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In China, millennials are embracing Spanish, Latino culture and shaking it up on TikTok

Yilin Ye, a student from Anji, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, China, is spending time abroad at the University of Zaragoza in Spain.

Ye, 25, said she first started learning Spanish after having heard about its “excellent reputation.” She said she feels she takes on a slightly different persona when she speaks Spanish.

“It’s a really beautiful thing, really fascinating,” she said. “When I’m speaking Chinese, I’m more calm. When I’m speaking English, I’m probably a bit more open, and when I speak Spanish, I’m very ‘wow.'”

In addition to reading comics by the Argentine-Spanish cartoonist Quino, Ye enjoys keeping up with Spanish-language TV shows and movies, like “Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo,” “Ocho Apellidos Vascos,” “Diarios de Motocicleta” and Netflix’s “Elite.”

A scroll through DouYin, the original Chinese version of TikTok that launched in 2016, shows lots of users who aren’t shy about flaunting their language skills. They include Chinese millennials lip-syncing videos and mashups in English — and showing their growing love of Spanish and Latino culture.

Just how popular is the world’s second-most-popular spoken language in China? The numbers speak for themselves.

There are about 50,000 Spanish speakers in China, a figure scholars say is growing by the year. The language has become more popular as students enthusiastically share their new knowledge on social media.

“The Spanish language is making waves in China,” Lu Jingsheng, an author and national coordinator of Spanish for the Chinese government, said in an interview.

Lu, who teaches at Shanghai International Studies University, said the university previously offered only English, Japanese and Russian as second languages. But that changed in 2017 with the additions of new programs and electives.

As Spanish grows in popularity, many Chinese students consider learning it an advantage as they prep for the Gaokao, a national college entrance exam that typically spans two days and takes students nine hours to complete. Students often choose to test in Spanish or English for the foreign language part of the test.

Ye’s enthusiasm for the language and the culture isn’t uncommon, especially among young people, Lu said. “We try to create an atmosphere that goes along with the culture of the language.”

From Zumba videos to makeup tutorials — en español

Media and entertainment play a leading role in language-learning for Chinese millennials. Some have dedicated entire DouYin channels to the Spanish language with vlogs and makeup tutorials.

For those who have difficulty rolling the robust Spanish R’s, content creators comically suggest gargling a bit of water to mimic the tongue’s rapid movements.

Lulu Yang poses with antique cars on a work trip to Cuba. (Courtesy Lulu Yang)

Lulu Yang, a Spanish teacher and rising DouYin star — she has over 10 thousand followers — said her journey started after she took her first few Spanish electives. Yang, 28, who is originally from Beijing, said her dad first encouraged her to start learning.

“Nowadays in China, English is very common, and more and more people know it,” she said. “Without Spanish, I feel I’d be a very ordinary person and that I’d have a very ordinary job, but because of Spanish, I’ve been on many trips and visited many cities.”

Yang, who has lived in Spain and traveled to Cuba for work, launched her DouYin account in February of last year, when she had more free time during the pandemic.

“I just wanted to have a try and didn’t imagine it could grow” that big, she said. “And then I thought, ‘OK, I can continue.’ I wanted to share my experiences.”

From donning Latino-inspired jewelry, like big hoops and gold cross necklaces, to dancing along to Latin rhythms and remixes, young people in China are embracing a culture that is bold, loud and a bit different from their own.

Yang said she enjoys posting Zumba-style dance videos on her personal DouYin account, adding that she enjoys listening to Shakira, Luis Fonsi and other artists. Using a well-known Chinese idiom, 能歌善舞 (néng gē shàn wǔ), Yang said those who speak Spanish are usually “people of many talents.”

“If you are the type that studies [a language] really hard, then you’re definitely open-minded, lively and vivacious. You like coming into contact with new things,” Yang said. “Everything I know, every work opportunity or love story I’ve had, is thanks to my Spanish.”

Scott Xia, 29, says he made many friends while traveling around Mexico in 2014. (Courtesy Scott Xia)

Scott Xia, 29, says he made many friends while traveling around Mexico in 2014. (Courtesy Scott Xia)

Scott Xia, another DouYin content creator and teacher, who has nearly 3 million fans on the platform, said he has also had unique opportunities because of his Spanish-language fluency.

Xia, 29, of Chengdu, Sichuan, started learning Spanish seven years ago, depending mostly on platforms like Duolingo, Netflix and YouTube in the beginning. He often used Netflix to re-watch some of his favorites with Spanish subtitles and audio.

“I like ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ and since I had already watched it, I already knew a lot of the content,” Xia said. “I automatically made those connections, and I didn’t have to use too much effort to understand it” in Spanish.

He said that now that he works as a teacher, the main reason he posts educational content is that it cheers him up.

“Doing these things makes me pretty happy, because I like learning languages,” Xia said. “I can take these experiences with me and share them with everyone.”

Xia has also worked as a sea mariner, which has allowed him to travel to Mexico and other places in Latin America.

“Take a look at a map. There are tons of Spanish-speaking countries. If you speak Chinese, English and also Spanish, then you’re basically covering all your bases — there isn’t a place you can’t go.”

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