Spanish Customs That Make a Guiri Cringe

My fourth Spain-iversary quietly came and went in September. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible Spanish adventures of the past few years, as well as less savory aspects of life abroad. Andres and I love Madrid and would like to stay. However, no place is perfect. When you haul anchor to a different culture, the new customs are alternately delightful and bewildering.

In many ways, it is easy to stay put when you know a country and that culture’s expectations. We’re pretty darn comfortable here, and have settled into nice, cozy routines. If we were to move to say, Germany, we’d have an uphill battle of adapting to a whole new set of traditions. We’ve adapted to Spain in countless ways–with regards to the schedule, the social-ness, and even the decibel level. Last night, or example, we went to a restaurant and complained that we felt rushed because the waiters were so darn attentive. They asked us, “Have you decided what you want yet?” after only a few minutes. That is a rare thing in Spain; usually you need smoke signals to get a waiter’s attention.

On the other hand, there is something to say for handling the difficult aspects of an adopted country–even after you have been there several years. There are some things that aren’t easier to swallow over time. Today I want to discuss two specific Spanish customs that unnerve me and will always make me uncomfortable–even if we stay here for the next few decades.


Before coming to Spain, I hadn’t realized how cultural staring is. In the US, children are taught that it is impolite to stare. In Spain, it’s the exact opposite. Staring is as ubiquitous as lisping–everyone’s doing it!

There is no place this is felt as acutely as on the metro. For a guiri (foreigner), it seems as if every commuter is sizing you up.  From scrutinizing the brand name on their neighbor’s glasses to the narrowing of eyes at last year’s fashions, the hawk-eyed commuters are pros at making guiris shift uneasily in their seats. Are they passing judgment, or just passing the time?

Metro time: expect to get sized up

 I’ve been stared at by older generations, as well as those my own age. It doesn’t matter if you are a guy, a girl, or a dancing koala–people will stare at you. (Teenagers won’t stare as much because, well, they are teens and have important business to attend to on their phones.)

Once I asked a Spanish co-worker about the staring, an she had no idea what I was talking about. In my experience, doing certain “non-Spanish” actions will draw even more wrath from the staring gods. If you want to get into a stare-down, I recommend one of the following:

  • read a book with the original jacket or cover in plain view (most locals cover ’em up)
  • eat or drink (Sip coffee on the metro?! How dare you!)
  • wear flip-flops
  • wear shorts in the fall or anything else that is deemed seasonably inappropriate
  • speak in a language that is not Spanish
  • bring your bike along for the ride

If you’re not an American, and living in Spain, do you also find that Spaniards stare a great deal?

Overt Racism

The first week back in school, I was trying to learn the names of many new students. In one class, I asked the co-teacher, “What’s the name of the boy sitting next to Jose?” Her response: “Oh, the chino? That’s Alejandro.”

Really? Was it necessary for you to comment on the boy’s features? Here’s a nifty tip: cross out the racial reference. (“Oh, the chino? That’s Alejandro.” See? I understand the information perfectly.)

Referring to anyone with Asian features as “chino,” regardless of if they are Korean, Japanese, Thai, or Chinese. Having zero qualms about calling a dark-skinned person “negro.” Labeling someone “chino,” “negro,” or “gitano” as a pejorative term (even if the person isn’t actually, say, a gypsy). These are all commonplace in Madrid, a fairly diverse European capital!

Racial tensions are caught in the very warp and weave of the Spanish language, as well. Idioms like “hacer el indio” (literally “to be an Indian” / figuratively “to play the fool”) and “cuento chino” (literally a “Chinese tale”/ figuratively a “lie”), pop up in everyday language. Have you heard of the dessert known as a “brazo de gitano” (gypsy arm)? Oh, and don’t get me started on the candy called “Conguitos.” I’d be curious to discover the etymology of these expressions, especially to hear how the insulating dictatorship influenced and reinforced these negative views of foreigners.

Posters around the city routinely make me cringe in their lack of sensitivity and diversity. For example, there is a campaign advertising trade schools and nursing schools all over the city.  The boy outfitted with welding gear is obviously Latino. And the nursing poster girl? A fair-skinned blonde, of course.

