The Vladivostok Chronicles: When I Was a Korean Prostitute

“This is the best travel agency in the city,” Zhenya had told me with pimpish bravado before we arrived. I felt incredibly small, dwarfed not only by the enormous stature of the concrete building, but also by the three enormous letters that trumpeted its place in the world: MNP, short for Mezhdunarodnoe Putashestviye, which literally means “International Travel.” Back in those days, any firm worth its weight used a three letter acronym. That seemed to give a business Western sophistication. What the locals in Vladivostok had defined as “Western” was open to interpretation as even the international credit system hadn’t yet hit the city. In a city of under a million people, there was a motley crew of approximately twenty five Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and us Americans. There was very little intersection with the modern world.

Mad Vlad, as we called it, was a bizarre outpost at the ends of the earth that met at the crossroads of North Korea and China, directly across the bay from Japan. Not too many months before my arrival, Vladivostok had been a “closed” city because it was the seat of the Pacific Fleet. This meant that in order to be admitted into city limits even Russians needed paperwork, something akin to an internal visa. In the Soviet Union, any city that provided anything necessary to military or national interests was closed. Citizens were registered by their place of residence, which meant that the flow of internal travel was controlled and monitored, and closed cities were strictly off limits to non-residents. When in Los Angeles, I had visions of a Far East melting pot where Russians cohabitated in harmony with Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. In Vladivostok, there was no harmonious cohabitation. An American diplomat’s Chinese-American wife had been abducted off the street by local authorities, driven to the Chinese border and told to “go home.” An outsider was an outsider. They didn’t want us there.

As we waited there behind the thick plexiglass partition, Zhenya shifted anxiously from foot to foot. I should have known there would be a problem when the agent’s half-lidded gray eyes grew a horizontal halo of razor sharp crow’s feet from the meandering, deliberate half-smile he put on while taking my money. “Spasibo vam.” Thank you. I steadfastly ignored the bright red flags of my intuition and instead listened to the voice of my mind that loudly proclaimed, “Relax, you’re getting married. You’re getting married.” I squeezed Zhenya’s hand and held on for dear life.

I’d circled the globe a few times by this point. Los Angeles to San Francisco, to Seattle, to Anchorage. Anchorage across the Bering Strait to Russia: Anadyr, Magadan, Khabarovsk on to Vladivostok. A convenient 36 hour flight. Many months later, it would be Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Moscow to St. Petersburg. Then St. Petersburg, Paris, Los Angeles. Los Angeles to Seoul, and, finally, back to Vladivostok. A more convenient 19 hour journey. At age twenty-one, when I first arrived, Vladivostok seemed different, glamorous in the pure oddity of it. Returning at twenty-three, I felt oddly bound there. Life for me was no longer a series of tributaries, carrying me along in the current. The paths had converged. There was one river now, swift and strong, and I was single-mindedly determined to reach my ocean.

Upon my return to Vlad, I knew things weren’t looking good when the passport control agent stared for a whole minute at the official stamp on the grainy paper. Things got worse quickly when, upon trying to register my visa with local immigration, they accused me of forging my visa stamp. I’d been working at The St. Petersburg Times on a three year business visa. I found that accusation to be completely preposterous and offensive, until I thought about it and realized that The Times probably had a fixer who had bribed someone for the stamps. We had scrambled to find someone, anyone, in the Russian OVIR immigration services whom we could bribe.

However, that didn’t help me any when I was called into a tiny office by a bespectacled, uniformed man with an even tinier mustache. After grilling me about the circumstance of how I had acquired the suspect visa, I was informed that they believed the visa to be fraudulent and that their generous response to my fraudulent visa would be to let me leave the country without arresting me for fraud. After my 19 hour journey, for which I still had major travel hangover, the last thing I was willing to do was get back on a plane to go home. For christsakes, my eyes pleaded with him silently, but I’ve crossed eight time zones to return to the love of my life so we can get married. Although I didn’t utter a word about this because technically it was illegal. To legally marry in Russia, I would have needed to enter the country on a marriage visa.

Confident in the fact that I had not, in fact, forged my visa, I decided to get combative. I thought the bureaucrat was being a Commie prick, and so I told him I didn’t accept his attitude, and I wanted a more senior official to handle my case. I thought I could throw around a little American muscle and it might help my plight. He physically threw me out of his office.

I took my crusade to our local neighborhood immigration office. I found a very sweet bureaucrat who offered to arrange a meeting for me at the central OVIR to plead my case. Unfortunately for me, when I arrived back at OVIR central, my heart bursting with so many hopes, it was utterly deflated when I stepped into an office only to discover again the tiny mustache waiting in delightful anticipation. He knew I didn’t have any corporate or government muscle flexing for me, and so he took the liberty of flexing his own decidedly Communist, anti-American muscles. He told me in no uncertain terms – in pedantic Russian, dripping with condescension – that I had 48 hours to leave the country or they would throw me in jail and throw away the key. He said he didn’t care where I went – Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Hell – only I had to leave.

