It's not a direct flight

An account of how one Chinese migrant got to Italy, from Pieke et. al Transnational Chinese

I got out of China with an official passport. A fake one. I mean it had my details, but a snakehead got it for me. We only learned later that he got it in Ningde pre­fecture [north of Fuzhou]. … I spent a week in Hong Kong, in Clear Water Bay. Hong Kong is beautiful. Then I went to the Ukraine. I spent three months in Kiev, then I took a boat from Odessa to … let’s see … Romania.

Question: A big or small boat?

Xu: A small boat. At that time I still had the official Chinese passport, and you didn’t need a visa to Romania with that.

Question: So why did you have to cross the border illegally?

Xu: There are safety considerations for the snakehead…. From Romania I went to Greece, and from Greece with a large boat to Italy. That was dangerous because [by then] I had a Japanese passport. The Italians caught me at the bor­der and returned me to Greece. Then they put me in prison for four months. I was there together with two Englishmen, Mark and Michael. There were very good, really very good. To this day, it is them that I thank most. Even from Prato, I have called them. I learned some colloquial English from them. So my boss [in Prato] asked me whether I used to teach English. He noticed that I could talk a bit in English when I was dealing with Italian customers. He thought I had taught English. . . . Michael and Mark were drug smugglers. They told me that they had traveled between Hong Kong, Greece, and Britain smuggling drugs. But in Greece they were caught and sentenced to six years. At that time they were going to be released. The father of one of them had already come to Greece to take him home…. Eventually the Greek police took me to the Turkish border at night and told me to go to the other side. I didn’t know what was happening; they were pointing their guns at me. Then it turned out they were helping me cross into Turkey!

Question: Why do you think they did that?

Xu: We didn’t know! We still don’t know! The Greeks had some conflict with the Turks, maybe that’s why. On the Turkish side I got caught, returned to Greece, then the Greeks returned me to Turkey again. For three days I was there wandering in the mountains without eating. Finally I ran into an Iraqi who was in the human smuggling business. He told me how to take a bus to Ankara. In Ankara, we felt very ragged and were very hungry. Finally we found a run­down hotel. We explained to the owner that we were tourists, and all our money and tickets had been stolen, and the owner let us stay. Then we started asking around where there was a Chinese restaurant, because usually Chinese restaurants are in touch with snakeheads. Eventually we found one, but in that restaurant they didn’t know any snakeheads.

Question: Who ran that restaurant?

Xu: Someone from Harbin. He had been living there for fifteen years or so. He told us to go to a restaurant in Istanbul; there we would find snakeheads. With that new group of “human snakes” (renshe, smuggled migrants) we went to Egypt. When we left Turkey we used a Chinese passport, but when we ar­rived in Egypt we used a Korean one, because with that one you didn’t need a visa.

Question: So you had two passports with you?

Xu: Yes. But in Egypt there was some trouble. We didn’t get caught, but there was some trouble with the snakehead, it became dangerous, and we had to go back to Turkey. For the second time it was OK, and we flew from Egypt to Aus­tria, and then from there to Italy. My older sister’s husband came to Venice to fetch me. It took me eleven months to arrive here.

Besides making me feel bad for all the whining I do about long layovers this is story makes me realize that a lot of the simplicity in history is based on lack of data. This guy was in China. He is now in Italy. But the story is a bit more complex than that. I was also struck by both how porous borders are1 and how powerful they still are.


  1. although different borders are porous in different ways. I assume our hero would have had more trouble getting into Singapore posing as a Korean than he did in Egypt 

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