My Experience as an Asian American in Spain

I consider the United States of America to be a “melting pot” or, as my ex-roomie says, a “salad bowl”, of different cultures, immigrants, religions, people, languages, etc. I’m going to first start off by saying that I am not extremely patriotic in the stereotypical sense. I don’t walk around yelling “AMERICA! AMERICA! LONG LIVE, MURICAAAA!”. I also don’t own any clothing with the United States flag emblazoned on it. To be honest, I try to keep myself very conscious about the idea of ethnocentrism while traveling, and try to make sure I always have an open mind. Nonetheless, I am a proud American, a first generation daughter, whose parents immigrated here from Vietnam, to create a better future for themselves and their family.

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Me & the Auntie in Madrid

This subject has been on my mind and in my heart since I started working and living in Spain last year, in Castilla La Mancha. I’ve tried to write out a blog post numerous times, summarizing my feelings and thoughts into something cohesive to explain the little nagging thought of inferiority and self doubt I’ve harbored for the past year. Spain is a beautiful little country. It’s filled with so much history, beautiful architecture, and a very rich culture. As for immigrants, the country is very homogenous. I knew that I’d be living in a different country, language, and culture when I decided to move over to Europe. What I didn’t expect was that I’d be stared at while walking down the street, pointed at, and obviously whispered about, less than a foot away from gossipers.

Living in the pueblo I did last year, with only 12,000 people, I knew I’d stick out a little bit. I knew I looked different than the normal Spanish person, and I expected maybe a few looks of curiosity. What I didn’t expect was walking down the streets with my roommate, Tim, and being blatantly stared and gaped at from elders, teenagers, and even little kids. It’s an awkward feeling knowing that eyes are following you, and heads turn whenever you walk into a bar or restaurant, and then it’s followed by the whispers of “China! Mira, una china!” [A Chinese person! Look, a Chinese girl!]. I’ve even had a full on argument at a bar in the pueblo with a very stubborn Spanish man, who was convinced that I was Japanese and proceeded to teach me about how the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Although, I told him numerous times: “I promise you, I’m American and was born in America” but alas, the argument persisted and I eventually gave up and left.

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With my Dad and our “Asian Glows”

It’s disheartening to know that some locals in Spain continue to look at me and only see my small eyes and flat nose, and immediately associate me with any martial arts movie they’ve ever watched in their life. I’ve had strangers bow to me, thinking that they were being “respectful”, but it made me feel uncomfortable and to be honest, disrespected. When walking down the street, cars will honk and roll down their windows yelling “Ni-Hao!!!” or “Konichiwa!!!”. Some people tell me to overlook things like this and ignore it, that people don’t know better. Well, to be frank, it’s a form of harassment. Stares, gaping, and pointing are not forms of compliments. Being yelled hello in Chinese, Japanese, or other random noises that people make, thinking they’re being funny imitating a language, isn’t funny. THERE ARE MORE COUNTRIES IN ASIA THAN CHINA AND JAPAN.

What is even more disheartening is that most adults don’t know how to handle a situation like this. It’s worse when I am supposed to pretend that I don’t understand or speak Spanish, so kids will think that what they’ve said isn’t being understood and they can get away with some rude remarks. All the teachers that I work with know that I can understand and speak Spanish relatively fluently. When kids make rude remarks about Asian culture, most teachers I’ve worked with feel uncomfortable and don’t say anything. They tell their class to stop, threaten to take away break time, laugh nervously, and afterwards, apologize to me or tell me that the kids don’t know better, or that it’s “just the Spanish way of thinking, typical Spanish jokes, kids just have to get used to you, they really are great kids, etc”.

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I’m here working as a Language and Cultural Assistant. So, I’ll teach you about my double culture life. What I love so much about travel, minus all of these stereotypes and rude comments, is being able to meet other people who are eager and interested to learn about different cultures, lifestyles, and about different people. If I’m going to be the only Asian American that these students may ever meet in their lives, I’m going to open their damn mind and teach them that there are actually A LOT more countries in Asia, than just China and Japan. I’m going to teach them that yelling hello and imitating a language are not acceptable. I want my students to learn that being ignorant is NOT ok. Being ignorant and uneducated is NOT an excuse. And I want to teach my other coworkers that when these comments are said, when the idea of race and culture are brought up, feeling uncomfortable is normal, but opening up conversation about these topics are necessary. Pardoning and excusing this behavior leaves us at square one.

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Americans & Brits

So back to why traveling is one of the most “real” teachers there is. It teaches me to be humble, patient, and for goodness sake, extremely open minded. It kicks me in the gut when I’ve thought I’ve had it all figured out. It introduces me to people from all over the world who are just as eager to learn about a culture, or a language, as I am. It teaches me that each experience a traveler has is unique and their own. That travel experiences can be shared and learned from, from all different kinds of travelers. My experience as an Asian American in Spain, is very different than the next person’s experience. Through living abroad, I’ve learned to break down stereotypes and break down barriers. Ignorance is not bliss, my friend… but sadly, just ignorance. 

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Finding my necessary Asian sauces in Madrid!

