Asians in bocconi

Experience of 9 Asian students in Italy.

by Aini Yeskhozhina and Aigerim Anuarbek

In the beginning of February, we went running. While passing a bar in a Porta Romana area, a group of middle aged men shouted at us “Ni hao”. We started laughing hysterically. It wasn’t that funny actually; the funny part though was this being a third occurrence in the past week. The rest of the run we once again discussed the struggle of being Asian in Italy. That is when the idea for this article was born. We wanted to hear opinions, aside of our own, on living as Asians here in Milan, and Italy in general. We interviewed 9 Asians from different backgrounds about what they think. Here are their stories.

All names and places were altered for the purpose of protection of interviewees’ privacy. 

“Is it bad if I sound like where I’m from?”

ROSE, she/her, Indian, bachelor’s. 

I grew up in Mumbai and I went to an international school. It was a bit different from a very typical Indian experience. I would always have access to international media, all my teachers were from abroad and I had friends from abroad. 

on growing into your own culture

Before moving, being Indian was never a part of my personality, I took it for granted because everyone was Indian. I didn’t have to hold on to it very dearly because it wasn’t like I was gonna lose it. 

It takes a more conscious effort to hold on to your culture here, there’s a risk of losing your language, traditions, and all that. Instead of going the way of “I don’t wanna be brown, I want to fit in”, I chose to be loudly Indian. 

on catcalling tied to race 

I used to think it was just because I’m a woman, but I was talking to my brown friends about how often we get catcalled and it’s way more of a problem than when I talk to my white friends. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a pattern. 

I was talking to my Chinese friend who grew up in Italy about catcalling and she was like “yeah, you’re so right, it happens to us way more than it does to others

on jokes about your culture

Often I get jokes on my Indian accent or comments like “Oh, you don’t sound that Indian”. The thing is, if I did, would that be a bad thing? Is it bad if I sound like where I’m from?

I always get told stuff like “Oh do you like, worship cows?” and other things they’ve seen in the media. Some of it may be true, but the way they ask those questions is usually in a mocking way. They think of it as a joke, but it is hurtful. Because that’s my culture

It makes me appreciate the way I grew up – the fact that I did not have to deal with any of this before. It makes me also think: “I should just go back home, I can’t take this anymore”. 

on Bocconi 

There is a lot of advantage in being Italian in this university. A lot of help study materials are in Italian; even the way we’re taught is so Italian. We memorize a bunch of stuff and then we’re done. If you call yourself an international university, then teach in an international way. 

They say that around half of the students in Bocconi are internationals, but it’s a very ambitious statement to make. They call people international but they’re from Germany or France, not India or Kazakhstan, it’s a bit different. 

Sometimes Italian professors do discussions after or before class in Italian. Sometimes you also want to listen or ask a question, but you don’t want to interrupt a conversation. So, you feel uncomfortable and you leave. That could be something to be changed.

It makes you feel like an inconvenience. It comes down to your confidence. It makes you feel so obviously bothered – like they’re talking in a whole different language, that you obviously don’t speak. It makes you feel like they’d rather speak in a different language, but now that you’re here, they can’t. You don’t want to be an inconvenience, so you step out. It’s always us, internationals, who step out. 

I think they take for granted that Internationals don’t know how everything works here, and they don’t care to explain. Meanwhile, Italians dream of getting into Bocconi for years and they know the system already. People were talking about internships on the first week of school already. No one told us anything, we just showed up. 

on internalized racism

If there is an association I want to join and everyone’s Italian, I’m not going to join it. There needs to be at least one non-white person. There’s something weird about being the only non-white person.

There’s an internalized racism situation going on. Thoughts like “Oh, they are way better than me”. Maybe it comes from the colonial country mindset as well. In India, the whiter you are the prettier you are, or if there’s a white person, they’re gonna get all the attention.

Being white-passing does make a difference. You feel like you belong a little bit more and you have more confidence. It is not an explicit thing, no one is discriminating you specifically, but there is a sense of uncomfyness that comes from not being white-passing. I’m scared to talk, I’m scared to come to events, I’m scared to join associations. Because I just feel odd being the only person there who’s different.

Once, I was invited to a French party, I was standing there and thought to myself “Wow, I really really feel my color right now, this is really uncomfortable”. They ask me: “Do you ski?”. Do I look like someone who skis? I look like I’m from a forest.

an advice to students 

Make an effort. You’re in an international university, yet you hang out with people from your country only. The rest of us put a lot of effort in making the most out of international experience – we learn a lot about other cultures, we’re open. 

