I don’t remember when, but a few years I got a notification that someone new was following me on Twitter. I used to check everyone’s profiles to see why the person was following me of all people. The new follower’s name was Erin, apparently she lived in California, and she loved … Real Madrid? Odd, I thought, but I decided to follow her back. And what a good decision it was! Erin has definitely increased my love for Real Madrid, and she has shared her experiences in Spain via her blog but also via Twitter.
Erin has a much more unique perspective on her time in Spain than most blogs. Why? Simply put, she’s not white. A lot of the “Expat in Spain” blogs are written by people just like me, and that can get a boring and monotonous, don’t you think? After reading one of Erin’s most poignant blog entries on racism in the classroom, I thought about interviewing her, because you people must get tired of so many white-chick-dating-a-Spanish-dude stories. So here you are; I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I do.
Describe how you first got interested in Spain.
Two words: Real Madrid. Haaa, no, just kidding.
I studied Spanish in high school and I loved learning the language, minus my inability to roll my R’s. Before she died, my grandma and I also made a silly promise to visit Spain together (she’s here in spirit) since it wasn’t part of her only trip to Europe. In college, Spanish art history became a huge part of my academics. Maybe had I grown up a Boca Juniors fan and my school offered classes on Argentine art history, things would be different, but after a certain point it seemed like all signs pointed to Spain.
How good was your Spanish when you first got to Spain? Do you feel like your level of Spanish affected how people treated you?
According to BEDA’s tests at orientation I was at the B1 level, which seems about right. In Spanish conversations I mostly nod and say “vale” a lot.
At school, my coordinator and teachers knew I spoke Spanish and were very grateful for it. In general, at bars or grocery stores, people tend to assume I speak Spanish, so aside from a moment of awkward staring, I’m treated like any other stranger.
But in other situations, if my level were any lower, I think things would be extremely difficult. People look at me and assume my native language is Mandarin or Japanese instead of English, and that throws them off. When I was at an appointment to empadronar, the funcionario let out a very audible sigh while I walked up and pretty much stared lasers into my soul, speaking to me as quickly as possible. His demeanor completely changed later, when he asked for my passport and saw that I was from the U.S. He even spoke slower for me.
What did you know about Spain’s diversity and treatment of POC before going there? Did you read anything specific (blogs, articles, books) to help prepare yourself?
If someone has suggestions for all of the above, I would love to read them. I saw quite a few articles about Chinese immigration to Spain, and one about Colombians, but my research fell short after that. I do know a bit about populations in Córdoba pre-Reconquest due to thesis research, but that wasn’t particularly helpful to my situation.
Interestingly, a blogger who taught English in Taiwan probably helped me the most. Formerly “Black in Asia”, he now blogs at Owning My Truth and his experiences were really eye-opening, and I encourage everyone (especially people looking to teach anywhere in Asia) to read some of his posts.
What’s different about racism in Spain vs. the US?
In the U.S., and California in particular, I mostly suffer microaggressions and the street harassment explicitly involves my race maybe 60% of the time. In Spain, and Madrid in particular, it’s 100%.
People are very open with their racist thoughts. They’re not afraid to tell me about the stereotypes they hold against los Chinos, nor do they differentiate between the many countries in Asia in making these comments. This isn’t “harmless ignorance” as some people like to see it, and it goes beyond the typical blunt manner of speaking. I’ve been told more than once that “my people” are causing la crisis because they’re taking business away from honest Spaniards. I’ve been physically assaulted, and while all of these things have happened to me in the U.S. as well, it’s happened with more frequency here.
I’m not saying one is worse than the other, and before the #NotAllSpaniards brigade comes in, I’m not saying all Spaniards are racist either. It’s just different.
Did any aspect of your experience surprise you?
In my experience, if the person is over 65, they barely acknowledge my race, or do so in as complimentary a manner as possible. In the U.S. we have that stereotypical idea of a racist, grumpy old grandpa stuck in his ways, but most abuelos have always treated me with extra kindness. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I look young enough to be their grandchild’s friend.
