Belarusians from Under the Heaven
[b]Ozhegov’s defining dictionary gives the following interpretation of the ‘diaspora’ term: these are people belonging to one and the same nation who live beyond the country of their origin. I’ve lived in China for as long as 11 years, and the Chinese often call me ‘Lao Beijing Ren,’ which means ‘old Beijing citizen’ (though the ‘old’ part has nothing to do with my age). According to our Embassy, there are, at least, 150 more Belarusians living in China, their numbers annually increasing [/b]In fact, China has always held certain attraction for foreigners. Based on the 2010 population census, foreigners, permanently living here, number about 600 thousand people, their major quantities concentrated in big cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As for Belarusians, they are most numerous in Dalian (Liaoning Province). In September 2010, Belarusians even founded their fellow-countrymen community, comprising 52 people (mainly students). Students, by the way, make up most of Belarusians in China.
In fact, China has always held certain attraction for foreigners. Based on the 2010 population census, foreigners, permanently living here, number about 600 thousand people, their major quantities concentrated in big cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As for Belarusians, they are most numerous in Dalian (Liaoning Province). In September 2010, Belarusians even founded their fellow-countrymen community, comprising 52 people (mainly students). Students, by the way, make up most of Belarusians in China.
However, students are not the only ‘fresh blood’ suppliers for the Belarusian community. Thus, Belarusians have made their contribution (as amazing as it might at first seem) to Chinese mass media development, such as, for example, Russian broadcast by the China Central TV (CCTV). In September 2009, when the broadcasting was only started, there was just one Belarusian, Alesya Korzun. Today, Belarusian team includes five people, the quantity, as I was told, expected to grow. It’s all about reputation, as the first two Belarusians — Alesya Korzun, the presenter, and Alla Maltseva, working off-screen (who came to Beijing with her Chinese husband) — have proved themselves to be high-class professionals and disciplined employees. So, Belarusians at the CCTV are becoming more and more numerous, with prospects of establishing another community of fellow-countrymen more than real. It might well happen that one day the CCTV’s corridors will hear our Belarusian Christmas carols, which, by the way, are well known thanks to China’s International Radio, its Belarusian Editorial Office preparing news in the Belarusian language. Aspiring for true professionalism, China’s International radio has invited two Belarusian specialists to work for them. So, this is how Belarusian journalists unexpectedly (and, first of all, for themselves) have become popular in China.
In terms of culture, Belarusians can also boast some achievements. Seven years ago, Harbin’s weather as usual freezing with temperatures below -30°C, at the festival of snow and ice sculptures, which is the most remarkable event of the tourist season, I happened to meet the Belarusian crew. Dressed (more for the sake of warmth, than for the sake of beauty) in khaki cottonwool jackets, a traditional outfit for Northern China, and looking really determined, saws in their hands, they were working on an ice sculpture. And though they got no prizes, they managed to show what they were really worth. So, today Viktor Kopach and Maxim Petrulya are welcomed guests in various China’s regions. It is common practice in this country for some town or city to invite a hundred sculptors from all over the world for a month so that they could work on a new site — a Sculpture Park, the biggest one (not only for China, but globally, which is confirmed by a UNESCO diploma) situated in Changchun, Minsk’s twin city. In this park, one can also find works of Viktor Kopach, Maxim Petrulya and other Belarusian sculptors.
But let’s go back to Harbin (which is not always that freezing). I must admit that this town is among those few Chinese settlements where the name of our country is immediately recognized, provoking joyful exclamations like: “Belarus! Sure! What a wonderful country!” During our summer visit to the city, all officials we met there either had already been or were going to visit our country, their comments on our country and its people being only those of good memories. In many respects, this situation is due to the two joint enterprises currently operating in Harbin — ‘Dong Jin-Gomel’ (with Gomselmash) and ‘Dong Jin -Minsk’ (with Minsk Tractor Works). They have the same Chinese partner, which is Dong Jin Group Company, and its owner, Zhang Dajun, is ‘sure of further prospects.’ Belarusians are also employed at the joint enterprises, mainly on a rotational basis, with Gomselmash and MTW specialists coming to work here for a couple of months to tell their Chinese colleagues about the equipment and help adjust, test and operate it. Language barrier is a problem, of course, but as I heard a worker from Gomel once say, toying with a big wrench in his hand: “Machinery are the same in every country, and as machine operators we have our own ways to understand each other.” This is what our specialists like, their chins always up.
