Why second-generation Chinese migrants in Italy don't want citizenship

Some of the Chinese students interviewed at the Gramsci-Keynes Institute in Prato,
Some of the Chinese students interviewed at the Gramsci-Keynes Institute in Prato, Copyright Michele Calamaio, Lorenzo Di Stasi
Copyright Michele Calamaio, Lorenzo Di Stasi
By Michele Calamaio, Lorenzo Di Stasi
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Prato, in Tuscany, Prato, has the highest percentage of Chinese residents among the local population (14,3%) in Italy. But integration is proving difficult despite roots dating back decades.

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"I was born and raised in Italy, yet I am still viewed as an outsider due to my physical appearance," Giorgia Gao said. "What sense does it make to me to become Italian?"

The Chinese national, 18, is a pupil at the Gramsci-Keynes high school of Prato, the Italian city with the highest percentage of Chinese residents among the local population (14,3%).

Chinese inhabitants of the Tuscan town feel disconnected from the local community, despite roots dating back over 40 years, due to unresolved tensions that cause social unease.

Now though, sociologist Fabio Bracci said, "they are trying to live a period of normalisation" because frictions “seem to have diminished” thanks to their lesser exploitation in public debate for propaganda purposes by Italy’s conservative right wing.

But few among the young generations of Italy-born Chinese foreigners make the nationality change.

A draft law, Ius Scholae, aims to make it easier by granting citizenship rights to the children of immigrants who, for at least five years, have attended a school that is part of Italy's national education system. This would apply to those born in the country or those who settled in the country before they turned 12 and could benefit 877,000 pupils or about 10% of the entire school population.

However, although it was approved by a parliamentary committee earlier this year, it has not yet been presented to the full Chamber of Deputies and with the recent arrival in power of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the reform of citizenship law is no longer a political priority.

'Maybe in the future'

Gao said that another argument against claiming Italian citizenship is that "the Chinese nationality gives me more administrative advantages."

Classmate Angela Ye, another Chinese high-school student also born in Italy, is however willing to consider changing nationality.

"Maybe in the future," the 18-year-old told Euronews. "but I would first need to switch my perception of my surroundings since nowadays my mother culture I live (with) at home is still stronger than my day-to-day link with the local territory”.

According to Marco Wong, a member of Prato’s Municipality, the rooting problem stems in part from the fact that China does not recognise dual citizenship, thus creating a hostile atmosphere of “betrayal towards one's own values”, should a Chinese person approach Italian bureaucracy.

"First generations have a sentimental link with China," Wong explained, "but the country's traditions have been viscerally transmitted to second generations, who decide to remain anchored to Chinese citizenship despite strong ties to Italian territory."

Multicultural events organised by associations that aim to boost integration and eradicate racial discrimination such as Associna therefore become crucial opportunities for fostering connections.

"Osmosis between the two communities to silence stereotypes is possible if it starts from the bottom," Zhiyuan Liu, treasurer of the association said, "because the Ius Scholae alone cannot eliminate the effects of years of failed multiculturalism”.

Marco Baccani, the local school’s cultural mediator, highlighted another peculiar phenomenon: "The double uprooting" of the Chinese second generations born in Italy. 

During the primary school period, their parents usually send them to their grandparents' homes in China for some schooling, deemed necessary for them to learn Chinese culture. They eventually reunite with their parents for high school, but by then remember little of the Italian language.

The biggest challenges for schools and the local community, Baccani said, are to eliminate “the skills disparity created by this ‘double migration’” and “the trauma of this psychological discomfort, a burden that leads to the stigmatisation of the Chinese community". 

In this scenario, Chinese nationals don’t feel compelled to assimilate into Italian culture, while the Italian community feels empowered to exclude newer generations of Chinese.

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Language barrier

In this complicated context, the Italian education system is not supportive. 

Foreign citizens must have an A2 level certificate in Italian to obtain a residence permit in Italy, but the Ministry of Education's guidelines for foreign students with Italian as a second language do not specify the language level required. They simply indicate “about 8-10 hours per week for 3-4 months”. 

This makes it challenging for teachers in Prato schools to facilitate the transition with a high number of pupils per class and a range of language levels. 

According to Stefania Cara, an Italian language teacher for foreign pupils at the Gramsci-Keynes institute, "without the Italian B1 level, it is impossible to follow the lessons”. 

The teacher added that in Prato, Chinese pupils account for over 60% of all foreign students, and that province has the country's highest share of foreign students among all enrolled ones (28%).

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Between 2017 and 2020, the Prato Territorial School Office recorded a total of 1,988 enrolled foreign pupils, an average of 497 per year. These students must be distributed between classes, with a governmental rule dictating that the share of non-Italian nationals must not exceed 30% per class. 

This is often ignored in Prato schools. According to statistics, more than 50% of pupils in eight Prato primary schools were foreign nationals in 2018. 

Stefano Pollini, headmaster of the Gramsci-Keynes institute, reported how lately, “due to the phenomenon of family reunifications in January, the number of foreign students grew to 600”. 

“Being already full, we had to distribute these additional kids in already assigned classes," he added. 

To counter these issues, Pollini coordinates the 'Prato Project' for the province's schools. Its main objectives are the attainment of the Italian language B1 level for at least 80% of foreign pupils at the end of the two-year high school period, and to reduce the drop-out rate among them by 10 %. They also want to roll out optional Chinese language learning among Italian students. 

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According to Prato’s councilor for culture, Simone Mangani, other citizenship services too - such as access to public healthcare - are not equally available for the Chinese community. 

“If we were in a legislative regime of Ius Soli [birthright citizenship] or at least Ius Scholae", he said,  "the individuals could be free to embrace a concept of citizenship, unencumbered by current political manipulation."

Baccani, the school cultural mediator, is of the same mind. "There is a need to make the Italians learn Chinese and vice versa, in a process of perceiving each other's needs towards a valid integration process and cultural adoption". 

Headmaster Pollini also has no doubts that Ius Scholae would be helpful: "I wish schools always played a leading role to be the real engine of the country”.

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