According to Byram (1997), intercultural competence means to be able to interact efficiently with persons from various countries in a foreign language. The paper introduces a new concept, in a sensible disaccord with this definition, the concept  « cultural differences » that exists between persons speaking different language and they do not share the same cultural values. We will introduce examples to illustrate some cases of a large cultural distance between speakers of the same language (in this case, Spanish) and Chinese.

Spanish culture is very welcoming and wants to make sure the visitor feels comfortable among us. So firstly, he or she will be asked about the impressions of our country (cuisine, customs, weather, etc) to make sure the person is doing fine and is enjoying his/her stay. If the foreigner shows appreciation, especially for cuisine and wines, any Spaniard will be extremely pleased. On the contrary, people will get very offended if the foreigner dismisses one or the other in favor of our close competitors the Italians and French.

Anyway, let me get back to Asians in Spain! From an American perspective, referring to all Southeast Asians as “Chinese” would be considered highly ignorant, but in a place like Spain where the large majority of Asians are actually Chinese, I think it’s more excusable to make this assumption. In fact, I’d even say that Spaniards aren’t consciously making the assumption that a person is Chinese; it’s just that a lack of diverse Asian cultures in Spain has prevented the blanket-term “asiático” from entering the vernacular.

If you take a walk around Madrid’s Retiro Park on a Tuesday afternoon, you are bound to come across one or two Chinese wedding parties. The bride and groom are being photographed in picturesque settings by a Chinese photographer, and videoed by a Chinese cameraman and his Chinese assistant. Amongst their party there is never a Spaniard to be seen. Fair enough, you may say, but this is pretty much representative of the level of social integration that the Chinese have gone for in Spain: nada.  The Chinese have been here for years, yet their community is private, busy, and seemingly quite content. Yes, the children go to Spanish schools, speak better Spanish than their parents, and often work the tills in the numerous barrio corner shops, but in ten years I have not yet see a Chinese-Spanish couple holding hands in the street.

A traveler from San Francisko said :“ I used to live in San Francisco and I saw some of this as well. Sure you did see lots of Chinese-American couples but there were entire neighborhoods that were almost entirely Chinese. I lived in one of those hoods. There were stores where everything was written and even priced in Chinese. I remember going into these stores and being followed around like a criminal a few times. It was actually the only time in my life I’ve felt racially discriminated against, which is strange since I’m half Mexican, half white – I’m not sure which half they’d choose to pick on. At any rate, having had Asian roommates and girlfriends, I can say that most of it is a cultural thing. When Asians immigrate they tend to seek out other Asians and bond together into tight groups for the benefit of everyone. It’s really a brilliant strategy. They settle down in their area and create a new Asian community with Asian owned businesses that provide jobs for friends and relatives who might be recent immigrants as well. Having experienced a lot of this culture, I can say that a Chinese person marrying a non-Chinese person tends to be frowned upon by the old guard. The two Asian girls I dated we liberal and open minded but they faced a lot of pressure from their parents to find a nice Asian boy. I can’t speak for the Spanish, but I would only guess there would be much less pressure for a Spaniard to marry another Spaniard.“ 

How long has there been a significant Chinese population in Spain? I have no idea, but certainly long enough for them to enter the Spanish vernacular: Trabajar como un chino, to work like a Chinaman, means you work damn hard, for example, and Suena a cuento chino, means something sounds like a tall story. I’m not sure the Chinese in Spain would be too offended by either of those. I suspect the case of the complete acceptance of the Chinese fits into the Spain. I’ve certainly never heard a bad word against them (suspicion of their privacy aside). In fact, most of the Spaniards I have met find their restaurants and shops extremely useful and are happy to have them in town. Perhaps there is hope for other immigrant groups yet!

The main point of this article has been to discuss cultural differences found in people, which is the essence of the cultural distance concept proposed herein. Language is not a guarantee of understanding because other communicating systems analyzed are in the basis of cultural misunderstandings. Many other cultural differences can be found (that also give rise to such cultural misunderstandings) but they fall outside the scope of this article (history, literature, art… as well as common things regarding daily life such as type of food, cooking, routines, etc.).

In summary, we should pay more attention to cultural distance when it affects people sharing the language, cultural because maybe they are not prepared for that, yet!