It feels like we’re in their territory and I am scared. We are already here and venturing out, so they should be the ones to make an effort. It’s their territory and they can be more welcoming.  

They shouted at us “hey! hey!” like we’re animals in the zoo”

BRONZE, he/him, Kazakh, bachelor’s

I grew up in Kazakhstan. Ethnically Kazakh, Asian. It’s my first time as an international student. Before moving I was never really interested in Kazakh history and culture. Everyone around us was Kazakh and we were all the same. So, here I got more interested in my background. 

on Bocconi

I feel good in Bocconi and I think that it is my place. Bocconi provides with good education. I cannot say that the experience of being an international student is bad here, but most of the students are Italian, and internationals are a minority, Asians being even the smaller minority. When I applied to Bocconi, I expected it to be much more international than it really is.

on racism 

Generally, it does not happen in Bocconi frequently; people are educated and welcoming here. However, some people can make jokes about your race, such as “Oh, you’re Chinese, do you eat dogs?” 

I would say it does happen a lot more outside of Bocconi. Once, I was walking with my friends on a street near Porta Ticinese, and there was a homeless man with a dog. An Italian construction worker came up to me, pointing at the dog, and said: “Do you want to eat this dog?” in Italian. I answered. I said: “Hey, why are you being racist?!”. He got scared and apologized. “Not racist, not racist” construction worker repeated.  Things like this can happen here. Students coming from Kazakhstan or other Asian countries should be prepared.

I guess people in Italy haven’t seen many Asians and they don’t know the difference between East Asians and Central Asians. They automatically assume that you’re Chinese. 

on gender-based racism

I think how boys and girls feel about themselves is different in any environment. One aspect, as a boy who is physically bigger, I will be approached less by racist people. They feel that I can respond to their hate crime. Whereas, when a girl passes by on a street, it is more probable that racists will dare to say a racial slur in her address, assuming that she cannot defend herself. At least that seems to be the case for me. 

on Italian bureaucracy 

Once, I went to Questura to apply to Permesso di Soggiorno, we were standing in line, and the way the police treated us was really bad, they shouted at us “Hey! hey!”, like we’re animals in the zoo. At the time I was very offended. I don’t think it was Asian hate necessarily, but overall hate towards immigrants. So, yes. These things happen not only from citizens, but authorities too. People working at the immigration offices shouldn’t hate immigrants, they work with them every day after all… 

on dealing with racism

It can make me upset for a while, but these moments do not ruin my day. I try not to think about this a lot. I understand that it’s not my fault that some people are racist and I can’t fix them. I try to forget and live further.

“I think here it becomes more like a wider Indian identity.”

GREEN, he/him, Indian, bachelor’s 

I was born and raised in India in the Southern part of it. Studied there basically my whole life. So it’s my first international experience. I feel like a foreigner, but by and large people are pretty friendly. I am ok with feeling like a foreigner. Majority of my friends are not Italian themselves, if that matters.

on identity

Generally speaking, in India, each region, each state, has its own language and sometimes religion, because of that identity is more regional. I think here it becomes more like a wider Indian identity. I tend to hang out more and identify more with Indians than back home. 

on being left out

I think I have a fair number of Italian friends. When I meet them I am usually the only non-Italian. Specifically when they switch to Italian [feeling left out]. Every once in a while someone says “Guys, let’s switch to English ” or something, but at some point of the conversation it switches to Italian once again. 

on stereotypes

I mean in a humorous setting, not in a hateful or hurtful manner. Usually playing on certain stereotypes. It’s mostly my friends, and mostly as a joke. Sometimes it’s people who I meet in a friend’s house, who I don’t know, so it comes off as a little rude. So yes, I guess it’s ignorance.

on Italian’s perception of India

I think it’s less about India specifically [wrong perception], more about the world outside Italy and Europe specifically. 

I talked to my roommate a while back; he is Italian. He was talking about unfair competition in the labor sector and a lack of workers’ strikes outside in a lot of countries. But he was basically convinced that workers’ rights or any resemblance of standard of living or any of that, doesn’t exist outside of Europe. 

on facing discrimination

When I was applying for a board position in the association, a couple of people told me not to, due to the complicated declaration process for international students compared to Italian.

The funny part is that Sam was a president before. And like Sam is American, he is not Italian, he didn’t speak Italian when he was the president. 

