Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Expat Perspective

I often get a kick when I read interviews with expats living in Spain because many cite the climate as one of the factors they enjoy most about the city they live in or the country as a whole. Coming from Southern California where it's in the mid-twenties Celsius and almost always sunny, I tend to find Barcelona a bit on the cold and damp side during the winter and spring, too muggy in the summer, with my favorite season being autumn and in particular October.

What appealed to me about the city wasn't the weather, the beaches or the chance to go skiing driving distance away. I had all that back home. No, what attracted me was its vibrancy and buzzing energy, its beauty and its diversity. I had been to many places in my life before coming here, but none had made such an impact like Barcelona did when I first visited in 2001. And, when two days after returning to the states, I watched the two towers fall, I started wondering what it'd be like to live here as friends of mine started calling for the bombing of all Arabs, labeling anyone who disagreed a traitorous un-American. This, of course, wasn't the sole reason, but let's call it the catalyst and why I immediately crouch into a defensive posture, cover my ears and scream at the first sign of any nationalist hysteria.

During my seven years since, my friends have regained their sanity, while I've done my best to integrate, learn the languages, know the people and listen to their stories. I have a wife whose Catalan father went to Sevilla in the fifties because it was easier to get into med school and married a girl from Cordoba who was one of the first female doctors. My missus considers herself Sevillana-Catalana, but doesn't mind being mistaken for English, and my father-in-law still says arros. We think of our daughter as Spanish-American and named her after a Catalan queen and train station out of respect for the land of her birth and our preferred form of transit. I do my best to speak the languages, although probably not as well as I should because of the amount of time I spend writing in English. Still, I can communicate, understand most TV and tell a joke which ain't bad given my study habits and tin ear.

My perception and attitudes of the city, the politics and its people can't help but be influenced by my background, however. For those who might not know, California has been since its inception a mix of ethnicities, nationalities, and races; the relationship among them has often been volatile and violent, full of exploitation and repression. I can still clearly remember waking up on April 29th, 1992 to the images of my city burning in response to an unjust verdict, an innocent man being beaten with bricks and the six days of rioting that followed, resulting in the marines coming in and fifty-one people dead. Of course, this ethnic unrest wasn't an isolated incident for Los Angeles or the country, nor did it signal the end of the deep and complex causes behind it.

What it did do, though, was change the rhetoric. The local leaders of the various ethnic communities realized, as they observed the charred aftermath, stoking the flames of division to complicated problems led to the same destructive end. Now, is Los Angeles a mecca of racial and ethnic harmony? No, but compared to where it was twenty years ago, it's like a completely different city. You can go out on Venice Beach and Hollywood Boulevard at night now and not worry about getting jumped or shot because of your race or ethnicity. And I guess it's surprising to me that in Europe and in Spain, where the last century it was wars, not riots, people still insist on repeating the same mistakes. As Marx said, "History always repeats itself twice: first time as tragedy, second farce." I often wonder which time it is now.

I think coming from California has clouded my whole concept on who is what, honestly. My  grandmother's Mexican neighbor recently got her U.S. citizenship at age fifty by taking the national exam in Spanish, while my British uncle refuses to become an official American even though he's lived there forty years and has just the slightest hint of his London accent. There are areas where all the signs and conversations are in a foreign language and many of my friends are of different colors and nationalities with US passports who'll bet against the states in international competitions. Whatever tongue you speak is peppered with foreign words and no one corrects. People are free to pick and chose who and what they are. Identity is a personal choice and not a governmental decree.

In many ways, Barcelona, and Spain in general, is a more open and tolerant society than Los Angeles and the U.S.. I've found the Catalan and Spanish people to be less judgmental and more grounded; the ability to live how you want is less inhibited and the sense of community is stronger. The exception, it seems, is when it comes to the decision of personal identity, at which point the local government must step in and clarify the situation followed by a thorough education explaining why you are what you no questions asked, please.

I'm not trying to say Los Angeles and California is the perfect example, but it does offer a real world model because it's a multilingual, national and ethnic society with deep, historical divisions and despite that there is no official language; there is no program of assimilation by imposing one culture on the other or majority-minority language arguments by sensible people. You speak depending on the need whether it be English, Spanish or Chinese and we don't spend hours on the details of the language. There are even pilot programs (here, here) allowing choice at the community level, including the indigenous Navajo, along with traditional standards like French, or the possibility of Mandarin or Cantonese. These are still in the infancy and whether they can withstand the budget crisis remains to be seen, but it's refreshing to see the topic researched and addressed in an inclusive way and not by applying a different language to the previous failed system. I suppose that's what happens when ex-hippies work in education and not political linguistic doctorates.

I guess what saddens me most is that one of the things I loved about Barcelona when I first came was its diversity; yet it's rarely celebrated or embraced publicly.  It's probably why I feel so passionately about it, but I shouldn't since it's not my country and I can always leave. Of course, it's not all that bad, especially if you don't read the news and treat it like religion and politics in the states, quickly changing the subject at first mention. But it's tough sometimes because those topics and languages are what Spanish, Catalans and expats like to talk about. In fact, in Europe as a whole I've found. And why not? They're fascinating subjects. But what invariably happens is because of different backgrounds and perspectives it's sometimes like a conversation between a duck and a rooster even if you're using the same language.


  1. It's funny, when I lived in Canada, people were always explaining to me how Canada had multiculturalism and the US forced everyone to become American first. I guess it's all relative :)

    I saw from my parents how difficult it is to integrate into a new country. They tried their best, but still were a horrible embarrassment to me when I was a child. In the meanwhile they've tried going back to their home country, but left when they found that they've been infected by individualism and really didn't like it when people told them what to do all the time.

    I never thought I would be in the same shoes. My kids are effortlessly yapping away in Catalan and Spanish while I embarrass them with bad idioms and grammatical mistakes.

    Of course, we have to pay a big chunk of our salary to get them a decent trilingual education,
    but it's not the end of the world. From a purely selfish perspective, the government is doing my kids a favor by crippling the castellano of most of their future competitors, so thank you Generalitat!

  2. Did you know there are people south of the border who feel Canada is the driving force of the New World Order's future conquest of the states? :-)

    Yea, immigrating is tough. I remember coming to the california with a British english accent and getting punched because i talked funny. i lost it quick but regretted it later when i wanted to meet girls. coming from a completely foreign country is even harder.

    i'm glad i did, though. my grandmother complains about all the foreigners and no one speaking english but most of my friends come from somewhere else and I couldn't imagine california being mono anything. never has, never will. too bad it's such a mess economically, there are too many health fascists and you have to drive everywhere!

    It's good to know not all hope is loss here and there's some alternatives. too bad they're all private. i shouldn't have quit my day job to become a writer;-)

  3. Just for fun I asked at one of the schools if they had financial aid... they looked at me like I was from mars. The concertada school can be pretty affordable, and many of them offer more advanced educational methods.

    Going to California tomorrow actually.

    I'll say hi for you :)

    Mmmm... trader joes....

  4. Thanks for checking! Eat an In & Out burger too for me, you bastard.

    have a safe flight!