China Elevator Stories

Russian In Northeast China, American In The Southeast

Chinese strangers commonly mistake me for Russian in the Northeast, and American in the Southeast.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


“Canadian.” “German.” “American.” “British.”

These are all nationalities I’ve been associated with in Northeast China’s Jilin province. 

Often, people don’t say it directly, rather they’ll tell their friends: “Look, a German.” I don’t really mind if they say that I’m German, after all, it’s as close as it gets. Even many Chinese who know me think that I’m German. Maybe they mix it up because my mother tongue is German or because Austria is just too small to be remembered as a single country.

But the one I am called the most is definitely Russian. 

In Shenzhen, most of the time people simply called me a foreigner or American. 

In Jilin province though, I hardly ever hear the word foreigner but instead, strangers call me Russian. Northeast China is not too far from Russia. My husband states that in Harbin in Heilongjiang province, Chinese would be able to see at a glance that I’m not Russian, since Russians aren’t such a rarity there.

Sometimes I’ll tell them: “I’m not Canadian/German/American/British/Russian.”
They’ll then ask: “Where are you from instead?”
“I’m from Austria.”
They are usually surprised over this fact. And, because my answer makes them feel embarassed, they’ll then say: “But you look so Canadian/German/American/British/Russian!”

Have you ever had a similar experience?