“They would put up the face mask when they saw us.”

OLIVE, she/her, Chinese-Italian, bachelor’s 

I grew up in Piemonte, my parents are Chinese. They moved here when they were really really young, like 20 and 21. They met in Rome, worked there for quite a few years, and then moved to my hometown, which is very very small, like 3000 inhabitants. 

on being Italian

I spend most of my day with my Italian godparents. They’re my parents’ friends. Since my parents worked a lot, and my godparents were retired, we simply spent a lot of time with them. That’s why I consider myself more Italian than Chinese; my parents don’t approve of that. I have Italian education, I spoke Italian everyday, and since I couldn’t spend more time with my parents, I didn’t really learn Chinese. But I would like to learn it. 

on being mistaken 

Here in Bocconi, obviously, there are so many international people that people assume that I am not Italian, and then they are very amazed by the fact I know Italian. But they are even more surprised when they learn that I don’t speak Chinese, when they assume so.

about division between international and italian students

I don’t like this, even in class we are completely divided. I think we need to overcome our fears. First year I didn’t speak English very well, so I was afraid of speaking to international students or Italians who went to International schools. There are a lot of them who speak very good English. For me, language was a barrier. 

on gender based profiling

Just saying “Ni hao ”, most people wouldn’t say that to male Chinese-Italian. If they see me, they will say it, especially old men. They probably would expect men to react, whereas girls just simply shut up. For example, for my father, I never saw anyone saying “Ni hao” to him or something, but when I go around people say that. 

on Covid

When things started opening up, I came to visit my sister in Milan. There were many people, in the metro, in the tram, looking at us in a bad way: “Oh you are the cause of this”. They would put up the face mask when they saw us. As if we had it [COVID]. Many people when they saw us would start fake sneezing. But what can I do? I was born here. You are the ignorant one. I don’t care. 

“I feel like I have a lot more to offer than just my ethnicity.”

VIOLET, she/her, Indian, bachelor’s

I am Indian, South Indian, but I did not grow up in India. I’m a third culture kid. I grew up in Dubai. So it’s not my first experience being an international student, though it’s dramatically different. 

on internationalism

Obviously Bocconi promotes itself as international to some extent, but I think I was so used for international being predominantly Asian in Dubai, when I came here I realized international is predominantly European. And that is a huge difference.

In Dubai, you had that individuality, from culture to culture, from ethnicity to ethnicity. Here being Asian is like one thing, whereas being European is where in Europe you are from. I have to explain where I am from, which I never did back home. I would say I am Indian, and which part of India, and they knew what that meant. Here nobody knows anything. And I didn’t expect that. I thought people would be more educated about the world. 

Here it’s like the forefront of your identity [ethnicity]. It’s the first thing that people see. I never strongly identified with my ethnicity until I came here.

on becoming close to your culture

Back in school, I was a whitewashed kid, especially in my family when going back to India. They were like: “She is the coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside”. But here, I feel like I need to dedicate more of myself to my culture, more that I needed back home. I really cherish celebrating cultural events now. I am grateful that I needed to be separated from home to commit myself more. 

on ignorance

Most of my friends are international, a lot of them are Indian. I tend to be friends with people who are pre-exposed to my culture. So I don’t have to explain myself. I am averse to people who don’t have understanding, or empathy and open-mindedness. Like, I had dinner the other day with an acquaintance, and he was like: “Oh wow this food is so exotic”. No, you shouldn’t say that. He just didn’t understand why this is a problematic thing to say.

And then I talked to another friend about it, and she said: “No, you should be more empathetic towards people like that.” And I was like: ”But why? Why do I have to take responsibility?”. It kind of turns me off a bit when people are just fascinated by that, and that only [my culture]. I feel like I have a lot more to offer than just my ethnicity. 

on open-mindedness 

I think just being open-minded, open to learning; people have a lot of assumptions and they make tone deaf comments. I don’t think a lot of you need to come through interacting with the person, because a lot of stuff I learned about people around me was through reading and the internet. I know how to frame my questions and inquire in a way that’s polite. I want to learn. It also depends on what content we consume. If you consume content that is made by white only, obviously the way you will frame things will be imperialist or eurocentric. The whole lens with which we look at the world is predominantly eurocentric. And it’s very easy to fall into that trap, cause the most accessible content is made by white authors or white creators, and that really frames how we look at the world. That’s why I consume content that is intentionally more international. 

on clubbing as Asian person

In terms of catcalling and fetishizing, I wasn’t expecting that much. I was in a club, and the “exotic” compliment came. And I asked my friend: “Is that because they are attracted to me or is it because I’m Indian?”. She was like: “I’m so sorry, but it’s probably the latter.”

on being “exotic”

We celebrated Holi last year. We were in public transport, a bunch of us. There were Indian and non-Indian. And they [non-Indian] were really thrilled and excited by the possibility of us being stopped and asked. “Oh guys what if we get stopped and they kick us out?”. There was underlying excitement for them, for us it was more like a concern. It could be a dangerous situation.


