She had been working at the bar for less than a week when the skin on her hands started to peel. Little bits of skin, translucent and pink, flaked off like Parmesan cheese. Then the cracks appeared. Tiny fissures ruptured at the joints and split her knuckles open. She started to bleed. Everyone told Ye Pei it was normal.
“We all go through this when we first start,” her boss said.
“You’re just not used to the work,” her mother reassured. “It will get better over time.”
Pei calculated out of the twelve hours she worked each day, her hands spent six of those hours waterlogged in soapy water. Her tasks at the bar were simple but exhausting—sweep the floors, wipe the counters and tables, wash the dishes, polish the glassware, and scrub the toilets. If the orders were simple enough, sometimes she could mix drinks and serve coffee. But she was never allowed to make cappuccinos. The boss was a Chinese woman with a belly, ruddy cheeks, and dark penciled-in eyebrows, the kind that made her look angry all the time. She insisted the cappuccino was a perfect science, one that a foolish young girl like Pei couldn’t even begin to understand. After all, the country’s “national breakfast,” drunk on an empty stomach before 11 a.m., was an art form, a ritual so ingrained in Italian culture that it would be a sin to get it wrong.
One-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk. You could lose a customer over the slightest imprecision.
“You don’t want to mess up an order,” the boss told a disheartened Pei. But to work in an Italian bar without learning how to make a cappuccino would be like working in an ice cream shop and never learning to scoop, or working at McDonald’s and never learning how to fry. Pei believed she wasn’t allowed near the cappuccino machine because once she had mastered the cappuccino, it meant that she was more employable. She could find a job elsewhere, maybe in a city or perhaps somewhere closer to her family. But as it stood, no other bar owner would hire someone incapable of brewing a proper cup. Over time, 17-year-old Pei came to realize that learning the art of the cappuccino was the key to her freedom.
In the bar where Pei worked, most of the customers were old men. Some liked to sip their drinks while reading the daily newspaper from Milan, peering over thick-framed glasses perched on the bridge of their big noses. Others preferred the back room where they could sit on high stools that brought them face to face with the bewitching glare of the digital slot machines. Most liked to gather around in groups, flinging down narrow playing cards on the bar’s square wooden tables in an intense game of Briscola—their spirited interjections drowned out by the constant grinding of coffee beans, punctuated by the swooshing sound of hot, pressurized water. All of the customers seemed amused to find a Chinese woman behind the bar.
“Ni hao!” they’d holler, sauntering up to the bar.
“Ciao, ciao,” Pei often replied with a smile. Her short, pageboy bob had grown into dark locks she now piled into a bun atop her head. Her bangs, trimmed neatly above her brow, framed her full face.
“Bella,” one old man loved to say, pointing directly at the girl, his finger coming dangerously close to her button nose.
“Ge-lazie,” she’d say, blushing.
And that’s when the banter came to an awkward halt, for Pei had been in Italy for all but three months. Her vocabulary was extremely limited, though she had picked up a few key words. Ti Amo, a phrase Pei liked to write in her diary every night, starting each entry as if she were penning a love letter to her boyfriend back home in China. Spritz, because customers often asked for this popular wine-based cocktail. Gelato, because it was the only Italian delicacy that Pei truly enjoyed eating. Grazie, because it was polite to say this to customers, though Chinese speakers often have difficulty pronouncing “r” and end up making an “l” sound instead. Thus, Grazie sounds like Ge-lazie and Roma comes out Luo-ma. And domani, because some customers liked to ask whether she would be at work the next day.
The answer to that question was always sì, because Pei worked seven days a week. Her shift started at 10:30 every morning and was supposed to end around 3 p.m., although she usually got off closer to 3:30 p.m. She had a few hours rest in between before starting work again at 7 p.m., her night shift ending at one or two in the morning or when the final straggler threw up his hands and abandoned the slots for the night. During her shift, Pei was always on her feet but she rarely stood still. When there weren’t many customers to tend to, she swept and reswept the floors. She polished the glassware. Then, she took all the liquor bottles down one by one so she could dust the shelves. She took note of the numerous shapes and sizes. There was the green, pear-shaped one with a large, rounded belly; the square and wide-bodied one that always held just a trickle of bronze fluid; and the slender-bodied one filled with what could be mistaken for water, if not for the smell of rubbing alcohol that hit Pei’s nostrils the minute she twisted off its cap. It reminded her of the potent Chinese rice liquor, baijiu. If you stood close enough to Pei while she worked, sometimes you could hear the sound of her tongue flicking the roof of her mouth: “Tttttttrrrrrrrr. Tttttttttrrrrr.” She was practicing how to roll her Rs. Within days her hands had become swollen and blistered, but it was after her first day when her feet trembled with fatigue. Her heels ached and her toes grew tender. Pei watched in awe as her body adapted and grew accustomed to the strain. The soles on her feet hardened and her calves bulged. For her labor, she was paid 500 euros a month (about $690 USD at the time) and the boss let Pei stay in a spare bedroom in her second-floor apartment just a few minutes walk from the bar.
“Can I come up and see your room?” I asked Pei one night.
“No, I don’t think Ayi would like that,” she replied, looking sorry. “I feel terrible I cannot invite you in. It’s just that . . . it’s not my home.”
“Tell me what your room looks like.”
