Yabaolu, the Russian district in eastern Beijing. Photo credit unknown.
This winter, when I was in Beijing, I went on several dates with Ksenia, a girl I met off OKCupid. When she messaged me, I clicked on her profile and noted that she had filled out absolutely nothing and had posted zero photos of herself. I had wondered if she was a cyberbot. But at the time my evening activity, if any, consisted of pumping myself full of terrible Chinese beer. A date, even with a cyberbot, seemed like a possible ticket out of my terrified expat noob rut.
Luckily, she was made of flesh and had feelings. She had light brown curly hair and very striking blue eyes, and she was manufactured and developed in St. Petersburg, which immediately piqued my interest. I am a casual Russophile, which means I know the Russian alphabet, a few words of random useless vocabulary, and I have read too many Constance Garnett translations of 19th century Russian novels. From reading history books, I have been intrigued about the strange mix of east and west that is Russia—Peter the Great made everyone in his court shave their beards to be more like Western Europe; the Japanese defeated the Russians over a port that now belongs to China; China’s Communist Party has often looked to the Soviet Union as a model for policy and culture. But I’ve never been to Russia; I’ve never even touched War and Peace. I really know quite little about the country, except that I think they make a bomb potato salad and share my love of pickled cucumbers.
We went to my favorite beer bar in Beijing, The Vine Leaf. They brew their own beer. To drink it is a sensual explosion, instead of a tasteless, desperate plea for emotional connection that it is to drink Snow or Tsingtao. When I’m in Beijing, I usually go to The Vine Leaf with Joseph. The bartender, Mumu, had thought for a while that we were dating. Joseph told me that Mumu confronted him about it when he showed up there with other women. I appreciated that. It is one of the many reasons why I am a loyal customer.
Ksenia had been teaching English in Beijing for three years. Her English was flawless, save for a slight Russian accent and some unique word choices that I assumed were Russglish. I found out she also spoke German and Mandarin and was learning Arabic. She even knew some Finnish—Finland is only a short ferry ride away from St. Petersburg, she informed me. She used to work as an interpreter in a German beer factory in St. Petersburg (awesome). She read a lot of books (good), but didn’t like food (uh oh). Her father is from St. Petersburg, but her mother is from Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East only 30 kilometers away from the Chinese border.
It struck me suddenly and quite stupidly that Russia is very large. Did you know that Russia is large?
“Are there a lot of Russians in Beijing?” I asked Ksenia.
“Yes,” she said. “But they’re mostly from eastern Russia, and they are traders. Most of them live near Yabaolu.”
She explained to me that many eastern Russians come to China to buy cheap clothes and other goods to re-sell for profit in Russia.
“I went to Yabaolu a few times with my ex-girlfriend several years ago,” she said. “She was from—how do you say Belarus in English?”
“Belarus,” I said.
“Yes, she was from Belarus. She didn’t fit into Chinese clothes, so we went shopping there. She was—” She gestured. Ahhh. Girl was busty.
“Really,” I said.
“Really,” Ksenia said. “Two hands were not enough.”
I quite enjoyed how she quantified breasts in terms of number of hands. It reminded me of physics class.
We decided that she would take me to Yabaolu. We went on a Friday. Yabaolu is a street in eastern Beijing, by Ritan, the Temple of the Sun, near many foreign embassies. Ksenia works in that area.
Lined with skyscrapers and shopping centers and glittering restaurants, it resembled every other business district of Beijing, except all the street signs and business signs were in both Russian and Chinese. With my minimal Russian alphabet skills, I managed to decipher “Ябао”—“Yabao.” Despite all the lights and the tall buildings, the streets were almost empty, save for some strolling couples and a few Chinese rickshaw drivers shouting mangled Russian (according to Ksenia) at us. I read later that the business in Yabaolu was in decline due to the global economic crisis and stricter Russian import policies.
Ksenia was leading me to a resto-club called Mango. She didn’t have a very good sense of direction. We stopped so that she could ask a Russian couple where to go. The woman was dressed in elaborate furs.
