“You are not Chinese, in what capacity are you talking about me?” / 1

Like other people who animate this blog, the author of this post has built his own idea of ​​himself at the intersection of many different identities, affinities, and affiliations. Some are ascribed, others are elective, still others change over time and depend on what one chooses to do in life, on what one wants to be or, perhaps more often, on what one cannot fully be, but nonetheless strives to become. This process of constant redefinition of the self lasts a lifetime and depends on countless factors, but the main one is undoubtedly the relationships built with the people most close to us: those who have seen us grow, those together with whom we get to become what we are. is. As Amin Maalouf wrote almost twenty-five years ago:

“What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others: the influence of those about him – relatives, fellow-countrymen, co-religionists – who try to make him one of them; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him. Each one of us has to make his way while choosing between the paths that are urged upon him and those that are forbidden or strewn with obstacles. He is not himself from the outset; nor does he just ‘grow aware’ of what he is; he becomes what he is . He doesn’t merely grow aware of his identity; he acquires it step by step.” (Maalouf A., Les identitès meurtriéres, Paris, Grasset & Fasquelle, 1998; Eng. Trans.: In the Name of Identity. Violence and the need to belong, Milan, Penguin, 2000)

Yet, it is difficult to escape the gravitational pull of ascribed or presumed identities. It is even more difficult to escape the game of identity politics, which tends to base the claim of certain collective rights on the affiliation to this or that identity group, the reparation of historical wrongs suffered as members of a community defined precisely by their identity affiliation, or the construction of a political agenda aimed at defending or promoting in particular the requests of those who are part of that community, perhaps even to the detriment of those who are not part of it. Because it is true that entire systems of power, often lasting several millennia, are based implicitly or explicitly on such identity politics: the patriarchy (gender identity); the political, economic and cultural hegemony of Europeans and their descendants in the Americas and Oceania (ethnic-cultural identity); capitalism (class identity), are some easy examples. And it is equally true that in order to counter these entrenched scaffolds of power, minorities often have to resort to identity politics to break their shackles.

So let’s take the specific identity constellation of the author of this post: an Italian citizen of historical Mitteleuropean origin (South Tyrolean-Trentino-Istrian), who lived his whole life on the edge of linguistic-cultural differences. Mainly because he grew up in a frontier land, and in a family of migrants and exiles, but also because of several personal experiences of migration, study and work in foreign countries, at different ages. Academically and professionally, he has been trained in the social sciences and in the study of China from a linguistic-cultural and historical-social point of view. Repeated periods of study and research in China from the 1990s to the 2010s have offered him the opportunity to travel through and reside in many different regions of that country. The experiences and skills acquired on a rather eclectic academic and professional path have ultimately led to a particular predilection for the study of the history and current situation of Chinese migration to Italy. Other significant identity variables could be added to this profile: male, cisgender, heterosexual, in his fifties, middle class, with a social-democratic and progressive political orientation, a petit-bourgeois social backgrouond, a high level of education, a polyglot… one easily slips into that familiar resumé/social profile territory, ever laden with ambition and a perennial sense of inadequacy.

In dealing with China and Chinese in Italy, however, it often happens that all this complex intertwining of identities, elective affinities and more-or-less developed aptitudes is reduced to a single crucial variable: “non-Chineseness”. That is also a common experience for those who travel or reside in China as “non-Chinese” How many times has one been scolded or dismissed with off-hand remarks such as: “you do not know Chinese culture well enough to understand”, “your Chinese is not good enough to understand”, and, ultimately “you cannot understand – you will never understand – because you are not Chinese”? It would be easy to chalk up such remarks to trivial prejudice, perhaps even tinged with xenophobia, if it were not that they actually point to a crucial and legitimate issue, namely the historical asymmetry of power and responsibility underlying “non Chinese”, or rather, “Western” and Chinese interactions.

The problem, in fact, is not so much that of being “non-Chinese”, but rather that of being perceived as a non-Chinese who arrogates to himself the right to speak out freely and carelessly about China and the Chinese, describing, defining, cataloguing aspects of a society, a culture, a history that are not one’s own. There is even more reason to resent this attitude in one does it because “it’s the passion or the work effort of one’s lifetime”. As Elaine Hsieh Chou, the Taiwanese-American author of the acerbic satirical novel Disorientation, recounts in her recent contribution to the excellent Nüvoices podcast, a Chinese person could easily argue about this lifelong intellectual passion that “your hobby is my life”. Granted, nobody likes to be reduced to someone else’s “object of study”, a “social phenomenon” or a mere “intellectual curiosity”. Although, to be fair, by now everyone is, constantly, in this brave new world of social media , big data analysis and surveillance capitalism. In this sense, the testimony of those who fully live a given ethnic-cultural and social identity often claims an almost ontological discursive priority, when compared to the musings of those who do not share said identity, but rather study it professionally, sometimes without giving much thought to the degree of competence, respect or care they put in the exercise of their “métier”.

D. Brigadoi Cologna

Immagine: Chen Zhen / Crystal Landscape of Inner Body / crystal, iron, glass / 95 x 70 x 190 cm / 2000 / Private Collection, Paris, Courtesy GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins, Photo Ela Bialkowska

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