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9 thoughts on “My Experience as an Asian American in Spain”

  1. I’m in Madrid and am occasionally harassed with NiHao. I am Chinese but it’s catcalling. I just turned 29 and finally have the courage (comfort?) to use my middle finger for all harassment’s.

    They know what they’re doing is wrong and it’s deepseeded misogyny; the finger shut them up.

    Recently, I gave the finger to a group of workers and they all looked and asked each other: “What did YOU do?” See? When harassers catcall, they knew it was wrong BEFORE doing it. And they question each other as opposed to questioning me (they certainly were trying to get my attention maybe not with words) despite I was the one giving it. ?

    I did bring some culture to a small Italian town when traveling there. I had a better experience as I was treated like a celebrity. Although I was asked to sit next to another Caucasian American….

    I say I’m from NY, people always ask where I’m “from” and then say: “Ohhhh you’re American.”?

    Lastly, I always tell a bit of my personal experience to other European English speakers what it was like growing up as a minority in the US. The one sentence story is alway: “When I was young, I was asked if I ate dogs.” Just to humanize us Asians a bit.

  2. Thank you, Brenda!! That means a lot!! I think if you move to larger cities, it won’t effect you as much since they’re more open minded and see a lot more immigrants. But in the smaller towns, of course they’re not as used to it! The first town I lived in only had 12,000 people and the 2nd town had 20,000! Now I’m based in Madrid and there’s no problem at all (: I barely get stared at hahaha

  3. I love your blog. I am considering a move to Spain in a year or two…I always wondered what Asian Americans experience living in Spain.. Im not as young and moving there in my mid 40s will be quite an experience I’m sure.
    But thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Hi Hannah! Thank you so much for reading along (:

    Congratulations and I’m super excited for you!! Where I was placed my first year, it was a town of 12,000 people. My second year, I was in another town of 20,000. I think certain countries in Europe tend to be extremely homogenous, and Spain is one of those countries. It was really hard at first because I was such in shock that people would say mean things or whisper about me while I was standing right there, thinking that I didn’t understand. The microaggressions would make me feel so frustrated and upset that there were times I really wanted to go home or cry.

    Some of the teachers don’t know how to handle a situation like it because they’ve never dealt with it. Everyone in Spain generally looks similar. So, when someone else shows up and the teachers don’t even know or aren’t as knowledgeable about a culture or heritage or even ethnicity, they try to ignore it and pretend like it never happened. What I did, after the initial anger and getting angry, was instead educate and open up the conversation. I realized that in some of these towns, I would be the only Asian American that some of my students would ever meet, especially if they stayed where they were. I wanted to teach them that the United States is made up of many cultures and heritages that make us unique. It took a lot of work, especially because I still feel upset about it sometimes, but I always had to remind myself to be the bigger person and to educate instead of hate. A lot of it really comes from ignorance.

    In the end, I learned that there will be people who really just want to remain ignorant and never learn (just like in the United States), and there are people who are curious about your dual culture and home life. I think experiencing living abroad and in a different country is much more of a great opportunity than not going.

    I hope that helps! I feel like i rambled on a bit! Let me know what you decide! Murcia is a large city, and if you’re placed there and not in one of its surrounding towns, I think you will be ok!

    All the best!
    Cassandra

  5. Hi there Cassandra,
    So glad I came across your blog. I’ve just been accepted for the Auxiliares program in Murcia and I am Asian-American as well. I’m a little concerned about the issues you mentioned above and honestly it deters me a little bit from wanting to go. I know that as a teacher, part of the opportunity is a to teach cultural awareness, but I can also see myself getting real tired of those acts of microaggression and comments fast too. How did you handle yourself in those situations where the children said ignorant things and the teachers didn’t react?

  6. I’ve never lived in Madrid and I’m hoping next year if everything works out, I’ll be able to call it home! But, from what I’ve heard, so many people tell me that it’s so much better than the smaller pueblos, since Madrid is so diverse.

    Good to know that it still happens! I mean, technically, it still happened in the United States and everyone thinks the US is past all this racism stuff… hahaha… sadly, not. Goodluck to you as well! (:

  7. Hey girl! I came upon your blog bc I’m currently in Madrid working as an auxiliar. I think you described your experience pretty well. People think that, because Madrid is the capital of Spain and a lot more cosmopolitan, acts of microaggression and comments tinged with racist ignorance don’t occur, but they most definitely do. I’m glad that you’re using this opportunity to educate your children. Best of luck as you continue traveling and finishing up this year in Spain!

  8. Hi Chi Amy!!
    Thanks so much for following and commenting!! It’s good to know that I’ve got family supporting me when I’m far away, and rooting for me! (: Hahaha, I didn’t realize the picture of your mom had her mid-chewing a chocolate churro… oops! Miss you and everyone else, love ya! <33 And thanks again, for the continuous support! It means a lot!!

  9. This article reminds me how lucky we were to grow up and live in the DMV and not have to experience that level of ignorance on a regular basis. It is a test of how strong you are that you are able to embrace a new place where people are not immediately accepting of you. You are making a bigger difference then you think just by being there and breaking the mold. So proud of you and P.S. love the picture of my mom.

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