When I first saw these posters, I wondered, “Why didn’t they include an array of cultural backgrounds in the photos?” Then, I ran across the current poster for Madrid’s food bank. Coincidentally, Spanish artists had envisioned that very image, and the American in me wished I could unsee it. Is it a coincidence that the “Asian” girl has buck teeth? What about the massive lips on two of the twelve characters?

Are we to assume that these figures are all lighthearted parodies? It could be the American in me, but I’m inclined to think that the continuation of such overt racism is doing more harm than good. This is especially true when I see how students treat anyone who deviates from the European “norm.” I wince every time a student–or teacher–pulls back the corners of their eyes. The same thing happens whenever a stranger stares an uncomfortably long time at my “different” clothes on the metro. And that’s a gut reaction that I doubt will ever change.


Whether you live at home or abroad–what local customs are hard for you to deal with?

Related links:

The Spanish Stare – a humorous take on riding the rails with Spanish commuters.

Your Spain Experience – Interview With Erin – I don’t hesitate to call this required reading.

 P.S. I finally signed up for Bloglovin! Follow my blog with Bloglovin and don’t forget to follow along on Twitter and Facebook .

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  1. I can relate to this so well! When I lived in South Korea, the staring and overt racism were two of the most obvious differences I faced–you never really get used to it. Honestly, when I moved back to Canada I felt a bit invisible because I was so used to the attention! Great post!

    • Cassandra

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Marie! I didn’t realize that there was overt racism in South Korea, as well. It must have been an adjustment, for sure.

  2. It must be interesting to be living in a third culture between you and Andres. Kind of makes you wonder what it would be like if you went and lived in either Colombia or Arkansas!

    • Cassandra

      Yes, it is interesting in that we don’t have anyone who can “translate” the culture for us like we would in Arkansas or Barranquilla.

      Like I mentioned above, though, no place is perfect. There are aspects of life in the States and Colombia that we aren’t especially fond of, either. In a third culture, however, the difference in customs can become magnified since it’s something surprising/shocking to both of us.

  3. Definitely two things I really dislike about Spain. The staring really gets to me – it’s like being a zoo animal sometimes! Another one to add to the stare-down list is being very obviously foreign-looking, particularly if you’re in a non-touristy area.

    With those two things combined, I don’t know how I could ever feel like Spain is “home”. If people are constantly pointing out (sometimes rudely) how you you’re not like them, it’s hard to feel like you fit in.

    • Cassandra

      Sometimes I wonder if I get stared at more in small towns (where foreigners are more of an oddity) or big cities (where there are more people to stare at you)! I’m glad you chimed in, since I definitely felt that I get stared at in Barcelona as well as Madrid.

      I agree with you that with these two particular customs, it can be very hard to feel comfortably “at home” in Spain. I can’t help but wonder how prevalent overt racism and staring are across the globe. I imagine that most cultures are wary of outsiders, but big (diverse!) cities would be where you’d least expect to find this kind of ostracism.

    • You know, I just came back from my daily chores around my neighbourhood and as I walked around, I felt this more acutely today than other day so I came on the internet to look for opinions like this online as I thought I was being overly self-conscious but I dislike being Guiri-looking in this city and I don’t feel that way in any other large city I’ve lived in (London, Dublin, Buenos Aires and Chicago). The staring is something I will never, ever get used to and the idea that I’m labelled a Guiri no matter how long I’ve been here (6 years now) really gets on my wick. I’m 35 and well beyond the self-conscious teenager stage but alas, I feel it almost daily here. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Thanks for this!

      • Oh and I’m from Ireland, by the way, where staring is definitely rude!

  4. I grew up in a “staring” culture in Malaysia, and so it never bothers me. The first time my husband came to visit, he was a little dismayed, “Did you notice that everyone is staring at your family?” he asked. That’s never bothered me, and I probably stare a little too much in the USA whenever I see an outfit I like or an interesting hairstyle or kids being naughty…whatever seems interesting to me. Now that I’m back in Asia, I’m free to stare as much as I want.
    Racism, that’s another matter. It is sad how much racism is still a part of the culture and even political policies in countries where I’ve lived. That’s not innocuous, even though I feel staring is.