I quickly ran through my options. Twenty four hours alone in a train in a compartment with three other Russian or Chinese just screamed, “RAPE!” and so I quickly ruled out a solo train adventure through Harbin and into Beijing. The other option, Tokyo, was prohibitively expensive. I tried to explain this to him in the most basic terms while playing abacus in my mind. I had my life’s savings on me – about $1300 cash – and one credit card. My lower lip started to quiver as I quickly tabulated in my mind all of my cash, that it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be enough to get me half-way across Asia, bribe someone for a new visa, and get both of us home. Every moment of my proper waspy upbringing had conditioned me not to show emotional weakness in front of strangers. Just as I redoubled my commitment not burst into tears in front of this paper-pushing asshole, a resounding sob erupted from my chest as the tears charted new landscapes across my cheeks. He took me firmly under the elbow and said, “Then Seoul it is. And, dyevushka, don’t forget. 48 hours. You’re still here in 48 hours, you’re going to jail.”

Outside, Zhenya ran his thumb across my cheek, removing any traces of my dire uncertainty. The weight of it all felt overwhelming. I needed to know it would all work out. Despite the distance between us. Despite the cultural differences. Despite the odds. Here we were, now a unit in the world, and I felt completely alone. I was the one under false attack. I was the one being forced out. Seeing the look of utter devastation on my face, Zhenya pumped out his chest like a preening peacock – he had a plan. Russian men have adopted an entire visual language of body cues that read, “Don’t fuck with me.” I smiled absently, floating back to the first moment I saw him. I opened the door to my flat and he stood there, pumped up, hands at the ready, floating slightly out to his sides. In that fraction of a second, I felt like someone hit me over the head with a baseball bat, and I heard a voice clear as day announce, “You will marry this man.” Zhenya’s fingers trailed the length of my face along my hairline, pulling me across time and space back to him. I was bolstered up by his brown-black eyes that somehow magically absorbed the light.

And so I followed my fiancé in his tight designer black jeans to the MNP travel agency, booking a week-long travel package to Seoul, including $50 a night hotel, a driver to and from the airport, and the paperwork for my visa. What I really paid the agency for was the fake papers. The half-lidded half-smile was going to provide me with a three month proof of stay in Vlad from a local hotel, which would enable me to get a three month visa, as opposed to the standard one month visa. With the payment confirmation from the hotel (of course, fake and paid for with a bribe), I would be able to get my visa. I needed the three month visa to have enough time to finish all the paperwork and medical tests that my future husband would require in order to get his green card at the American Embassy in Moscow.

The travel package didn’t include air fare. The thirty minute flight to Seoul I had to buy separately, for $750 cash, because the Korean Air office in Vlad didn’t take credit cards. Parting with half of the cash I’d brought with me just for airfare – knowing I was going to still have to get me and my to-be new husband out of Russian and back to LA – was madness. Torture. My heart stopped.

My future brother-in-law drove me and my fiancé over an hour to the low concrete block that doubled as an airport. Zhenya and I sat in the back seat. We didn’t say much. We just held hands. I was terrified: what if the half-smile took my money but doesn’t fax the invitation to the Russian consulate in Seoul? Inside the large room, there was a small mix of South Koreans, Russians, but my misplaced, buxom blond self was definitely a point of interest. Especially because I had started crying again. “I don’t want to go to Korea,” I whined. Future brother rolled his eyes and smiled bronze from ear to ear. Russian men who fight lose all their teeth when they’re young, and they used to get them replaced with metal teeth. That bronze scared the dickens out of me, and I clung to Zhenya. He stroked my hair ever so softly, whispering in my ear, “Everything will be fine. Next week you’ll be back and we’ll be married. Vsyo budet normalno.” He leaned in to kiss me, at which point future brother put his hands on his hips and took a step closer, ready to leave. His enormous shoulder pads black-and-white tweed blazer shifted so that both of his holstered guns were visible. Future brother slapped Zhenya on the back, hard, and they rolled out, along with the bronze and steel, leaving me and my badge of courage completely alone.

I’d never been to Asia proper before, and if I am being honest, I’d never had a great calling to go. My Russian host sister from St. Petersburg had married a Japanese man and was living in the suburbs of Tokyo. I’d had years of her stories describing the vapid, xenophobic evils of the Japanese: random people pulling her hair because she’s blond (and, more pointedly, not Japanese); pointing, staring and laughing; moving to the opposite side of the bus every time she got on and yelling loudly, “It smells.” God forbid the horrible smells of the great white woman. I had always felt comfortable being in countries where I could, within reason, pass as a local – Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England. My heart sank as the landing gear descended.

Once I had paid the ridiculous airport landing tax, I meandered out into the lobby of the airport, expecting to be met by my driver. But, instead, I was greeted by a group of very friendly American missionaries of some sort of generic Christian denomination. I asked them if they’d seen my driver, and they said no, but they offered to give me a lift. I decided to wait, thinking it was likely safer to get picked up by a Korean stranger than ride off into the sunset with a bunch of right-wing extremists.

