Being an Asian in Barcelona

It’s amazing how so much can change in five years.

Five years ago, in the summer of 2009, I did a summer internship for two months in Barcelona. It was my first time living in a foreign country on my own and everything was glorious. Well, minus one thing:

At least once a day, whether I was walking along the majestic avenue of Passeig de Gracia, or the residential streets of Eixample, or the narrow and winding streets of the Ciutat Vella, there will be AT LEAST one person to yell out at me “konichiwa”, “ni hao”, or “chinita guapa!” (“beautiful little Chinese girl!”). These are slightly less annoying than those who make unintelligible “Chinese sounds” or make Kung-Fu motions at me. The catcalls came mostly from construction workers, groups of youths, but also just regular-looking people. These daily incidents were extremely irritating to me, but as an educated person I did my best to not show emotion and walk on like I did not hear them. However, my friend/roommate Grace (also Asian), who is a lot sassier than me, could not take it anymore one day and yelled profanities at the pestering boys, with hand gestures to follow. I was super proud that Grace stood up for us, especially when no one was expecting us to speak up! I wish I had more courage to talk back at people, but at the same time, it was nerve-wrecking to confront (machistic) men in a foreign country, so I passed my summer cringing and bracing myself for any racist catcalls.

When I decided to come back to Barcelona to study a Masters degree in Tourism Innovation, I was looking forward to everything but dreading facing the racist catcalls on the streets. My first couple of days were so busy that it took my mind off of that, but what I did notice was that there were a ton of Asians in the streets and shops – was it just because I was staying in “Chinatown” aka the Tetuan-Arc de Triomf area? As I walked all over the city looking for an apartment, I realized that the Asian invasion was all over the city – in the old town, in Eixample Esquerra, in Gracia, heck, there were even Asian kids at the University. Primarily, Asians (basically all Chinese) are taking over the bars in Barcelona, one by one (these bars sell everything from cheap breakfast to dinner). Secondly, Asians run a lot of the Bazaar business (sell everything, they must all have the same provider because I also saw a lot of Asian bazaars in Portugal). The also own hair salons, little supermarkets, and Chinese restaurants. Friend explained to me a long time ago that the progression of Asian ownership of shops began with salons, then progressed to markets (alimentacio), then the bars.

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In fact, I was reminded of an amusing incident that happened to me when I was in the metro in 2009. I was standing on the platform waiting for the train when an elderly gentleman approached me with a flyer. He said “por si te interesa, estoy vendiendo mi bar” (“if you are interested, I’m selling my bar”). I told him politely that I am not buying a bar and returned the flyer to him. He persisted: “a lo mejor a tu padre le interesa”. I had to explain to him that I didn’t live in Spain. My Spanish friend later explained to me that many bar owners “de toda la vida” (that have been there their whole life) want to retire. Since the Chinese are immigrating via investment, they sell their bar to the Chinese and the Chinese continue to operate these “typical Spanish bars”.

The Chinese immigration in Spain is fascinating to me, and above all I am relieved that the Chinese influx in Barcelona the past couple years has successfully dispelled the novelty of Asians in the city and therefore benefiting me to not have to cope with “racist” catcalling. 🙂

3 Replies to “Being an Asian in Barcelona”

  1. fascinating entry Tendelle! I definitely remember all those catcalls in Barcelona and Paris too that summer.

    btw, I’m loving your blog 🙂

  2. […] of Barcelona and its best spots. I’ve also written about what it’s like to live as an Asian in Barcelona in a separate […]

  3. Thanks for writing this! I realized this too. My first time in Barcelona was in 2004. I returned in 2013 and couldn’t believe the difference of how much more Asians were being accepted in to the mainstream culture, and the nonchalant attitude of a western, Americanized Asian, who also speaks Spanish, was just seemingly normal. I hope the rest of Spain catches up.

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