    • Cassandra

      Thanks for chiming in, Rachel! It’s fascinating to me how staring varies so much culturally. I’m guessing that there’s no equivalent term for “rubber necking” (complete with negative connotations) in Malaysia or China… !

      On the other side of the coin, do you feel that people in non-staring cultures don’t pay enough attention to the small details of everyday life? Do you think they miss out by not taking in this extra information?

  5. OMG. That ad. Cannot unsee.

    I see a lot of this reflected in Russian culture – there’s a ton of casual racism and homophobia here. It just makes a bit more sense here since it’s a pretty homogeneous society… I’d hope more cosmopolitan countries would have moved past that :/

    • Cassandra

      Isn’t the poster terrible? It’s displayed at a pizza chain all over the city.

      Interestingly enough, Spain (well at least Madrid and Barcelona) is pretty accepting when it comes to diversity in relationships. It’s common to see same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand in the city center. Older generations may still comment and frown about this, but the younger generations are fairly open to same-sex couples. The same can’t be said for racial differences, I’m afraid.

    • There is way more staring at in Russia than in Spain. I wouldn’t say staring in Spain is just plain racism, as you stare at Spaniards too. ‘Pretty homogeneous society’? Russia? There are loads of foreigners in Russia, especially from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Cheers.

      • Cassandra

        As I mention in an earlier comment, I agree that Spaniards stare at everyone (not just foreigners). As a guiri, though, I’m not used to all the staring and it wears on me.

  6. Great post and spot on. I definitely was stared at constantly in Spain. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling especially since I moved there from NYC where staring is absolutely frowned upon. The crazy part is that I would see the same people daily/weekly and they never stopped staring. After 7months of seeing a person it’s no longer curiosity.

    I’ve traveled to many countries and have at times been stared at, but it normally occurs in smaller towns or less diverse settings. I understand that racial and cultural diversity isn’t commonplace in every city and anticipate some reactions. However, Spain is the only European country I’ve been to where it’s been an issue and accepted so openly.

    • Cassandra

      I too have noticed that people I see on a weekly/monthly basis will stare just as much as strangers I’ve never crossed paths with before. Are they scrutinizing my attire? Do I offer some sort of amusement to them? Are they simply bored? It’s unnerving.

      Thank you for adding your experience, Kelly. I haven’t been to New York and find it very interesting that staring is rather taboo there! What a contrast to Spain. In my travels I too have noticed more staring in Madrid compared to other big cities. The first place that pops to mind is London–what an incredibly diverse place. Lavapies pales in comparison.

  7. Sweet baby Jesús, I don’t recall seeing that ad while I was in Madrid. If my skin ever looked that shade of yellow I’d be tested for jaundice. And those black men look like they’re straight out of a minstrel show, oh my God.
    Thanks for linking to my interview!

    • Cassandra

      The ad is fairly new, I believe. I saw it pop up at a nearby restaurant in August or September.

      And, yes, it’s so far from reality. Thankfully your interview can shed some (realistic) light!

  8. I was only in Madrid for 1.5 weeks but I noticed the staring. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was a WOC or if it was because I have my septum pierced or just because I looked ~American. Many friends living there have assured me it’s a cultural norm. Like PDA.

    • Cassandra

      I’ve been here for 4 years and the staring still unnerves me. It’s a cultural norm, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get accustomed to!

  9. The starting, yes! Canadians are also taught that staring is super rude, so I cannot get used to it. Though, I’m glad to hear that it’s universal…I kept thinking it’s because my hair is so light.

    • Cassandra

      I definitely think is’s common for everyone to be stared at. Not just those with light hair! I wonder if it’s more or less common to be stared at in small towns. Although a hard thing to quantify, it’d make for some interesting research!

  10. Oh my goodness, I know that stare too well! My husband has no idea what I’m talking about. When I was a student in Salamanca and Sevilla eons ago, I felt like I was walking around with three heads! They had never seen an Asian before (or in their words “una china” even though I’m Filipino-American, and there are no other Asian countries). Seriously, they were shocked. And sadly, with the stares it can, not always, involve racism.

    Even as I’m here in Barcelona in a more diverse city and many years later, I still get the stares even though I can shrug them off more easily. If it annoys me, I stare right back!