An hour late, the Korean driver finally wheeled up in his white soccer-mom minivan. He leapt out and grabbed my bags and in a storm of Korean-English gibberish, helped me into the car. Once we were on our way, the MNP driver kept giggling and looking in the rear view, eyes wide, asking, “Ameeeriiiicaaaan?” I would plaster on a great fake smile, flashing my perfectly orthadontured teeth, nod politely and say, “Yes,” hardly believing that this was really the first time he’d ever met an American. Maybe it was because I was blond? Certainly he’d met a blond person before. He didn’t really speak enough English to be conversational, but he asked me in about five different barely coherent ways if I was really American. And not Russian. Each time I smiled and said, “yes,” by the fifth time thinking maybe he was slightly retarded. MNP hooked me up with the retarded driver. The luck of it.

We continued into the low grayness that is Seoul. My breath felt heavier, away from Zhenya, as though the loss of his physical proximity were a hardship my body wasn’t able to bear. I wondered how he would kiss me on our wedding day. I wondered about the process of getting registered. As a former Communist, non-religious country, Russians didn’t have church weddings as we have them. They just went to the local government ZAGS office and got registered, like we have civil ceremonies. I wondered if I still got the “you may now kiss the bride,” if our first married kiss would feel different, somehow new.

We drove past armies of 16 story concrete buildings with enormous numbers painted on their windowless sides, past hillside after hillside of shanty shacks of corrugated metal, up the hill to the broadcast tower, and then back down again – for over an hour. It struck me as the bastard spawn of Communist Russia and third-world Tijuana, trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of dense fog that somehow reflected and captured the incandescent city lights. When we were clearly reaching the outskirts on the other side of the city, and the sun had already set, I began shifting in my seat. Those red flags again.

The driver turned down an alley adjacent to a very large stadium. We passed hundreds of small booths filled with vendors selling every kind of crap imaginable. The little booths were eclipsed by the enormous stadium wall and the passers-by looked like ants crawling in the crevices. Just as I started to wonder how you say “ghetto” in Korean, we pulled into a parking space in front of a completely nondescript, off-white building right across the street from the stadium. It had an incredible neon sign in Korean blinking jewel-toned magentas and greens.

As I grabbed my carry-on, I noticed through the front glass wall what appeared to be a Russian woman talking on a payphone in a bra and panties. Before I could fully process this, my driver put his hand at the small of my back and ushered me inside. A whistle sounded loudly, and a row of ten Korean men lined up before me. Employees of the hotel, they were all in their navy slacks, white shirts and cheap tasseled pleather loafers. As I passed each one, he looked me up and down and gave a brisk nod. I was impressed. I thought, for a ghetto hotel, this was some pretty good service. In comparison to Russia, where good customer service routinely included a scowl and an insult, it was pretty damned incredible, actually. But, I just wanted to get into my room, take a shower, and get everything arranged for my big morning at the consulate.

My driver exchanged some words in Korean with the final attendant, who, with a flourish, waved us on. We ascended the stairs to the second floor. The driver opened the door to the room, which was unlocked – wait, did I even get a key? – and this was when I had my first panic attack of the evening. The carpet was brown and horribly stained. The mattress was completely exposed – no sheets, pillows or blankets – and every inch of it was encrusted with stains – cum, blood, vomit, shit or other. Even the ratty bedskirt was stained. I quickly checked the doorknob – the door didn’t lock. The driver just stood there boasting a goofy, starry-eyed grin. He took a step to his left and gently closed the door behind us.

Once we were alone, he took a tentative step toward me. In that instant, even I, in all of my occasional obliviousness, couldn’t ignore the writing on this wall. It was instantly clear why he was so magically enchanted and couldn’t get over the fact that I was American. He thought I had gone to the travel agency in Vlad and purchased a prostitute vacation to Seoul. He thought he was going to get some delicious American pussy. I suddenly wondered what this little Korean man had been promised, if he had been told by half-smile that his tip was going to be a good fuck. A good American fuck. I hoped like hell I would remember how to scream, scream for my life, and that my knee would connect with his soft bits in a moment of very brief but meaningful intimacy. I wondered if any of these Russian hookers would come to my aid. I thought, I can take him. He’s going down. In situations such as these, being a bigger girl is just awesome. Just the best thing in the world. I had a momentary flash of mind-numbing regret at having been so self-loathing about my weight all these years. In that moment, being the fat girl could have saved my life.

As he took another step forward, still wearing that absurd grin, I hissed, “I cannot stay here. I am not going to stay here.” I pointed at the mattress. I opened the door, hoping that he would rush back downstairs and pull me out in the wake. He suddenly didn’t speak one word of English. My body language was plain enough that not only was this not any sort of a love connection, but it was absolutely disgusting. Catching on that there was no free fuck for this ride, he rubbed his fingers together in the universal sign for “pay the fuck up, bitch.” I said, more loudly, “You are going to take me to a proper hotel. If you don’t take me to a proper, Western hotel, I am not paying you a dime.” For good measure I added, “And you can go fuck yourself.” As “fuck” is also the universal language for “fuck,” he was horrified. After some extended arguing, which was hilarious, because he was hissing at me in Korean and I right back at him in Russian-peppered English, he stormed out of the room.

