White Russian

Lenin smiles upon you.

There is a curious phenomenon I encounter almost daily: Being mistaken for a Russian.

I don’t know what constitutes “looking Russian,” but I must fit the bill. Walking down the street, little children gaze upon me with saucer-like eyes, mouths agape, only to let one word escape their lips: орос (Russian).

Walking down the white shopping plaza, having finished a jaunt through the aromatic markets of the third district, a tanned man with shaggy hair approached me. He held out his palm, and traced upon it with his index finger. He spoke to me as he did so. Instead of being somewhat familiar with the words and sounds he was producing, I was assailed with a short burst of strange gunfire. I looked at him, and he at me, my response being “I don’t know Russian,” spoken to him in Mongolian. He stared at me, giving a reply in Russian. I explained that I was American, not Russian. His friend was a bit more understanding, and repeated what I had said, and the two departed in silence.

Erdenet used to be almost exclusively Russians. They planned the city, built the mine, and ran the show. That is, until Socialism fell in 1991. With that, the more than 50% majority became the 10% minority. Some still inhabit the city, walking the streets of the first and second districts. They are still very active in the mining that happens in the city. They shop in the markets, and drink at the bars.

One night, a Russian man approached my table at a local pub. He spoke to my group in Russian, but we responded in Mongolian. He struggled, and apologized, explaining he only knew a little Mongolian. After we told him our professions, he became excited. A light entered his eyes: a revelation in the making. He explained that a female friend of his spoke English, and that he wanted us to get in touch with her. He gave us his number and departed. He was a friendly fellow, and we navigated our broken Mongolian splendidly. I wonder if more Russians will reach out to me?

There are certainly worse things I could be mistaken for.

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