The Soviet Friends
American - Soviet Brawl on Beijing Bus
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