Italian students in China follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo
Back in the 13th century, a young Italian merchant named Marco Polo made his way to China via the ancient Silk Road. Stories of his adventures, encounters and observations were later compiled into The Travels of Marco Polo, one of the most well-known travelogues among Italians looking to trade with China.
Hundreds of years later, the Belt and Road Initiative is providing an equally important opportunity for both countries to continue to cooperate in trade, albeit on a much wider and globalized scale.
A rapidly increasing number of Italians, primarily students, have been following in the footsteps of Marco Polo in recent years by studying in China. They are eager to play a significant role in bridging Chinese and Italian cultures, be it through trade and commerce or translation.
The Global Times recently spoke with some Italian students in Shanghai about their personal expectations of the Belt and Road Initiative and their own futures in China.
Viviana Stefani is currently studying for a master's degree in Translation and Interpretation at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU). In 2018, SISU received 4,661 foreign students from 116 countries and regions. Among them, 124 were from Italy.
She said that she hopes Italy will join the Belt and Road Initiative, which not only is beneficial for Italian companies who wish to enter bigger markets like China, but may also open up more opportunities for students like her who already speak both languages and can help bridge these two worlds.
"It can be very positive for Italy and for made-in-Italy products to have a larger volume of exports to Asian countries, and for China to gain more access to the Italian market, giving more linking points between China and Italy," said Stefani, who first learned about the Belt and Road Initiative during her Italian-to-Chinese translation exam paper back in Italy.
Stefani is presently learning interpretation skills with her Chinese classmates in Shanghai. After graduation, she hopes to coordinate Italian and Chinese companies both linguistically and culturally with what she has learned.
"I hope there will be more job opportunities [brought by the Belt and Road Initiative]. More and more companies will make deals. So they will need new people working in that field; people who can translate in that field," she said.
"I think it's going to be a very good opportunity for Italy and China. Even though both countries already have a strong commerce relationship, it's going to give [both sides] more, because now China is becoming more and more important in the global scene," Federico Rossi, who plans to get his master's degree in China, told the Global Times.
"If Italy will choose to embrace the Belt and Road Initiative, it will be a win-win deal," said Federica Bettati, an Italian student who is participating in a Chinese language program and a research of Chinese consumer behavior as part of her master's thesis.
"Most Italian companies are small or medium-sized enterprises. So it's really difficult to internationalize because of the costs and the customs duties. So maybe with this new Silk Road, I hope the costs will decrease," said Bettati.
Many Italian students in China also consider the experience of studying and absorbing the Chinese environment as an additional bonus to put on their resumes.
"It's a great opportunity and a great experience to add to my CV, not only knowing the Chinese language but also how to behave in a totally different environment," said Bettati, who often speaks with local Chinese as part of her research.
"I hope I can someday be one of those people who work for an Italian company that wants to enter the Chinese market, or for a Chinese company that wishes to trade with Italy," said Bettati.
Over the past half-decade, it's become a trend among Italian university students to learn the Chinese language, according to Vincenzo Iannotta, who has a bachelor's degree in Comparative Language and Culture from the L'Orientale University of Naples, as well as a master's degree in China Studies from SISU.
"I wanted to study something more exotic, something different from the usual languages, and at the same time something that would give me future opportunities," Iannotta told the Global Times.
But the young man also said that competition among Chinese speakers in Italy has become quite fierce. According to Iannotta, there are now a larger number of Chinese migrants living in Italy, which has diminished the demand for Putonghua-speaking Italians.
But for those Italian students who have moved to China to study full time, adapting to a vastly different culture and society poses additional challenges beyond the usual language gaps.
"You end up being submerged in huge crowds in the metro and surrounded by buildings, lights and skyscrapers," said Iannotta.
"When I first came here, I realized that China was really technological. Everything is digital," Rossi told the Global Times.
However, just like Marco Polo, many Italians have discovered common ground shared by both peoples. "I think, historically and culturally, China and Italy have played the most important role in shaping the cultural framework of West and East," said Iannotta.
He also has found that the Chinese people attach as much value to food and meals as Italians. "In China, when you greet somebody, you say 'ni chi guo le ma (have you had your meal)?' In Italy, we say we wish people will enjoy their lunch or dinner, when it's lunchtime and dinnertime," said Iannotta.
According to statistics provided by the Italian Ministry of Education, the number of Chinese students studying in Italian universities increased by 33 times between the 2003-2004 school year and the 2017-2018 school year, with around 7,500 Chinese students presently in Italy, China Education Daily reported in January.
The number of Italian Students in China also rose accordingly. Luo Ping, Educational Counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Italy, said that 6,400 Italian students study in China every year, making China the biggest destination country for Italian students outside the EU, according to China Education Daily.
Federica Bettati Photo: Lu Ting/GT
Vincenzo Iannotta Photo: Lu Ting/GT
Viviana Stefani Photo: Lu Ting/GT
Federico Rossi Photo: Lu Ting/GT