I’m in Córdoba, southern Spain, spending a weekend with two of my high-school friends from Hong Kong. We were on the way to the Roman Bridge, but somehow we have ended up amid the flashing lights of an upmarket club. With its plush sofas and astroturfed rooftop terrace, it’s the pretentious sort of place that peddles overpriced, glow-in-the-dark cocktails. In one Spanish word, it is undeniably pijo.
Not that my friends mind however. It seems that they are becoming quite the hit in the all-Spanish crowd. We cross the dance floor and a grinning thirty-year-old gives me a warm pat on the shoulder.
“¡¡Tus hermanas son muuuuuuy bonitas!!”
He has just told me how attractive my “sisters” are. I flash him my best Hollywood smile and play along.
“Yes, aren’t they beautiful? They’re single too.”
Being Chinese in Spain attracts a lot of curiosity if you enter the right places – especially when it comes to bars and clubs. Let’s face it; we aren’t exactly known the world over for being exuberant partygoers or award-winning binge-drinkers. Even in Spain the expression for working 24-7 is trabajar como un chino, literally “to work like a Chinese”. Before I hear any cries of indignation, let me tell you that that’s exactly what the Chinese community does in Spain: they hunker down, work extremely hard and stay out of mainstream Spanish society. It’s a pattern repeated all across Europe.
I met Jordi on a language exchange website that I joined two years ago, and we hit it off exchanging a flurry of emails in a confused mix of Spanish and Catalan. Eventually I decided I’d pay him a visit in Donostia-San Sebastián, the proverbial Pearl of the Basque Coast.
Originally from a small town near Barcelona, Jordi moved to Donostia for work, learning the impossible Basque language in the space of barely three years. But when he showed up in Beijing last winter, his direction in life experienced a radical change. I had known about his wish to live in China, but I could never have anticipated his enthusiasm until we met each other face-to-face.
It all begins when we are halfway up Monte Urgull, huffing and puffing at the steep flight of steps. A dark-haired woman comes down the opposite direction and gives us a quick hola. I reply to her greeting, thinking nothing of the incident.
But Jordi is visibly excited. “Didn’t you see? She said hello to you because she’s also Chinese!”
“Huh? She was Chinese?” Evidently I didn’t give her a proper look.
Later that afternoon we are ambling down towards the city hall as he points over across the road, eyes widening. “Over there! A fellow Asian!”
And now the tree-lined avenue leading up from the cathedral. “Look! Another of your compatriots!”
I sigh at the depth of his groundbreaking discovery. But given his dreams of moving to China, who could fault him for reacting at the sight of every Asian that dared to cross his field of vision? Wouldn’t a curious Chinese person have done the same with European visitors on home turf?
Elena is part of a new generation of Spaniards who now look outwards and eastwards for an alternative future. In the summer of 2009 she followed her boyfriend back to Hong Kong, where she ended up teaching me some of my first words of Spanish. A year after our last meeting we are sat in an offbeat café in Lavapiés, an inner-city neighbourhood of Madrid that has long been associated with immigrants, first from the countryside and now from all corners of the globe.
Elena already speaks and understands a fair amount of Cantonese, something most expats fail to achieve after years of living in Hong Kong. “Mou ah!!!” It’s a perfect impression, complete with hands tossed in the air. With an air of excitement she recounts her experiences of playing mahjong with her boyfriend’s grandparents, before updating me on the latest of Hong Kong’s soap operas. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she is now more Chinese than I.
At this point I cannot resist asking her the questions I deemed slightly inappropriate in the classroom. So what do her boyfriend’s family see in the relationship? Do they get along with her? “Yes,” Elena nods, “they really dote on me.” She thinks for a moment and laughs. And do they refer to her by name?
“Nah, they call me gwai mui.”
I am flabbergasted. Elena takes it as a name of affection, even if it translates to the unflattering equivalent of “ghost chick”. “But to be very honest, that’s what I am.” She pulls up her sleeve. “You see the colour of my skin?”
It appears that Hong Kong and Spain have a shared fondness for giving people nicknames, even if they sound ugly, cruel or mildly racist to outsiders. After all, my closest Spanish friends do have the habit of calling me “Chino” – which is probably less racist than gwai mui because it’s just the neutral term for “Chinese”. And they’ll say it with a warm smile, a fierce hug and a kiss on each cheek.