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The Story of Xu Xiangshun


The 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.

taken from Wenzhou Evening News 1.11.2001




A Chinese Peasant's Italian Roots
By Ching-Ching Ni, Los Angeles Times

Culture: Xu Xiangshun, taken to Asia at age 3, reconnects with his European relatives but feels more at home in his stepfather's native land.

December 23, 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.

Chinese immigrants 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.

Despite the 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 one family.

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 Milan
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 family.

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 bed.

"We discovered them by accident," Xu said. "Baby pictures and passports from Italy."

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 hit them."

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.

Knack for Defying Death
Over the years the locals began to warm to him.

Although most 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 construction.

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.

The doctors attached them, three on one severed hand and one on the other. Though badly deformed, they can still grip a spoon and cigarette.

Throughout the 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."

Travel Permits Rejected
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 me?"

According to his friend and neighbor, Zhu, Xu ruined his chances because he was too honest.

"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 was over."

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."


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