Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 11:03 AM
A celebration for the 2008 Beijing Olympics held in Buenos Aires, Argentina
This article is by guest contributor Nancy H. Liu. She is a health researcher, an NIH/Fogarty Scholar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Beijing.
The Chinese Diaspora in Latin Americaby Nancy Liu
In a city renowned for its savory steak and sultry tango, a little known fact is that there is a growing Chinese population in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
During the Olympics, while Beijing displayed its magnificence to rest of the world, many Argentines watched the Games at Chinese restaurant Todos Contentos (大家乐) in Barrio Chino, the Chinatown of Buenos Aires. Todos Contentos and several other Chinese businesses hosted the Fiestas Olímpicas. Though a relatively new sight in Latin America, it was a familiar scene scattered across major cities across the world: red lantern-lined streets dragon dancing, kungfu performances and fried egg rolls, and the pop music of Jay Chou (周杰倫).
The Chinese diaspora in Buenos Aires is a heterogeneous group. Some have arrived just recently; others have lived here for decades, their children adopting Latin American names, such as Mariana Hsu or — my favorite thus far — Juan Huang.
Chinese immigrants to Argentina number to about 60,000, comprising approximately 0.15% of the country’s population. The Chinese in Argentina came mostly in two waves: the first arrived from Taiwan in the 1980s, while the second came in the 1990s, hailing mostly from Fujian Province.
After almost 30 years here, many first-wave Taiwanese have become accustomed to the porteño lifestyle. They tell a story common to Asian immigrants in Latin America arriving around the same time: hoping to reach the United States or Canada, they were met with difficulties securing a visa. Their aspirations were temporarily halted and so they waited. Only waiting led to acculturating; and acculturating eventually led to staying.
“The pace of life here is slower. When I return to Taiwan, everything moves so quickly and there is too much pressure at work,” says Chen Chaofei (陈超妃), 36, who moved to Buenos Aires in high school. “I couldn’t handle it so I came back.”
An Argentine asado in the park with a Taiwanese-Argentine family
To her and many others, Taiwan is no longer home. She explains that her parents would be unable to adjust to life there. Taiwan has changed and so have they, she says, describing her family’s many adopted customs, such as having weekend asados, barbeques with the family.
The second-wave of Chinese immigration to Argentina tells a much different story.
Arriving mostly in the 1990s, this group is filled with twenty- and thirty-somethings, young drifters who came often through the illegal smuggling route originating in Fujian Province. According to Peter Kwong, a professor of Hunter College in New York City who studies Chinatowns across the world, the price of smuggling from Fujian to the United States is about $30,000 USD.
“Many go to these other countries because it’s cheaper,” he states.
Several of the second-wave Chinese immigrants are in the midst of paying back the debts they incurred for coming here. Chang Shenmei (长神美), 20, sleeps at a grocery store where she works in order to save money. Arriving in Buenos Aires about a year ago, she recounts her frustrations with learning Spanish and spends her free time at an Internet café, chatting with friends back home.
“Do you have QQ?” she asks, entering my name into her pink, sparkly cell phone.
In the eyes of local Argentines, however, both waves of the Chinese diaspora have melded into one group. Chinese usually run supermercados chinos (Chinese supermarkets), which dominate the second tier of grocery stores in Buenos Aires. Tinterorías for laundry are also a common Chinese-run business. And of course, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant can be found on nearly every street corner. Empanadas chinas, egg rolls and raviolis chinos, pork-filled dumplings, are popular among local Argentines.
However, life in Buenos Aires does not come without difficulties. Since the economic crisis of 2001, many small businesses have faced significant crime. Robberies are frequent, with one supermercado chino reportedly robbed up to 14 times in one year. Also, stories of family members shot at gunpoint in their store are not uncommon. Meanwhile, some tensions have arisen with other immigrant groups. In 2002, Bolivian immigrant workers held demonstrations against Chinese, Korean and Jewish owned stores, carrying signs stating, “We are workers, not slaves.” As a result, many Argentines boycotted these businesses.
Recently, there has been a third and newer wave of Chinese immigration: ambitious and educated members of China’s growing middle-class who are looking to find their place in China’s growing economy. Young employees of Chinese companies have recently arrived to work two year stints. Federico Calcagno, 32, an Argentine employee at the Buenos Aires branch of Hua Wei Technologies Co. Ltd. (华为技术有限公司) says the company hires younger workers because they are eager to please, seeking to better their financial situation.
“They are very hard workers,” he states.
Moreover, students who come mainly from China’s coastal cities are looking to turn to account the untapped reservoir of Spanish language abilities. Whereas their peers are assiduously learning English, they see their future in Spanish.
“When I go back, I will be one of the few who can speak Spanish,” says Pablo Chu, 21, who arrived from Shanghai two years ago and seeks to complete an undergraduate degree at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.
In many ways, the Chinese diaspora in Buenos Aires is reminiscent of the motherland. Though variegated, they are assembled into one whole, seeking to make their ends meet. Despite this heterogeneity, however a simple message continues to reverberate: the growing Chinese presence in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, is difficult to ignore.
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