Encounters

At Teotihuacan, a group of schoolgirls on a field trip approached my mother and me and asked to take a photo with us. We may have been the first East Asians they had seen in their lives. Later that day, a boy waved to us and said Arigato! My mom replied, in English, That’s Japanese! It means thank you. In Mexico City, a woman walking the other way in a subway station very obviously stopped to take a picture of us with her phone. At the Museo Nacional del Arte, one of the docents approached me and said, Chino, coreano, japonés? She had to say it again before I understood that she was asking about our nationality. I replied chino but quickly realized that I should have said taiwanés.

Before studying abroad in Cádiz, we were told that many Spaniards refer to any East Asian as chino. This turned out to be true. It made sense, because the small towns of Southern Spain receive very few foreign tourists. The only Asians they know are the Chinese families who open bazaars and phone repair shops everywhere. When I needed a tool to fix my laptop, my host mother took me to the only phone repair shop in Cádiz, which was owned by a Chinese family. They had trouble communicating in Spanish so I spoke to them in Mandarin. I never learned where the Chinese bazaar in Cádiz was, but I’m sure they had one: when I asked where I could buy pens, my host mother said any Chinese bazaar, but I ended up going to an art supply store instead. There was a Chinese bazaar across from the bus station in Tarifa, and even one in the small mountain town of Vejer. I entered that one when we visited, and regret not talking to the Chinese man behind the counter.

My host mother, a progressive single woman who ran a tourism company, tried to explain to her elderly neighbor that I was Taiwanese, not Chinese, when the neighbor mentioned the chino that was living with her. She herself would sometimes confuse Taiwan with Thailand. Once, she said that my Spanish accent sounded Asian.

In the streets of Cádiz, a group of young men sitting outside a tapería shouted Chino! as loud as they could, in unison, when I walked past. Another time, a teenage girl said ni hao timidly. I forget if I responded. At a tapería, after watching the World Cup game in which Japan lost to Belgium, the bartender patted me on the back and said I’m sorry, friend.

The most popular dance club in Cádiz is the Momart, which is an open-air club located in the port area outside the city walls. Next to it is an elevated terrace overlooking the sea, on which young people gather to pregame with the alcohol they’ve brought. Plastic bottles that have fallen into the water float along the surface. Men piss off the ledge into the sea. While in the club, a short Spanish man suddenly hooked my neck in his arm, dragged my head down aggressively, and said something in my ear. I couldn’t understand anything except that he repeatedly addressed me as cabrón. Later, another man said I look like Son, a Korean soccer player, and asked to take a photo with me. The next day I looked up the soccer player, Son Heung-min, and confirmed that I look nothing like him.

December 2019