Back downstairs in the lobby, I took in the full spectacle: there were a variety of scantily-clad Russian women lounging about, some chatting on their phones, some flirting with local men. Some of these women glanced over their shoulders to look at what was going on. Most couldn’t be bothered. The driver got a phone book from the man at reception and suddenly there was an enormous kerfluffle about my leaving. The uniformed men started pouring into the lobby from all directions, yelling at my driver, clearly outraged that there wouldn’t be any American pussy from Vlad on the discount menu for the week. Perhaps they thought he had done something to upset me. The driver made a call, after which he said to me, “Hotel downtown take you.” I said, “Western hotel.” I had not flown all the way to Korea to sleep in the ghetto. “Western.” As I schlepped my bags back down to the small, square minivan, I turned back to the glass wall, where all the men had lined up to watch me get chauffeured off into the darkness. I raised my hand in a sort of half-wave goodbye to the bra and panties, who was still chatting away, non-plussed. She threw me a wink and leaned up against the glass, spreading her fingers wide.

It was almost the middle of the night by the time I’d gotten to the next destination, which was something reasonably close to a Western hotel. The bed had sheets and the door locked, which was a good step in the right direction. The receptionist looked about fifteen and was very sweet but didn’t speak a word of English. I had no idea what the driver said to her, but he got his money and stormed off. When I got up to the room, the phone rang. Assuming it was reception, I answered it. A male voice on the phone said, “Sex? Sex? Want sex?” “No!” I barked and promptly hung up. A few minutes later, I called my mom, who said she’d run out and bought a guide book on Seoul. Interestingly enough, the first thing she said was, “Whatever you do, make sure not to go to the south eastern part of the city, because that’s where all the prostitutes are!” Although I’d wanted to say, too late – been there, done that, I decided against it. The phone rang another four times that night with offers of sex before I finally took it off the hook. It would be years later before a friend of mine who had lived in Korea explained to me that the driver must have told the receptionist that I was a prostitute, thus the all-night calls.

Surprisingly, the other people in Korea completely ignored me. I floated through the gray downtown like a ghost. There were no stares, no hair pulling, no “you smell.” Walking down the street, this made me feel oddly at home. But, I knew I wasn’t in the clear until I’d gotten my new papers. Ultimately, I got screwed over by the half-smile in more ways than one. The Russian consulate was very happy to issue my visa – for one month. Despite the fact that I’d paid for a three month invitation, MNP had faxed over only a one month invite – so they pimped me out and fucked me over. Welcome to mother Russia.

I did end up getting Zhenya’s green card within that next month, although we had to bribe a border guard to let me through at the train crossing in Belarus because my visa had been expired for two days. As the enormous sandy-haired officer sauntered into the sleeper compartment, my heart stopped. I was terrified after all I’d been through that this would be it: this was where I’d hit the wall. I would be pulled, kicking and screaming, off this train and disappear into a shitty concrete Belarussian jail cell, never to be seen again. When he saw the expiry date, his face clouded. “You know this visa is expired? You’ve broken the law. I could throw you in jail right now.” I shuddered, feeling a sob erupting from deep within my chest. That was when Zhenya stepped forward, pumped out his posture in that specifically Russian way, and explained in hushed, conspiratorial tones that we were newlyweds and we needed his help as he carefully slid a large wad of cash into the guard’s palm. There he was. Larger than life. The man I loved. The man I married. My husband. Despite making some tough man noises to reestablish his alpha role, the guard’s half-lidded gray eyes grew a horizontal halo of razor sharp crow’s feet from the meandering, deliberate half-smile he put on while taking my money. Zhenya and I were effusive in our thank yous. He tipped his cap, saying, “Spasibo vam.” Thank you. And, in that moment, the voice of my mind eclipsed everything in the world as it proclaimed loudly, “Relax, you’re married. You’re married.”

Copyright © 2009 Monica Partridge. All Rights Reserved.

The Vladivostok Chronicles: The Chinese Are Coming

Nevsky Prospect seemed an enormous artery of industry that sliced through the interminable gray of the city, a swift injection of modernity that felt harsh and unnecessary against the backdrop of ornate Orthodox icons, delicate cupolas and voluptuous statues that sang out from a time long ago abandoned. The sidewalk was a sea of heavy brown woolen trousers and black umbrella heads. The only color in that landscape was the shocking steel-blue of his eyes, which had appeared out of the gray, pleading with a hopeful desperation well beyond my ability to comprehend. This stranger stopped me to invite me v gosti – home for tea. His English was whispered in hushed, urgent tones. I bristled slightly at his intensely clandestine manner. In that moment, I had assumed there was something shameful in our exchange. I took in his cheap Asian factory-made shoes, his slightly hunched carriage, the musty smell of him. I didn’t take him up on his offer, naturally, because I was seventeen and he was forty-something. Without even a word, my then host-sister Katya linked arms with me, pulling me back into the gray swell.