What have been some positive experiences you’ve had? Negative?
The cutest family in my school must be the Madrileña mom, Catalan dad, their 8-year-old Chinese and 3-year-old Ethiopian daughters. The mom is the biggest sweetheart and she was so happy I was there for her children, because “they don’t get to see a lot of successful women that look like they them.” Whatever tiny role I played in helping shape their confidence, I am forever grateful.
I mentioned some of my negative experiences in previous questions, but the worst was probably the last day of La Liga. Atleti was playing for the title, but Real Madrid also had a game that day, and I was at the Bernabéu. Afterward I went to meet up with other friends for dinner, still in my jersey since I hadn’t had the opportunity to change, and I am not exaggerating when I say that was one of the most terrifying walks of my life. I was not making eye contact with people, focused on texting my friends to provide distraction, yet I was stopped on every block (and in the metro). At one point, two girls got into my face and started yelling obscenities I wish I didn’t know in Spanish, telling me to go back to China and take my team with me. She reached out her hand and had her friend not pulled her away, I don’t know what would’ve happened. Immediately afterward, a large group of guys surrounded me and I had to push my way out and pretty much started running.
People are going to say it was my jersey, not racism, but that’s only half the picture. I saw plenty of people still wearing their shirts without being harassed the way I was. These people singled me out because I was alone, I was female, and I was foreign. Their insults weren’t just about my team, they were about my gender and race (the group of guys asked how much a China would cost for a night, if I trabajar como un chino in bed).
I know, this isn’t limited to Spain. I’ve been harassed for wearing San Francisco Giants gear in the wrong cities. But this was another level, and it’s not something people think actually happens with frequency in Spain.
Did any of your coworkers treat you differently because you weren’t what they expected?
There was definitely an “Oh…huh.” moment when I arrived, especially because the auxiliars were shifted around on the first day of school. Some of my teachers have been sweet and welcoming since the beginning, and I will never forget their kindness. Others took a while to warm up to me, skeptical that I could teach English (Funny enough, these were the teachers who didn’t really speak English at all). A few parents were always surprised when their children introduced me as the English teacher. It took a little convincing, and teachers I didn’t work with were less than friendly all year, but the ones I saw every day ended up being great coworkers. I was really lucky.
What have you learned this year?
That I have the right to be upset, angry, and hurt. Anyone who has met me knows that I am very calm (exception being sporting events); one of my teachers asked me how I could possibly look so feliz all the time. When I talk about the racism I’ve experienced, people tend to picture me as a perpetually angry woman getting offended about everything all the time, but I’m really not. I rarely react in any of the situations I’ve been put in, except to get away as quickly as possible, and I’m extremely non-confrontational.
But it’s a relief to have my feelings validated, to realize that I am allowed to be upset that someone screamed, “Ni hao!” in my face as I came up from the metro, I am allowed to be angry that someone grabbed my ass and told me he’d never been with a China before, I am allowed to be hurt that my students mock me and pretend to speak Chinese when I’ve only ever spoken English and Spanish with them. I have the right to expect respect.
Any advice for future WOC (and/or POC) who come to Spain?
This is a hard one. It took me a while to understand that what was happening to me in everyday life wasn’t fair and that microaggressions are more than what they seem (Chuks, the blogger I mentioned, has a great post on this topic), and not every POC has turned this corner. Beyond that, POC is a really broad category, and what I experience as a Chinese American is not the same as a Black American, or a Mexican American, etc. Some people may never run into the things I have, or they may not process it the same way. I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s experiences; what deeply offended me might not even register in someone else’s mind.
But if I could go back and give myself advice? Whether or not I want to be, I am an ambassador for my race and my nationality. When I want to, I can turn an awkward encounter into a teaching moment. But I also have the choice to run. I am not obligated to listen to someone insult my race because of social etiquette; no one is.