Foreign Classmates, Russian Girl
Often times such simple questions provoked deep thought. When I returned to my room and was alone I pondered over them. I began feeling empty inside. Were they, perhaps, not right? Why were we so different in the West? The more I got to know the Chinese, the more I came to realize that our thought patterns are not alike. When using deductive reasoning, we don’t come to the same conclusions, not from a universal to a particular. Was this what Mrs. Djung was talking about when I was more interested in stuffing myself with djow-dzes than listening to their reasoning? Maybe I was being misled by Lin Yu-tang. At the library I began arming myself with both Chinese and Western philosophy books and these I would devour at night. Reading these books did not make life for me any easier, only more complicated. I desperately wanted to know the Chinese mind, but I soon realized to know their minds, I would have to cast away Western thoughts and ideas and think only like they do. The question was how to do that, but I would need more time than I had to find the answer. I found myself, when I was alone in my room and confused, standing in front of the mirror, slanting my eyes with my fingers, wondering why I had to look so different and be so different from everyone else. Was this what it meant by being in the minority.
Not all the students were Chinese. Some came from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and from Tibet and Mongolia; others from Turkmenistan and Assam, and from many places I had never heard before. They came from faraway exotic lands, all speaking their strange tongues and dialects, bringing with them their customs and habits. They too were here to study Mandarin Chinese.
There were a few Europeans, mostly White Russians. They were the easiest to recognize, as they stood out from everyone else. I enjoyed watching them, for I had never seen an ethnic group quite like them before. They were outcasts in China, and yet they gave the appearance of having a social status far above anyone else. In Tsingtao they owned and operated bars and restaurants and had all sorts of clothing shops. There was a bordello that boasted having all White Russian women, six of them. Other than what I saw of them, I knew little about them. I saw them around the university but didn’t think of them one way or another, until in my history class I took notice of one of the fairest women I had seen in all my stay in China. She was White Russian, and there was no mistaking about that. Who was she?
It was about my second week in class that I first saw her. It was probably because she sat in the rear, and when the class ended she was out the door before anyone else. On this particular day, at the end of the class, she had to bring a paper to the teacher in front of the room. She had to pass right by my desk. Her beauty was startling. She had the whitest skin I had ever seen on a human being. There’s the expression, “as white as snow,” but she was whiter than that.
She was elegant. She could make a man gasp. She wore high leather boots, almost up to her knees, and had draped over her shoulders a fine coat with thick fur around the collar and fur on the fringe at the bottom. She had a matching fur muffler, which hung from a cord around her neck. She laid the paper on the desk, said nothing to the teacher, and as she walked past to leave the room she put on a big fur hat. Her movements were graceful and deliberate. That image of her lingered long after she had gone. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. The next day I went to class early and took a seat farther towards the back, but she did not show that day. Once or twice after that I got fleeting glimpses of her but could never get close to begin a conversation. I was determined to meet her.
On the morning of my first Saturday in Peking I was preparing to go to George Company at the British Legation to check in when the gunny sergeant who first brought me to Hostel No. 3 appeared in the lobby. I didn’t even know his name, and then remembered be didn’t tell me. “Today’s a holiday and the office is closed,” he said. “Thought I’d come and check you in and save you a trip.” I was excited to see him, and had many questions to ask. He bad a bottle of White Horse and asked if we could go into the restaurant and drink there. He saw me looking at the bottle. “Don’t worry,” he said, “real stuff.” The Scotch was the first booze I had had in weeks. It tasted great and after two drinks my head was floating.
Melanowski and Gilbert were doing fine, he said. Both were still in school, staying in another hostel. We could all meet up next Saturday and he would show us the town. He asked if there was anything I needed, and as he was leaving he said, “Good reports about you. Keep it up.”
The following Saturday he kept his word. When I went to check in, be was waiting. Gilbert was there too. Melanowski had checked in but was gone. The gunny took us to lunch in the mess hall, my first American meal, and that evening we went with a couple of other Marines to Wagonlits Hotel for an evening meal. We then did the town. Bars, dance halls, cabarets-it wasn’t much different than Tsingtao. I could sense that Gilbert was not much into it, and neither was I. We made excuses and bowed out early. The gunny offered to drive us back to our quarters but we insisted we could take pedicabs.
We each called our own pedicab, and as I was climbing into mine, Gilbert said, “Melanowski is in some kind of trouble. He’s missed more classes than he’s gone to. It has something to do with some girl.”
“He’ll get over it,” I said
“Not him,” he replied. “He’s been talking about deserting.”
This was serious. I told Gilbert I would talk to him. We parted company, agreeing to meet next Saturday. On my way home I wondered about the Russian girl. Who was she? I decided to cable Ming-Lee to ask her to come to Peking.