Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

While my fellow international students here come from all over Europe and Asia, most by far are Chinese.
Students from the seaside city of Dalian make up almost three-fourths of the foreigners at Irkutsk State Linguistic University. In some of my classes, I’m the only non-Chinese in the room except the teacher.
Even though some of my classmates have been studying Russian and other European languages for a handful of years, their accents are still quite thick.
Listening to that kind of Russian makes for some really good practice at deciphering sentences from their context, a skill important in a city where people don’t tend to speak clearly and don’t like to repeat themselves.
The exposure to Chinese youth culture is also fun. On field trips the bus resounds with singing, as far as I can tell, the Chinese equivalent to “The Wheels on the Bus” or “99 Bottles of Beer.” Some students wear the colorful fashion we often associate with Japan and Korea.
At times, there are unmistakable signs of Chinese character. A couple times, I’ve heard students quote Lenin and Mao in class to make a point or provide an example.
Still, Ameriphilia is seeping in, and my classmates are interested in getting to know, and even flirt with Americans. A couple have even dated U.S. students here.
But their experience with Russians is more complex.
“Are the girls in your class actually pretty enough to flirt?” asked my hostess once. “Don’t they have teeth like this?” she said, twisting her mouth into an enormous overbite.
The Soviet Union dealt fairly successfully with the integration of the many ethnic groups within its border, and tolerance is a point of national pride.
But changes in immigration policy after the breakup of the Soviet Union have tested that tolerance anew. Working-class Chinese are flooding into Siberia, and not always legally.
Irkutsk, one of the largest Russian cities near China, is a destination for many poor immigrants looking for work.
Because people here have gotten acquainted only with Chinese of the lower class, some generalizations are springing up that mirror those held by some Americans about immigrants.
For example, a number of Irkutians I’ve met consider the Chinese to be unintelligent and even uncivilized. I’ve heard that same claim in the United States about Mexicans, Vietnamese, and a number of other groups.
That, of course, is a major fallacy. Immigrants can’t stand for the whole population that lives comfortably enough to stay at home, especially in developed countries like China and Mexico.
Misconceptions sometimes cause problems for Chinese students in Russia. My classmates, all from reasonably well-off families and not looking for employment in the local cement factory, sometimes get lumped in with their poorer countrymen in the minds of locals.
One friend of mine even ran into trouble on public transport. One evening, he took the last available seat on a minibus. A girl of about 22, noticing a foreign face, walked up and asked for his spot.
He refused at first, but after seeing the glares of the other passengers he yielded the seat and got out of the van.
It’s not that foreigners are expected to give up their places, but the girl probably figured she could intimidate him out of his seat.
Other Asian students get hassled, too, because officials can’t tell the difference between one nationality and another.
Another friend of mine, a Korean, is often mistaken for being Chinese. Even though his accent is noticeably different from any Chinese speech I’ve heard here, police frequently check his passport, and he avoids bars and nightclubs for fear of getting into a row with restless young drunks.
Asians here are so often assumed to be Chinese that some are quite sensitive to it. In a drunken altercation, one my Belgian classmates got a black eye from some Mongolians when he asked them if they were Chinese.
That feeds another unfortunate stereotype: Mongolians are said to be rowdy, uncouth, and drink a lot. The only Mongolian I’ve met here, on the other hand, was a young Buddhist, dressed in a yellow jacket and pants and carrying only a string of beads, who wandered the halls of my university for a week before leaving town.
Even so, my Korean friend’s advice is this: In any part of the world, whenever you meet someone from east Asia and you can’t tell their nationality, guess Mongolian first. Even though you’ll probably be wrong, it might save you a face rearrangement.