Bridging Cultures in Italy

When the corporate world thinks of China, they often forget the 50 million Chinese living outside the mainland. From Paris to New York, Melbourne to Abu Dhabi, first- and second-generation migrants are increasingly demanding a taste of home. TSI wants to see just what is going on with the Chinese diaspora, so we’ve partnered with a number of Chinese living around the world to bring you “TSI Global Voices”.

Jiaqi Luo, our Milan-based correspondent, went out to see how first-generation Chinese are bridging culture gaps in Italy.

Although present in Italy for generations, the Chinese community is sometimes kept at arm’s length by local Italians. Most came from southeast ZheJiang in the 1970s as migrant workers. A large part of this population then spent a large part of their lives in a sweatshop. These migrant workers constitute the dark side of Made-in-Italy. The lucky few would get loans from others in the Chinese community, setting up a proverbial Chinese restaurant. Internally focused, as most migrant populations are, only added fuel to the fire of suspicion from Italian locals. Some go so far as to see Chinese as a mysterious troop of job-thieves and tax-evaders, exchanging passports with each other, and culturally inferior.

Street interviews in Italy

Frustrated by these deep-seated cultural assumptions, content innovator Micromedia set out to tackle this difficult divide with an innovative take on man-on-the-street interviews. Although a lot of their questions are a bit soft ball – why don’t Chinese people marry Italians, what do you enjoy best about Italy, what do you know about China – the goal is much more altruistic.

The founder, Jack, came up with the idea similar to China’s cyber celebrity “Foreigner Research Institute,” which interviewed foreigners about their daily lives in China. He did the same to Chinese students studying abroad in Italy, asking questions such as “Which dish do you miss the most about China?” or “How many hand gestures have you learnt from Italians?” Italian subtitles were added on these videos for the local audience. Jack hoped the videos could also offer a realistic view of Italy to people in China and those who were thinking to come.

Jack himself experienced quite a shock when he came to Italy. When he was 7-year-old, his Mom left the family in ZheJiang to work in a sweatshop in Ancona, an Italian vacation town. The next time they reunited was 6 years later. His mom, like many Chinese migrants to Europe, worked in a factory 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 6 years. The dolce vita didn’t extend to people like her.

Would you marry an Italian?

To help out his family, Jack came to Milan with 200 Euros in his pocket. He worked several odd jobs: waiting tables, working in factories, selling insurance on the street. Like his mother, he had lived through the typical immigrant story and it was not a fairytale.

Videos and “we-media” became his favorite medium to tell more stories of people like himself. He began to recognize this was a big community that had been silent for a long time. Just as its name indicates, Micromedia started from a “micro” point of view but became a mega storyteller aimed at exchanging Italian and Chinese millennial experiences. It’s almost like the European version of the American-dream sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” but targeted at a younger audience.

Jack and his team are precisely the storytellers Italy and Europe need right now. They are a group of smart, funny, first-generation Chinese millennials eager to dig out cross-cultural tales. But Jack said being funny isn’t the point. As nationalism rises throughout the region, he and his team are touching bigger social issues too.

Italians try Chinese snacks

For example, in early 2018 the underground Chinese taxi industry became a target of Italian outrage after being exposed in national journal Corriere della Sera. As a reaction and show of strength, Italian officials began stopping all Chinese-looking drivers in Milan’s airports, including those who actually came to pick up family and friends. To address this bout of racial profiling, Jack and his team confronted the head of the Italian Divers Association asking for a fair explanation.

“If you don’t speak out, you won’t earn a place in public discourse,” says Jack. With this as their mantra, Micromedia are not only developing a new media content model, but also innovating a more open cultural space for Italians of all backgrounds.