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?
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?
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.