It would be only after that I understood that I should have been ashamed: for most of this man’s life, communicating with a foreigner, much less an American, was a jailable offense. Generations of them had been forbidden from having communications with outsiders. And here, right out in the open, for any citizen to see, this man had extended himself to me, trying to bridge the gap. Trying to make up for lost time, the lost generations between us.

Ignorant of the weight of that moment and despite the peculiarities of that individual, I was secretly thrilled. I’d been recognized. It was only on my second day in the newly-renamed St. Petersburg. The thrill came from my understanding that no matter how diligently I’d tried to dress the role – ankle-length black skirt, ill-fitting nondescript sweater – one look and people knew I didn’t belong. No darkening under-eye circles of malnutrition, no tissue-paper thin skin with the telling map of pale lavender veins resting just below. I had the sunkissed, healthy glow of an American.

On the street, people stared. Upon seeing my face, people who had never had contact with a foreigner before actually came up to introduce themselves, to make first contact. Some spoke in Russian, assuming that I did also. Some took delight in getting to practice their English with a native speaker. Some simply came, gingerly touched my hand and shared their name, as though the simple act of saying it aloud somehow staked their place in this new world.

But there was something about that man, the forty-something, who had invited me home v gosti. It wasn’t my only invitation from a stranger on the street, but it was my first. It’s the one I carry with me, the one that was dense with kindness, empathy, a desire for connection and understanding. It’s the one where, if I’d been able to get past my judgment and fear, as he had done, I would have learned the most.

It’s the one I regret.

Four years later and eight time zones removed, but still in Russia, I was eager to encounter similar souls, eager for connection, open to communication. Armed with a better understanding of the language and culture, I was confident I would be able to make friends, cross cultural boundaries. Armed with my ideals and a thirst for adventure, I flew to the other side of the world.

The terms of my new job, negotiated with the help of a local American educational exchange program representative, were clear: I would earn a Russian teacher’s salary for teaching English at the local elementary, middle, and high school, and in addition I would live with a local family of a student that would provide free room and board. I would be making about $50 a month, but I thought that between that, tutoring, my savings, and free room and board, I could make ends meet. To compensate the family, I would be tutoring their eleven year old daughter in English an hour a week, and, if needed, helping her with her homework. That sounded more than fair. Every other host family experience I’d had in Russia had been beyond outstanding. Wonderfully kind, generous strangers had taken me into their homes and treated me as family, as one of their own. I was sure to find such kindness in Vladivostok.

My new host family lived in an average sixteen story concrete building that was archetypal of Communist era Russia. Except, instead of living in a nicer suburb, they lived in the not-nice part of town. The part where you would never, ever go unless you lived there. Outside our building was a dirt and concrete square around which six monolithic structures were built. There was no foliage, no color whatsoever, and the one point of interest was a low, rusting steel jungle gym that gave the courtyard a distinct prison yard feel. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the dark entryway was overcome with blood and piss stains. I covered my nose and mouth, overwhelmed by both the stench and the nightmarish unseen implication of it. Before we stepped into the elevator, my host father instructed me in very clear Russian, “Don’t go out after dark. It’s not safe. Always carry a flashlight, just in case you’re out after sundown. There’s no street light here after dark. And more so because of the power cuts.” Power cuts?

I stood with him, shoulder to shoulder, in that tiny elevator, no bigger than an airplane toilet stall, feeling the hum of the slow vibration as we were lifted deep into that concrete monolith. I didn’t want to give a bad first impression, so I breathed carefully, silently, through my mouth, overwhelmed by the tight space and the pool of urine in which I was standing. Still thoroughly American, I didn’t understand why someone didn’t clean it up, why people settled for filth in their living space. As I looked down into the reflection, the thought drifted past that this man standing next to me was a renowned biologist and his wife was an attorney. If these were the educated, upper-middle class, I wondered how the poor lived in this community. A chill ran down my spine.

My host father, Ivan Sergeyevich, held the door for me as I entered the apartment through the very tiny mudroom. After leaving my shoes at the door and being offered some disposable hotel tapochki slippers, he introduced me to my new host mother. Lyubov Alekseyevna sat in an overstuffed chair in the corner of the room and didn’t stand when I entered. Despite the fact that I would be living with these people, I still had to use the first name and patronymic. Not Lyubov, never just Lyubov, but Lyubov Alekseyevna – Aleksey’s daughter. This was an aspect of Russian culture in which I’d always found mild enjoyment. Perhaps the cultural fallout of the Soviet Union collectivizations, Russians tended toward a handful of names: Natasha, Anya, Nastya, Olga, Yelena, Katya, Oksana, Valya, Lyuba. Perhaps because they all have the same names, the patronymic takes on such paramount significance: the middle name derived from the father’s name. This is their Scandinavian liferaft, a distant reminder of a time before Communism. Lyubov, or Lyuba for short, means, “love.” I thought that was a good omen. Standing beside her was their eleven-year old daughter, Anastasiya, or Nastya for short. Nastya didn’t move, didn’t say a word. She stood there, a deer in the headlights. Ivan pointed me in the direction of the bathroom and toilet – because in Russian apartments, these are always two separate rooms – and my bedroom.

