Suzanne Ma: Meet Me in Venice

April 14th, 2015

Meet Me in VeniceAn excerpt from Suzanne Ma’s Meet Me in Venice: A Chinese Immigrant’s Journey From the Far East to the Faraway West (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015):

When my husband’s grandfather died, we returned to this ancestral home in eastern China and burned spirit money at his grave. The saffron flames devoured pastel fake euros. Faux American greenbacks were consumed whole. And gold paper ingots glowed like a sunset before they turned black and crumbled to ash. It was important for Grandfather to have foreign currency in the afterlife. For even in death, the dream of making it rich overseas was still very much alive.

In Zhejiang province, not far from the East China Sea, there is a county shaped by the collective belief that emigration brings wealth and prosperity. Emigration is so common that locals often say: “If you are born in Qingtian, you are destined to leave.” People started leaving Qingtian in the seventeenth century when, according to local lore, some of the earliest globe-trotters trekked across Siberia to get to Europe. Today, this is a story that continues to inspire generations to leave. In the beginning people were desperate to escape. Qingtian literally means “green fields,” but the county’s name was betrayed by a barren, mountainous landscape. With so little fertile land in the region, people were starving and isolated with no roads and little infrastructure. Rugged cliffs carved lines with the horizon, closing in on towns and villages like an army of unmovable stone warriors. The migrants first made their way to other regions in China. Some traveled to Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia. Evenutally, they boarded ships and then planes bound for every corner of the globe. The habit of migration spread to surrounding regions. Soon, hundreds of thousands were leaving Zhejiang province,, fanning out to more than 120 countries around the world. But they were particularly drawn to Europe.

Qingtian is not the kind of place the average tourist visits. It’s a small and isolated county, three hundred miles south of Shanghai and nearly forty miles from the coast, and so seemingly unimportant that it wasn’t even visible on Google Maps until a few years ago. But this is my husband’s ancestral home – a place with a long history of emigration to the outside world. What inspired so many people to lave this landlocked county? How did my husband’s family end up spread across Europe, in Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal; and why would people from Qingtian continue to leave, as China booms and Europe grapples with a debilitating debt crisis and rising unemployment?

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In Qingtian, one of the first places we visit the rugged mountain behind his family home. There, we line up for our three ritual kowtows before massive stone tombs carved out of the rock; watching threads of ash swirl around my feet, I think about my in-laws’ migration story: how my husband’s great-greatfather traveled to Holland by boat and sold peanut candy on the street. The Dutch called such men pindaman – peanut men. But in China, he would have been called a rich man. With the Dutch guilders he earned, he returned home to Qingtian to build his family a new house: a two-story structure with an open-aired courtyard and several bedrooms held up by strong wooden beams. His house, which still stands today, was built more than 70 years ago. Listening to the old stories can inspiring and heart-wrenching at the same time. I imagine how Great-grandfather must have braved the rough seas for months before finally arriving at the port in Marseilles. I think about how he survived in a foreign land, where people spoke a language he did not understand, ate food he had never tasted before, and looked oddly extraterrestrial with their green and blue eyes and blond hair. It is a tale of first contact and first encounters – a narrative shared by immigrants all around the world, even today. There are now more than 214 million international migrants worldwide. That means one out of every thirty-three persons in the world today is a migrant. If all the migrants gathered in one place, they would form the fifth most popular country in the world. Nearly half of all international migrants are women.

In America we understand, perhaps better than anyone, what it is like to leave your home and start someplace new. Why do people migrate? What attracts or repels migrants? Who wins and who loses with migration? Is it true that immigrants steal jobs away from local workers? Or do they provide fresh labor and talent for ailing economies? What happens to the home countries emigrants leave behind? Immigration is one of the most talked about issues in the world, a testy subject that is taking on an increasingly negative tone in light of the global economic downturn. European governments have only recently started to take multiculturalism and minorities imperiously. And with the arrival of so many newcomers, far-right political parties are gaining momentum in immigrant-receiving nations. More than two dozen parties across the European continent have denounced immigrants as invaders, a drain on finite resources, and a threat to already scarce jobs in the workplace. This rhetoric is also heard in America, despite the continent’s heritage of immigration, where laws deny undocumented immigrants basic human rights. Still, migrants today will continue to seek opportunities in places they aren’t always welcome. Why?

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suzanneThe work of award-winning journalist Suzanne Ma has appeared in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Associated Press, The Huffington Post, and Salon, among others.

 A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Suzanne was awarded the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, which helped fund her fieldwork in China for her first book, Meet Me in Venice.

 Born in Toronto, Suzanne was raised by immigrant parents who insisted she attend Chinese school every Saturday morning. Her Chinese lessons continued in Beijing where she met her husband while studying abroad. His family’s hometown is also Ye Pei’s, and the town’s remarkable 300-year history of emigration inspired this book.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from the author.

 

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