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The Russians Are Here

“Как вы сегодня?” he said to me.

The funny thing about Russian is – if you’re not expecting it and someone says just one phrase to you – it’s not overtly obvious that it’s not English. At least for a sentence that short.

“Excuse me?” I replied. I had just finished a long workout and was headed back up to my room to take a much-needed shower. Self-conscious of my smell, I took care to keep my arms down, hoping it would stop the odor from wafting up in the now crowded elevator.

“Angliĭskoĭ” he returned “uh – English?”.

“American” I replied – not sure if he’d asked my nationality or my language due to his thick accent.

“Ah, where do you live?” he said, after taking a moment to consciously switch over to speaking English.

“Here — ”.

“Yes – but I mean. In Amerika –”

It always sounds so Old World when people use America as a noun. The states, the US – both common words with which we lovingly call home. But America? It sounds like you’re getting off the boat at Elis Island. Since it is technically the description of all the land from those wanna-be’s to the north we affectionately call Canadians, to the ancestral lands of the Aztecks.

He’s was 50-something with that slightly wrinkly but completely hair-free kind of sturdy older man look that gives the strong impression he still has the juice of a 25 year-old. It looked like he and his slightly younger (40’s) associate were on a real-estate tour with a middle-aged Chinese woman. The fact that I’d walked on the elevator seemed to completely disrupt his conversation with the other two. The Chinese lady, after a quick glance at me, continued on her conversation with the other man, almost as if she was irritated that I’d caused the disruption.

Don’t look at me! I just want to take a shower! I thought.

“But where in Amerika are you from?” he asked, only to draw out this awkward moment.

“Minnesota – up north”  (If you must know. We’re Sister-Cities with one of your coldest Siberian cities – probably because we both have something for that insane cold.)  “Are you living in Beijing?”

“Yes. We have buzinezz,” he said to me while glancing over at his partner.

I don’t know if his friend really looked at me, or if it was just across the elevator at his older associate. If he did, it wasn’t for more than a half a second, but in that quick glance, and the one he gave his partner, I saw that “I know where this goes” kind of look. The ‘you’re as ruthless as a saber-tooth tiger, and as mean as a mama bear separated from her cub, but the minute a skirt walks by, you completely lose all focus’. The ‘I think you’re a fool, but there’s no stopping you’ kind of look.

“Well” I said as the doors started to open to my floor, “I hope you’re not too rich, or too powerful. I would imagine it a great weakness that your Achilles heal is so obvious.”  Unfriendly men would know all too easily how to manipulate you.

I left the cramped feeling elevator with a nod to his associate in a ‘good day’ kind of way and walked down my hall.  I laughed a little to myself because no one from their group had remembered to call their floor. The irritated agent leaned across the two men and pressed the button when she realized the absentee mistake.

Epilogue: All this is true. Except for my parting comment. It was exactly what I was thinking, but my floor wasn’t high enough up to make the ride long enough, to give me chance enough to say it. But how often do we get to say just what we’re thinking?

It is not too much of a surprise to run into a few Russians, and not even a Russian speaking Chinese lady. There is a substantial Russian community here in Beijing. Of course, as Beijing is the governmental center of China, all the embassies are in this city so in general there are a variety of ex-pats. However Russia, I imagine because of its strong ties of old, has probably the largest single body of foreigners.  Indeed, a good deal of Russians give the impression they’re second generation, and that they’re here to stay. (But don’t quote me. This isn’t a body of people I interact with too much).

There’s a whole section of Beijing, not too far from where I live, that is basically Little Moscow. There’s an entire shopping mall filled with shops that cater to Russians (furs!) and Russian restaurants. The whole area of town even advertises its shop wares in Russian, not Chinese or English.  It’s an awful strong nod to the days of not too long ago when China and Russia were palls and the West, specifically the US, were the enemy.

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