I always use Spanish to write in this site, but this time I will use English, because I think the topic I am addressing today would better be read by British and American people, rather than only Spanish or Latin Americans. As English is not my mother language, I will probably make a lot of mistakes in every paragraph, so any editing will be appreciated.
My thoughts today start with a picture of a football player called Ezequiel Lavezzi. He is a famous Argentinian footballer, he plays for a Chinese team, and recently he was photographed doing this:
Several media, specially in Britain, accused Lavezzi of insulting Chinese people with that gesture, so he and his club (Hebei China Fortune) had to apologize.
For people who have been living in China for a long time, like me, this case for sure reminds another very similar that happened in the middle of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. At that time, it was the Spanish national team, both mens’ and womens’ squads, who was photographed doing the same gesture:
Those days, much more media (specially British newspapers, again) accused the “ÑBA” of “insulting” the Chinese people. Some Spanish players had to apologize as well, saying they just wanted to look “funny”.
This two cases are fine examples of cross cultural misunderstandings, because in Spain or many countries of Latin America this gesture is not offensive at all. In Spain, doing the “Chinese eyes” gesture is much more a childish play than an offensive insult. I remember doing that gesture when I was 5 or 6 years old, while singing a silly childrens song called “Soy el Chino Capuchino Mandarín” (“I am the Chinese Capuchin Mandarin”). After a visit to YouTube, I can see that the tradition is still well kept, more than 30 years later:
If you are British, American or you live in some other countries where this gesture is offensive, you may think “OK, Spanish and Latin Americans are not doing that with bad intentions, but the fact is that they are offending China”. And you may think that because that gesture it really is offensive in your country.
The fact is that… the gesture in China is not offensive at all as well. Nor in Japan, South Korea or South East Asian countries. It only offends countries where Asians are an important minority and they have suffered insults or offensive actions from non-Asians, sometimes using that gesture.
Spain didn’t have an important Asian community living in the country until recently, so there was not many cultural clashes between Spanish and Asians, thus the gesture still doesn’t have negative meanings in our country. The same happens in Latin America, I believe, but countries where Chinese or Japanese were important minorities already in the past, like Peru or Brazil, may be an exception. Philippines may be another exception, but the fact that the country was colonized by the US after Spain has erased many common memories between Spanish and Filipinos, both good and bad.
Think this carefully: is the imitation of a physical attribute of another ethnic group bad per se? I don’t think so… If a black guy paints his skin in white for Carnival, I wouldn’t feel offended. If a Japanese uses his finger to pretend he has a big nose as an European, I wouldn’t feel offended.
A gesture like those starts being offensive when many people repeat it against you, and at the same time you receive some kind of discrimination, so you link the gesture with the discrimination. That’s what happened in countries like United Kingdom or United States: Asian minorities there suffered discrimination (sometimes as much as black people and other minorities) and they may identify the Lavezzi or the Spanish basketball team gestures with insults in school, people laughing at them in the street, or many other bad memories. That’s totally fair, it’s absolutely understandable, but it doesn’t work the same in a country like China.
In China, obviously, Chinese are the majority, thus they haven’t suffered that much discrimination for being “Asian” if they have lived all their life in their own country. And they probably don’t even know the gesture, because it does not make sense for a Chinese to make it in front of another Chinese. Maybe in cities with important foreign communities, like Beijing or Shanghai, they have encountered that gesture. Maybe a foreign friend making fun. But the incidence of this is that small, that most of Chinese respond to the gesture -that many of them not even know, or don’t relate with their eyes- with total indifference.
The proof of all this is visible in the two cases that have prompted this text, the let’s say “Lavezzigate” and the “ÑBAgate”. Most of the news saying that they had insulted China started in the English media. In 2008 Olympic Games, most of Chinese population not even heard about the photographies that according to foreign media made them so angry. Spanish media asked about it to Li Ning, the famous Chinese sportsman who owns the brand that at that time was the uniform of Spanish national team, and he said that Chinese don’t feel angry with that kind of gesture, because “it doesn’t mean anything to them”.
To add more proof: I attended as journalist many matches of Spanish national team in Wukesong stadium during the 2008 Olympics, including the one against host China. Spanish team was hailed by Chinese public as their own team: they like to support favourite teams, and Spain was one of them (we won silver, by the way). Nobody in the public wooed them, or said something against them. No anti-Spanish banners. We felt like home.
In the more recent Lavezzi case, the main reports came from foreign media as well. I must admit that there were some comments expressing anger in social networks like Twitter or Weibo (Chinese equivalent to Twitter), but its numbers were not too big to consider them part of a “national scandal”, only a few thousands (when Chinese netizens get angry with some foreign news or comments against them, the number of comments reaches the millions). The worst criticism against Lavezzi was on comments in Twitter, a social network that is blocked in China, so not many Chinese use it. Most of those tuits were written in English, and I guess some of them were written by Asian Americans, or Asians living in the UK, or Chinese that live in foreign countries and start to feel offended by the gesture much more than the Chinese that live in China.
The so-called “insult” by Lavezzi has not appeared in most of the Chinese media, with some exceptions of newspapers written in English, like China Daily or Global Times. Those media have foreign journalists and editors, and its readers are specially foreigners living in China.
There has been even a Chinese media, the very popular sports newspaper Titan, who published an article showing anger… but not towards Lavezzi, but towards English media who decided what is and what is not offensive for Chinese people!
In 2008, when the first “scandal” appeared, I wrote about it here, but just to make fun about it. I even used Photoshop to disguise the Spanish basketball players with bearskin hats and kilts to mock a little the British media.
This second time, seeing that the misunderstandings are still there nine years later, and realizing that they are going to repeat again and again, I decided to write something a little more serious, and using English to try to reach more people. I hope you understand (understand both my opinions and my English).
I can clearly see that this “Chinese eyes gesture” controversy is going to repeat in the future, as more Spanish and Latin Americans come to China, specially famous sportsmen. British or American media may feel “offended” again and use it to reinforce an idea that many English speaking people have: the idea that Spanish are more racist than other Europeans or Americans.
That idea, ironically, it’s a bit racist in itself. Is a bit of a continuation of the black legend, but that’s a more complicated issue and this website is not deep enough to touch upon it. Of course, there are many examples of racism in Spain, but no more than in other neighbouring countries, and for sure not directed to the same minorities that consider themselves discriminated in other countries. Gipsies, for example, are a minority that has suffered the discrimination of Spanish people. I am not here to tell you that Spanish are perfect, because we are not.
Something that proves that Spain is not that racist is that in the current global crisis -both economic and political- there is not any important Spanish political party defending that immigrants should be kicked out from our country. Some of our neighbours in France or United Kingdom (or United States, with Donald Trump threatening with new walls) cannot say the same.
PD: By the way, you may notice that I haven’t used the expression “slanted eyes” to describe Lavezzi’s and basketball players’ gestures. That’s because I also have discovered, thanks to these controversies, that the expression may be offensive for English speakers. Again, this proves the cultural difference between Spanish and English culture: the Spanish equivalent, “ojos rasgados”, is not offensive at all, we even use it with a poetic meaning. Actually, I have used a few times in this website (here and here, for example). Nobody complained.
In a few words: remember, not everything is offensive to everyone. People is very easily offended in this confusing world of Twitter and internet controversies: let’s not create new and fake ways of offense.