“It’s small, but I have a bed, a desk, and a dresser. It’s not bad at all,” she said. “It just isn’t home.”
When Pei wasn’t in her room, she was at work. When she wasn’t at work, she could be found in her room, where she tenderly rubbed lotion into her swollen hands. She spent late nights writing in her diary and thumbing through her Chinese-Italian dictionary, placing the thick hardcover book on her lap until her thighs turned numb. Her parents called every day to check in on her, but she could never tell them how she truly felt. She whispered through the receiver and assured them she was fine. She didn’t dare to say anything else, for the walls were thin and Ayi and her family would certainly overhear her. This wasn’t the life Pei envisioned for herself in Italy. But for a girl who came from a small mountain town in eastern China, working at this bar was a painful yet valuable opportunity she could not refuse. “I will work very hard to learn Italian and to acquire the skills necessary for running a bar. This way, Mama and Baba can have an early retirement,” Pei wrote in her diary one night. “This bar has been open for four years and now they are millionaires. How accomplished they are! I am not jealous of them because I know one day our family will be even better off. I firmly believe it!”
Never in her life had she been so determined to accomplish something. Anything, really. In China, things were easy. But here in Italy, nothing was. Pei was determined to change her family’s circumstances—to work hard, send her earnings back to her parents, and help them save enough money to one day open their own cappuccino bar. Every Chinese migrant went abroad with a similar plan in mind. Working for others was a stepping stone to becoming your own laoban—your own boss. Pei’s resolve started in her gut, stirring her awake every morning. It propelled her out of bed and to the bar, pumping adrenaline through her veins and into her calves. It fueled her through the long days until she finally returned to her room, where the urgency remained, keeping her awake as she pored over the Chinese-Italian dictionary until her eyelids grew heavy and finally drooped to a close. “I am no longer in a country where everything is simple and straightforward,” she told me. “In China, I was never under any real pressure. Now I am forced to make plans for myself, to make things right for me and my family.” At seventeen years of age, Pei had taken it upon herself to earn enough money so her parents could soon retire.
Three months earlier, her priorities couldn’t have been more different. She was a high school student in China whose major preoccupation was hanging out with her new boyfriend, a quiet and gangly boy named Li Jie. He was at least a head taller than she, and Pei loved pressing her toes in the ground as she raised her face upward to see his. Though they saw each other every day in school, their time together spilled into the evenings when they roamed through town, snacking on skewers and soupy wontons and hanging out at the Internet café. Pei spent hours uploading photos to her blog, chatting online with friends, and feeding her virtual fish. She had become a cyber-entrepreneur, operating a virtual hair salon and restaurant. Li Jie preferred racing sports cars around a virtual track in online tournaments that lasted through the night. Now that Ye Pei was in Italy, she had left Li Jie and that virtual world behind in China. The town of Solesino was her bleak reality.
There are no canals here. There are no crescent-shaped bridges. No sleek, black gondolas. No glittering lagoon. Venice, the water city, is more than two hours away by train, and to catch it, you have to get on a bus and head for the next town because there is no train station in Solesino. The road into town is flanked by long parcels of land, some pea green and some wheat gold, giving way to two-story pale yellow homes topped with earthy red tiles. A tall, blue steeple marks the center of town, where there is one church, one cemetery, one nursery school, one elementary school, one junior high, one police station, one sports hall, and more than a dozen bars. At least two of the bars in town are run by Chinese families, and their presence is a sign that immigrants are here to stay. Locals say they first started noticing Chinese immigrants in Solesino about ten years ago at the weekly Sunday market. They all seemed more like nomads then, traveling in a caravan of big white vans that rumbled past the fields, sending slight tremors across the terra-cotta rooftops. Once in town, their vans fold open like a Transformer gearing up for battle: white shelves stretch out like arms and the wiry ribs of a canopy unravel over a display of colorful football jerseys, chiffon blouses, knit sweaters, and fake leather jackets. Bins overflow with polka dot socks, lacy bras, and spandex underwear, and the Chinese haggle with their customers, their dialogue limited to uno, due, tre, and a lot of sign language.
“The entire street will be lined with stalls!” Pei told me one fall evening in Solesino. “There are numerous vendors, even Chinese vendors! And there are many, many things for sale.” She looked forward to the commotion and chaos every Sunday. During the week, Solesino was far too quiet and too clean for her liking. Back home in China, hawkers lined the streets, their knickknacks scattered across tattered tarps and their wicker baskets piled full of pears and yangmei—crimson, dimpled bayberries the size of a ping pong ball. But what Pei missed most was the street food. Vendors roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts in smoldering charcoal, minced pork was tucked inside thin wonton wrappers dusted in flour, and lamb kebabs flecked with cumin and chili pepper sizzled over a smoking barbecue. Every night, smoke and steam threaded its way through Qingtian’s streets. The Sunday market in Solesino didn’t have roasted chestnuts or wonton soup or lamb kebabs, but tomatoes and artichokes were piled into pyramids and crispy French fries were scooped into paper cones. Of course, Pei would not see any of this for herself. Sundays were one of the busiest days at the bar, and she could never steal away, not even for a few minutes, to visit the market. Instead, from behind the bar, she watched the vendors drive into town and set up their stalls, and eventually her hungry eyes would follow the children who clutched oil-stained cones overflowing with fries as golden as corn.