“Where’s your Soviet companion?”

soviet

It’s January, 2015. I go to a bathhouse. When the employee opens my locker, she asks:

“Where’s your companion today?”
“Who do you mean? My husband?”
“No. The tall woman who came to the bathhouse yesterday. The Soviet.”
“Umm, I don’t know that woman. Actually, I don’t know any other foreigners here.”

The employee stares at me, incredulously.

Interestingly, many people in Siping still refer to Russians (I assume that’s what she meant) as “Soviets”.

Have you ever had a similar conversation? I’d love to read your stories.

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

20 comments

  1. The girls in my Hong Kong dormitory thought I was Soviet for months and months until almost the end of that school year. (The Soviet Union was still in tact then.) They said they were surprised that I was American because I was so quiet. People in Vietnam that same year also thought I was Soviet.

    • There are lots of stereotypes about Americans as well as Russians. I don’t blame people for thinking I’m Russian. I still find it interesting that people here tend to call Russians Soviets. They do know that the Soviet Union has split up into various countries, but they still say it.

  2. My goodness. It’s frightening what the Chinese are led to believe. I know my b/f worked in China for many years and had to deal with the fact that he was being followed and watched all the time. I guess everyone thinks you are spy. The govt must raise their people on paranoia and suspicion.

  3. I haven’t been called a Soviet. But my husband and I visited the Russian Far East (Magadan, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok) a couple of years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Men on the streets were trying to sell us Soviet military uniforms, hats, watches, etc. I think one market we visited was just across the border from China. Many of the venders were Chinese. It was a strange time.

    • That sounds like an interesting time too, even if it was strange at the same time. I imagine these uniforms must be quite warm in the winter. Many people here wear military uniforms because they are really warm, not because they belong to the military.

  4. robert

    Reminds me when some older chap of my girlfriends family told me “I’m okay for an Austrian, despite what we did to the Chinese”. I had the same feeling – “what are you talking about?? are you blaming me?”. Apparently we Austrians have been to China once and even managed to get a concession by dumb luck. Seems Chinese pupils learn about this in school, but Austrian ones don’t.

    Anyway, the guy was okay for a Chinese who thinks the Austrians did something to them. I remember we clinked glasses a few times at the family dinner and had a good time 😉

    • I’m glad he was okay with it. There were only a few Austrians in the concessions, so I guess it’s more about the symbolic significance than the real impact these Austrians had. We learned about this in school, so it is sometimes taught, albeit not in every school, I guess.

  5. My husband and I were buying the sugary strawberries at one of the street vendors when the lady asked my husband if I was Russian. He said no and that I am American. She responded, “She can’t be! She’s not tall!” Weird, there are many tall Russians…(as well as short, of course). I was never mistaken as Russian, only French. 🙂
    My current landlord looked at me and said to my husband, “Well, I know she’s not German!” I don’t even know what that means.

  6. I guess there are not many foreigners in Siping, but even in bigger cities sometimes Chinese people assume all the foreigners know each other! It is funny. Like if we had a foreigners’ club with compulsory attendance or something 😀

    • Sometimes it really is like that – that many foreigners know each other, especially if they are students at the same university. But it’s not always the case, especially if you don’t study here or hang out at places where other foreigners hang out (I don’t even know if there is such a place here).

  7. That’s kind of funny they still refer to Russians as Soviets in the NE. Reminds me of when I first came to China and taxi drivers still spoke of East and West Germany (long after reunification).

  8. I’m often asked if I’m Russian, even though I look nothing like a typical Russian. I had a neighbor recently run up to me and ask me if I spoke Russian. That was a bit odd.

    • It seems to be a popular assumption here in the North. My Chinese mother-in-law actually speaks a little Russian, she learned it at school. We once went to a local market and were greeted by a vendor in Russian. She then told me what it meant – since I myself didn’t understand. Russians don’t all look like typical Russians either, so people probably just assume you’re Russian because there are many Russians in the North.

  9. I have been asked several times wheter I am Russian or also Soviet in China…

    Often Chinese seem to believe that one foreigner knows all the others. In 2011 I participated in a open water swimming competition and I was asked if I know the woman who won the competition the year before (from France) :p

  10. Wow! It’s like history right in your face.

    Just out of curiosity, how do you say soviet in Chinese? Or how did she state it?

    I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was living in China the word ‘comrade’ basically meant ‘gay lover.’ I love how the current generation is rebellious through their modern spin on communist words. I heard the word ‘harmonious’ is also used as ‘eradicate,’ since that’s how the Chinese government would get rid of problems (i.e. he needs to be ‘harmonized’).

    Anyway, super interesting!

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