“Living abroad gave me freedom”

GOLD, she/her, Korean, exchange

Born and raised in Korea. It’s my first time living abroad, before that, I was in Europe for several weeks only as a traveler. 

on benefits of moving to Italy 

I started to enjoy being a stranger here. In Korea, people always judge each other. Here, I can be a stranger and people would think: “Oh, she’s doing that because she’s Korean, because she has a different background”. It has a positive impact for me I’d even say.

Living abroad gave me freedom. For instance, smoking. Back home girls get told that they shouldn’t smoke because they have to prepare their bodies for pregnancy. You can also wear whatever you want here, while in Korea you get judged a lot.

on racial slurs

Sure, I’ve been called a slur a lot. Ching Chong, Ni hao, Sawadee Kha, Cinese. 

We have one optimistic Korean friend, whenever someone says “Ni Hao”, she says “No, I’m Korean, you should say Annyeong” and starts teaching them. Sometimes she even becomes friends with those people.

It’s hard to tell if it’s microaggression or if they’re being rude. We’re here only for 2 months.

“They did not even give me a chance to talk”

SILVER, she/her, Korean, exchange 

I’m from Korea, but I’m studying at the University of Singapore now. Before, I was also an exchange student in the UK, and now I’m an exchange student here in Bocconi. 

on difference of studying in UK and Italy 

Compared to the UK, Italian people are more favorable. In the UK, they judge for bad pronunciation even more, in Italy both sides need to make an effort to communicate. 

on social interactions 

I feel benefit of being Korean. It’s easy to connect with people and to get approached if they are interested in K-culture. However, sometimes I’m not sure if people I meet want to use me to get information. Sometimes we have to be suspicious about that. 

Even if I’ve studied in the UK before, I’m still not comfortable speaking to white people who are not interested in Korean or Asian culture. It usually goes like 

“I’m from Korea”

“Oh, you like sushi?”

*awkward laughter* I can’t do conversations like that. 

So, If I had a chance to go to a party full of white people that I don’t know, I’d prefer not to go there.

Once, I went to a house party with my friend and there were only Western people, we were the only 2 Asians. I expected them to be very friendly because they invited us. But when I got there, they said something like: “Oh, you’re Korean, so it means you can’t speak English as much as we do”. Judging our pronunciation so hard. They did not even give me a chance to talk. 

an advice to university 

If someone is to be an International student in a Western country for the first time, it’s hard to meet and approach white people. If the university could make some events for International Asian students, it could make them feel better. It’s easier, for instance, for international students from Singapore to befriend students from Korea. 

I think of myself as Italian”

ORANGE, he/him, Chinese-Italian, bachelor’s

I’m Italian with a Chinese background. I have Chinese roots and I cherish my culture, but at the same time my belonging is more Italian. My grandparents moved here when my dad was 12. My mom was 10. They both grew up here, so I guess I am the 3rd generation. 

on growing up in a small city in Italy

My case is very rare. I grew up in a small town in the South of Italy. There were only 5-6 Asian families in the whole town. At school I was the only Chinese person. 

At times, especially in middle school, I felt like an outsider, even if my friends did not treat me that way. I was the only one who stood out, while everyone else was Italian. 

on Bocconi

Bocconi is a different environment. You see people from all around the world, you don’t feel as different. The times are different too, people care way more about inclusion, they tend to be more careful about not being racist. It feels different now.

on Italians speaking only in Italian

Italian people tend to hang out with the Italians more. I guess the reason why is that it’s easier to speak in Italian, some people struggle with English. It’s hard to initiate and maintain conversation on the same level as you would in Italian. You are funny in Italian, you can make jokes, when you speak english it doesn’t work. Some people just want to stay in their comfort zone and not step outside of it. 

on racial slurs

When I was a child, I remember a lot of “Ching Chang Chong, Ni hao, Arigato” and stuff. I kinda got used to it. At a certain point, I was like “Wait, if they’re doing this, they’re probably stupid, it’s not worth to be thinking of it”. During covid it also took place a lot. One time, there were teenagers, who were pointing at us and saying: “Oh Covid Covid, let’s go away, let’s go away”. 

