I was 17 years old when I spent a year in China as an exchange student. This experience made me realize the difficulties and the importance of intercultural understanding. Since then I’ve graduated in Chinese language, and I’m currently doing my master’s in social work and immigration. Meanwhile I’ve started working part time as a cultural mediator. Most people see the cultural mediator merely as a translator who works in less formal contexts such as schools, refugee camps, or social services. However cultural mediation goes far beyond basic linguistic mediation, it implies helping somebody from a different culture to adapt and integrate in a new social context and at the same time helping this context to understand and welcome the new person. It is a long, delicate process, and I hope that sharing some pages of my diaries as a cultural mediator will help to raise awareness of the importance of this process in today’s multicultural society.
3rd February 2015, Middle school of Jesolo, Venice, Italy.
“Hi! My name’s Marcello. What’s your name?” The young Chinese boy lowers his head, trying not to look at me. I repeat the question, this time in Chinese. He gives me a quick, puzzled look and shrugs his thin shoulders, heavily burdened with a huge schoolbag. Then he immediately goes back to his accurate examination of the overcrowded school corridor’s floor, pretending not to understand. The teacher beside him, a young blonde Italian woman, seems to be already losing her patience: “You see why we asked for a cultural mediator! He’s been here for 10 months already, but he doesn’t interact with anybody, don’t even mention participating in class: we don’t know what to do!” I decide to change strategy: we move to a less crowded and less noisy place and I try again in Chinese: “You know, my Chinese name is XiaoHu, my teacher gave it to me when I was studying in China. Have you got an Italian name?” He keeps looking at his feet, but this time he mutters something, barely audible. I catch a few words: no Italian name, his only name is Wang Chao… and he wants know where exactly I’ve studied in China.
The ice is broken, the first step is done, but building empathy is not an easy process: never ask direct questions, just keep sharing experiences, trying to find what you have in common to build mutual confidence.
10th February 2015
The second time we meet, Wang’s story starts unfolding: he was born in Italy, but at the age of 2 he was taken to China, where he was raised by his grandparents. His parents couldn’t afford the expense of raising a child in Italy, and they were too busy with their jobs to look after him properly and give him a good Chinese education, whereas in a Chinese school he could learn standard Mandarin and Chinese writing. Only when he was 14 years old could he again join his parents in Italy. Before, he used to see them once every 1 or 2 years: he had always known that they loved him, but after rejoining them he started feeling that somehow they were strangers. By migrating he left behind his friends and his home, but the biggest trauma was perhaps to find himself deprived of his only unshakable certainty, the love of his grandmother.
We tend to think that the first barrier toward intercultural integration is the language, that is why as a cultural mediator I’m primarily required to do translations or teach Italian. Nevertheless the first thing I do is let the kids share their stories. No real integration process will ever start until they feel that classmates and teachers know about their lives before Italy. Feeling recognized by “others” is the starting point to building a common story and trying to find words (yes, Italian words) to tell it.
3rd March 2015
I’ve been seeing Wang once a week for more than a month now. His reading has improved a bit, but he still doesn’t speak any Italian except for “Hello, my name is Wang, I’m fine”, and by now he’s been in Italy for almost a year. This morning we try to learn some food-related vocabulary: “Wang, what is your favorite Italian food?” The answer almost hurts: “I don’t know, I’ve never tried it”.
It becomes suddenly clear that language is not the problem, but the consequence of the problem. The real problem is simple: Wang does not feel the need to speak Italian. He comes to school every day, passively waiting for the 5 hours of duty to slip by, sometimes doing math exercises or just copying complete passages of the school books without understanding one word of them. His classmates are not of any help, he always has the feeling that they’re making fun of him. In fact the only thing he understands when they speak to him is a joke they make with his name, because Chao in Italian means “hello”. But then at 1 p.m. school is over and Wang is at home, alone. His father comes home only once a month, his mom late at night. He watches Chinese TV series, plays Chinese videogames, and he has online chats with friends back in his hometown. The only local friends he has are a group of Chinese kids about his age whom he meets regularly to play basketball and videogames.
What Wang is undertaking is a path of social exclusion characterized by his inability to interact in any given context of his new “home”: family, school, the city itself with its public places, services, and shops. All those contexts require a specific knowledge (not only linguistic) in order to be understood and dealt with, and Wang doesn’t have it. Providing this knowledge is the complex but necessary task of a linguistic and cultural mediator.
7th April 2015
I’ve never seen Wang as excited as today, he is shouting and laughing while showing his smartphone to another Chinese kid at the school. He just had a Whatsapp chat with a girl from his class. How is that possible? I ask him. Nobody helped him and no, he hasn’t learned to write fluent Italian in the past month, he just used the Chinese equivalent of google translator. All of a sudden the language barrier was not a problem anymore, because he went on a school trip together with his classmates. They truly shared an experience, and Wang too felt the need to build a shared narration of it, he found himself craving to communicate in order to be recognized as part of the group and of course, somehow, he found a way to do it.
I understood this morning that now my objective, as a mediator, must be that of slowly retreating. Before I leave, though, I need to reinforce the network that will sustain him: build a connection between his family and the teachers, find him a basketball team and a place to go in the afternoon, an environment where he can be supported with his homework and make some new friends.
Leaving him alone once again, with his isolated group of friends, would mean letting their disaffection for their new “home” grow into resentment. This can only boost a reactive form of ethnicity where identity is shaped by the feelings of resentment of the segregated group against the excluding society. And these are the youngsters who are the foundation of our future. The hope for a multicultural, open and equal society starts here, we cannot leave them alone.
There is an increasing need for cultural mediation in our societies. Being respectful of people from different cultures is a necessary first step, but nowadays it is not enough, not any more. We need to stand up and activate the processes of real social inclusion, fighting negative stereotypes by giving people the opportunity to share experiences and really get to know each other. As young people we have more and more chances to go abroad and gain intercultural experience and skills, but we consider those just as a means to build our own professional careers. We should start using our intercultural skills to mediate inside our local communities, to facilitate the interaction between local people from different cultural backgrounds.
Building our future means also building the future of the multicultural society we are going to live in… and we definitely have a great share of responsibility in doing that.