Belarus-China relations are often described as ‘cloudless’; however, for those to match up the description, both in terms of politics and economy, our priority should be, first of all, establishing interpersonal relations — a process which is far from being easy and fast, unlike, say, establishing joint enterprises. As it seems to me (though my opinion might well be biased), what we can currently observe in China is forming of a Belarusian diaspora, which, by now, already comprises second-generation Belarusian born to Belarusian-Chinese couples.
Mikhail Penyevskoy, having lived in China for 18 years, has his own explanation of the special China’s charm: “Most importantly, we feel comfortable here, both mentally, financially and socially. Take, for instance, a thing as simple as the sun. Sunny days in China are more numerous than in Belarus. So, if on getting up you can see the sun, your mood is sure to be positive, whether in autumn or winter. China gives an opportunity to live in comfort and develop, passing something on, learning things and expanding knowledge. Economic progress makes it possible for every person to find their proper places.” Thus, we can see that Belarusians have put down roots deep into Chinese soil.
Nastya Yevets: Becoming History
Nastya Yevets, born in Grodno, has lived in Beijing for 4 years, just finished her studies and is working now.
Being a journalist means meeting lots of people. In 2007, we were covering Olympics 2008 preparations in Beijing, which once brought us to a secondary school our national team was ‘responsible’ for. The children from this school were to take part in the Belarusian flag lifting ceremony in the Olympic village and some other events. So, we enter the classroom and see Chinese children diligently writing our national hymn in their exercise books. It was fascinating watching a really young girl, her hair fiery red, confidently conduct these fifty-voice choir, from time to time making remarks (in Chinese, of course) about ‘peaceful people’ and the rest of what our hymn says. This is how I met Nastya and since then have done my best to keep in touch with her as it was interesting to me to follow her life.
Nastya’s contribution to the Olympics 2008 was more than just this children’s choir as later she volunteered as an interpreter for the Belarusian national team. This was a time never to be forgotten — little sleep or rest, even meals were quite rare. But the sensation itself of being at the Olympics and in the thick of it made all hardships seem like nothing at all. The Olympics were over in no time, having though brought us new friends and impressions. “I’ve become history!” this is what Nastya, as usually emotional, cried out loud, showing her pictures with sports stars.
But even after the feast was over, everyday life was far from being monotonous. “I was literally enthralled with watching this country develop from the inside,” says Nastya. “For me, there seems to be no other place like China where one’s horizons would expand so far and wide. I have lots of friends who live in various corners of the world. Where else I would have met them? This summer, for instance, I went to Germany to visit my friends whom I met here. A couple of years ago, I also went to Paris, invited by friends, too. In this country, you feel as though the entire world is open before you and your opportunities are unlimited.”
As it becomes evident from Nastya’s experience, being persistent and active, one can achieve a lot. “I was so happy when I found myself in the thick of the Olympics. I could hardly imagine I would be able to get an inside look of the World Fair!” It was 2010 when Nastya was enthusiastically pouring it on me. That year, Shanghai was preparing to host the World EXPO, so Nastya, naturally, couldn`t miss a chance like this to once again live her mark in history. Perspectives seemed to be immense, and so they were: six months in Shanghai, working for Belarus’ national pavilion (this time it was no volunteer work, which for a student paying for her studies mattered a lot) and, of course, unlimited international communication. “This was amazing! Simply amazing!” keeps saying Nastya today. "I had my moments when I wanted to leave it all and just run away, as some things didn’t come easy to me. But, on the other hand, where else I would have seen this much of the world? We danced salsa in the Brazilian pavilion, tangoed — in the Argentinean one, and cried our eyes out weeping over Polish films. This means I’ve actually had a round-the-world trip and this took me only as long as half a year! Let alone friends I’ve made!” Lost (in communication, rather than in translation) as she once felt, her troubles with Chinese visitors coming to see the Belarusian pavilion (their numbers, incidentally, being five times as big as it had been expected) were only a bleak memory now. It’s because we indeed remember only those things which were really good: “Every month, music and dance companies from Belarus would come to perform in our pavilion. And this was awesome! The Chinese were fascinated, watching, applauding, and it seemed like they were about to hit the floor themselves. We enjoyed ourselves, too. When at home, there are always reasons not to go to a show, while here all you have to do is to stop and watch. They even sang for me my favourite song at their last show, which was so pleasant! It was then that I knew for sure I`ve done the best I could in my job.”
