Russian in Northeast China, American in the Southeast

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song


These are all nationalities I’ve been associated with in Northeast China’s Jilin province. Often, people don’t say it directly, rather they’ll tell their friends: “Look, a German.” I don’t really mind if they say that I’m German, after all, it’s as close as it gets. Even many Chinese who know me think that I’m German. Maybe they mix it up because my mother tongue is German or because Austria is just too small to be remembered as a single country.

But the one I am called the most is definitely Russian. In Shenzhen, most of the time people just call me foreigner or American. In Jilin province though, I hardly ever hear the word foreigner, instead, I’m the Russian. Northeast China is not too far from Russia now, is it? Y says that in Heilongjiang province’s Harbin people should be able to see at a glance that I’m not Russian, since Russians aren’t that much of a rarity in Harbin. I’ll definitely go there sometime to find out for myself.

Sometimes I’ll tell them: “I’m not Canadian/German/American/British/Russian.”
Then they’ll ask: “So where are you from then?”
I: “Austria.”
They: “Oh, Austria.”
And then they’ll say: “But you look so Canadian/German/American/British/Russian!”

Have you ever had a similar experience? I’d love to read your stories.

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12 thoughts on “Russian in Northeast China, American in the Southeast

  1. Ah yes, I’ve had people say the same thing about the Russian thing. I haven’t, though.

    I get French and Spanish. A local once yelled,“法國人!” I turned around and said,“不對。我是美國人.” The guy looked at like a deer in headlights. If only I knew French. C’est la vie. Heritage wise I am Spanish, Italian, Aboriginal, Polish, Irish, and such. I admit, they are closer than many douches from outside of China. I had a foreigner tell me, “You look so German.” I try to tell her it’s not even my heritage. Awkward. 🙂


    • That’s funny, somehow people always seem to make wrong assumptions, no matter where in the world you’re from. My heritage is mainly Austrian mixed with a bit of Czech, a bit of Russian, and a bit of South-European (Roma and Sinti probably, my grandmother always denies this because of what it meant to be Roma and Sinti during WW2).


  2. Years after leaving his hometown of Gulangyu in Fujian Province, my husband came back for a visit. His clothes, haircut and mustache must have looked strange to the local people. And he was with me, a light haired American. A couple of men on the ferry, assuming he didn’t understand Hokkien, commented on us–the Japanese man with an Australian wife. Well, my husband was not about to be mistaken for a Japanese in his own hometown. He confronted the men, and they apologized. I don’t know why they thought I was Australian, but I let it go.


    • This happens to my husband all the time. They see me standing right next to him and are kind of lost for (Chinese) words until they find out that he actually speaks Chinese, and fluently too! People often think he’s Japanese. Since he’s from Northeast China there might be some other influences than Han-Chinese (as is the case with many Han-Chinese), but we can only guess, since many minority people in that area said they were Han and changed their last names in the last century so they wouldn’t sound like Manchurian or other minority last names.


  3. If it makes you feel any better, this happens all the time in the west. I am Chinese, regardless of where I was born, how I speak, where I was raised.

    Here’s a funny story. A few years ago someone was lost and wanted to ask for help, I looked at her with the “go on, ask me!” look but she saw me, had the “oh Chinese” look on her and then walked off and asked an old man further way – he was white – but Hungarian (and had poor English).

    I laughed inside.


  4. It’s strange that they try to guess. Most white people look fairly similar. Just like trying to guess where someone who is Asian is from when you are in Europe. There are subtle differences but not enough to make a correct assumption most of the time. My boyfriend has been asked if he is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc by complete strangers…he just tells them he is British (in his half Chinese/half Northern English accent) and walks off.

    I was mistaken for a German once but we were on a flight from Germany to Hong Kong so it’s understandable… 😛


  5. As I have written in my blog already, most people in China think that I am a Russian. Besides that I found out another interesting thing: My Chinese wife is working at the airport but whenever Asian are at her store they ask her if she is from their country. So they ask “Oh, are you from Korea/ Japan/ Thailand/ Malaysia and when it comes to China they ask always if she is from their province”. I really wonder why they think that way each time as I do not ask any person from other countries if they are also from the same country as I am …(or so to say)


    • This happens a lot to some friends of mine who are from Yunnan. Most of them belong to some kind of minority and people in other parts of China sometimes think they are from Southeast China (although to me they don’t look like they are Vietnamese, Thai, etc).


  6. I always get mistaken for a Russian in China (while I’m an American). But then again, interestingly when I was at university, another fellow American student wondered if I was an international student from Ireland or Russia. So I guess I don’t even look “American” enough for my fellow countrymen! 😉


    • That kind of happened to me, as well. An American in Taiwan asked me where I was from and I told him I was an American. He looked at me in disbelief. “You don’t talk or look like an American.” Thanks, mate!


  7. In Shenzhen, I’d say the most common nationality people mistook me for was Russian (I’m American). It’s probably a safe guess, as pointed out, there are many Russians in China.. When studying country names, I enjoyed saying I was from Ghana (加纳) or some other west African country just to see what kind of reaction it elicited.


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