“Zdravstvuyte! Do you speak Russian?”

China vegetable market

When I’m at the local vegetable market the other day, a Chinese guy in his 40s says: “Zdravstvuyte!”
Me: “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Zdravstvuyte! Do you speak Russian?”
“I don’t. I’m not Russian.”
“Zdravstvuyte! Kak dela?”
“Maybe if you tried Northeastern Chinese dialect on me, I’d be able to understand more?!”
“Kak dela?”

Sometimes you only need a Western-looking face to practice your foreign (Russian) language skills, no matter if the person understands you or not. Thanks to being greeted a lot in Russian these days, I’m now able to understand “Hello, how are you?” in Russian. Maybe next time I will greet back in Russian and see where the conversation leads.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? 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!


  1. I’m never mistaken for a Russian in Siping, perhaps because I am not blond. But I always assume another white person is Russian, unless I have proof to the contrary. But I have seen very few white people in Siping, even at the big university. My wife and I saw a blond girl, all alone, in Martyr’s Square the other night. My wife wanted me to speak with her, but I declined, assuming she was Russian. We saw several Russians in Dalian 2 years ago, and a few in Sanya last year. I thought Sanya was awash in Russians, so I was rather surprised to see so few. Many foreigners complain of all the attention given them by Chinese people, but it doesn’t bother me at all. Everyone is so friendly…how can you be offended or annoyed?

    • I’m not blond either. Most Western-looking foreign students here are Russian, so it’s not way off. Some of the attention foreigners get can be interpreted as negative attention, so I can still understand why people don’t like all the attention.

  2. I’ve already been mistaken for a Russian a few times now. Chinese tend to think I am Russian, Japanese think I am from [insert any English speaking country]. Thank you stereotypes 😀

    Instead of sharing my story about a conversation full of stereotypes like me being Russian, I’d dare to share a like to my blog post about it:

    • People in the Chinese Northeast usually think I’m Russian, which makes sense since it’s the closest country with people who do kind of look similar to me. I prefer it if people ask me about it, though, instead of just telling others I’m Russian when I’m walking by.

  3. Charlotte

    I get mistaken for Russian if the person who’s asking is over age 50. Those under 50 typically assume (correctly) that I’m American. A few friends think that I act more British than American…another strange thing since they’ve never been to either country and I’m the only foreigner they know.

    • I hadn’t thought of the age factor. Most people I interact with are under 50, except my wife’s family. I still think Americans are probably pretty thin on the ground in NE China. In Changchun for example, I understand most Westerners are German auto engineers. I probably need to get out more!

  4. robert

    My in-laws are some of the few older Chinese who speak a foreign language… but it’s Russian 🙁 Apparently in Mao’s days this was the big thing, so you could work with the engineers and other experts from Russia.

    • My mother-in-law also learned Russian at school. I don’t think she can really speak it anymore, but she understands a few basic phrases. One time we went to a market and a vendor started speaking Russian to me and she helped me translate :-).

  5. David Boone

    My wife is in her 50s and studied Russian in school. I guess it was the thing to do in her time, Russian then having the place English does today in the curriculum. But I have a sister-in-law who is older and who taught English in a middle school until she retired last year. I do get less than friendly looks at times, and catch a few negative/unpleasant mutterings on occasion, but those Chinese who actively engage me, even older ones, are invariably friendly. Given history and indoctrination/propaganda, it is really surprising how welcoming and friendly most are. That is a very positive reflection on the Chinese as a people, I think.

    • Now that you mention it, my mother-in-law also studied Russian in school. My husband’s grandfather learned Japanese and worked in a Japanese-owned company (with Japanese colleagues), but had to hide his Japanese skills after the Communists took over.

      It can be easy to forget about recent history in today’s China, good point.

  6. I remember walking around Russiatown in Beijing and how strange it felt to be greeted in that language. People usually assume I am American, but older folks, like others have suggested, often assume I am Russian. Maybe it would be good for me to pick up a few words in Russian!

    • I’m greeted in Russian a lot not only by older folks, but also younger ones. Usually they’ll switch to Chinese if I tell them I don’t understand, but that one guy surely thought I was only pretending not to understand. So yeah, a few words of Russian definitely can’t hurt!

  7. I had it too many times that they thought that I am from Russia/ started talking Russian to me. It is always kind of confusing.
    However in the past few years more and more people think that I am from Xinjiang, seriously what is wrong with them 😮

  8. Right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, my second daughter, who speaks Russian, worked in Magadan in the Russian Far East for two years. While she was there, my husband and I took a one-week vacation to visit her. From Magadan, we flew to Vladivostok. At a market outside Vladivostok, we saw that there was a lot of informal trade across the border with the northern Chinese.

  9. Bob

    I think it also matters where you are. I married my wife of 20 years now, a DongBei (Northeastern) Chinese woman in 1996. We’d met in Connecticut where she was in Grad School. Due to some completely unplanned fluke I got offered a job over here and we up and moved here in 98. First order of business after arrival was to visit the rather small town she was from up in Jilin province.

    Well, my arrival caused quite a stir and people came from all over the place to stare at the foreigner. If there was one thing in common that all the locals, young or old had in common was that they ALL thought I must be Russian. Simply because the last time any foreigner had visited this town 47 years prior they actually were Russian.

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