Barely able to keep my eyes open after having lost thirty-six hours and seven time zones, I made polite chit chat with them about our new living arrangement. Lyubov Alekseyevna explained in great detail something that seemed completely unimportant, given that I was literally having trouble keeping my eyes open – that they had arranged for a woman from Alaska to come live with them, but that the girl had decided not to come at the last minute. Lyubov explained that they had all been absolutely devastated about it. They couldn’t wrap their minds around why the woman had reneged on her commitment to come.

The rest of that first week was a jet-lag induced stupor that cushioned the blow of adjusting to life in the third world. If Western Russia for the most part hovered close to the cusp of a developed nation, the Russian Far East was decidedly a hop-skip-jump above slum. Daily activities were carefully scheduled around those precious few hours when we had running water and power. I’d gone into the wash room to brush my teeth when I heard a prim voice announce in Russian from down the hall, “The water’s off. And you know why? It’s off because they’re selling our water to the Chinese.” “What?” I called back, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about. She stepped out into the hall. “Those criminals are taking everything we have and running our country into the ground.” I didn’t understand what criminals she was talking about, nor what China had to do with it, but I heard the nasty tone in her voice loud and clear. There was no water and she was pissed. I’d wondered if this was a recent development or if they’d lived this way for years, as with the pools of drunkards’ urine.

One evening I arrived back at our personal concrete monstrosity an hour before sundown, just as the light had started turning in the sky. The blood-and-piss stairwell was already black by that hour, so I dutifully extracted my flashlight from my bag, hoping I wasn’t going to get mugged, beaten or raped in the dark. When I got inside the apartment, Love was vacuuming. Apparently Ivan Sergeyevich and the deaf-mute weren’t home, yet. I’d just managed to make it inside my room when the power went out. I headed back out to the living room to see about helping light the candles and that was when I almost ran face first into Lyubov Alekseyevna, prowling about the flat like a caged animal, fighting for its survival. “You know, they’re doing this on purpose.” I thought, oh, I’d assumed they were doing it because the government stopped subsidizing and you’re poor. I’d hoped we’d boiled enough water to get us through the night and possibly the next morning.

I reached for the candles, almost sad to light them because the view from the livingroom window out onto the other side of the bay was breathtaking. Like a shoehorn decorated with tiny Christmas lights, the colored dots twisted and turned their way along the waterfront and up into the hills. This would have been an amazing moment to pull out the guitar and sing folks songs, bonding in the dark.

I realized there wouldn’t be any folksy bonding as Lyubov Alekseyevna started hissing under her breath, “They’re coming. They’re coming.” Assuming she meant her husband and daughter, I said, “I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.” Then she froze in place and screamed at me, “No – don’t you understand?” as though I were the biggest asshole on the planet, “They’re coming!” I asked, carefully, “Who’s coming?” And she screamed, “The Chinese! The Chinese are coming!” She started waving her arms like a Southern evangelical touched by the Word. “They do it on purpose. Power goes out and they run. They run across the border. There are a billion of them, a billion, just waiting there on the border to take our land. Just waiting to come steal what’s ours.” That image of billions of little ant-like Chinese standing on the border en masse just waiting for the power to go out so they could run almost made me laugh out loud, despite the fact that I would have been laughing at someone who was clearly paranoid and imbalanced. I bit my tongue.

My judgment flared. So typically, grotesquely Soviet: this poor woman had so clearly bought into Soviet propaganda that Russia was the greatest, best, wealthiest country on the planet and everyone, especially the Chinese, were literally kicking down doors to get in. In Western Russia, the average person still championed the bravado of the Soviet regime, but as many of them had now been outside and actually seen how people in the West lived, or had heard the stories – with food on the shelves and potable running water – even though they might talk a good game, their eyes reflected a particular kind of sadness. I remembered the time in high school I’d taken my first host sister with her bird-like eighty pound frame to the grocery store: she almost fainted. But, the hurtful part wasn’t the fact they weren’t the greatest, most powerful country in the world, that they had to stand in insufferable cold for hours for a head of cabbage, that they used the pages of books for toilet paper. The part that stung was that it had all been a lie.

Despite the fact that I was surprised by her sweeping assumptions about the Chinese, I was slightly more offended in her assumption that everyone was clamoring to move to an isolated slum town in the middle of nowhere to stand in piss in negative 90 degree weather. I didn’t see what the big deal was. The Russian Far East is an enormous land mass with a tiny amount of people. Statistically, even if you rounded up all the residents, each one would have more than a square kilometer all to himself. Given China’s problem with gross overpopulation, I actually didn’t see what would be so wrong with sharing.