Today, Nastya is at the crossroads, her study years behind, just like presentation of her ‘China-Belarus Cultural Relations and their Development Trends’ graduation paper she brilliantly defended, and the HSK exam in the Chinese language she passed with the highest grade. Now it’s time to get down to real work. For several years, Nastya has been teaching English at Chinese schools (though this could hardly be called a paid job — she just really enjoyed working with children, like that time when she taught them sing the Belarusian hymn; besides, the line in her resume would not be irrelevant). In fact, not many of her colleagues know that she comes from Belarus, taking her for an American or English. As Nastya explains: “It’s just everyone wants to have a native speaker as a teacher, and most can’t even imagine that English is hardly my native language.” With offers to work as a teacher so numerous, lots of Chinese mysteries undiscovered and historical events yet to attend, Nastya opts for staying in Beijing.
“You know, my opinion on China, just like my intentions, might be changing ten times a day,” she told me when we last met. “Say, in the morning you open your window wide, hoping to get some sunshine, but all you can see is smog. And you decide then: I don’t love China any more. Then again, stuck in a stuffy train carriage, with hardly a spot to put your feet on, you start wondering whether this is the right place to live in. But, a moment later, seeing magnolia in full blossom, you’d think to yourself: is there any other place as beautiful like this? Then you meet a Chinese child in the street, who smiles at you and greets with a hallo. How is it possible not to love this? A friend of mine once told me: “China and me have special love/hate relations.” And I do agree with him, though, after having lived in China this long, my love is definitely bigger.”
To my mind, Nastya Yevets is a perfect example of what people call a ‘world citizen.’ This kind of youth — always heading for something and unfailingly optimistic — is the foundation of our future, the future we all share.
Vadim Sugak: Curiousity Roads Lead to Beijing
Vadim Sugak, born in Orsha, has lived in Beijing for 3 years and is currently a student
Vadim and I couldn`t long set our minds on a place to meet, wondering whether it would be better if I attended his taijiquan classes (naturally, I doubted we could have a talk there) or if we should pick some other location. Finally, we chose a coffee-house, which, of course, was far off Chinese style (as it is common knowledge that the Chinese prefer tea), but was more than convenient for a meeting like ours. I was quite puzzled, when before we set to our cheesecakes, Vadim took a picture of it. Vadim, obviously aware of my confusion, explained: “One girl, a friend of mine, has just left Beijing for Belarus. She has worked here as a fashion model for free months. So here I am, making up a list of things she would miss. A good cheesecake is one of those, for sure.”
Vadim is like a puzzle to me. taijiquan, the Chinese language, fashion business — and it’s all about him. And I’m most sure, if ever asked to explain what brought him to China with just one word, he would use ‘curiosity.’
The starting point for the journey was … tea. “I had this friend of mine, Andrey,” recalls Vadim, “who is sort of an expert in Chinese tea. He never sells it though, believing that, once he starts doing it as a business, his interest in tea as an art of its own would vanish. And, from what I know about his tasting different tea sorts, writing reviews, taking part in seminars, he does act as though tea were a real art. Such people… you know, well… they are fanatics. He has a special cellar to store teas, their various sorts requiring different temperature and humidity regimes — just like wine. Naturally, I got curious what could possibly be so special about Chinese tea, so I paid him regular visits to taste tea and talk.”
But then it turned out that there was more to Vadim’s interest in China than just tea. When in Minsk, Vadim took up taijiquan: “At first, I was just curious what it’s like.” Then there arose a new interest: is it possible at all to master Chinese? “My journey from home to work took quite a time,” recalls Vadim about what happened eight years ago, “so, I thought: what if I used this time for something like learning a language? At least, to try and see if I could handle this, with all these hieroglyph, you know…And then I took up a language course at the Linguistic University, which in those times was, perhaps, the only one in Belarus. There I met those people who were first to get interested in China, as times were quite different from today, when about every educational institution runs a Chinese language course. Back then we felt like ground breakers and the whole thing seemed to us extraordinary.”
Then, Vadim, having graduated from the Faculty of Applied Mathematics of the Belarusian State University, worked for MTS Company for some time, had a ‘decent’ salary, as he puts it, but there came a time when he started to long for changes. There are these people, you know, whose spirits are ever unsettled, searching for new places, meetings and impressions, making up new life strategies. And Vadim seems to be one of those. “Everything was ok, but, when I was 30, it just came to me I should change something. I thought: why not go to China to study Chinese, and then… then I shall see what I shall see.”
