Posted in Travel

When to Play the “Foreigner Card”

Foreigners in Salamanca are called guiris. I don’t know if guiris give off a particular smell, but everyone seems to know that we’re not Spanish.

A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.
A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.

My host mother once described my complexion by holding up a porcelain plate, and combined with my Asian-ish eyes, I’m not surprised that people don’t mistake me for a local. But some of my American friends seem to attract English-speaking tourists without even opening their mouths, and none of us can explain why.

But there are more benefits to being an “outsider” than I thought. Namely, being able to decide when to play the foreigner card. Which happens mainly…

In situations where my social etiquette is questionable

Something I probably shouldn't have done in a church.
Something I probably shouldn’t have done in a church.

Even in America, I’m spectacular at doing things the wrong way in public: going in through the exit door, using the wrong bathroom, etc. In Spain, it’s even worse. You seat yourself at restaurants MOST but NOT ALL of the time, so standing in the doorway looking confused will usually get you nowhere. The male and female bathrooms are labelled with creative drawings and sometimes “S” and “C” which is confusing because both “Señores” (men) and “Señoras” (women) start with “S.” TL;DR: life is complicated.

So whenever I feel like I’m doing something wrong in public but don’t know how to fix it, I make my foreign-ness as obvious as possible.

Like when I went to a trial Latin Dance class, entered the building by slamming the door against the wall, and stepped into a room of Spanish people staring at me.

I turned to my friend Amanda.

“Let’s just stand here and speak in English so everyone knows that we have no clue what we’re doing,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Amanda. “It’s better to look like a foreigner than just an idiot.”

“Yeah, then maybe someone will help us. Hahaha. I’m so confused. HAHAHA someone please help us.”

At which point a woman at a desk in the back smiled and asked if we needed help, and no one that day died of embarrassment.

This tactic also works when people try to sell me things or hand me brochures while I’m walking back from class. I loudly say, “I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH I’M SORRY” and run away. The same applies for when creepy guys talk to me. So far this method hasn’t failed me.

Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren't fluent. It's safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn't speak English at all.  Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don't understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don't walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.
Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren’t fluent. It’s safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn’t speak English at all. Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don’t understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don’t walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.

But there are also times when I feel like I have a good handle on the situation and get irritated (maybe unfairly so) when people treat me like I don’t speak Spanish.

This happens a lot when I ask questions.

Lost and confused: my natural state of being
Lost and confused: my natural state of being

While in Santiago de Compostela, I sat down in a restaurant with three other Americans and started reading the menu. I saw caldo gallego under the first course. I knew it meant “Galician Broth,” but that could mean anything from chicken noodle soup to the boiled blood of Galician pilgrims, so when the waiter came over, I decided to ask.

“A quick question,” I said in Spanish. “What is caldo gallego?

Una sopa,” the waiter said. “Soup.”

Sí, sí,” I said, frowning. [Whenever Spanish people offer unsolicited English translations, they seem to pick the least helpful words to translate. One of my program directors once said, “Los romanos, sabéis? The Romans!” because clearly no one could have guessed that]

“I know what caldo means,” I said (still in Spanish). “I’m asking what’s IN the soup.”

“Fish and vegetables.”

Sí, sí,” I said, “pero qué pescado?

“Codfish,” he said in English.

I considered telling him that I knew that word in Spanish, thank you very much. I’d eaten fried bacalao with my host mother every week since I’d come to Spain. It was the same fish hanging in every window in Santiago de Compostela with giant, terrifying eyes. This whole region of Spain was famous for its bacalao and I would have to be blind not to see it written on the chalk boards outside of every restaurant. So I appreciate the fact that even though I haven’t said a word of English to you, you’ve been insisting that I can’t speak Spanish. I came thousands of miles just to speak English with you. I’ll tell you where you can shove that codfish.

Instead, I closed the menu.

Vale,” I said. “I’ll just have the toast and ham, thank you.”

Here's a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock's name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, "Joder!" (which means "fuck"). In Spanish, peacock is "Pavo Real" which translates to "Royal Turkey," so sometimes I accidentally say "turkey" instead of "peacock" in English.
Here’s a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock’s name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, “Joder!” (which means “fuck”). In Spanish, peacock is “Pavo Real” which translates to “Royal Turkey,” so sometimes I accidentally say “turkey” instead of “peacock” in English.

As hard as it is to live abroad and be forced to speak another language to get by, being a guiri is a unique kind of in-between world. As a biracial person, I’ve navigated gray zones my entire life. This is just another case of learning the rules of the game, and having fun even if I can’t always win.

3 thoughts on “When to Play the “Foreigner Card”

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