This was an assignment for Covering China taught by Initium editor Zhang Jieping.
“If you come to a Chinese family as a guest, they will not let you do anything – you sit, eat and watch TV,” Yin Li remarked.
“But when I visited my Russian friend’s grandmother, they asked me to help. They treated me like a member of their family.”
As I had lunch with Li, who calls herself ‘Olivia’, in a courtyard in May Hall, a century-old Edwardian structure, in Hong Kong, cultural experiences shaped by globalisation seemed to be the norm.
But Olivia went out of her way to find Bekhet Lilia online back when she was studying Russian at Hunan Normal University in Changsha, Hunan.
During her childhood, singing the Chinese translation of Moscow Nights, among other Russian folk songs, had sparked her interest in the language, and she chose to study it in university even if it was only offered by one institution in the province.
She then studied Russian literature at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, worked for a few years at the Kazakhstan embassy in the Chinese capital and even moved to Moscow in 2016 to work at a government institute attached to the embassy of China. Her friend, however, took a dramatically different path in life.
“After meeting me, she came to Changsha.”
“She married an Egyptian man and became a Muslim. You should write about her.” A pensive Olivia told me how her friend changed after marrying the paediatrician as she began to wear a niqab and unfriended most of the people she knew on Facebook.
Her friendship with Bekhet might have faded and right now, she fears, so might her Russian.
Just a few weeks back, Olivia blurted out a question in Russian when she meant to speak in English. On the instant messaging platform WeChat, she tells her friends she has a hard time keeping track of the languages in her head. Sometimes, the words escape unbidden but at other times, they elude her.
China and Russia are similarly grappling with a changing world order.
Communist allies over the Cold War, the two countries have always respected each other in the face of Western hostility. With a preference for autocratic leaders, homogeneity and stability, often to the chagrin of minorities and smaller neighbours, the two countries share a unique bond, much like two gritty individuals moving away from farms and getting used to life in a modern metropolis.
In many parts of northeastern China, though, village elders still speak, reverentially, in fluent Russian of Lenin’s words that inspired millions. There are even schools where Russian is the medium of instruction.
“The Russian countryside is so similar to what I saw in Yueyang,” Olivia told me.
“But I felt depressed in Russia. Even if I go back now, I’m sure Moscow will not have changed much.”
Despite living in a spacious apartment in Moscow, Olivia was lonely. The institute’s efforts to promote Chinese culture were not gaining headway and she was not certain of her career prospects. Her boyfriend was back home as well.
That’s when English began to win.
It’s no secret that as China liberalised, Olivia’s countrymen have shunned socialist philosophy and turned to the West for direction. In last year’s Open Doors report issued by the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States rose by a third over the previous year to 350,755 in the latest data available. Chinese students have consistently outnumbered every other international student cohort there for many years.
China is very much the brother doing well in life.
Recently, Chinese troops were spotted in Central Asia. The state’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has even branched towards Eastern Europe with the Polar Silk Road initiative as the country seeks to develop shipping lanes opened up by global warming.
Now, Russians are flocking to China to find work as English teachers, models, dancers and some even work as prostitutes. In Moscow, the authorities are seeking to attract Chinese citizens who have tired of well-trod cities like Milan and Paris in a phenomenon called “Red tourism “.
Instead of learning Russian, Chinese youth are seeking to learn English so they can be better connected to the world. From hip-hop to popular television shows, Chinese millennials are absorbing whatever they can so that they can be part of the global conversation.
In many ways, it brings the story full circle for Olivia. It was actually a volunteer American teacher in junior school, one of the first foreigners she met, who piqued her curiosity about the outside world.
“I was a very good student in English and could speak it really well… but not now!” she said with a laugh.
“At the end of my second year [learning Russian], I still couldn’t speak a word!”
The way the world is changing, it might not be long until she becomes fluent in English. In the future, it might be a new Russian friend moving to Beijing who might struggle to adapt instead.