“When I was little, I used to think that I was the only Chinese child on the planet,” recalls Dídac Lee. Lee was born in the Catalan town of Figueres in 1974, a year after his Taiwanese parents opened the first Chinese restaurant in Girona province. Back then, being an immigrant in Catalonia meant “being from Andalusia or Madrid.” Certainly, nobody expected to find an Asian person in the neighborhood, or sitting next to them in class. “Everybody used to stare at me at school. They spoke two languages and I didn’t understand either of them. It took me quite a while to adapt,” recalls Lee, who now spends most of his time speaking in Catalan. He struggled to fit in until he found a shared passion: Barcelona soccer club.
“Soccer was my foothold into Catalan society. I was different in every way, except when I was playing or we were watching a Barça game,” he says. Lee tried to join the team. “But I was very bad, so I decided that if I could not be a player, I would be a Barça executive.” And he didn’t stop until he achieved his goal. Lee was in charge of new technologies at the club until June 10, and is now running to be re-elected in the role on July 18.
Just like Lee, many other children of Chinese immigrants who were either born in Spain or brought over to reunite with other family members are moving away from their parents’ traditional businesses, such as restaurants and variety stores. “They are studying for all kinds of degrees and we are starting to see teachers, doctors, lawyers, physicists, economists..,” explains Joaquín Beltrán, a social anthropologist and coordinator of Eastern Asia Studies at Barcelona’s Autónoma University.
In 2003, there were 202 Chinese students attending Spanish universities. That figure has since risen to 6,381, including 2,435 taking master’s degrees and doctorates. Many of the latter come expressly from China to take these courses. “This is a growing trend,” says Beltrán. “Around 23 percent of Chinese living in Spain right now are under 15. The longer the parents have been here, the more money they will have saved, increasing their chances of investing in their children’s education. Chinese culture attaches great importance to education.”
Lee is living proof. He dropped his computer science studies in the second year, because at age 21 he had already set up his own business, an internet service provider in Girona. At 32 he received the young Catalan entrepreneur of the year award, and is now CEO of a corporate holding that employs over 400 people. “But my parents are still on my case to get me to complete my degree,” he laughs. “To the Chinese, studies are a matter of honor.”
Jiajia Wang, 27, is often a guest speaker at events for young entrepreneurs, and she likes to tell the story of how her parents used to sleep in the bathtub to make room for a study table for her brother and herself inside the tiny room where they lived. The family had been forced out of their village after Wang’s mother got pregnant a second time. The fine for violating the one-child policy in China was so high that they decided to leave the country. Her father made it into Spain on a fake passport, and once he had settled down in Catalonia in 1997, he brought over his wife and children. They worked exhaustingly long days, first to pay off their debt for the trip, and later to set up their business, a Chinese restaurant in Blanes (Girona) where Wang and her brother worked as children until their parents were able to afford paid employees.
When Wang turned 18, they asked her whether she wanted to go to university or open a variety store or a restaurant. “I wanted to study, to open new doors and horizons for myself,” she explains. She wanted to study literature or philosophy, but her parents would not hear of it. So she opted for economics.
In 2009 she obtained a scholarship to study at Harvard, and later she was offered a position at Deloitte. But two days before taking up the post, she turned down the offer. “I was 22 and I didn’t want to shut myself up in a multinational and just be one more number. I was dreaming of my own projects,” she recalls. But her parents were so excited about her job offer that they had bought her a new outfit for every day of the week. Wang didn’t dare tell them that she had turned it down, and pretended to go to work every day until one day she finally confessed. “They took it very badly; they felt disappointed. It is not easy for them to understand that you may want to seek out your own path. They wanted to save me from taking unnecessary detours.”
In 2010, Wang won the UPF Emprèn Prize, which earned her €20,000 to fund her project: a publishing house specializing in educational material to teach Chinese to children adopted by Spanish couples. After trying her hand at that venture for four years, she worked in real estate investment and still feels “the urge to start a new project.”
Like Wang, the Lam siblings washed a lot of dishes at their parents’ Chinese restaurant before setting up their own ventures.“When we were little they kept insisting on the need to study,” recalls Miguel Lam, 49. “They wanted their children to do better for themselves than they had done. I studied journalism, my sister Man Yee studied economics and my brother is a telecommunications engineer.” “My father was very proud,” he adds. “He was the son of peasants and when he got here he didn’t know how to read. It was my mother who wrote the letters that he sent to his family back home.”
Lam remembers that the day former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, they got the day off and decided to go visit a fellow Chinese migrant who lived in Torremolinos. “We couldn’t really be active in the Chinese community back then, because there wasn’t one. It was a case of complete immersion. My siblings and I are all married to Spaniards, and most of my friends are Spanish as well, although at age 49 they still call me El chino,” he laughs.
All of Lam’s bosses have always been Spanish, except for the time when he worked for his sister at the Spanish Trade Office in Hong Kong. “Now I’m out of a job precisely because a Chinese fund bought the company I was working for and fired nearly the entire team,” he sighs.