This is part of the series of essays on the question “Who is the Global Citizen, and what is she like?” Throughout the series, our columnists will tell us their idea of a global citizen, based on their areas of knowledge and experience. Our correspondent and columnist from Spain recounts the multiple turns in identity and how that shaped her view of a supposed global citizen. 

“Just tell me the truth. Asian face, American accent, Spanish address. Who are you and what are you really doing in our country?” (Confused Hungarian Receptionist/Conspiracy Theorist)

The question of national identity and allegiance is tricky for immigrants or children of immigrants. I’ve always thought that being a minority immigrant kid is an excruciatingly harsh and isolating experience, kind of like being E.T. except Drew Barrymore would never had given me the time of the day.

My parents were not exactly the type to Americanize. For starters, they owned their own company, and paid people to do anything that was remotely complicated. We also lived very close to relatives who were equally oblivious to anything American. This drastic contrast of Anglo western culture in school and complete Asian home environment was the source of all my painful confusion. The more kids excluded me, the more I hated western culture and rejected the idea of being American. It was all very black and white in my little head. It is not a surprise that as I started high school, I began working at a farm shop and hence spending less time with family, which led my consciousness to slowly shift from being an alien to being American.  I left home at 18, and moved to Massachusetts for college. As a student of Sociology, I also began adopting ideas of multiculturalism and social liberalism that were inconsistent with the conservativeness associated with Asian cultures.  I felt extremely at ease in California, where Asian Americans are everywhere, and no one would make you feel unwelcomed in your own country.

Then I moved to Spain. The concept of foreignness, segregation and assimilation were reexamined all over again.  I’ve decided that there are two types of immigrants: one that remains completely loyal to his or her place of origin, and limits social contact to people of the same race or ethnic background; and one that adopts the new environment as home and seeks to dilute his or her foreignness through local cultural immersion. The former I’ll loosely label as segregationist and the latter assimilationist. I have decided that I am an assimilationist, and moving from the US to Europe isn’t exactly as challenging as moving to, say, Papua New Guinea.  But one thing that I later realized is that the ability of being a properly assimilated immigrant decreases with age. I have become much more set in my ways and my language learning capacity is not what it used to be as a young child (try rolling the tongue twice for words like “ferrocarril”).

Culturally, the shocker was, whatever happened to customer service? Stop asking me for exact change, YOU give me exact change. This service is completely unacceptable; I’d like to speak to your manager. So that stuff doesn’t fly here. Also, I noticed that people sit around and talk to friends and family for hours at a time, two or three times a week! They also eat out in groups of twenty-plus people on any given day. We have those things once a year and once in a lifetime in the US. They are called Thanksgiving and Your Wedding.

Moreover, although Spain has been quickly diversifying since the 90s, non-European Immigration is still a rather new phenomenon for Spain compared to its neighbor France. In general, very little attention to detail is paid to people who are racially not Caucasian. There are roughly two words to describe all Asians. Darker Asians are Pakis and lighter Asians are Chinos.  Similar practice is found is countries with little racial diversity, such as Taiwan, where many Taiwanese refer to the Japanese as Japanese and the Koreans as Koreans, but all Caucasians are classified as “foreigners” as if all of them are the same.

A European friend once contended, “Why do Asians feel offended when you do the slanty eye thing. It IS how you look.” I said, “Well that’s because you think YOUR look is the default which makes everything else “odd” hence funny. That’s precisely why it’s racist.”

Not to be outdone, my father still uses the term “ah dok-ah” to refer to Caucasians. I told him it’s quite rude and he should stop. He looked at me completely puzzled and asked “Why? It’s not meant to be rude. It only means beaky nose.”

The ideas that “my race is the default, your looks are exotic,” and “I will not learn your language, you should understand mine,” are outdated. From a person’s perspective, one can choose to move or not move. From a country’s point of view, demographic changes have been taking place rapidly in most developed societies. If you don’t move, changes come to you. Standards for norms need to be redefined and relaxed. There is no default. The differences between ethnic groups and race are nothing but numbers and percentages, and they change constantly. In the US, even the Republican Party is devising plans to seduce minority support because they are paying attention to immigration and they know who the voters are in 2016 and 2020.

As for my global citizen agenda, I ought to do my best to give the exact change to cashiers, accept the fact that servers sometimes have bad days too, and linger around more when hanging out with friends. There is nowhere else I need to be anyway. My home is right here in Barcelona, for now.

(Feature photo of Barcelona, by Dennis Matheson on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


Chiya Elle

Chiya grew up in New Jersey, but lived in Massachusetts, California and Washington, DC. While she should be dedicating more time as a researcher in social science and demography, she is perpetually distracted by animal rights, nutrition, traveling, learning new instruments and studying foreign languages. She is currently based in Barcelona, Spain.

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