Suzanne Ma wants to show people that migration stories are all around you and most people, whether they are immigrants themselves or come from an immigrant family, have a pretty amazing story to tell if you take the time to listen.
While researching her book, Ma met many would-be Chinese migrants in Qingtian County in Zhejiang province and decided to follow 17-year-old Ye Pei as she travelled to reunite with her mother in a small town in Italy.
The book opens with Ye Pei’s early experiences in Solesino, where she isn’t reunited with her mother after all and doesn’t know anyone in town but her employer. Ye Pei is employed at a cafe owned by her mother’s friend where she is overworked, compensated little and regarded with so much suspicion she isn’t taught how to make cappuccino for fear that she’ll leave the cafe if she learns. Ma writes not only about the bitter reality Ye Pei finds abroad, but provides an account of what Ye Pei’s life was like before migrating – what she left behind and what she hoped her life would be like in Italy.
It took her five years to write the book, from the inception of the idea to writing the final pages. She first became interested in Qingtian after hearing about it from her now-husband in China while taking an intensive Mandarin course. Marc was from Holland but his ancestral home was Qingtian, a place where it seemed everybody left. The more she learned about this history of migration that was said to be hundreds of years old, the more Ma was pulled towards it.
After completing her Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and receiving a Pulitzer Fellowship to report from abroad, Ma did something her parents thought was “insane” – she left a stable job to pursue this story.
“As a breaking news reporter, what we do is we jump in and out of peoples lives and we take little snapshots and we write them in 500 word stories,” said Ma. “I had been yearning to do something a little deeper.”
She calls her work “immersive” and the narrative style of the book is reflective of that, taking you both on Ye Pei’s journey and Ma’s.
Ma was raised in Toronto and is now based in Vancouver. As a journalist, she’s written for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek and the Associated Press. She will be speaking about her book in Toronto on May 2 at the North York Public Library.
Ma spoke with Schema from Vancouver about her book,”Meet Me in Venice.”
When did you realize you could write a book on this subject?
I knew I wanted to write about immigrants, so with that I took the (Pulitzer) fellowship and went to China. I decided I wanted to follow a migrant in real-time. When I did my interviews, I would talk to people who had been abroad, U.S. or Europe or wherever they made their new home. When I asked them about it, they would forget details or omit details perhaps because they were embarrassed about it.
I felt like there was value in following someone in real-time – meeting that person before they went abroad, learning about their expectations and dreams and following them to their new home and watching all those trials, tribulations and successes and being there every step of the way.
Why did you think telling the story through Ye Pei was the best approach to take?
What (I was) really looking for was someone that was open and that was willing to talk about themselves and that’s really hard because traditional Chinese people are private and humble and a lot of them didn’t understand why I was talking to them because they were big nobodies.
I didn’t know Ye Pei was going to be main character until I met her in Solesino, the first time I saw her in Italy.
It was really the moment I saw her hands. She was so brave. I was a big wimp – I actually started crying when I saw her hands because they were bleeding and they were incredibly swollen and she was 17 years old and I just thought what was I doing when I was 17 and I got kind of emotional. And she kind of scolded me. That made me cry more because she was so strong and I was such a wimp. When I saw that resolve in her – she was so different from how she was in China (where) she was a carefree teenager.
I went to my hostel last night and I wrote in my diary and I described her hands in my diary. And I said, she might be the one.
You have this insider-outsider status, both in China and in Italy. When did it help you and when did it hurt you?
Being an insider definitely helped, in China and in Europe, getting into factories. So I’ll call up someone in France and I’ll be like, I am the wife of your classmate’s cousin’s nephew and they’d be like, “Welcome to my home, let’s have dinner.” It was incredible to have that kind of access. At the same time being an outsider helped me because people like Ye Pei and Chen and others are very curious about this Chinese-looking person who was not Chinese (laughs). I think that helped intrigue them and they felt they were learning from me and I was learning from them.
Being in Italy was so interesting. I look Asian but I don’t look like Ye Pei and the others. I think most Italians thought I was Japanese, even though there are the nouveau riche Chinese, but that’s fairly new. When I spoke to Italians and told them I was Canadian and I was a journalist, I was able to open up a dialogue with them and straddling the two worlds allowed me to go back and forth between them.
Seeing what the experience of migration is like elsewhere, did it change the way you think about Canada?
What I saw was history repeating itself. What I saw in Italy was very reminiscent of what you and I read about in our history textbooks 50 to 100 years ago. Particularly for the Chinese – coming over and being isolated in Chinatowns, things in the newspaper that labelled the Chinese in certain ways, talking about the yellow peril – that’s the kind of language you see in Italy right now.
I think it’s really interesting for Canadians to pay attention to what happening there and to see what’s the same and what’s different and for Italians to pay attention to what has happened in Canada and what is happening in Canada and to learn from that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.