Editor-in-Exile: A Face In the Crowd
By Elaine Teng '12, Foreign Correspondent
I’m not really your typical Asian girl. Sure, I play piano, obey my parents and brought my chopsticks with me across the pond. But I’ve grown up dreaming through the pages of Baudelaire, Keats and Brontë, and imagining myself in Napoleon’s Paris and Shakespeare’s London. Most of my friends have called me “white-washed” at some point, and I pretty much agreed with them. Being Chinese was always something in the background, a part of my identity I never really thought about.

But suddenly, here in Spain, it seems to be the most important, and sometimes, the only thing about me. In a sea of European faces, I’ve never been more aware of being a foreigner. Strangers on the bus will randomly ask me if I’m Japanese or Korean, people stare at me on the street like I’m an exotic animal at the zoo, and I often hear the word “China” as I walk by. At first it bothered me, and sometimes it still does, but I realized that it’s not really racism, as it is almost never malevolent, but simply curiosity.

While we in the U.S. are used to seeing people from all different races and backgrounds, it’s only in the last decade or so that Spain has seen large waves of immigrants, and they usually stick together. Therefore, the sight of a Chinese girl walking around speaking Spanish with Spaniards, Americans and other Europeans must come off as a shock, defying all the normal stereotypes. Almost all of the Chinese immigrants here work in a restaurant or a convenience store, and I’ve been asked by Spaniards and Chinese alike: “Where’s your store?”, “What restaurant do you work at?”, “Does your family have a store in the U.S.?” While I usually just find these questions amusing, they reveal the variety of stereotypes and pre-conceptions that people have about Asians here who, I’ve been told by many by the way, all look the same.

Yet being an anomaly isn’t all bad, as it presents an opportunity to share. The first time I ate tofu here, my flatmates stared at my plate and asked me why I was putting soy sauce on cheese. I’ve taught friends how to use chopsticks and introduced them to authentic Chinese food, which is the furthest thing from what they serve in the “Chinese” restaurants here. And being Chinese is somehow always a way to start conversations. On the first day of my art history class, I walked in feeling alone and intimidated, staring enviously at all the Spanish kids and wistfully imagining myself walking into Chapin. To top it off, it was Chinese New Year, and I didn’t even have a friendly face, not to mention dumplings and family.

“Where are you from? China?” a voice suddenly asked me.

“The United States,” I answered timidly to the smiling Spanish man sitting down next to me, a little annoyed that I always had to clarify, “Well, my parents are from China.”

“I went there last year!”

By the end of class, I had not only made friends, as we talked about all the places he’d been to in China, but I had also been invited home for lunch by another Chinese girl in class to celebrate the New Year. As we walked to her flat, this culture that I had always taken for granted — the language I’d grown up speaking, the holiday I’d never really cared about — became a bridge between us, bringing us together even though we’d only met an hour before. I’d never been more grateful, and though I don’t often spend time with her now — can’t practice Spanish if you’re speaking Chinese all day — this connection has made me think more about all three cultures I can count myself lucky to be part of, and how they shape who I am.

What’s funny to me is that Spain actually reminds me of a mix of America and China, and makes me realize what I like and dislike about both cultures. While I miss the quick pace and work ethic of American life (yes, I’m a workaholic who can’t handle free time), we do get so caught up in what we have to do that we miss out on a sense of community that both the Spanish and the Chinese have. Everywhere you look here, there are people chatting in the street or catching up over a slow cup of coffee. To-go is literally unheard of, and eating in the street is a social no-no. The grocer on the corner remembers me and always pauses to chat, and my neighbors keep their door open when they know I’m coming.

While it is difficult being a foreigner for the first time in my life, I’ve realized that studying abroad isn’t just about immersing yourself in a foreign culture and language, but also about using those lessons as a mirror. I’ve grown so much in the two months that I’ve been here, and while I might miss Amherst classes and professors, there are some lessons that readings and lectures cannot teach.

Issue 19, Submitted 2011-03-23 01:31:00