The Soviet Friends

Amer­i­can - Soviet Brawl on Bei­jing Bus

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

我的苏联朋友们

In the early fall of 1987, a small bus rolled up to the front of the brand new, In­ter­na­tional stu­dent dor­mi­tory and out came twenty of the most pic­turesque, stereo­typ­i­cal Soviet ex­change stu­dents this Cold War baby-boomer had ever seen off the screen of James Bond movies.

In the early fall of 1987, a small bus rolled up to the front of the brand new, In­ter­na­tional stu­dent dor­mi­tory and out came twenty of the most pic­turesque, stereo­typ­i­cal Soviet ex­change stu­dents this Cold War baby-boomer had ever seen off the screen of James Bond movies. With names like Olga, Dim­itri, Vasili, Natasha and Vik­tor, I im­me­di­ately adopted them all, to the cha­grin of my poor wife, who in­dulged their fre­quent vis­its to our rel­a­tively com­modi­ous For­eign Ex­pert apart­ment for fre­quent, hi­lar­i­ous ses­sions, drink­ing count­less toasts to world peace (Per­e­stroika!), trad­ing T-shirts right off our backs and strug­gling to com­mu­ni­cate in our glo­ri­ous com­mon tongue – Man­darin Chi­nese. Over time, our stan­dard ar­range­ment seemed to set­tle nd in to Sun­day evening, partly be­cause the 30-minute Won­der­ful World of Walt Dis­ney would come on at 6:00, glu­ing every­one to the tele­vi­sion, and partly be­cause it was usu­ally on Satur­days that they might visit their em­bassy and re­turn with sev­eral bot­tles of Stoly­ch­naya, com­pli­ments of the USSR!

At the be­gin­ning of the new se­mes­ter, af­ter Spring Fes­ti­val, a few new Soviet stu­dents joined the group but one came in be­low my radar, al­most with cat­a­strophic re­sults. A good friend and neigh­bor in the apart­ment build­ing I had orig­i­nally been moved into, be­fore the For­eign Ex­perts Build­ing was ready, had asked me to go to an Aus­tralian Film Fes­ti­val way on the other side of Bei­jing, which in­volved nu­mer­ous trans­fers in those days be­fore the sub­way spread out to its cur­rent, all-en­com­pass­ing di­men­sion. I had de­layed be­cause of a bad cold, but Zhang Min called to tell me it was the last day of the fes­ti­val, so I was duty bound and we trudged on out to the bus stop. Here I must ex­plain that, when I’ve had a bad cold for any length of time, my per­son­al­ity un­der­goes a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion along the lines of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.

Hyde, and I was not my nor­mal, kindly Dr. Jekyll that Sat­ur­day morn­ing. When the doors of the first bus opened, it was so packed that peo­ple might have fallen out if the doors re­mained open very long. The sec­ond was at least as bad, but we ac­cepted our fate and some­how jammed our­selves in­side. At the very next stop, most peo­ple shrank in dis­gust at the ob­vi­ously ill for­eigner, ex­cept for one per­son who took a lit­tle step back (just like a line­backer about to charge through the de­fen­sive line to flat­ten the quar­ter­back, I thought in­stinc­tively), and then plowed onto the bus. I was not at all ac­com­mo­dat­ing, and locked my knees and el­bows. The in­truder swore in sev­eral lan­guages in­clud­ing English (most beau­ti­fully), and I was just be­gin­ning to zero in on the ex­act spot where my first blow would land when, thank good­ness, I saw my friend’s ter­ri­fied face and it in­stantly jogged me back to re­al­ity. I apol­o­gized, made room, and every­one around us re­laxed in one gi­ant sigh. I barely thought of it again as Zhang Min and I watched Croc­o­dile Dundee at the fes­ti­val. But a week later, as I walked into the school can­teen to buy my yo­gurt, there he was – the bar­bar­ian in­truder – with all my Soviet friends. He was from Kaza­khstan and a Soviet cit­i­zen. The head­line that al­most hap­pened flashed through my brain: Amer­i­can Soviet Brawl on Bei­jing Bus! It was a heart-warm­ing and hu­mor­ous re­union, and he quickly be­came a mem­ber of the Sun­day evening par­ties at our place.

At one point in our weekly ses­sions, some­one asked me who I thought the KeGe Bo (KGB) agent was amongst them. Of course, in those days it was leg­endary that any group of Sovi­ets trav­el­ling abroad would have one KGB agent among them to pre­vent “de­fec­tion,” a Cold War term hardly heard any­more but ba­si­cally mean­ing to go over by stealth to the “other side.” I thought it was funny at first, but it con­tin­ued, with in­di­vid­u­als pulling me into the shad­owy part of the hall or catch­ing me out alone some­where, and I came to re­al­ize that it was no joke af­ter all. I did fi­nally fig­ure it out though, of course. There was only one per­son who never asked me. I never re­ally like him that much, but he was the guy who was al­ways ready on the couch in front of the TV at 6:00 PM sharp, laugh­ing the loud­est and long­est at Mickey, Don­ald and Goofy. How could I rat on a guy like that?

The head­line that al­most hap­pened flashed through y brain: Amer­i­can Soviet Brawl on Bei­jing Bus! It was a heart­warm­ing and hu­mor­ous re­union, and he quickly be­came a mem­ber of the Sun­day evening par­ties at our place.

A street­car con­duc­tor in Bei­jing in the 1990s

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