Meet Me in Venice: Pulitzer Fellowship awardee’s compelling story of a Chinese migrant worker
The 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.
She has crisscrossed the globe, filing stories from cities across Europe, Canada, China, and the United States, where she was a reporter in New York City for the Associated Press and DNAinfo, a digital news start-up. 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. Suzanne and her husband live in Vancouver, Canada.
James Phu: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Suzanne. Tell us something about yourself that not many people are aware of.
Suzanne Ma: Most people recognize me as an expert on Chinese migration and the Chinese diaspora. But when I was a kid, I felt really uncomfortable being “Chinese.” I remember telling my mom that I wish I had blonde hair. I remember being so embarrassed when my mom wanted me to wear a really beautiful red silk coat to school during the Chinese New Year. I remember hating Saturday morning Chinese school. When I look back, it’s amazing how much I’ve changed.
James Phu: What draws you to the magical world of writing and what does the art of weaving words do for you on a personal level?
Suzanne Ma: I love expressing myself through the written word. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about forming an inner monologue with yourself, and then transforming those thoughts into words on a page for others to share in.
James Phu: What sparked off the idea for your book “Meet Me in Venice?”
Suzanne Ma: I’ve always been interested in writing stories about people on the move, people who have come from somewhere else.
When I began my reporting career, I was drawn to writing about Chinese newcomers quite naturally—probably because I could relate to them on many levels. I also began to be more and more interested in my own culture and roots at this time.
In 2007, I took a year off work to study Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I met many overseas Chinese students there, and I especially grew close to a group of overseas Chinese students from the Netherlands. My husband was one of these students! I learned that his family had migrated from Eastern China to Holland, and then spread out across Europe—to France, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
I was fascinated to learn more about the Chinese diaspora in Europe, and when I moved to Eastern China to begin my research, I discovered that everyone was talking about migrating to Italy.
For my research, I lived in Qingtian County in Zhejiang Province for nearly a year. I then traveled to Italy several times over the course of three years. The title of my book is ‘Meet Me in Venice’ because that is what the protagonist, Ye Pei, told me when we first met in China. To her, Venice was the epitome of the Italian dream. In the book, you will see that I travel to many cities and towns across Italy as I follow Pei on her journey.
James Phu: What role does your native city play in shaping your writings?
Suzanne Ma: I was born and raised in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. I was surrounded by people who spoke different languages and came from different places. I feel really lucky to have been exposed to this kind of diversity from a young age. It’s really shaped the way I see the world today.
James Phu: Is there any habit, belief or superstition you associate with your writing process?
Suzanne Ma: Writing is like going to the gym. If you want to get really good at it, you have to do it all the time. You need to train yourself—your hands, your brain, your heart. The best habit to get into the writing process? Write as much as you can!
James Phu: How much of your book is autobiographical where characters reflect your personal experiences?
Suzanne Ma: My book is unique in that it’s a work of immersive journalism. With traditional journalism, the reporter is usually invisible. She’s a fly on the wall. In the book, there are many times I insert myself in the story when I think it’s valuable. Sometimes I interject with my thoughts and reactions, and sometimes I even include my physical self as I interact with the characters.
James Phu: As I understand it, you also spent days personally recording the Audible version of your book. What insight did you gain from the process and what did it feel like to immerse yourself in your own story?
Suzanne Ma: It was a really cool experience reading the entire book aloud for Audible. It almost felt like I was reliving the journey of following those migrants from China to Italy. I really hope that’s how readers feel when they listen to it!
James Phu: Tell us the background story of how you got the opportunity to present at TEDxDelft
Suzanne Ma: The organizers at TEDx Delft reached out to me because I had written a very controversial op-ed in a Dutch national newspaper that sparked a great deal of public debate. My story was in reaction to an episode of Holland’s Got Talent, in which a Dutch celebrity judge made a series of racially-charged comments towards a Chinese contestant who appeared on the show.
While I was shocked by what the judge had to say, what surprised me the most was how there was absolutely no reaction in the Netherlands after the show aired.
A translation of my op-ed was published in English on the Huffington Post.
James Phu: How did your personal experiences help prepare you for your TEDxDelft Talk?
