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A constructivist approach to identity in times of economic slowdown

Por: | 15 de septiembre de 2011

When my father came to meet my mother’s family for the first time in the 1970s, he was the first Chinese my family had ever seen. There were a lot of stares and the communication was difficult and limited.

Coming from a small “pueblo”, about 15 kilometres from Vitoria-Gasteiz, my mother moved to Paris when she was 20 and met my father who had also immigrated to France from Hong Kong, where they ended up staying and raising a family.

So I spent my life moving from the Basque country, to Hong Kong, to Paris and other destinations to finally graduate from High School in Paris, move to London for university, and decide to spend my Erasmus year in Berlin, to now being in Madrid.

No matter what (European) country I ended up in, I was always intrigued by the repeated “identity” debates in the media. The demographic changes that immigration is causing have triggered reactions everywhere in Europe, and to my disappointment, mostly negative ones - truly worrying - as “foreigners” seem to be the cause of all problems and the easiest solution we found so far is to kick them out of our countries (“Roms” in France) or close up borders that took so long to be open (Denmark).

I must admit, until the age of about 18 years old, I never asked myself “nationality” questions, or should I say “identity questions”. The closer I got to that topic was when studying the American integration models of “salad bowl” and “melting pot”. Truth is, the fact that I was in an international school also helped - we all seemed to think that having three passports and that having to “fly” for family dinners was normal.

But I guess it isn’t. And I only realised it as I grew older and started meeting people from completely different backgrounds. Most people started asking me questions that I had never thought of or that just seemed trivial to me. Did I mix my languages when I spoke them? What language did I dream in? Was it hard to have friends and family spread around the world? And finally, the dreaded ones – where did I consider myself from? Which nationality would I chose if I could only have one? How did it feel not to “look” like the country that I was from? I couldn’t answer most of those questions and to be frank, I probably never will be able to.

Yes, I hold a French passport and no I don’t “look French”. But what does it mean to look French? In Berlin, the majority of my French friends were not your typical white-baguette lover-chain smoker: most were coloured. Black, from Martinique, Guadeloupe or Senegalese heritage, Asian from Laos or Cambodia, white from the movement of Portuguese and Spanish immigration of the post World War II period, and, of course, Tunisian and Algerian resulting from colonization. Germans were amazed at our diversity, yet, similarity – so my answer would always be: doesn’t Berlin have almost 300.000 Turks? Surely a lot of them are German… I got a lot of empty stares of confusion. Maybe that’s what Angela Merkel meant when she said “multikulti has failed…”

This situation is not an isolated case. Living in London, a city representing globalization and cosmopolitanism at its highest, I can assure you that being “British” is a topic of debate and sometimes the source of intolerance and division. Here in Spain, it’s the same old chit chat.  Oh wait, let me add another difficulty – my decision to come to Madrid makes me a “traitor” to the Basque Country and in Madrid, I am no longer French, or Chinese or Spanish – I am Basque. Oops.

Immigration in Spain is a recent phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, only 2.5% of residents in Spain were foreign, a figure that went up to 14% last year. It has also been very fast and I am the first one to be surprised by the fast demographic change. In my small Vitoria, it is now normal to hear that Spanish families went all the way to China to adopt and now put their children in “Ikastolas” (Basque schools) where they will receive a bilingual Spanish-Euskera education. In my flat in Madrid, we are a mix of French, German, Venezuelan, Nigerian and Spanish and guess what language we interact in? Spanish.

So much for problems integration and identity. The EU has put forward a model of cultural openness:  from free trade and free movement of people to European education agreements to the implementation of the euro. But, to my dismay, it seems that everyone forgets about those ideals in times of economic crisis. Protectionism replaces cooperation and cultural curiosity turns into a growth of nationalism. I guess I was mistaken; being mixed race is not always an advantage. Maybe ethnic diversity only works in times of economic growth.


Students of the Príncipe de Viana de Lleida school in Cataluña where 60% of the children are of non-spanish origin.

Hay 7 Comentarios

It's really a nice and helpful piece of information. I'm glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this.
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Pues eso. So much for the stupid ethnical homogeneity they are seeking around Brussels...

Igual! Coming from a crazy diverse background and having moved around, I share the sentimient cien por ciento chica!

Que razon tienes...

but luckily nationality is not our only's just one of so many!!!

In Madrid you are Basque? Really?

Immigration in Spain is a recent phenomenon?
Methinks you haven't studied the history of the Iberian Peninsula, darl. Being the natural bridge between Africa and Europe, the peninsula has been the site of migratory flows throughout history. It's too easy to forget history, or to ignore it when it suits certain ideologies, but you of all people, with such a wealth of backgrounds, should know better.

Pues eso. So much for the stupid ethnical homogeneity they are seeking around Brussels...

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: