Saturday, July 25, 2009

Manzhouli Is A Bilingual Town...And Neither Language Is English!

Travel plans in place, we were freed to spend the afternoon and evening strolling the streets of Manzhouli. The whole experience was quite a shock to our visual systems. There, alongside the by now familiar Chinese characters, were big storefront signs in Cyrillic. Yes, Manzhouli felt like the most unrecognizable place we had been in a long, long time.

And then there was the shock to our auditory systems...Everyone was speaking to us in Russian! Sure, this has happened to us before, in Beijing's Yabao Lu neighborhood. But, this time, it was on a much, much bigger scale. We took to responding, Dubuqi, Eyu ting bu dong. "I'm sorry. I don't understand Russian." This led to puzzled looks, and the inevitable question, this time in Chinese, "Where are you from?"

What we came to quickly realize is that, even here in China, we still operate from an American-centric point of view. There is so much English spoken here, and so much attention paid to American culture, that it is easy to forget that there are bilateral relations between peoples that have nothing to do with America. In this case, there are Russian traders and Chinese sellers, and the United States is a foreign, far away place to both parties. As for the four of us Americans, the Chinese assumed we were Russian, and the Russians looked on in astonishment when we didn't answer in their mother tongue. It was definitely a funny feeling, to be the odd men out in this arrangement. Our solution to all of this potential discomfort was a simple one...We had fun and reveled in it, happy to provide a moment of uncertainty and levity to whomever it was with whom our paths crossed.

~Steve

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