27 Nov

The funny thing about being an expat is you become excellent at distinguishing the other expats who are not like you, aka, not from your home country. After first coming here, I made the mistake of assuming every Caucasian or black person was American. I think being in Beijing makes me more self-absorbed. Chinese people are always interested in where I’m from, hold old I am, what my salary is. I have a false sense of importance here which probably contributes to my ignorance of the other expats. In recent days I’ve said “Happy Thanksgiving” to no fewer than three Canadians.

But the longer I live in Beijing, the more discerning I become. I can distinguish Americans from British, Dutch from French, and African American from just plain African. It’s quite a skill. The other morning I was in a grocery store downstairs from my apartment. A tall black man with one hoop earring, tight jeans and a pink polo shirt with the collar popped, was in line next to me purchasing a Heineken. It was 10 am. Definitely African. I tested the theory and asked where he was from. In a slow thick accent he said, “Niggeeerrria.” Thought so.

My friend Devin has the pleasure of living down the street from the Russian embassy. Though all expats have their endearing qualities, Russians are truly special. Early in my stay here, I again assumed falsely, that expats in Beijing were here because they were important in some way, diplomats maybe, or government officials. Based on clothing alone, this doesn’t seem to be true for the Russian community.
The men are rough and mean looking, with tight pants and overdeveloped muscles. The women are generally ugly and wear clothes that look fifteen years out of date while they shop for bejeweled tank tops in Chinese markets. (Cab drivers sometimes guess that I’m from Russia. It doesn’t make me happy). To the Chinese, all white people look the same.

“These Russian youth gangs have started hanging out beside my apartment,” Devin said the other day, a look of concern on his face. “Huge groups of teenage boys sit there all day in their leather jackets, revving their motorcycle engines.” In a city that is 99% Chinese, where old ladies do Tai chi in parks, and young Chinese students bike to school in uniforms, you can imagine how strange the leather-clad Russians look.

As I was walking toward Devin’s apartment the other day I saw one young Russian boy drive by on his motorcycle. He pulled over, took a small remote out of his jacket pocket and hit a switch. Suddenly, multi-colored lights started flashing against the ground under his motorcycle. He nodded, satisfied with the effect, and sped off, lights illuminating the rode. (Apparently the Russian standard for “cool” is a little different than in America).

The longer I stay, the more obvious the differences become. But, no matter how accustomed to the cultural diversity in all its weirdness, the Russians never cease to amuse me.


One Response to “Diversity”

  1. Sue Collie November 27, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    Thanks, Taylor, for this well written piece on expats and in particular the Russians. PLEASE be careful when they are around. I am so looking forward to seeing you on the 30th! I hope we can pin down a date when I can make my plans to visit you. All my friends are asking when I plan to visit you. I tell them, it’s to be determined.

    See you soon. Love, Grandma

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