“Well, it’s a verge where you have to finally set your goals for life. Something was worrying me, making me wonder whether I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do. This is a kind of nagging, when something feels totally wrong, and if you go on with it, things will still be ok, it’s just that this nagging won’t disappear. And I just went for it, without having consciously taken the decision.”
No doubt, one can’t but admire a resolve like this, though there are few who would dare to do the same — leave for a foreign country, where all people are totally strange, caring tuppence for you. And that’s what I call the most extreme of all extremes — a tough test to prove one’s strength and abilities to survive, change, adapt to the world and make the world meet your expectations.
“Was it hard?” I ask Viktor, though the answer seems more than evident.
“When it comes to down-to-earth, everyday issues, the answer is ‘yes.’ I’ve never had troubles with people, but with finding a flat — wow! That was something! We have the so-called western mentality, our world logically arranged, while in this country logics is an illusive thing ever slipping away. , which I found hard to understand.”
“Are the Chinese any different from us? I mean, their lifestyle, way of thinking?”
“Their way of thinking is, of course, different, just as their habits and mentality. In fact, in Belarus I had met Chinese people, so basically I was ready for things, though I had my shocks here as well. As a matter of fact, I believe this ‘tolerance’ thing Belarusians are famous for has had its effect, too.”
Having applied for an educational grant and passed all the exams, Vadim was admitted as a МВА student (International Business Administration) to Renmin University of China (where, by the way, all studies are in English) and is now studying there free of charge — thanks to the grades he got at the exam. Go, Belarusian!
Vadim never stops generating ideas. First, he tried to organize a ‘Belarusians in China’ group in social networks, but failed, through no fault of his, however, rather (which is Vadim’s personal opinion) through inactivity and unwillingness to form national unions, which is characteristic of Belarusians living abroad. Currently, besides studies, he is engaged in what he believes to be a far more promising project — fashion model business. Vadim`s belief in success of the project is largely based on the great demand for foreign faces at the Chinese advertising market. “Russian-speaking people, including those coming from Belarus, are not rare here,” Vadim obviously enjoys telling me about his ‘baby’ project, “which is why I thought it would be a good idea to unite these people under our project, acting as intermediates between Chinese agents and advertisers and those Slavonic people who are willing to take up a job like this. I’m convinced that in China our people lack a commonly shared information space, as information here mostly comes from their immediate acquaintances. This is not to their advantage, since in this way many agencies manipulate foreigners, undercutting prices.” This activity is totally new to Vadim, as he has had no such previous experience: “However, I have always had around me people working in this field — models, designers and photographers. Perhaps, it was the way my angel tried to prompt me the right path as things started to ‘flow’ right from the start. There was also a girl, of course. Love gives wings to fly, you know.” So, for now Vadim has a whole pile of ideas, and I’m curious how those will turn out.
Valeria Song: Three Weddings and One Large Family
Valeria Song, born in Mogilev, has lived in Beijing for 4 years, currently employed
“I knew I wanted to be with him since the very moment I laid my eyes on him”, sitting in a cosy cafй in one of Beijing’s European quarters, I’m hearing Valeria Song talking of her husband, — “Back then I lived in the hostel of Minsk State Linguistic University, and once we were invited to a party organized by Chinese students. I was rather skeptical about it, having agreed to go there only for my friend`s sake, who had really talked me into it. Perhaps, that was just the prejudice I had about Asian guys, like many of my fellow-students did. But, eventually, I came and saw him, immediately realizing that I was ‘gone.’ I remember as I entered I noticed a tall handsome guy in a suit with a tie, his friends looking just as posh. It was right then that I understood how prejudiced I was about people from Asia. I at once felt the power of my attraction to him.”
However, if for Valeria it was love at first sight, for Song Chao, things began with mere friendship — a strong good friendship between students sharing the same hostel.
“First, we were just friends,” Valeria goes on with her story. “I helped him with Russian, explained rules, you know, participles…”
“So, those were participles that set your feelings on fire?”
Valeria blushes a little, hesitating to answer. Maybe, their love was rather a ‘product’ of pots and pans?
“We started cooking together,” Valeria continues, “It was interesting — the famous Chinese cuisine and things like this. And, you know, what bought me? The way he cared about me, always asking if I was hungry and willing to cook something for me, if I was.”
“But that`s like saying ‘Hi’ for Chinese, since even their variant of ‘How do you do?’ sentence in literal translation sounds like: Are you hungry?"
“Sure,” Valeria seems to have no problem with that. “It’s a Chinese tradition, but back then I had no idea about it.”
