“You are not Chinese, in what capacity are you talking about me?” / 2

In what capacity can we talk about the history of others? What right do we “non-Chinese” have to study, reconstruct and narrate complex biographical events that involve several generations of people who, in Italy, constitute a minority that is still largely unable to do so?

Going back to post author’s identity described above and all its variables – social, ethnic, gender, age, class, training, status professional etc. – it is easy to realize that, in this historical moment and in this country, they guarantee a privileged position not only in terms of “accessing the field”, but also in terms of the perceived authority and the audience one can count on. All those variables, in fact, conjure a profile that expresses affiliation to a dominant majority: it is inherently hegemonic. And this doesn’t just ring true when one is “playing on the home pitch”, that is, in Italy.

How many of the study, on site archival research and fieldwork that the author has been able to do in China, would have been possible – or even allowed – to Chinese people of my age who now live in Italy and may be interested in understanding their own migration as a socio-historical phenomenon of? There is no doubt that carrying out this work as a Western scholar, with a classic “European phenotype” (pale complexion, blond hair, blue eyes, etc.), and thus a member of a visible minority that was still the object of benign curiosity and fascination in Reform-era China, has offered the clear advantage of a privileged status. A status not bound, for example, neither by the shackles of the state-sponsored, ideological narrative of the diaspora, nor by family ties and responsibilities, nor by the enduring – and occasionally castrating – power of diasporic lineages. And in the study of Chinese immigration to Italy, how much simpler is access to the field, to sources, to institutions, to the political and media sphere, simply by virtue of being a white Italian male? I am not being rethorical: consider carrying out investigations that call into question worlds still pervaded by hegemonic masculinity in this country, such as the police authorities, the Italian political elite at local and national level, the entrepreneurial, economic and financial circles.

That is why Elaine Hsieh Chou, in her ruthless satire of the American sinological academy, deliberately and poignantly caricatured in her novel, talks about cultural revenge literature. One could understand her fury as the simmering resentment and righteous anger of those who can no longer suffer witnessing how their own social image, their own language, their own culture, and their own history is still, to a large degree, left at the mercy of a hegemonic majority’s discursive monopoly. For people of Chinese descent who, in Italy, are painstakingly learning to master the tools needed to directly shape their own narrative and interpretation of both their present and their past within the Italian public discourse, all this rage is perfectly understandable and even necessary. For those who created this blog, this novel can be read as a kind of cautionary tale: those of us who, as “non-Chinese” have indeed specific experiences or skills that can be put to use in the process of shaping the ever evolving “Sino-Italian/Italian-Chinese/Chinese in Italy”, must be well-aware of the implications of this work, of the weight of their own voice. Even if what they are trying to discuss, as the author of this post attempts to do, is in fact a shared history, as the origin story of a new immigrant minority generally is, there is no doubt that the stakes can be very different.

Despite their intellectual or sentimental bond with China and with the Chinese who are their friends or even part of their family, those who are not Chinese haven’t truly got skin in the game. They do not risk jeopardizing their own “face”, the reputation or the public image of their own family, their own people, their own homeland, and their own ancestors. “Non-Chinese” do not perceive, nor are force to heed, in the same way the warning to respect the integrity of this reputation. Neither do they experience to the same degree the kind of emotional blackmail that this process entails, the spiritual burden that weighs on those who have to deal with how the legacy and destiny of an entire nation is inscribed on their faces, and not just in the eyes of those “who are on the other side”, but also in those “who are about them”, i.e. their kith and kin, to borrow Maalouf’s terminology.

What us “non-Chinese” can do, however, is to make our knowledge, skills, freedoms and privileges available to those shaping this minority’s sense of itself, in order to help them pave the way for further empowerment and self-expression; in order to help guarantee fairness and transparency to this process; and, also, in order to protect those who may choose to refuse to be coopted by identity politics. What we can and must do is commit ourselves to promoting the accumulation of Sino-Italian human, social and cultural capital, to supporting the development of the rich heritage and strong energy that this century-old migration has produced, to offering them concrete opportunities for access to Italian knowledge production systems. And ultimately, perhaps, we must also learn to step aside, whenever it may become necessary, so that our voice should not ever deaden their own.

D. Brigadoi Cologna

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