Globalizing the Basque Country

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It's a little past noon when Xiaodi Yang enters his father's Chinese restaurant, breaking the silence with the bustling racket that somehow travels with children coming from school. Xiaodi, 9, loves soccer and is a fan of Barcelona's Brazilian star Ronaldinho, favoring the glamour team from far-off Catalonia over their local rivals from nearby Bilbao and San Sebastián. Xiaodi is not very different from the other Basque kids with whom he kicks the ball in the streets of Urretxu (pop. 6,788), tucked in the highlands some 60 miles south of Bilbao, that takes its Basque name from the hazelnut trees that once laced the surrounding hills. At school and on the street, Xiaodi converses with them easily in Basque and Spanish, although his friends can't understand a word of the Mandarin he speaks at home with his father, Xian Jun Yang, and his family.

It was about 18 years ago that Xian Jun (or Juan, as he first introduces himself to me as) left Qintian, near Shanghai, and headed for Madrid. Two and a half years later, he moved to Barcelona, where he opened a restaurant in time for the 1992 Olympics. But after the Games the Spanish economy went into a nosedive, taking his business with it. A friend who owned a successful restaurant in Éibar, near Bilbao, invited Xian Jun to visit. "When I saw the mountains, the horses, the sheep and my friend's restaurant (it was doing well)," says Yang, "I thought maybe it's better to change. And I left Barcelona, came here, [and opened the restaurant]".

In most respects, this former schoolteacher's migration had followed the patterns of millions of others: leaving family and familiar customs behind and surviving in an absolutely foreign land. But whatever surprise he must have felt upon settling in the deep Basque Country, a region known for its pervasive cultural and political idiosyncrasies rooted in its ancient history and language, was probably shared by many of his new neighbors. Like me.

The first time I saw Yang's Chinese restaurant in my town — on a visit home from my own immigrant experience in cosmopolitan New York — I was pleasantly shocked. A Chinese restaurant in Barcelona was one thing, or even in increasingly cosmopolitan Bilbao. But in Urretxu? Hazelnut town? The land of T-bone steak and tuna stew? That's when I realized that globalization was for real.

Even then, I wondered how Yang's establishment, with its large marquee sign outside and elaborate wood carvings on the walls depicting Chinese folkloric tales, would fare in the traditionally introverted Basque hamlet. There had been four other Chinese restaurants scattered in a 30-mile radius, and all of them, including his friend's, had closed during the 1990s. But Yang stuck it out. "Business was tough, but the people were very good to me", he says recalling how Urretxu's plumbers and handymen would tell him not to worry about paying them until the restaurant was up and running. "I had to learn to advertise; I started a home delivery service, even going to Azpeitia [12 miles away]", he says, with a chuckle. "You know, always fighting, little by little".

Unaware of his father's odyssey, Xiaodi is now blissfully watching TV while he and his older brother Ou Yang, 12, eat at a table near the counter — the place is almost empty on weekdays; people here still favor the coziness of a home-cooked lunch or the heartiness of a typical Spanish menú del día at the local bars. But it's packed for dinner, specially on weekends. Xiaodi flips around channels, surfing effortlessly between cartoons in Basque and Spanish, and responding to the waiter in Chinese, while his father watches his sons proudly. "I also have a daughter, Xin Yang. She's 17 and the only one born in China. She's going to college next year; she wants to study business," he says smiling.

Lunch at Palacio Oriental leaves me marveling at how small, but no less beautiful, the world has become. When so many in Spain and the Basque Country remain entangled in anachronistic squabbles, it's kids like Xiaodi, Ou and Xin, living examples of a most unlikely fusion, who will be showing the way of the future — even if they don't know it yet.