Barcelona Blues Biopsy
As a recent transplant to Barcelona from suburban America I penned down my observations (or frustrations should I say) to the readers of Catalonia Today, a bourgeoning English weekly. Here was the letter to the editor published September 9, 2004.
It was really hard for me to adjust from the warm greetings and friendly smiles in Michigan, to the cold stares on the streets of Barcelona. I have resorted to pretending that there is no one around me in the Metro. At times when I am “greeted”, it is what I coined as machismo-related verbal harassment: “Ay, guapa, ay, chinita…” You don’t see me going around yelling “ay, guapo, ay, latino” to the next guy I see. Perhaps the “Ajuntament” ought to start designing one of those snazzy communiqué entitled “Unlocking the codes of stereotypes: Education on diversity.” It’s time to realize that not all Asian-looking girls are “cerrada”, demure, or owns a Euro-shop. But before that happens, I will continue going around town breaking the ice with my “Bon dias” to the next “señora” or “señor” I see. Mind you, it’s been an effective one. At least half of the time I get a smile laced with a hint of surprise, and a slurred “Bon dia” in reply.
Well you see, it’s been seven months since that little piece was written, and guess what, my perspective has changed! But change an immense one it became. So the new me go into the metro nonchalantly every morning with a carefree stride, books held on my side and armed with the ubiquitous urbanite accessory – the ipod shuffle. So gone were the “gosh where should I look stance”. I guess I just got used to the fact that Barcelona, like all metropolises, is endowed with the big-city syndrome i.e. mind your own business. No, I’m not going to coin it as a little cold or unfriendly, this simply is a different way of life. It’s not fair to compare an apple with an orange.
And the change of attitude has given me little surprises. I’ve noticed lately that more people smile if I try to be nice. But of course be prepared with nasty looks especially if you look super-duper foreign, like me (I’m of Chinese-Malaysian descent). To fend that, almost like self-defense, I have been experimenting with something like smiling at someone and looking away immediately to avoid disappointments. This strategy does me a lot of wonder because I got tired of doing as the Romans do -- sulking and displaying a face the Spanish call “de mala leche”, which means sour milk.
Alright, and now with the verbal comments thrown at the female species, what Spaniards call “piropo”, which my Merriam-Webster’s dictionary translates loosely as a flirtatious compliment. Believe it all not I got used to it. If I get a piropo, I’ll say ‘hola’, smile, or sometimes ‘gracias’. Taking it as a compliment actually makes you feel good. Forget about them verbally harassing you. I think this non-conventional reaction actually takes them aback. Maybe it’ll make them stop giving “piropos”.
So with the sun kissing my face while I observe life going on at the Plaza Vicenç Matorell in the Raval, I realize that life is truly like poetry. The prose could be written one way, but it´s up to the reader to decipher its meaning. Likewise, a cultural transition might give you a certain reaction but it depends on how you want to diffuse that experience.
The above article was published on April 27, 2005 on Just Landed, an online expat journal.