Italian Sara always felt at home in China: "Maybe it's destiny"

Wang Haoling
Sara has been living in Shanghai for 14 years and has a cute boy with her Chinese husband. What the loving mother cares most about, though, is a better environment for her child.
Wang Haoling

Holin’s words:

“Sorry, I have some unexpected work to do, so I have no more than thirty minutes today.” When I first met Sara in the building where she works, she was sorry about the rush since we had earlier made an appointment. Thirty minutes wasn't really enough, so I decided only to do the video part that day. Work-time Sara wore a blue suit with a cute, white, heart-like badge.

Then after more than three months, I was finally able to meet busy Sara again in a small café on Julu Road. “Sorry, I caught a little cold today.” Sara felt sorry again — this time for her hoarse voice — but it was a really good interview. She gave me so many fresh ideas from the aspect of a doting mother. This time, off-work Sara wore a pink suit with an exaggerated necklace of a fashionable design.

Besides being the mother of a five-year-old boy and wife of a Chinese man, this Italian is just a big girl in my eyes. When Sara recalled her early time in Shanghai dating with her boyfriend — now her husband — her face would glow with a huge smile. Even through the pair of glasses she wore, I could see the twinkle sparkling in her eyes.

When we took photos together at the end of the interview, she suggested we get the puppy dog involved. Then she moved to the little puppy and posed happily to the camera, catching one ear of the dog and leaving the other ear for me.

Italian Sara always felt at home in China: Maybe it's destiny
Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: Sara Ferrando 
Nationality: Italian
Job: Public official
Years in Shanghai: 14

Holin: Do you remember the first time you came to Shanghai?

Sara: The first time here was in 2003. I was a student in Zhejiang University and I came to Shanghai only for visiting — I had never been to Shanghai before. I spent two days (one Sunday and one Saturday) in Shanghai. Me, and my classmates, we were six people from different countries. That was my first time in Shanghai.

I was so impressed by the skyscrapers and the Bund. As you know, foreigners know Shanghai like the former French Concession, the Bund and Nanjing Road, so we went there for the first time because everyone was talking about those places.

I was only 23 years old at that time.

Holin: So can I put it like this: the impressive thing is that our city is so different from yours, or different from Hangzhou?

Sara: Yes, very different from Hangzhou. But in a way I found many similarities between Shanghai and Europe. If you go to the Bund, or the former French Concession, you’ll find a lot of buildings in French style, Spanish style or Italian style. So for me, it was like, "Oh, there was so many like European-style buildings."

That was really interesting.

Holin: Wow! The impressive thing is the similarities, right?

Sara: Yes, in a way it was. After spending six months in Hangzhou, I visited the Bund. I heard the sound of the bell there. I was like, that was like Italy… that made me feel like home for a while.

Shanghai is also different from Europe, because in a way it is really Chinese, like the shikumen style of the houses and the lane houses. So Shanghai is like a mix between Europe and China. Maybe unique, I mean I haven't found any city similar to Shanghai in this way. It is like the city is so amazing — like Europe but it's not Europe — that was very interesting. I was feeling like I was at home.

Holin: Would you please share with me the reason you came to Shanghai and chose the city to live for a long time? 

Sara: The main reason was that in 2004 I met my future husband. At that time he was working here in Shanghai. In my mind, I started to think about moving here to work in the future.

The second reason is that I like the city.

Holin: So romantic. Let’s go back a little to Hangzhou. Why did you choose Hangzhou to study Chinese?

Sara: I graduated in Italy in 2003, and my major was Chinese language and culture. I moved to Hangzhou because there’s an agreement between my university and Zhejiang University. So, I decided to go to Hangzhou.

Holin: So in Italy you could speak Chinese already?

Sara: Yes. Not so well, but yes. It’s really hard. 

Holin: Why did you pick such a difficult major?

Sara: That is a long story. I can summarize it in few words.

When I was 16 years old, my father borrowed a book, and it was like a story book about China. That book was written by a Chinese-American writer. I never read any book about China before. I felt so interested in the culture. You know, in Europe at that time, now I am 37 years old, at that time I was 16 years old, more than 20 years ago, I didn't study so much about China. Maybe I knew some economy and some history issues, but I didn't know about your famous writers. So I was so impressed by that novel, because the author was talking about her family — her mother, her grandmother and their history. I started to think about whether or not I should study Chinese. I love to study foreign languages. So I thought maybe I could choose Chinese as my foreign language.

Holin: Do you still remember the book?

Sara: Yes, the title is "White Swan" in English. Because I think that the writer wrote it in English, not in Chinese. But it was amazing. It was talking about three generations of women in China. And then, the writer moved to Europe or the US to live and then she wrote this family history book. 

Holin: You must have many interesting or impressive stories related with Shanghai, can you share one with me?

Sara: Too many. I met my future husband in Hangzhou, but he was working here, so I came to Shanghai every Saturday or Sunday to visit him. Sometimes, he came to Hangzhou, but I was really interested in Shanghai, I really wanted to explore Shanghai.

I have many memories from that time. We went around, had dinner, I met his friends. And he is a designer, so we went to many art exhibitions, and many events related to art.

Holin: How do you spend your weekends in Shanghai?

