Kat-tar-rina, The Russian Girl
The moment I stepped out of the Jeep at Badaling and saw the Great Wall of China looming up before me, I thought about my father and my Uncle George. For two years they had been constructing a stone wall back home on our farm, and with all their effort and time spent it was no more than a 100 feet along. And here was a wall, 3,000 miles long, and not three feet high but 30 feet high, and 25 feet wide. I couldn’t help wondering bow the Chinese had done it. Every stone that went into that wall on the farm back home was placed there with an argument. “What are you doing? That doesn’t fit there,” followed by, “It’s better than the one you have.” How many centuries would it have taken my father and my uncle to build the Great Wall of China?
I only wished they could have been with me, but then maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. They would have argued why the wall went up that hill to the left and not to the right where it appeared to be less hilly. I could hear them, ‘That’s why they put it there where it is, for defense.”
When we arrived in our caravan at 0800 at the university that Sunday morning, I was very pleased to see the Russian girl waiting for us. My doubts were quickly forgotten. She looked radiant, in her high boots and coat that fell just below her knees. She carried her fur muff and wore a huge black-fur hat. Gunny was seated behind the driver’s wheel of the leading 4×4 weapons carrier, and the moment he saw her, he motioned for her to sit in front. She slid in next to him. She introduced herself. “My name is Katarina,” she said in her Russian accent, just like they speak in the movies. She pronounced it Kat-tar-rina. It sounded great the way she said it.
“Kat-tar-rina,” Gunny said, mimicking her. “I’m Gunny Wesley.” I knew the gunny all these months and it was the first time that I’d heard his name. We simply called him “the gunny from George Company.” Names in the Marines are never important when referring to staff NCO’s. Sometimes the names we gave them couldn’t be spoken in polite company.
I slid into the front seat next to Katarina. Gilbert and two other Marines sat behind. We immediately caught the full aroma of her perfume. The air became saturated with the scent, strong and overpowering. Gunny Wesley wasted no time commenting on its fragrance. “That’s great perfume,” he said, and in the same breath he wanted to know its name, where she got it and was it her favorite perfume. He was trying hard to win her favor and he was succeeding. He kept the conversation lively for the next three hours, cracking jokes and making small talk, until we reached Badaling.
We parked the vehicles, with one Marine left behind to guard, while Gilbert, the other Marines and I ran ahead and climbed the ramparts to the first tower. Gunny followed up the rear helping Katarina along by holding her arm. The wind blew strong and it was bitter cold, but it was invigorating. We waited for Gunny and Katarina to catch up, and then Gunny gave us a dissertation on the wall and its construction. He continued to baffle me with how much he knew about Chinese history. He was knowledgeable, and sometimes witty. “The Chinese wanted to keep out the Tartars,” he said, “so they built this wall 30 feet high, 25 feet wide, and 3,000 miles long. Now they want to keep out the white man, who conquered them in two opium wars, so they created an ideology, and called it communism.”
We found protection from the wind below the first tower and here Gunny had the Marines set up the picnic area. They spread out the food and opened an ice chest containing cold beer. While they were setting up, Gunny told us more about the wall, how 300,000 soldiers labored to build the wall for twenty years during the Qin Dynasty. “They also used donkeys to carry baskets of lime up the mountains, and bricks were tied to the horns of goats, which they lured up the mountains.”
It was a fun day at the Great Wall of China, but I had to admit I was rather perturbed that Gunny had taken over Katarina and had monopolized her completely from the moment be saw her that morning until he took her home that night. I was even more upset that he dropped me off at my hostel first. He was pulling rank, but in a way I couldn’t blame him. I had been rather innocuous and had little to contribute to the party. I rationalized my behavior by remembering that Ming-Lee was coming to Peking and I didn’t want to butterfly around. But on Monday in my classroom the situation changed. Katarina was cheerful and sat down next to me. She had never done that before.
“You should have come with us,” she said, placing her hand on my arm. “We went dancing at the Tivoli.”
Why was she telling me this? I acknowledged that I heard her and let it pass. But she continued.
“Gunny’s quite a charmer,” she said. “He’s fun.” “You like him then?”
“As a friend, yes.”
“I think he likes you.”
