Racism towards the Chinese community in Madrid exists. It’s time to talk about it, writes Rose Lander.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable referring to Chinese-owned shops as “chinos.” In the UK, we have a history of using racist language to refer to corner shops owned by immigrant families, so I tried to change my vocabulary by using the correct words: alimentación and bazar.
I was surprised to find that some teachers and pupils that I worked with would make jokes at the expense of Chinese people, seemingly thinking nothing of pulling their eyes when referring to an Asian person in conversation. To my utter shame, I rarely said anything, until I decided to make a short audio documentary about racism towards Chinese people in Spain.
In February 2020, I posted on the Facebook group for auxiliaries de conversación (English language assistants) in Madrid. I asked if anyone was willing to share their experiences of xenophobia in Spain and the post attracted more than 170 comments.
Some responded saying they hadn’t had any issues, or the problem was no worse in Spain than in the States or the UK. But others told stories of street harassment, name-calling and stereotyping, with some having heard people of East Asian descent homogenously referred to as “chinos”. Derogatory phrases were commonly used in the classroom, such as “hablando en chino”, which equates Chinese with talking gibberish. Some who responded explained that racist remarks related to the Covid-19 outbreak made them feel scared and unsafe.
I reached out to a Chinese-American man named Thomas Siu to talk about how he was beaten up on the streets of Madrid in March after his attackers shouted “coronavirus” at him. He was left with a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage.
When I talked to Thomas months later about the incident, he said that, despite what had happened, he’d learned the value of speaking up. He’s keen to spread the word that refusing to let racist jokes slide could, in fact, prevent future violent attacks.
In addition to hearing foreigners’ perspectives on Asian xenophobia in Spain, I interviewed some Spanish-Chinese young people for their perspective, because I wanted to find out more about what it was like to grow up in Spain as a second-generation Chinese immigrant.
Quan Zhou is an illustrator whose work focuses on culture shocks between Spanish and Chinese families. Her family came to Spain in the 1990s, following the death of Franco and a flux of international migrant workers. Today, there are 215,000 Chinese residents, 195,000 of whom were born in China, but in the 90s, there were fewer than 5,000 Chinese migrants registered here and for Quan, this explains some of the verbal abuse she suffered during her childhood. Quan explains that the only exposure her peers had was from what they had seen on TV or read in the newspaper, which was more often than not based on stereotypes.
Even now she believes that most Spanish people don’t have “close migrant friends” and that they are “not mindful of racial identity issues”. Speaking to the President of SOS Racismo Madrid, Paula Guerra, reminded me that it’s important to consider the historical context around racism: Spain’s deeply rooted colonial past. She says that “[Spanish society] is unaware. They don’t realise how racist they are, and it annoys many when you make them see it. [This is a] product of centuries of domination from Western Europe.”
She was careful to remind me that this is a Europe-wide problem, not just Spain. Undoing centuries of structural racism, especially if so many are still unaware of it, is a “very long-term goal” as Paula Guerra explains.
But there is hope. Quan Zhou thinks that “things are changing because people are becoming more aware [of] migrant people here.” Her work has attracted mainstream media attention and she’s even been included in an advertising campaign for Levi’s. It’s this kind of representation that she wished she could have seen as a child. She told me, “we were invisible before, but now we are not anymore.”
I hope you find my documentary illuminating. Please ask questions, leave comments and talk to one another. Let’s keep the conversation going.
You can also keep up with some of the work being done by young Spanish-Chinese people, including Quan at @gazpachoagridulce and her English account @spanish_born_chinese, and also Chinese musician and artist @putochinomaricon.
This article was written by Rose Lander, a broadcast journalist with a passion for podcasts. She lived in Madrid for two years and was never happier than with a bocadillo in one hand and a tinto de verano in the other. You can follow her at @RoseLander_ or visit her website, roselanderjournalist.com.
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