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.