I felt glances falling on me. It was hard to characterize these glances. They weren’t judgmental like the ones you would give to an outrageous outfit, nor were they concerned, like the ones you would give to a kid falling on the pavement. They were somewhere in between, as if I were a tourist whose opened map gave away the fact that he was lost.
But I wasn’t holding open any map, nor was I lost. I was walking down the streets of Valencia with a definite destination in mind. I was heading toward Mercadona, Spain’s ubiquitous supermarket chain, when I stopped at a corner to marvel at the surrounding architecture. In the few seconds I paused to look around, I couldn’t help but notice the people on the street beneath the gothic balconies.
None of them looked like me.
That same thought must have also crossed these people’s minds, because they were looking at me. Perhaps it was all in my mind, but I was convinced that they were looking at me solely because I was the only Asian face on the street.
There was an ice cream shop on Plaza de la Reina, supposedly one of the best shops in all of Europe. Whenever I passed through the plaza, I would see hoards of people, both tourists and locals, piled up in front of the colorful display freezers. I was never a huge fan of sweets, but I figured that it be blasphemous for me not to try something so renowned.
However, I never ended up getting a taste of the city’s best ice cream. The one time I mustered up enough courage to say the Spanish words for “Hi, can I try the nougat flavor?” the server looked at me with what seemed like annoyance in her eyes before turning away to scoop someone else’s ice cream. I couldn’t help but think that she disregarded me because I was obviously a foreigner who looked nothing like her. Perhaps she was just overwhelmed by the volume of customers and was going to come back to me, but I didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt. I quickly bowed my head and walked away.
“What do you think of the Chinese?” I asked my host dad.
“They are a very hardworking and successful people.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, they own many restaurants, bars and essentially every corner shop. In fact, the owner of a bar I often go to is Chinese.”
“Do you know what other Valencians think of the Chinese?”
“The same thing. There’s even a saying called trabajar como un chino — to work like a Chinese — to describe someone who works really hard.”
“So you would say that the Chinese have a good reputation?”
This conversation was revelatory. I hadn’t expected Valencians to have such a positive opinion of the Chinese, nor had I expected the Chinese to have such a significant presence in the city.
There was a Chinese restaurant just a few minutes away from my homestay. I went there once to satiate my craving for something that wasn’t potato or sausage, but the beef lo mein I ordered was subpar, too greasy and bland. Nevertheless, the blue-and-white porcelain plates, as well as the other traditional Chinese decor in the room, reminded me of home.
Over my meal, I befriended my waiter, a man in his early 20s who spoke both fluent Mandarin and Spanish. Before I left the restaurant, I made sure to ask him about his story, about what it was like growing up as a first-generation Chinese immigrant in Spain. He told me that when he was little, his peers always made fun of him for looking different and called him chino, but as he grew up, his appearance no longer mattered. He now felt essentially the same as any other Spaniard, who can never have enough of potato pancakes and soccer.
Toward the end of my stay in Valencia, I had a fascinating conversation with a souvenir shop owner. Unlike many of the other people I had engaged with in the previous weeks, he didn’t assume anything, greet me with a Ni hao or ask if I was from China. When I volunteered the fact that I was an American student, we started talking about our home countries — he was from Uruguay — and what we were doing away from them. We spent over half an hour talking about economic strife, cultural shocks, tolerance and bigotry.
It was the first time that I had felt as though a person in Spain saw me beyond my race.
My host dad had always told me that he wanted to travel to China one day, so before I left for home, I bought him a Chinese-Spanish dictionary as a gift. I also knew that he would appreciate it more than merely a translation tool because, motivated by our shared passion for philology, we used to have hourlong conversations about the origins and evolutions of words.
Two days after I returned home, he sent me an email saying that he had discovered a curiosity through the dictionary. He saw that phoneticized form for “car” in Chinese is qìchē, and it reminded him of a Spanish expression called pegarse una leche — literally “to hit oneself with milk,” which translates to “to crash (into a car).”
Perhaps there are more similarities between Spanish and Chinese than I had expected.