    The overt racism absolutely infuriates me. As in those times that I, or others, have been harassed or insulted for being again, “china”. It is rare but it happens. The covert racism, it seems to be a new concept for them, where it’s an issue we Americans take seriously. Rightfully so, it’s damaging. Brave post!

    • Cassandra

      Right–everyone who looks vaguely Asian must be from China! You must really have thrown an extra wrench in their plans if they had to had to assimilate the fact that you were actually from–gasp–the US.

      I thought long and hard about if I wanted to broach this subject of race on my blog. In the end, though, I strongly believe that it is something that should be addressed. Different culture treat race differently, and it has been an eye-opener to see how Spaniards deal with it. Especially when coupled with relentless staring, it can make for an uncomfortable experience.

      You could argue that I’m not the best person to bring this up–I’m light-skinned and my ancestors are from Europe. However, I’ve witnessed plenty of baffling (for a guiri, claro) moments at school & out and about that make me want to address the topic and hear stories from others.

      For example, it’s really shocking to hear co-workers lump together certain groups based on race. A few weeks ago a co-worker was ranting to me about “All those lazy, good-for-nothing Latino students.” (My thoughts: Fantastic, it’s good to know that you see each student as an individual! Also, you think that NON of the light-skinned students are lazy?!)

  11. I honestly couldn’t agree more about these two things. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve stopped worrying about the many concerned stares when I wear sandals in October (let the haters hate if it’s 78 degrees!), but I will never, EVER get used to the overt racism here. My students constantly pull back their eyes and call the black students in their class “chocolate” or other inappropriate names. I find this pretty interesting, because most of my students are immigrants from Morocco or Ecuador. Either way, it seems to me like both children and adults need to be educated on how to politely approach diversity.

    • Cassandra

      Yup, I know what you mean about the clothes! In general I try to stick to the seasonal protocol; however, fall has been so warm I have been wearing weather-appropriate clothing. It’s been annoying to hear coworkers commenting on how “fresquito” I’m dressed. If it’s still 70+ degrees outside you won’t find me wearing sweaters, boots, or scarves! Maybe that’s why Spaniards have been staring at us– our sandals and short sleeves can’t possibly belong to October 😉

      It’s always interesting to hear stories from other work places since I only have my own school experience to go on. My school doesn’t have Moroccan immigrants but we do have many from Romania, South America, and other African countries. Oh, and there are several kids who’ve been adopted from Russia! I don’t think I’ve heard the “chocolate” remark before, how frustrating 🙁

  12. I think you should move to Germany 🙂
    I’m used to the staring from Latvia – it’s so hostile. And the racism – the ‘n word’ is still pretty common there. I told them that they couldn’t use that word and they’d ask why, rappers say it all the time. I was like ‘um, you’re a white Latvian’ – in no way is that appropriate 😉

    • Cassandra

      Yikes!! I have to ask my high schools students to PLEASE not use the F-word in class. And they have the same, legit question–But why not? It’s in allllll the songs, teacher!

      Interesting to find out that staring is common in Latvia, too. Thanks for sharing, Linda!

  13. THE STARING!!! I was so confused by it at first but now I kind of enjoy it because it gives me the license to stare too! 😉

    • Cassandra

      Fighting fire with fire–ha! Sometimes I try this too, but the person usually keeps staring :/

  14. Ah, yes. I’ve noticed that staring thing in Madrid too last summer. I don’t look particularly Spanish with really light skin and blue eyes…so I got quite a few looks all the time. It was kind of fine as comparing to India where you are being watched all the time!

    By watched I mean staring all the way till you get out of sight, pointing figures, actively discussed and even secretly (or not so secretly snapped)….Spanish metro was really tolerate 😀

    • Cassandra

      Whoa! Well, if I make it to India, I’ll consider the Madrid metro my training ground!

  15. This is so interesting – I found the staring thing to be unsettling too, in Spain. I also had a Spaniard tell me, “You are guiri. No matter what you do or how you dress or how you speak, you will always be guiri! Guiri can only be guiri.” So… yeah, such a different experience. That poster is really… just, wow! Crazy!