After all my years in Russia, it’s hard for me to say there are many social parallels between our two nations. Russia is a land of superior literature and the collective soul, of intimate lifelong connections and the crushing weight of its history. America is a land that laughs in the face of history, lets anyone in, glorifies nouveau-riche vapid trash a la Paris Hilton and encourages obesity with McDonalds. Where we have orthodontics, they have poetry. Beyond any superficial difference, there is one undercurrent that remains constant. Cultural arrogance. We both have that in spades.

That next morning, Lyubov knocked on my door promptly at five forty-five a.m. Still dragging – both from the time difference and also the shock of having moved to the ends of the earth – I assumed it was a dream. A bad one. She barked from behind the door in her sharply accented Russian, “Time for our English lessons.” Our English lessons? Nowhere in my host family terms and conditions was it agreed that I was supposed to teach my host-mom English. I cracked the door, my bed-head filling the space, and explained to her that it was really, really early for English. Later that afternoon, after she’d explained to me that once she learned fluent English she would be able to earn a better living, my heart sunk. Clearly, Love had an agenda in inviting me to live with them – an agenda in which I’d had no say. I had to have the incredibly uncomfortable young-woman-to-older-woman conversation with her that my teaching her to become fluent in English, at the level to which she could practice the law in English, was not only something that I had not consented to do but also wasn’t qualified to do. I again offered to start Nastya’s private tutorials, despite the fact that Nastya had given no indication she had any interest in lessons, and asked her if she’d like to sit in. Given that this woman spoke no English whatsoever, and her daughter did actually speak a little, I thought that would have been beneficial to her. Lyubov Alekseyevna’s face pruned up.

Subsequent to my establishing a boundary as regarded the English lessons, Love’s semi-bitchy-iced-with-nice gloves came off. The following afternoon, Lyubov Alekseyevna called me into the hallway from the kitchen, where I was eating my bread and cheese lunch in silence with Nastya. She indicated that she was going shopping for the afternoon and I was to watch her daughter while she was out. Nastya, although frighteningly skinny and borderline deaf-mute, seemed obedient – I didn’t mind babysitting. Then, she shoved a mop in my face and said, in no uncertain terms, “Make sure the floors are clean before I return.” She twirled and left me standing there, horrified.

As I sat back down to finish my lunch, already wondering how the hell I was going to mitigate that, Nastya, who generally had the personality of shredded wet paper and hadn’t prior to this said two words to me, pasted on a sinister smirk. She very deliberately pushed her empty plate before me and said, “Here’s my plate.” I smiled and indicated my own, saying, “And here’s my plate.” She scowled and chirped with the entitled bravado of youth, “You’re supposed to do the dishes.” As this was the most she’d said to me at one time since my arrival, I actually laughed. “Really? Well, that’s news to me.” I stood up, walked to the sink, washed my own dish, placed it in the rack to dry, and then turned to return to my room. She grabbed her plate and jumped right into the doorway, blocking my exit. She shoved the dish in my stomach, hard, and said, “It’s your job.” I was confused. “My job?” I took her plate, set it in the sink and politely said, “I don’t think so.” I left the mop at the front door, hoping that Love would read that as a clear sign that I wasn’t a cook, dishwasher, cleaning lady, nanny, or servant, or whatever other household employee she’d mistaken me for. As I retreated down the hallway to my closet of a room, Nastya yelled, “Where are you going? You’re supposed to mop the house!” Poof. I had become Cinderella and she was my wicked step-sister.

I spent the next week trying to see if there was a way the relationship could be repaired. However, when Love realized that she wasn’t going to be able to use her superior powers of manipulation to corral me into becoming her free housekeeper, things got ugly. She actually threatened to have me deported. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was there on their personal invitation, and that without their invitation, I had no reason to be in the country, so I would have to leave. That just pissed me off. I needed an out, and I needed one fast.

Despite the fact that I was a lone foreigner in that community, was teaching at the school at the elementary, middle and high school levels and had approximately 300 students, not one person had shown me the level of kindness extended by that stranger in St. Petersburg who had invited me home for tea. There were hundreds of people I interacted with on a daily basis, and every day that I went to the school, I thought, today’s the day. Today’s the day I’m going to break through. Today’s the day someone will be kind. But, yet, no invitations were forthcoming. I was the outsider, the leper, abandoned on my own island. I had one seventh grade student who was absolutely darling, sweet as pie, sunshine. I could feel it on her every time we spoke – she’d wanted to invite me home, but yet she never did. But I couldn’t fault her: a girl can’t invite someone home without the parents’ permission.

Finally, after my first month there, I was invited v gosti by someone with whom I was already well acquainted: my sixty year old colleague, the French teacher. She was no stranger, but the invitation had been thus, in hushed, embarrassed tones, spoken after school in a volume barely above a whisper. In her small kitchen, I sat on a very small stool. I marveled again at her hair, always the same, black with streaks of gray, which was an amazing hybrid of Bride of Frankenstein and ’60s beauty pageant bee-hive. It was perfectly in keeping with the Vlad effect: out of place and time.

