Hyper Cultural

photo: Ouni Zhang outside of Hiper Oriente. / RAE ROBEY

ESPAÑOL / download PDF

During the 80s and 90s, the autonomous community of Andalusia experienced a large wave of immigrants coming from Qingtian, a province of China. Their children, born in Spain, comprise a growing generation of Chinese-Andalusians, who must constantly balance two disparate cultures. For these individuals, being Chinese and Spanish simultaneously – yet neither one fully – introduces both confusion and fulfilment.

“I speak Spanish perfectly. But if you see me from the outside, I’m never the same as them.” She says it to you rapidly and directly, in the classic Sevillian style. Of Chinese descent, Ouni Zhang rep-resents a small but growing portion of the youth population – that of the Chinese-Spanish. She fully understands that the differences between her and her compatriots are obvious, but thanks to her pragmatic nature, she recognizes that they are inevitable. As such, they have never bothered her.

“When I was a girl, everything was more simple and I felt completely Spanish. As an adult, I felt different from them. But a Chinese person doesn’t see me as their equal, because I don’t speak Chinese as they do,” she says. “I feel Spanish and I feel Chinese, neither one nor the either one hundred percent. I prefer to not situate myself in either, although I understand both points of view.”

23 years old, she is petite and dressed in a red fleece sweater. Like her mother, her hair – sleek and deep black – falls past her shoulders. In many ways, she seems the same as her Spanish peers: she studies psychology at the University of Seville, she travels extensively and her boyfriend is from Seville. However, written on her jacket are the words “Hiper Oriente,” referring to her parent’s Asian market where she works. Unlike other youth, Ouni speaks Chinese – albeit a little worse than she speaks Spanish – and observes the fundamentally Chinese tradition of respecting her elders. Within her, there is a mix of two complex cultures.

photo: Jia Hu Chen, mother of Ouni, rings up a customer in Hiper Oriente. / RAE ROBEY

Hiper Oriente, the family business, is located at number 8 on calle Aponte, in clear center of the city. Established in the 2001, it began as a small store stocking a few peculiarities. Over the years, it has become a point of encounter be-tween two of Seville’s most prominent cultures. Today, it serves as a distinguished establishment for locals with more cosmopolitan tastes.

“Usually, if they are not restaurants, Chinese businesses are bazaars where they sell food typical of Spain. Here, we sell Asiatic and ecological products of every type,” Ouni explains. With the shelves supplied with epicurean and exotic products from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India and – above all – China, the offerings of Hiper Oriente are singular in Seville.

Amused, Ouni laughs, imagining the cultural assumptions that many make regarding Hiper Oriente. “When they enter, some think that it’s a bazaar, like those of other Chinese people,” she says. “They don’t expect it.”

The assortment of products in the specialized supermarket range from international rice, clothing, teapots, furniture, kimonos and items for Chinese calligraphy – everything that their clients could want to introduce the Asiatic world in their households.

Wang Pi Zhang Wang y Jia Hu Chen, father and mother of Ouni, have lived in Seville since 1986 and 1991 respectively, originally coming from the Chinese province Qingtian. “Almost all of the Chinese people that come to Seville, as far as I know, come from the same impoverished zone in the southeast of China,” explains Ouni. “Now, it has finally developed a bit.”

Unlike other Chinese families that came to Spain during the same period, Ouni’s parents are markedly more open toward assimilation into Western culture. “Honoring tradition is not something that they planted in us, because we have to adapt ourselves to life here,” she explains.

Between 2013 and 2014 alone, the number of Chinese residents in Seville increased from 4,710 to 4,946, according to the National Institute of Statistics. The same pattern is reflected through-out the entirety of Spain. In Andalusia, for ex-ample, the increase experienced throughout the same time frame was from 18,980 to 19,496.

Ouni recognizes that her multicultural identity is unique, but anticipates that this will change soon: “I don’t personally know many young people that feel exactly as I do, but I believe that the coming generation will be similarly assimilated.”


photo: Quan Zhou signs a copy of her book, Gazpacho Agridulce. / RAE ROBEY

The visibility of Chinese-Andalusian individuals has gained more ground recently, exemplified by the graphic designer Quan Zhou. In 2015, Quan published the novel Gazpacho Agridulce (Bittersweet Gazpacho), based on her popular blog of the same name. Following the success of her first book, Quan is already working on the next one. “It was a point of view that was still unseen in Spain,” she explains. “That of the second generation.”

26 years old and with parents also hailing from the Qingtian region, Quan grew up in Málaga, always inside her parent’s restaurant. Self-proclaimed “Chinese of face, Andalusian at heart,” Quan relates her autobiographical anecdotes through original vignettes posted to her blog. By combining her propensity for comedy with her own experiences with multicultural-ism, she introduces an entertaining but probing dialogue regarding ethnic and cultural identity. “One thing doesn’t take away from the other,” says Quan. “For me, the light-heartedness doesn’t take away from the reflexiveness.”

Quan experiences, often irrationally, the effects of being neither Chinese nor Spanish. In one of her illustrations, she recounts an occasion in which she was subjected to intense scrutiny by the proprietor of a Chinese bazaar, who was unable to decide whether she was Japanese or Korean: “Chinese people who harass Chinese people, because they don’t know that they are Chinese,” she comments below her picture. Although narrated in a joking tone, the anecdote sheds light on the sometimes tense relationship between more traditional Chinese elders and their second-generation children. With her notably conservative family, Quan is particularly familiar with this theme.

photo: A vignette from Quan Zhou’s blog, Gazpacho Agridulce. / QUAN ZHOU

The first generations tend to believe that by mixing cultures, ‘you are less Chinese,’ but with a negative connotation. It’s erroneous, moreover it creates a crisis of identity and suffering for us,” explains Quan. Despite the difficulties, she continues to see her multiculturalism as an invitation to celebrate both cultures rather than a demand to choose between the two. “We aren’t indecisive; instead, we are a bridge,” she explains. “Differences of opinion between two generations, in religion, politics or values… It’s natural.”

Despite the integrative role that the new Chinese-Andalusian generation performs, the Spanish and Chinese communities still continue separately. For the majority of Spaniards, any contact with the Chinese community occurs exclusively in the periphery, within the bazaars. As a result, there is a paradoxical isolation of the Chinese community – though it is more numerous and omnipresent than ever.

This reality is, at least partially, a product of the language barrier. “It’s true that many are closed-off,” says Ouni. “But few speak Spanish, and obviously it’s easier to connect with a someone from the same country who understands you.”

According to Ouni, racism also has a large role. “There are Spaniards that don’t accept immigrants, because they think they steal their jobs or don’t pay taxes,” she explains. “There are also Chinese people who don’t want to engage with Spanish people.” She relates this impassively, though with a slight frown, hinting at a restrained frustration.

Rarely giving up, her optimistic disposition scarcely hesitates to return. “Anyway, there are many Chinese individuals who want to get to know Spanish people, and the majority of the Spanish people accept them without problem,” she continues.

In any case, the distance that she occasion-ally feels with her Spanish friends is apparent. “It’s very difficult for me to feel exactly the same as them, when in actuality I’m not,” she says. Ouni continues with a sardonic tone and a smile, maintaining the same mentality of acceptance and prudence as ever: “You can’t change how you look on the outside, right?”