Dreaming of the unknown: The startling realities of migrant workers

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There are more than 214 million migrants worldwide: Follow Ye Pei's journey.

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Three pages into Meet Me in Venice the reader learns that there are more than 214 million migrants worldwide: a startling one of every 33 people in the world alive is a migrant. Author Suzanne Ma, an experienced journalist based in Vancouver, is concerned with these facts, however, she's just as interested in the people behind the numbers.

"Why do people migrate," she asks. "And what is it like for them when they do?"

Ma finds an answer when she meets Ye Pei, a young girl from the Qingtian county of Zhejiang province in China. Pei's mother left home five years ago to work in Italy and soon Pei will join her there. "If you are born in Qingtian," the locals tell Ma, "You are destined to leave."

Today Chinese migrants, who number up to 60 million people, are the largest diaspora in the world. Ma's own great-grandfather-in-law sold peanut candy on the streets of Holland and returned to Qingtian rich enough to build new homes for their families. 

A work of narrative non-fiction supplemented by research and reportage, Meet Me in Venice illuminates the journey of Chinese migrants to Europe by shining a light on one hopeful and hard-working teenager from Qingtian, Pei and her family.

Pei dreams of meeting her mother in Venice, a "beautiful city of stone, floating atop a glittering lagoon." But when her mother manages to fulfill the requirements for family reunification (a steady income and accommodations that could house the family and also pass a health inspection) Pei finds herself living with her mother, father and younger brother in a small concrete house far from the fabled city.

Pei's mother Fen had come to Italy ready to work at a Venice restaurant owned by a man originally from Qingtian. He had arranged her visa and promised to hire her. In exchange, he demanded she pay him $19,000.

But when she arrived, he took the money and left her without work. Luckily, she quickly found a job in a Chinese-run garment factory. The wages were low and she was paid under the table, but she made ten times what she would have back in China.

Before her family arrived, Fen left the garment factory to work as a properly documented employee on a mushroom farm in the rural province of Emilia-Romagna. Soon after she arrives, Pei begins working on the farm beside her.

After some months at the mushroom farm, Pei gets work in a café owned by a Chinese emigrant also from Qingtian. She works 12 hours a day, is paid 500 euros a month (about $690 USD) and experiences sexual harassment from the Italian customers. She stays in a spare bedroom in the owner's apartment but despite being entitled to a day off each week, is at work every day. And her boss does not give her a required raise after a month's work. Pei says nothing. Not wanting to sour her relationship with her boss, she reframes her trials as opportunity, not exploitation. "I am learning to keep my grievances in my heart," Pei says. "When I one day leave this bar, I will be grateful to them for the experience."

The guan xi -- or personal connections -- that can help emigrants navigate their new surroundings can also create an environment where that trust and goodwill is easily betrayed. In one particular egregious story, Ma speaks with a young man who paid smugglers to get him to Italy, where he was then kept in his uncle's garment shop working 12 to 15 hours a day for only 500 euros a month, until he paid off his $15,000 debt. Years later, he opened his own factory.

Ma briefly touches on the racism that many migrants face, including efforts by the mayors of several cities in Italy to ban the public display of red Chinese lanterns and the opening of new 'ethnic' restaurants. She speaks with a member of ASSOCINA, an advocacy group of second-generation Italian-Chinese who are campaigning to change Italy's citizenship law. If you are born in Italy to immigrant parents, you are forced to adopt the citizenship of your parents.

Ma spends little time describing other aspects of immigration law in Italy. We learn that proficiency in Italian is a requirement for legal residency, but not much else. The experience of undocumented migrants is not explored.

Italian amnesty programs, which provided for immigration status regularization for undocumented migrants, are briefly mentioned but insufficiently explained. Regularization is a goal shared by many migrant justice activists in North America, but members of No One Is Illegal won't find much instructive in Meet Me In Venice.

If Ma fails in providing a deep critical analysis of the larger systems that impact a young migrant in a new land or the economic forces that propel them to leave their homelands, the book still has something to offer the reader. A lengthy aside about Chinese migrant involvement in Prato Italy's 'pronto moda' (fast fashion) garment industry is fascinating, as is her insight into her interview subjects.

Ma chose wisely to focus on the optimistic Pei, who is 19 when Meet Me in Venice closes. She left home for many of the same reasons millions of migrants have before her: in pursuit of good fortune, a better life. When Pei struggles, we feel her pain. When she triumphs, in many small and humble ways, we share her joy.


Yutaka Dirks is a tenant organizer and writer. His fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and activist publications including the White Wall Review, Rhubarb Magazine and Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution. He has a serious love for stories of all stripes.


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