So, soon friendship grew to become an affair. Taken the efforts Valeria herself had to make to overcome the stereotypes about Asian people, it was only natural to expect her parents, living in a small village near Mogilev, to be shocked when she first brought Song Chao to meet them. Now, she’s only laughing:
“My Mom, naturally, was, at first, stunned, but then she said: “Ok now, time to broaden my horizons,” limiting this expansion, though, to China’s borders. This all happened before my mother met Chao in person. Once he’d been to our house, she told me: “Don’t you dare to come alone next time.” She liked him so much! He talks Russian well, so they could for hours on end sit at a table, just like us now, and talk on and on and on…As though they became related… All at once… And later, as we came home together, he met my aunts and we had a great time, all family down the table…having meals…it felt so good..."
“This whole ‘domesticity’ thing is a lot like China, don’t you think so?"
“Sure, I do. We have much in common. My people immediately recognized him as ‘their’ man.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, then,”she sighs. “We talked about our future, of course. I was in my fourth year, while he was about to graduate. So we had to come up with something. The key issue was his being a foreigner; otherwise the decision could have been postponed for however long. First graduation, then work — there would have been no need to hurry, if he were a Belarusian. But we both understood that, once he graduates, he would have to leave the country, just because his visa would have expired by that time. So, the question was: are we together or should be break up?”
Whenever a Chinese guy starts to think of marrying someone, it’s high time for his parents to come to the fore — either implicitly or openly. China remains a country where family opinion counts, especially in marriage matters. If we say that marriages are blessed by the heaven, every self-respected Chinese knows that marriages are concluded in parents’ homes. So, Chao, having stuffed his suitcases with quite an impressive collection of photos and videos to show his girl of choice, went home — to Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Valeria now celebrates there the moon calendar New Year), where his parents’ home is situated. While Chao was on the ‘crusade’ trip, his Chinese friends from Minsk, worrying about their future, took care of Valeria, regularly inviting her to dinners, cooking meals.
On coming back, Chao did not say a thing about his parents’ verdict, though it seemed like it had been positive. Now, Valeria is sure there had been a big family gathering, all videos and photos thoroughly studied and discussed. A couple of days later, right as they were having dinner with Valeria`s parents, Chao stood up and said: “Mother Liusya, I want to marry.”
Naturally, one wedding was not enough. There were three of those, the first one taking place in Minsk with all bride’s relatives and bridegroom’s friends coming together to make a 40-guest party, where everyone was enjoying themselves.
“In summer, we went to China, where we at once started to prepare for another wedding,” Valeria narrates. “We invited 300 people — everyone Chao once studied with, went to the same kindergarten, was friends, attended the same college, Academy, then relatives, of course, his father`s friends, his mother`s colleagues from where she used to work — basically everyone they have ever known. This was our first wedding, as two weeks later I was told we had to visit some other relatives in another town. Naturally, I wondered what we were going to do there and was answered that we were going to have another wedding as some relatives had not been able to come over. 200 people more all in all. But a Chinese wedding is very different from ours, 2 hours — and it is over. At our weddings, a newly married couple sits at the head of the table, while everyone else is entertaining them, whereas in China they stand on the stage, together with the toast-master, and entertain their guests. I even had to sing and dance. The repertory is well-known and obligatory: I sang “Katiusha”, and then, together with Chao, “Evenings Near Moscow”, while his parents did the dancing. Next came the traditional bows, lots of them. First, we bowed three times to the guests, thanking them for doing us honor coming here, after which we bowed to the parents, three more times. I remember we were bowing to the ground, the toast-master telling something in the background, until we heard the parents say: “Stand up!” Next, bows to each other: first, the mother and the father, then we, first touching with forehead, then with noses, and, finally, kissing. In the end of the evening, his friends prepared a firework for us.”
…So, it’s been four years already since Valeria and Chao live in Beijing. She, having mastered Chinese, works as a teacher of German in one of the Universities, doing her best to keep terms with her new relatives, since, as they say, (which is quite in line with my views) the one who marries a Chinese, also gets forever bound to their family. It is also true that Valeria’s parents were not the only ones to have broadened their horizons, Chao’s Chinese family having done pretty much the same thing, as they could have hardly expected that their son would come back from the far away Minsk with a wife. “He is the love of my life,” says Valeria. And I wish them happiness, whether according to the Chinese or the Belarusians, as happiness is a universal thing, meaning that you are loved, understood and welcomed.
By Inessa Pleskachevskaya
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