“Ugh,” Ksenia said, after we continued on our way.
“What?” I said.
“Eastern Russians,” she said. “Their accent. Terrible.”
“Come on,” I said. “You’re a language snob?”
“There’s…a way…to speak Russian…correctly,” she said. She looked pained. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t, but I studied language in school, so of course I’m a language snob.”
“What do they think of the way you talk?”
“They probably don’t care,” she said. “To them, I’m just some young lost girl from St. Petersburg.”
“They can tell you’re from St. Petersburg?”
“They can tell I’m from the west for sure,” she said.
She tried to justify her language snobbery to me. Language snobbery, to the extent that I understood what she was saying, is different in Russia than in the US—there’s much more pride in speaking and knowing proper Russian, whatever that is. For example, Russian spelling is exceedingly difficult, even more so than English. Many words are spelled differently from how they sound. This is because pronunciation has evolved, and also because many letters have been eliminated from the Russian alphabet over the centuries, which has led to complications in spelling. Laypeople misspell words all the time. Ksenia was quite proud of her spelling ability, as university language students spent several years studying it.
But she otherwise had very little nationalistic streak in her. She told me she had no desire to return to Russia. The homophobia is rampant—she later told me that she once punched a skinhead in the face for harassing her. Her own mother didn’t speak to her for two years after she came out.
We found Mango. It had the air of a moderately fancy restaurant, except it was playing loud dance music. We went to the second floor, which was quieter, but also overlooked the dance floor on the level below through a piece of glass. I ogled everyone around me. The waiters were Chinese, but the clientele were almost completely Russian. I tried to eavesdrop. I know how to say pancake and airplane in Russian. No one was talking about pancakes or airplanes. I peered beyond the glass at several women—Russian, I assumed—pole dancing on the floor below.
The food that we ordered was delicious. Ksenia doesn’t get worked up about food, but she enjoyed the opportunity to eat familiar flavors. I particularly liked solyanka, a beef-based soup rich with spices and balanced with the aromatic tartness of lemon and the mildness of dill. It was topped with a dollop of sour cream. I ate it too quickly.
“I might be talking out of my ass, but this is the best soup I’ve ever eaten,” I said to Ksenia.
“You’re just hungry,” she said.
We talked about children’s books. I told her my favorite was The Twits by Roald Dahl. She hadn’t heard of it, so I described Mr. Twit’s sardine-encrusted beard to her with gusto. We started people watching.
“Do you think those people are from the Far East?” I asked her, without really knowing what I was asking. I subtly gestured to the table next to us.
“Probably,” she said. “It sounds like it.”
In Shanxi, the local Chinese rarely—if ever—see foreigners. Amelea and V told me that at Shanxi Agricultural University, where they teach, random students knock on their door and ask if they can tour their house just to see what foreigners own. In my dorm in Taiyuan, where the foreign students live, a Chinese student walked in and knocked on all of the foreigners’ doors asking to be friends. They installed new doors with key-card locks on the entrance to every floor after that to keep Chinese students out.
The kid had knocked on my door. He looked surprised when he saw me.
“I was looking for a foreigner,” he said in Chinese.
I had been recovering from a bout of mild food poisoning. My hair was disheveled, and I was wearing yellow boxers with hot air balloons on them. Still not foreign enough.
“I am a foreigner,” I replied. “I’m from America.”
“But—you know—a foreigner,” he said.
“I’m sick,” I said. I shut the door before he could say anything else.
He pissed me off, but I don’t blame him anymore. Maybe he watches NBA; maybe he’s seen American Pie, and maybe he sneaks a peek of the foreigner’s dorm. That’s the only window he has.
In Mango, I wondered what window I was peering through. No creepy stories about Rasputin, no Raskolnikov in his overcoat, no existential effusions, no dying serfs, no dancing bears. No fur peddlers or even skinheads, thank God. I was sitting in a plush seat across from a Russian expat with very little national pride in a dying neighborhood in Beijing.
I drank my Baltika. It was a Russian beer, but it tasted like Sierra Nevada.