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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Not-So-United Nations

I stopped in at a bar in my neighborhood of Ruzafa the other day to have a cup of coffee. The place is owned by a Chinese guy which seems to be the trend in Valencia. More and more of the little mom-and-pop corner cafés are being purchased by Chinese immigrants. I had been in this place before and I recognized the owner as he sat at a table in the mostly-empty place playing solitaire. The guy tending the bar was talking in Arabic to three young guys at the counter. At one point the barman sneezed and I reflexively sang out, “Jesús.” I immediately corrected myself because I thought that he was probably a Muslim. I asked him what I would say in Arabic when a person sneezes. “Al humd Allah,” he answered, which means “Praise the lord.” Neither of us knew what you would say in Chinese and the owner looked too busy with his game of solitaire to be of any use to us.

In the past I was usually held with suspicion when I have mentioned that I speak a bit of Arabic. I think it is different when I tell someone this while speaking Spanish. I suppose that an American who is already speaking another language is not quite so suspicious to an Arab when he says that he speaks Arabic. I showed him my rather childish written Arabic. Of course, my English handwriting is also pretty childish. Sa'id, the barman, grew up in France and told me that he barely reads and writes Arabic, although he speaks it fluently. He also speaks very good Spanish. He told me that he speaks English as well although I hardly ever speak English if I don´t have to. I would much rather speak Spanish when I am out, or French, or even Arabic, although that would be a rather tedious conversation as my Arabic sucks these days. My Spanish doesn't suck any more as all of the reading that I do is paying off—that and the fact that I have lived here for almost a year and a half.

I almost never speak French although I have a few French friends here. Ruzafa is full of immigrants from all over and there are more languages being spoken than you could imagine. There are dozens of businesses catering to Arab immigrants: Halal butcher shops, barber shops, tea houses, and grocery stores. Most of the Arab immigrants are from Morocco or Algeria. Apart from a few older women who wear the hijab, the Arab immigrants seem to blend in fairly well.

There are a lot of places that provide for the Latin American immigrants in the neighborhood. These are mostly Ecuadorians who make up the largest immigrant group in Spain. There are also a lot of Bolivians in Ruzafa. Unfortunately for someone who likes to cook Mexican food, there are very few Mexicans in Valencia. I am able to buy corn tortillas at one of the Latin American food stores down the street, but what other few products they have from Mexico are prohibitively expensive. Most of the stuff these places carry is a big mystery to me.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of Pakistani immigrants here but they seem to own every green grocer and internet café in the city. They also have also run a lot of little grocery stores that are referred to as “Pakis” by my Spanish friends. I don't think this has the derogatory connotation as it does to English speakers although I don't use this term. I do like to buy my spices at these small stores because you can get them in larger quantities than they sell in the supermarkets. I use stuff like cumin, red and black pepper, and turmeric practically in bulk so the little bottles from Mercadona just don't cut the mustard. These stores are also open when everything else is closed. Something that comes in handy when you need a bottle of beer or something to eat late at night. The Pakistanis also run most of the kebab joints around town which cater to all of the Muslims because they don't serve pork products, which in pork-happy Spain is quite a feat.

And then there are the Chinese who I find to be the most enigmatic immigrant group in Spain. I have read almost nothing about the Chinese in Spain since I arrived and I read two newspapers almost every day (El País and Levante). I would love to learn more about the Chinese in Spain but I don't know where to look. Forget about asking them directly as I have never been able to hold a conversation with a Chinese immigrant and not for lack of trying. They have a rather formidable language barrier to overcome but they also seem to use this as a wall to keep others out of their doings. My Spanish friends don't seem to know anything about the Chinese at all. If anyone knows where I can find out more about this community, please let me know.

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