    I found being in a third culture you see things that go largely unseen by the natives. I pointed out two cute kids to one of my coworkers and was shocked when she said, “Those kids are cute?!? BUT… they’re Abbo!?” This stuff happens all the time and it drives me absolutely nuts.

    • Cassandra

      I’m afraid that is the most prevalent attitude I’ve encountered here. It can be very frustrating–for example, my doorman always treats me like a child since I’m a guiri. He assumes I don’t know how to do anything, but I must be doing ok if I’ve managed to find myself an apartment in a foreign land!

      And–that is just awful about the commentary on your coworkers kids. Why can’t all kids (and adults…) have the chance to be viewed the same way?

  16. Completely agree that these are 2 things I will never get used to. The staring I have come to accept as cultural, and I do see Spaniards doing it to each other too, not just to guiris. I used to think that I had a stain on my shirt or lipstick on my teeth, but no. Now I can usually shrug it off, but some days it frustrates me and a very pointed stare is directed at the starer!
    The casual racism and intolerance is something I will never feel comfortable with though. Just today I cringed to hear a colleague saying ‘Pakis’ about people from Pakistan – something in the UK we consider a racist term. It saddens me how much it is tolerated and propagated. People here do have such a focus on where people are from, even within Spain, but I think too often when they are talking about people from other countries, it spills over into what a lot of guiris would consider racism.
    As for that drawing – wow. The photo advert for the 12th October festival in Madrid was another horror – everyone on it (12 people) were white, as though that represents Madrid. Well no, it really doesn’t.
    Great post, I admire you for tackling this subject!

    • Cassandra

      I agree, Kate–staring is cultural, and it is also something that is directed at everyone, not just foreigners.

      You make a great point when you say that people here are very concerned about / interested in where others are from. This make for pronounced regional distinctions even within Spain.

      A nosy neighbor of mine demanded to know where I was from, but after I inquired about her own origins, her answer was quite vague. (“Oh, I’ve lived in Madrid long enough to call it my home.”) If only she’d known that I wouldn’t have judged her if she’d revealed that she was from Extremadura, Barcelona, the islands, or even–gasp–another country!

      I don’t recall seeing the October 12 posters, but after seeing so many other homogeneous images around Madrid, I can believe it 🙁

  17. Staring is super normal here…but I stare right back! Besides, people-watching is half the fun in walking around 😛

    But you’re right that overt racism is a problem here; the other day my teachers were worriedly discussing all the “rumanos” and how they’ve all got connections with the mafia and everything…good grief

  18. Great post! This is fascinating! I do remember being stared at all the time the last time I was in Spain!

  19. I went to Madrid this past week-end and I could not get over the people in the lines for the Christmas lottery tickets…

    Maybe not superstitions but how many Spanish people think you’ll die if you’re not wearing a scarf or if you walk around the house barefoot (a common thing in Canada) . Or how you’ll get a sore throat if you drink something with ice in it…I could go on forever ha ha.

  20. I really thought I stood out for the first few weeks in Madrid since everybody stared at me everywhere I went. I was like, “Do I REALLY look that American?” It was so unnerving! Then I realized I was not that interesting and that they stared at everyone. And when I asked Spaniards about it, they didn’t understand what I was talking about! So I had to warn them about not staring at people on the subway in NYC (which I now get to ride every day since I moved to Manhattan) or stare at anyone in general in the USA unless they wanted to be reported for harassment. When I occasionally catch someone’s glance in the subway, I immediately look away which is hard when you are packed in like sardines.

    And it’s interesting you brought up the overt racism–this is something I have to deal with a lot at my job which I can’t get into too much but it has to do with how French people sometimes portray minorities in cartoons/comics. It’s a lot like those ads you mentioned in your post. A lot of black face, a lot of buck teeth and yellow skin, Native Americans running around with feathers in their head, you get the idea.

  21. I definitely agree with these two. I hate the constant staring when I walk with a coffee ‘para llevar’ or when I run through the streets. The worst I think is the racism here because people think just because you aren’t Spanish and of colour, you are ‘negro,’ ‘morros,’ etc. My students found it hard to believe that I was from Canada and the older generation think I or other people of colour are from a different planet.

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