet triumphs of the immigrant. According to Ma, "There are now more than 214 million international migrants worldwide ... one out of every thirty-three persons in the world today." Some are fleeing strife and oppression, but most are economic migrants, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. In their quest, they face exploitation, usually from their own compatriots who have migrated before them and established their own businesses, such as the owner of the bar where Pei worked; isolation due to ignorance of the language and customs of the new country; and prejudice from the natives who see migrants as threats to their own economic well-being and resent their inability to assimilate.

In this case, because her mother, Fen, had already been in Italy for five years, Pei did not face the challenges many emigrants do upon first arriving in a new country. Those who go through snakeheads incur massive debt and are powerless against the predations of their human smugglers. Those who are fortunate to arrive with work visas are still vulnerable to abuse, as Fen discovered when the man to whom she had paid money in exchange for a promise of a job informed her upon her arrival in Italy that there was no job and she was on her own.

Fen found work in a clothing factory in Prato, a major center of fashion manufacturing just outside of Florence. From her story, we discover that even if a label says, "Made in Italy," it is almost certainly made by foreign sweatshop workers, most of whom are Chinese.

This is not only true of clothes, shoes, handbags, and other accessories, but of iconic regional comestibles including Parmesan cheese, Modena balsamic vinegar, and wines, not to mention almost all agricultural products. Native workers no longer want to engage in the dirty, difficult labor that the immigrants are willing to provide for low wages while working long, and possibly illegal, hours.

As the Harlequin-romance title suggests, the book straddles the line between the academic and popular. Instead of footnotes, there is a chapter-by-chapter list of sources. It's not heavy on statistics, but relies on the anecdotal. Ma is a journalist — the very readable prose sometimes veers toward the poetic — and not a sociologist, her interest in immigration struck by her own Chinese ancestry (she is first-generation Canadian) and her Dutch husband's ancestral hometown of Qingtian.

Nevertheless, Meet Me in Venice is a revealing and thought-provoking look at the true meaning of our globalized economy, the falsity behind country-of-origin manufacturing labels, and the actual human cost of what we wear and eat.

Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland. Be a pioneer and follow her on twitter at @AliceKSStephens.

comments powered by Disqus