foreign farmer came back from his root-seeking
Early this morning, the foreign farmer Xu Xiangshun (Alvaro)
came back to his home in RUIAN city after ending his root-seeking
journey in Italy. During his stay in Italy, he had been warmly
entertained by his relatives and the local government and the local
medium had also extensively reported his legend.
Wenzhou Evening News 1.11.2001
Peasant's Italian Roots
By Ching-Ching Ni, Los Angeles Times
Xiangshun, taken to Asia at age 3, reconnects with his European
relatives but feels more at home in his stepfather's native land.
2001 - - SHENAO, China -- He answers to the name Xu Xiangshun.
He speaks only the local Wenzhou dialect. Like many in this coastal
village of shoe assemblers, he chain-smokes, hacking and spitting on
the concrete floor.
But the thick
bronze curls on his head, the aquamarine eyes and prominent European
nose make it clear that Xu's parentage is anything but Chinese. In
fact, Xu is a full-blooded Italian who, through the vagaries of war
and helplessness, was raised and completely absorbed into the
Chinese peasant culture.
have long assimilated into Western culture. Recently, as the country
becomes more internationalized, especially after its recent
acceptance into the World Trade Organization, more foreigners in
search of better business prospects are calling China home. But most
of these people enjoy comfortable expatriate lives unlike the total
immersion the 58-year-old Italian has gone through. He remembers
none of his native tongue--not even his Italian birth name. Three
times, the Chinese government rejected his request to return to
Italy to discover his roots.
hardship and prejudice, he eventually settled in to his adopted
heritage. His knack for saving lives and his seeming ability to defy
death made him something of a mythical character in the village.
Then this year he
became a local cause celebre when a newspaper told his story, which
inspired a Chinese businessman in Italy to help him cut through the
red tape and return to his birth land.
There, he met his
five surviving aunts; a few were well into their 80s.
"Some of these
aunts had held me when I was a baby," Xu said, noting that although
an interpreter had to help them communicate, they wept together as
The reunion helped
Xu realize who he really is.
"I was Italian as
a child and Chinese as an adult," Xu said. "After I saw Italy again,
I still feel more Chinese."
The Boy From
Xu's Chinese life began more than half a century ago. His biological
parents were Italians from Milan. While his mother was pregnant with
him, his father, a soldier, was killed in World War II.
The young Italian
widow married the owner of the leather factory where she was
working--a Chinese man surnamed Xu from the village of Shenao near
the coastal city of Wenzhou. He had moved to Italy--a popular
destination for ambitious businessmen from his village--to start a
new life after the death of his first wife.
In his adopted
country, the Chinese man became a stepfather to the Italian boy.
When the child was 3, the Chinese father was beckoned home by his
So in 1946, they
docked in this Chinese island village and began the painful struggle
to blend in and survive.
Their first son,
born in Italy, had died on the arduous journey. A second son, born
in China, died shortly after birth. A third child, a girl, lived.
But within two
years, Xu's mother died. The 32-year-old Italian woman never
adjusted to the harsh Chinese peasant life and the havoc of civil
war that ravaged the country. She left behind the 8-year-old Italian
boy and his half-Italian sister.
Xu's father had
lost three infant sons, including one from his previous marriage, so
he raised the Italian boy as the firstborn of the Xu clan. He
entered the child's Chinese name into the family genealogy records.
He concealed documents that connected the family to Europe. His son
did not know the papers existed until his stepfather passed away a
few years ago.
They had been
stashed away in a secret compartment inside the wall next to his
them by accident," Xu said. "Baby pictures and passports from
The Italian boy
who grew up a Chinese peasant does not remember a word of his native
language. He thinks that the Italian name his mother called him was
"A-wu-re," though he only knows this vague Chinese pronunciation and
not the spelling.
It was tough
growing up so different in a world of similar faces. The other
children teased him often, so he quit school early to toil in the
family fields and tend to livestock.
"School was like
prison," Xu said. "I went from first grade to second grade and then
back to first grade again. It was hopeless."
He never learned
to read or write Chinese. He doesn't know how to express himself or
defend himself with words. He had to become his own best friend.
"I always knew I
was a foreigner," Xu said. "But when people called me that I would
Now, he has a
sense of humor about his differences. "They say I look like Stalin,"
he said in his thick local dialect, flashing yellowed gapped teeth
and a bushy beard. His face is so deeply wrinkled and tanned that he
actually resembles a traditional Chinese farmer.
Over the years the locals began to warm to him.
fellow villagers, including his relatives, make a living in shoe
factories converted from farmhouses, Xu insisted on the dangerous
job of drilling holes in the mountains to set up dynamite for road
Eight years ago, a
bundle of explosives detonated early and blew up in his face.
"If it had
happened to anyone else it would have been sure death," said Zhu
Zhonglong, a neighbor who has known Xu since they were teenagers.
Xu was knocked
out. When he woke up his hands were gone.
"I had only one
pinky left," Xu said. "Blood was everywhere. Everybody else was
freaked out. But I knew I had to find my fingers."
So he scavenged
through the ruble and collected four of his fingers.
attached them, three on one severed hand and one on the other.
Though badly deformed, they can still grip a spoon and cigarette.
ordeal, folklore has it that the wai guoren, or foreigner, did not
scream for pain or shed a single tear.
No one seems
surprised. A traffic accident once left him underneath a truck. He
got up with only a mild concussion. Another time, a giant snake
coiled around his body like a rope. Xu hit the ground and rolled
down the rocky mountain slope, whiplashing the serpent and then
smashing it with a rock.
As a loner who
loves the river, Xu has practically become the village lifesaver. At
least three potential drowning victims owe their lives to him
because he dived into the rapids and scooped them out.
After he lost his
fingers, he found a job patrolling the village at night. For less
than $3 a day he stays up all night chasing burglars, an assignment
that leaves him poor but proud.
"My wife is scared
to death," Xu said. "Some of the bad guys carry big knives. I'm not
afraid. I'm a good fighter. Most of them just panic and run as soon
as they see my face."
In the 1970s he married a local woman, and they had three children.
His eldest daughter tumbled down a ladder and died. She was pregnant
at the time.
Three times in the
1970s he asked the government for permission to visit Italy. Three
times he was rejected.
"I was born in
Italy, I have the right to go back," Xu said. "How can they stop
According to his
friend and neighbor, Zhu, Xu ruined his chances because he was too
"They asked him,
'Why do you want to go to Italy? Don't you like China?' " Zhu said.
"He is a simple peasant. He does not know how to lie. So he told
them life in China is very bitter. That was it. One sentence, and it
Then this year a
local newspaper told his story, which touched the heart of a Chinese
businessman. Zheng Yaoting, who heads a Chinese Italian business
association in Milan, spent eight months making nearly 3,000 phone
calls to track down Xu's Italian relatives.
In October, with
the help of donations and a hefty security deposit to guarantee his
return, Xu journeyed to Europe for a brief reunion.
"My aunts and I
just cried and cried," Xu said after he returned from Italy. "We
have the same face and hair. But I can't understand anything they
are saying. I can't get used to their food. I don't even know how to
use a fork."
His wish now is to
send his children to Italy for a better life.
"That's just dream
talk," said his daughter, Xu Xianping, 24, rocking her infant in
their threadbare kitchen without even a refrigerator.
As for Xu, he says
he now realizes that China is his home. "I'm used to it."