“Yes, I could feel that. That’s why I had to be careful.” “Careful,” I replied. I wanted to say something about her going dancing with him but held back.
“Yes, I didn’t want to give him a wrong impression.” The teacher entered the room and she returned to her seat in the rear, but before leaving she asked to have coffee after school. I agreed, but without Gunny I said under my breath.
Katarina took me to a Russian bakery off Hattaman Street. The delightful smell of baked bread greeted us before we even saw the shop. In the bay window facing the street were shelves with loaves of bread and rolls, sprinkled with white powder, stacked one atop another. As we pushed open the door a bell above the door went ting-a-ling announcing our arrival. An attendant came running and greeted us. Along one wall were four postage-stamp size tables. We draped out coats over the backs of our chairs and warmed our hands over a charcoal brazier that the attendant hastily placed before us. The attendant was a huge Russian woman. She was dressed all in white, with a white apron and a white babushka covering her hair. Bits of gray hair showed beneath. She and Katarina spoke together in Russian. It was obvious they knew one another.
“She does a good business,” Katarina said after the woman went to get our coffee.
“I didn’t think Chinese would like Western bread,” I replied.
“Do you know how many Russians there are in Peking?” she asked, raising her voice.
“I have no idea.”
“What do you know about the Russians?” I could see she was defensive about her lot as a White Russian.
“That they beat the Germans, that Stalin is in charge, and they want all of Manchuria,” I replied.
“You see, you think all Russians are the same. We Russians in China are Belorussians, or as you call us, White Russians.” I didn’t care to have a lecture, especially when I knew nothing of the subject. I often wondered about all the White Russians I saw in Tsingtao but never delved deeper into their past, until now. I had more reading coming up while burning the midnight oil. We changed the subject to the Americans living in Peking. After the second coffee we parted, each taking a pedicab our own way, with an agreement to have coffee together later in the week. I had a feeling she didn’t want it to end but I had things to do, like checking out a book on Russian history from the library.
When I was studying with Mrs. Murray, I couldn’t quite understand why she was so concerned about the Russians taking over Port Arthur in Manchuria when the war ended-weren’t they our allies-but I began to understand as I read my history. The agony of the White Russians began in 1918 when the revolutionary Bolsheviks put a bullet into the head of the Tzar Nicholas II and then into his wife, their five children and the family dog, thus ending the reign of the Romanovs. The Boyars, the landed gentry, the aristocracy-all White Russians-were forced to flee from their mother Russia. But since the new government had made peace with the Kaiser in the West, they had to tum to the East-to China.
The White Russians, although they never integrated fully into Chinese society, made China their home for the next thirty years, but now the Red flag was casting a shadow of doom upon them. In the beginning, however, when they first fled from Russia, they were received with open arms in China. Among their ranks were many well-trained military officers who held positions in the Chinese army as instructors while others obtained fairly high ranks. Many became government servants, advisors and teachers.
“You did well in China,” I said to Katarina the next time we sat down to coffee.
“You mean our parents did. The second generation, my generation, doesn’t have the schooling nor the training as our people did before us. We had to shift, and began opening up restaurants, bars and clubs.”
“You can never go back to Russia?” I asked.
“Never. If Chairman Mao takes over in China, this time there is no place to go.”
My relationship with Katarina became warmer each time we met, almost without my being aware of it. We met just about every day now after class, and if we didn’t have coffee and the weather permitted, we went for long walks. Sometimes we took short bus trips. We enjoyed visiting the Imperial Summer Palace and went several times. Within the palace was a lake, and upon the still waters was a magnificent boat, constructed of solid marble. Naturally, it didn’t float. I remember reading the story aboard the USS Napa, from the book I got from the library on Guam. It told how in 1911 when the Empress of China was hounded by her advisers to build a powerful navy, she obliged them. She sank, literally, the entire treasure’s purse into a marble boat. The first time we held hands was crossing a street, and soon we began walking arm in arm-to keep warm, we said. Since we were both foreigners, the Chinese did not frown upon our actions. In fact, the Chinese hardly even noticed us. As we drank coffee and tea, and walked through the parks, Katarina spoke a great deal about the plight of White Russians in China. When I learned she was three years older than I was-she was going on 21-I was a bit disappointed, but after a while that didn’t matter. I liked her company even if she was older.