“You Must Be Russian” – On Mistaken Identity in China and America

“She must be Russian…even her hat is Russian.” 😉

“Are you Russian?” someone asked me the other day here in Hangzhou.

It felt like a total a palm-in-face moment. After all, hadn’t he read my CV, which explicitly stated I was an American, in bold letters?

But the truth is, I had heard this same question – which more often came out as a statement (“She’s Russian”) – hundreds of times here in China. I can’t tell you the many times I’ve been standing on a metro or riding the bus, and all of a sudden I catch someone whispering in Chinese that I’m Russian, never knowing that I understood their every single word.

The thing is, I do understand where this comes from. Because I’ve heard many other white foreign women married to Chinese men share similar stories of being called citizens of China’s Northerly neighbor. Given Russia’s promixity, it’s not surprising.

But yet…sometimes the conclusion isn’t flattering either. Not when some people think we’re Russian prostitutes.

Sadly, I’ve heard stories from white women in China who were stalked and even nearly raped because someone assumed they were “for hire”. My Chinese husband, who has seen how some men look at me (and not always in a good way), makes it his duty to “protect my butt” from wandering eyes.

But here’s the fascinating thing in my case – Americans have also mistaken me for being Russian. Yes, Americans.

In fact, when I was at university, I was stopped on two occasions and explicitly asked if I wasn’t from Russia.

I had to confess feeling a little strange. What was it about me that prompted them to think this? Then again, this is America, a country where news giant CNN actually ran a map showing Hong Kong as part of South America.

Come to think of it, now that’s a true palm-in-face moment.

Do you have any stories of mistaken identity?

18 Replies to ““You Must Be Russian” – On Mistaken Identity in China and America”

  1. I was often mistaken for Russia in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. I asked someone in Hong Kong once about that because I was curious about it. She said she thought I was Russian because I was quiet and not loud like Americans. Then I asked in Vietnam and someone told me that they used to see a lot of Russians in Vietnam, so when they saw foreigners, they were usually Russian. This was years before the US normalized ties with Vietnam, so there weren’t many US tourists. I never asked about this in China, but figured it was somewhere in between the HK and Vietnam explanation.

    1. Susan, thank you so much for the comment! That is fascinating about being considered Russian b/c you were quiet. And it makes sense in Vietnam since people were used to seeing Russians there at the time.

  2. I was always asked, more like told, about being Russian while living in Zhengzhou! In my husband’s hometown, Ruyang, the only other foriegn women are Russian prostitutes … so I always felt awkward walking around there. I love how your husband takes it upon himself to ‘protect your butt’! ???? My husband would do the same!

  3. For some odd reason not many Americans can guess my son is a hapa. Heck many Asians also can’t guess. In Russia I would immediately be seen as a Jew, which is not a good thing…

    1. Thanks for sharing about your son — that’s interesting many Americans and Asians cannot tell your son is hapa. With Russia’s history of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, I can imagine there’s still a lot of prejudice in Russia against Jews.

      1. Lol white people think Asian all look alike which is sometimes true, I’m Chinese but living in California I have met some very Chinese looking Koreans and Vietnamese. To the point I almost was going to speak Mandarin to them until I heard there accent. But I guess Asians think some white people look alike.

        1. Thanks for sharing, D. Wu! Actually recently while running an errand and in need of assistance from strangers, I asked a woman for help and thought for certain she was Chinese — then discovered she was really from Japan.

  4. I’m Brazilian and live in Phuket, Thailand which has a lot of French and to everyone here, I’m also French. I gave up on trying to explain I’m not French.
    They see me and straight way says “CA VA” “BONJOUR” I just reply back hehe.
    Funny thing is even the French guys think I’m french too(apparently I look like French of Moroccan descent).
    “Je ne suis pas français”
    “Je ne parle pas français”
    2 words on my vocabulary hehehe

    1. Thanks for sharing Nilma! That’s interesting about Phuket — makes sense that people would consider a lot of foreigners to be French, given France’s colonial history in Southeast Asia.

  5. Russian? That’s unexpected. I thought the most usual assumption is foreigners are all Americans!

    I was once asked on a street in Nanjing (by an unknown person, of course) to give her private lessons of English. I had to point out I was neither a teacher nor a native speaker of English so, in any case, NOPE. Not to mention all the “hello!” while out and about with my kids.

    I honestly dislike public scrutiny and loud conversations on the bus or the subway about us, although I feel it’s getting a bit better from my first stays in China, back in 2004. I find they no longer assume foreigners don’t speak Chinese as readily as they did in the past!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Aorija! It had to be annoying that someone would automatically assume you’re a native speaker of English.

      I agree things are getting better in China. It does help that more foreigners are learning Chinese and sharing their skills publicly, changing perceptions of foreigners in China.

  6. I too, have been told I look Russian several times. What does a Russian look like?! Here at my university, we have two Russian teachers: one very slender and blonde,the other brunette and normal weight. Can’t figure this out… I’m American.

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