Sara: Now, I am very busy with my kid. Because I used to work, so I enjoy spending my time with my kid on the weekend because he really needs me to stay with him.

I used to send him to Italian school on Saturday morning because I want him to learn Italian. And then, we go to the park or someplace to have fun together. Because he is a five-year-old boy, he really likes to play outside. So I know very well all the parks in Shanghai, like Century Park, Zhongshan Park, Changfen Park, and Tianshan Park.

Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like best? 

Sara: I used to like very much restaurants and coffee shops, but after I gave birth to my child, I prefer to go places where my kids can have fun and I can have fun too. So if there are some family restaurants, or bookstores...

Holin: Which road do you like best?

Sara: I like Anfu Road, Xinhua Road, Fuxing Road… all the roads in the former French Concession, because I like to visit the small lanes, small shops. They are very Shanghainese.

Holin: What kind of element makes you love Shanghai?

Sara: I think maybe this international environment. You feel like you are in China, but you don't feel culture shock so much.

Holin: So that means at the very beginning, you did not feel the culture shock?

Sara: Not so much. It was so natural for me to move here and live here. Sometimes, I think about my past, how many years I have been here. 14 years! That is amazing.

I didn't feel so much the culture shock maybe because I study Chinese. In my mind, I knew a little bit about China. I have been to Beijing to study so I didn't feel shocked when I arrived in Shanghai.

I think Shanghai for me is the best place to live.

Holin: I’m interested to know if there’s any differences between the books you read before coming here, and the reality?

Sara: Yes. You know in Europe, we know China through some books, movies, especially some movies from Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige. So we have like a little bit romantic ideas of China at that time. Because it was 20 years ago, we didn't know so much about China. If you asked me about China, I would have thought of a beautiful lady wearing qipao, and garden houses.

When I came to Beijing in 1999 for summer school, the first time there I feel like that was not like this. But I visited the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square — that is like in the movie "The Last Emperor" directed by famous Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

At my first time in Beijing I didn't feel culture shock as well. I felt so excited. Maybe it is destiny, I don't know.

Holin: As an opposite question, do you have something you hate here? Any suggestions to change it or make it better?

Sara: As a mother, my only concern is the pollution.

And then, sometimes if I don't go to the park, I have to spend money to let my kid play. I mean there are not so many free facilities for kids. Yes, there are some places you and your kids can go, but it is priced; not everyone can go there. So sometimes you can bring your kids to Disneyland or everywhere, but you can't bring him to Disneyland every week. Or if you go to the shopping mall, and there's a playground for kids, you have to pay more than 100 yuan (US$15.09) sometimes. I feel it's too expensive.

Holin: Do your peers in Italy or in other countries have the same problem? Do they have a way to solve the problem? I mean, are there any free facilities or cheap facilities to provide for kids in your country?

Sara: In my country, we have mountains and sea all around, and it is easy to go out from the city during the weekends. If you want to go to the beach on weekends, you just take your car. From my hometown to the beach takes only 20 minutes from where I live. So you go there and you can sit on the beach, and your kids can play there.

Sometimes my son wants me to bring him to IKEA, because IKEA has a free playground. He doesn't care about free or not — he is too small. But as a mother, I notice that so many parents bring their kids there because it is free. The playground is always so busy.

Maybe if there are some places like this, also a big place but not so pricey, because not everyone can afford to pay 200 to 300 yuan for the playground each weekend.

That is interesting because it is a private company who can think about this, but why can't the city government just find some spaces... Okay, you have many facilities in the parks you can go to, but if the weather is not good like today, or there is pollution... Indoor spaces are good.

Holin: Yes, I’m behind you indeed. Beside this, let’s compare Shanghai to your city in your country — are there any shortages we have, and do you have any solutions for us to borrow from?

Sara: Education. You know we are foreigners, and we can only go to private or international schools. In our country, education is free of charge, so Chinese who live in Italy can send their kids to our public schools for free. That is maybe a problem not only for me, but also other expats, or waidiren (Chinese people from other part of China.)

And life is getting expensive here. Maybe after the Expo, I feel that the prices are getting more and more expensive, like renting an apartment, or going to a restaurant. Compared to Europe now, Shanghai is very expensive.

I think there is not a Metro line that connects Shanghai to other small cities around like Nanxun or Xitang. If you could take the subway there for one day, that will be nice.

Holin: Good suggestions! I think maybe some of these are already being prepared by our government. The last question is a big one: do you have some impressive memory from your life?

Sara: So many. Actually the year I spent in Hangzhou studying Chinese was really interesting because I was young and I had many friends. I was improving my Mandarin, and I was so happy I could say something more and I could explain to other people what I was thinking, that was interesting.

Because when you start to learn a language, you will be really happy when you find other people can understand what are you saying, especially in Chinese. You know for us, it is very difficult.

I got married in Italy. And giving birth to my son is also impressive.

Holin: Also in Italy?

Sara: Yeah. I mean my study, my marriage and my first son are all my impressive memories till now. I enjoy my work, I love very much to do this work, because I can use Chinese a lot. 

What does Sara want to say to her future self? Have a look! Sara is sending a message to her future self to watch ten years from now!

Shot by Wang Haoling and Zheng Qiong. Edited by Zhong Youyang and Zhang Yang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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