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Questo mondo è piccolo | Southern China as perceived by a local

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from Marie-Claire Najjar.

Sophie Wu can tackle quantitative finance with ease, but ask her about her hometown and that’s when you’ll really see her face light up. A third-year exchange student from the University of Hong Kong, Sophie was delighted to sit down for a chat to describe her native country.

Born and raised until age 6 in a small town called Yishan, she describes it as «almost a village», located in the prefecture-level city of Wenzhou, in the Southern Chinese seaside. The beach, which can be reached from Yishan in just one hour, is the theatre of most of Sophie’s childhood memories.

She speaks of tiny crabs that can be found on the local beach, and that she would catch when she was younger. «Once, while on vacation with my family, we realised around midnight that they had crawled out of the bottle where we had put them, and we had to look for them all around the hotel room» she recalls.

Crabs are indeed a peculiar symbol of her region and a staple in the local diet. Scylla Serrata, for instance, a variety of crab, is a specialty of the Southern Chinese seaside and cannot be found in Shanghai. So when Sophie moved there at age 6, her grandparents would send her boxes filled with these crabs. And the longer they stayed alive, the fresher they were…

Speaking of culinary habits, Sophie notes that they constitute a big part of the erroneous stereotypes. The practice of eating dog, for instance, only applies to a single part of China (and not to Sophie’s region). As for the fortune-cookie, that in the Western culture symbolizes Chinese cuisine, is «totally not a thing» in China! «They are used in restaurants to entertain customers. And in Belgium, I once came across a fortune cookie with a message written in four different languages… but not in Chinese!». Another misleading stereotype is the spread of Kung Fu: unlike what cinematic portrayals would suggest, it is not so common for locals to practice it!

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We then moved on to discussing the importance of Wenzhou, the biggest city in Sophie’s region. «It is famous around China for its business [activities] and its entrepreneurial culture» she explained. According to her, this is due to several factors, such as the lack of a healthy soil apt to develop an intensive agriculture (which first represented a disadvantage yet left no choice but to specialise in business activities), or the distance between Wenzhou and Beijing (which gave the city more freedom to develop a market economy).

This is how the people of Wenzhou became famous for their business abilities, and started investing in property all around the globe. «Their number allowed them to form groups that would try to push up property prices. And as Europe was more prosperous than China in the 80s, many of them emigrated and opened restaurants here. They now constitute a big part of European residents with Chinese origins, especially in Italy. Wherever I go, I can always find some kind of food from Wenzhou!» Sophie explains that another particular aspect of the region is the dialect. It is known

around China as the most difficult to understand… so difficult that there’s an anecdote about it being used as an encrypted language in times of trouble.

And if you’re ever visiting the region, Sophie recommends a beautiful spot: a small city wall that served the same function as the Great Wall of China. «It is interesting because of the history it encapsulates… And from up there you have a nice view, with ducks swimming in the surrounding river that used to protect the city. Unfortunately, the government is really keen to tear down old buildings and build more modern architecture.»

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This is one of the aspects Sophie loves most about life in Milan (along with Italian food, of course): «Italy [flaunts] many historical buildings, which is not always the case in China». Another attribute that makes the Italian lifestyle so attractive is that everything is a lot more «chill». «People communicate easily, students cluster a lot outside of campus…

This is not the case in Shanghai nor in Hong Kong: people are often anxious or in a hurry; they will go past you at a very fast pace and try to avoid eye contact – but not in a rude or unfriendly way. Whereas in Italy, habits such as the aperitivo (or a dinner that can last 4 hours) create such a warm vibe!»

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