The hand-painted cobalt and gold porcelain teapot brewed before us while she boiled more water in the kettle on the stove. Yelena Dmitrievna placed before me a small plate of bird’s milk cakelettes, white puffy dairy-meringueish cake covered in a thin layer of chocolate. The cake itself didn’t have any specific flavor to speak of, but the soft meringue-marshmallowy texture was astounding. In turn, I laid my gifts on the table: a Lancome lipstick in a shade I’d thought would flatter her, a box of Rafaello coconut bon bons and a carton of Marlboros. It was the lipstick that got the smile.

“Thank you so much for having me. Your home is beautiful,” I cooed with heartfelt gratitude. Surprised, she said, “You can see it’s not much.” I said, “Oh no. This is a loving home. You can tell.” After we’d gotten through the pleasantries, I asked her plainly, “Yelena Dmitrievna, what’s wrong with me?” She laughed, saying, “You mean besides the fact that you’re a Capitalist?” Having had the glory of Communism shoved down my throat for the past several weeks, I actually found that jab more informative than entertaining. I continued, “When I lived in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, I would have strangers approach me on the street wanting to befriend me, begging me to come home for tea. Here, not one person. Not one.” Thoughtful, she took a sip of her tea, while pushing the homemade berry preserves in my direction. I continued, “You are the first person here to show me kindness. Thank you so much. You can’t know how much this means to me.” Her face fell. She reached over and took my hand into her strong, fleshy paw, squeezing me tight with a flourish of penicillin-pink nails. And that was when I burst into tears.

Perhaps it was the tears – but I still think it was more her sound and good heart – she cracked. Finally, a crack in the wall. She began very carefully. “You don’t know?” “Know what?” I sniffed. She shifted noticeably on the stool. I could tell she was debating whether or not it would be safe, whether or not I warranted the risk.

Fingering the lipstick, she started, “Did Lyubov Alekseyevna mention that there was supposed to have been another girl. A girl from Alaska.” This had seemed ever so trivial in the beginning; I hadn’t paid it an ounce of attention. I realized that this girl was the beginning of my woes. “Lyubov Alekseyevna worked for a whole year to get that girl to commit to coming to live with her, to get the visa. Nobody knows for sure exactly what happened. But, she pulled out at the last minute.” I recalled with gloom the tone in Lyubov Alekseyevna’s voice from that first night. Love hadn’t been very loving. The Alaska girl. “She didn’t want to wait. You’re aware that Nastya’s best friend is Yanna, the school principal’s daughter. Yes?” “Yes,” I said, suddenly feeling like I was going to barf.

Yelena Dmitrievna stared intently at my face, trying to find the words, but there was no good way, and so she just said, “Lyubov Alekseyevna paid the principal to get you a sham teaching position at the school so she could get your visa.” This whole convoluted scenario was so far beyond my naïve, young American mind that I was still hopelessly confused. “What do you mean ‘sham’ teaching position?” Her eyes floated down. “She wanted a housekeeper. A free, American housekeeper. The easiest way to lure you here and get your visa was to bribe the school.”

It was so absurd it was laughable – although neither of us was smiling. I wondered how much I’d been worth. If she had to pay the principal only the bribe, or if, in exchange, she’d also been forced to pay my salary. Was my teaching salary really my housekeeping salary? Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I would have graduated college to become a housekeeper. A free housekeeper.

I’d put my shoes back on to go, and as I stepped out into the dark stairwell, Yelena Dmitrievna poked her head out the door and said, “It’s not you.” “What?” I asked. She said, “The fact that nobody has invited you home. It’s not you. The median income here is less than twenty dollars a month. Bread here is a luxury. People are struggling to survive. People are ashamed.” In that moment, we both knew we would never see each other again. I didn’t reach back to kiss her on both cheeks or take her hand as I would have in another situation. I just gave her a defeated nod, turned and moved quietly down the stairs in the low light. Just as easily as she had come into my life, she had left it. She was a stranger to me again. The kindness of strangers.

That afternoon I returned to the apartment, went to my room and quiet as a mouse started packing. The gods were with me because the apartment was empty. I shoved my hypo-allergenic comforter and Bun-Bun plush bunny into a duffle bag that was large enough for a corpse. I’d called one of my two American friends in town, the one who had brokered my teaching position, and barely getting the words out in between sobs, explained what had happened, that I needed her help. An hour later, she arrived with her husband and a minivan. We each took a bag, moving quickly in the hall for fear of being stopped by a nosey neighbor. I was strangely calmed by the horrified look on my friend’s face as we skirted the walls coated in piss and blood. An hour later, as we unloaded my bags at their apartment, I tried to unload some of my accompanying emotional baggage, telling myself, no big deal, another year and you’ll forget this even happened.

Despite the crippling disappointment of it all, Lyubov Alekseyevna still wanted the last laugh. It was months later, after I’d already moved back west to St. Petersburg, back to my Russian family, that the OVIR immigration police arrived on my roommates’ doorstep, demanding to see everyone’s papers. I hadn’t been forgotten. They asked for me by name.

Copyright © 2009 Monica Partridge. All Rights Reserved.