Suzanne Ma: When I was preparing for the TEDx talk, I was very focused on talking about my professional research, at least in the very beginning. I had so much to say about my book, about migrants, about what needs to change on a government-level to encourage the healthy movement of people across borders. I very quickly realized that I needed a way to convey my research and my ideas through personal stories. This is how I was able to weave together a compelling personal story that sparked ‘bigger picture’ thoughts with the audience.
James Phu: Can you define who is a “newcomer” and also tell us why we should all act like “newcomers”?
Suzanne Ma: A “newcomer” is my preferred word over immigrant, migrant, refugee and displaced person. The latter words are constantly used in the mainstream, and they come loaded with so many negative connotations. A newcomer, on the contrary, is a term that evokes empathy. We might not all be migrants or refugees, but we have all been newcomers before.
I believe it’s not only important to welcome newcomers in our midst, but to adopt the best of what newcomers have to offer. This includes being open to trying new things, making new friends, and having the courage to step outside of your comfort zone and learn to adapt to new surroundings.
You can hear more about this by watching my TEDx talk!
James Phu: If you could change just one thing in the world, what would it be and why?
Suzanne Ma: I would eliminate hate. It is the driving force of so many destructive behaviors. The world would be a much better place without it.
She had been working at the bar for less than a week when the skin on her hands started to peel. Little bits of skin, translucent and pink, flaked off like Parmesan cheese. Then the cracks appeared. Tiny fissures ruptured at the joints and split her knuckles open. She started to bleed. Everyone told Ye Pei it was normal.
“We all go through this when we first start,” her boss said.
“You’re just not used to the work,” her mother reassured. “It will get better over time.”
Pei calculated out of the twelve hours she worked each day, her hands spent six of those hours waterlogged in soapy water. Her tasks at the bar were simple but exhausting—sweep the floors, wipe the counters and tables, wash the dishes, polish the glassware, and scrub the toilets. If the orders were simple enough, sometimes she could mix drinks and serve coffee. But she was never allowed to make cappuccinos. The boss was a Chinese woman with a belly, ruddy cheeks, and dark penciled-in eyebrows, the kind that made her look angry all the time. She insisted the cappuccino was a perfect science, one that a foolish young girl like Pei couldn’t even begin to understand. After all, the country’s “national breakfast,” drunk on an empty stomach before 11 a.m., was an art form, a ritual so ingrained in Italian culture that it would be a sin to get it wrong.
One-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk. You could lose a customer over the slightest imprecision.
“You don’t want to mess up an order,” the boss told a disheartened Pei. But to work in an Italian bar without learning how to make a cappuccino would be like working in an ice cream shop and never learning to scoop, or working at McDonald’s and never learning how to fry. Pei believed she wasn’t allowed near the cappuccino machine because once she had mastered the cappuccino, it meant that she was more employable. She could find a job elsewhere, maybe in a city or perhaps somewhere closer to her family. But as it stood, no other bar owner would hire someone incapable of brewing a proper cup. Over time, seventeen-year-old Pei came to realize that learning the art of the cappuccino was the key to her freedom.
In the bar where Pei worked, most of the customers were old men. Some liked to sip their drinks while reading the daily newspaper from Milan, peering over thick-framed glasses perched on the bridge of their big noses. Others preferred the back room where they could sit on high stools that brought them face to face with the bewitching glare of the digital slot machines. Most liked to gather around in groups, flinging down narrow playing cards on the bar’s square wooden tables in an intense game of Briscola—their spirited interjections drowned out by the constant grinding of coffee beans, punctuated by the swooshing sound of hot, pressurized water. All of the customers seemed amused to find a Chinese woman behind the bar.
“Ni hao!” they’d holler, sauntering up to the bar.
“Ciao, ciao,” Pei often replied with a smile. Her short, pageboy bob had grown into dark locks she now piled into a bun atop her head. Her bangs, trimmed neatly above her brow, framed her full face.
“Bella,” one old man loved to say, pointing directly at the girl, his finger coming dangerously close to her button nose.
About the interviewer:
James Phu is a Vancouver-based motivational blogger and speaker who is on a personal mission to share the knowledge he has accumulated over the past few years on the subject of self-mastery. His goal is to help motivate and inspire others to improve their lives. His blog and YouTube channel focus on personal development topics such as building an amazing legacy, finding happiness, and creating and maintaining good daily habits. James Phu also works full-time as a people manager at one of the most prestigious software companies in the world.