Before, when I knew I was going somewhere with people that I didn’t know, I had a preset of questions I knew the answer for:

“Hey, do Chinese people have a small D?” Yes. “Do you eat dogs?” Yes. “Do you use only chopsticks?” Yes. “Do you see with those small eyes?” Yes. 

I got used to it, I answer automatically, but for newcomers It can be different. 

on identity

Because maybe I introduce myself in Italian, people are interested in me as a person first, but later they might get curious about my ethnicity. It comes later. I guess it’s because I think of myself as Italian.

an advice to Asian students

Maybe recognizing who you are dealing with would help. If you get catcalled, you shouldn’t take into consideration their words. They don’t know who you are, what they are saying, and how mean it can be. I guess that is very weird if someone at Bocconi does it to you. After all, we are the same age, so you should be at least a little aware. Coming back to the advice, I’d say you should be proud of where you’re from. 

“I don’t think men will see us only as women, they will see us as Asian women.”

PEACH, she/her, Japanese, bachelor’s 

So I am Japanese. Grew up in Japan for 10 years, and then lived in America for 7 years. And now I am here.

on first time being a minority

Japan is like the most heterogeneous community ever. Then I moved to California. I feel like that’s when I realized I am a minority here. But I was still a baby, I didn’t fully process it. Then people would make comments or backhanded stuff because I’m Asian. That’s kind of when I started to realize that people treat me differently because of my race. 

on racial profiling

I’m sure you’ve experienced being on the streets and being yelled at. First of all, everyone kind of assumes that I’m Chinese, because they don’t believe in other countries in East Asia, apparently. So, I get called “Ni hao”. It’s not pleasant at all and I hate that . People here would never make me forget that I’m Japanese, or that I’m Asian. When I meet someone, that’s the first thing they ask about, and how many times I have to do the same thing. But I guess that’s fine. *frustrated*

on racism in different countries

People are racist wherever you go. But it’s interesting, cause in Europe, it seems like it is not the hate crime level like in America, but here it’s more as if they are just ignorant to the fact that there are more types of people. 

Like, I got “Kawaii” once. I was like “ok, that’s correct language at least”.

on Italian teacher speaking only Italian

One time I was at office hours or something, I was the only foreigner in the group. And the teacher was making a joke and showing something [photo] to everyone except for me. 

a fun story

Every single one of my roommates were super intrigued with my rice cooker. They’ve never seen a rice cooker in their entire lives. They were making fun of it, but then they asked if they could use it too. So I find it very funny.

on catcalling

It’s always men. I never had a woman say anything. 

I never got catcalled, like it’s always about my race. Well actually…I don’t think men will see us only as women, they will see us as Asian women. That’s just what it is. 

on Bocconi 

You know it’s funny, I used to joke that I only got into Bocconi cause I’m the only diversity factor in my course, and then I came here and it is fing true. Because I am the only Asian person.

an advice

I think no matter where you are – that sounds like a Pinterest quote, but it’s important – you need to find your community whatever that means for you.

From authors:

It was our roommate’s birthday. She was kind enough to invite us, however, when we showed up we were two out of three non-Italians at the place. It didn’t matter to us, we danced, had conversations, and had a lot of fun. The last candles were blown. “She wants to take pictures with all roommates,” someone called for us. We posed, and as we were making space for the next person who wanted a pic with the birthday girl, we heard “Cinese” and snickering from a group of boys sitting in the corner. 

This story is just one in hundreds of occurrences from our daily life when someone had to make a comment on our race.

Those guys knew we’re from Kazakhstan, and they disregarded it. We could blame it all on alcohol, their idiocy or just let matters go, but those are people we see everyday on campus, looking just like everyone else, studying from the same books. So you would never know, if a person, sitting next to you in the library or having drinks at the same house party, looks at you like even your name doesn’t deserve to be remembered.

This article is personal. Because people, who feel entitled to be above us, think we’re clueless, naive and helpless. But here we are, letting you know that we do have minds and feelings, and we can and will speak. 

We wanted to hear, tell the stories, and maybe help you find answers in someone else’s. And to teach those, who got too comfortable, that we live in a big world, full of different people with different experiences. And they all deserve to be seen as humans first. 

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