A few days ago I was walking in Rome with my cousin, on a street near the university, not too far from the railway station. If you have been in Rome in recent years, you will have noticed that the city has turned into an international hub, not only because of the millions of tourists that come to visit it, but also because of a large number of immigrants.
Many of these immigrants come from African, Bangladesh and Asian countries. For some of them it seems hard to find a proper job, so that they end up selling cheap things on the street, begging, or ‘helping’ people to buy tickets, in order to make ends meet.
As I and my cousin were walking, a black man approached us. Middle-aged, fairly tall, thin, and wearing worn out clothes, he was holding a sort of tray with lighters, tissues, bracelets and other cheap merchandise on it. He looked at us, smiled and stretched out his right hand towards me: “Ciao amico,” he said in Italian. My cousin sped up, I avoided looking at the man’s eyes, hoping he’d get the message and go to look for other potential customers. But he began following me. “How are you, my friend?” he asked in English.
“I’m fine, thanks”, I replied.
He looked at me in surprise. “You speak English!” he remarked.
I smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“Most Italians don’t speak English,” he said. “How come you can?”
“Well, I learned English in school. Besides, I lived abroad for some time.”
“I lived in Germany for a few years, and then I moved to Taiwan. I also spent half a year in Hong Kong.”
“That’s good, my friend, that’s good,” he said approvingly. “You can understand me because you lived abroad. Most people here can’t understand me. You know, many Italians when they see me say: ‘Go back to your country, go back to your country’. I am from Nigeria. They don’t understand I came here ’cause my country is poor, I can’t make money there. I came to Italy, I do nothing bad to them, but they say I should go back to my country.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “There are this kind of people. Surely some of them are racist, they have a problem with people who have different skin colour. Others are not really racist, but they feel threatened by all the immigrants that come here. You know that our economy isn’t good at the moment, there aren’t enough jobs. We have more than 40% percent youth unemployment. All these young people do nothing and don’t know what they can achieve in this society. Many people are getting poorer, they are scared and frustrated. And when they see immigrants, they just think the country can’t bear more people when it can’t give a perspective to those who are already here. Immigrants become an easy scapegoat.”
“For you it’s easier, ’cause you’re white. When you go to other countries people respect you.”
“Well, it’s not always as easy as you think. When I lived in Taiwan, I was also confronted with a lot of stereotypes. I’ve met many Taiwanese who have a strange image about Westerners. They think that we all drink and like to go clubbing, and that we are selfish and don’t care about our family. Some foreigners who have a Taiwanese girlfriend have a lot of problems because her parents are suspicious of Westerners as husbands. When I tell people that I just went clubbing twice in two years, they are surprised. Some people also think that foreigners go to Taiwan to hook up girls and earn easy money, that they don’t respect Taiwan’s culture and take advantage of its people. Some Taiwanese think they’re too nice to foreigners, and feel resentment for all the real or supposed advantages foreigners enjoy.
I wouldn’t say Westerners in Asia are victims of racism. Although I have to say that there are a few Taiwanese who insulted me, they called me ‘white trash’ and said I should stay in my home country. But this only happened online, never face-to-face.”
“Bro, you’re nice, but when I talked to you before I thought you were a racist. You looked like you didn’t like me and wanted to go away.”
“Wait, wait, I have to explain. Honestly, I don’t like when people stop me in the middle of the street and start talking with me or try to sell me something. It was the same when I lived in Germany. I just don’t like it, it doesn’t matter if someone is black or white, blond or brown.”
We walked side by side until we arrived at a traffic light. “I think you’d better go back to working,” I said. “I’ve made you waste time.”
“Don’t worry about that, bro. See you around, good luck!”
While living in Asia, I began to understand how challenging it is to be an immigrant. I was lucky because I belong to a group whose collective image in my host country is either good or only slightly negative. But I was confronted with some stereotypes and prejudices. Moreover, I found out that mutual understanding is extremely difficult either when values are too different, or when people are not willing to see things from a new perspective.