Sticking out in Moscow

As you’re most likely well aware of, I live in Moscow, which is a cosmopolitan city with many residents of varying nationality, race, and ethnicity. However, you sometimes get the odd look if you stick out, which is an admittedly difficult thing to do because you see some really odd things here. I bring this up because if the police think you’re looking a bit abnormal (i.e. dodgy), they have the right to pull you over and ask for your documents. This is important to mention because as a mixed race person, it’s happened to me a few times. By “a few times”, I mean that it’s happened 11 times in almost seven years of living here; I was averaging getting pulled over twice a year until Covid conveniently screwed up that average. Thankfully, once the police hear me speak Russian in a strong foreign accent and present my American passport, they let me go. While it’s relatively innocuous, after the first time I was really paranoid that every cop in the metro and on the street would pull me aside; over the years I’ve also heard several stories of fellow expats being shaken down for bribes, which didn’t help my overly paranoid mind. I’ve also been pulled into a few police stations in the metro in order to have my information jotted down, which can be enough to make you start imagining a plethora of situations that could go in several different ways. Again, I’m protected on account of my passport, but man am I lucky to have that going for me. Lord knows what’d happen if I resisted or if I ran into the wrong guy, because I distinctly remember seeing a Central Asian man being brought down by nine police officers in the metro the first month I was here in the city. The police here don’t mess around, which is why non-Slavic and/or white people are justifiably paranoid. It sucks, but unfortunately it’s a facet of life here.

Despite having had a rough introduction to this, not all of these experiences have been like this. Despite just having mentioned how this entire experience scared the crap out of me, the second time I got pulled aside turned out to be pretty comical. I was walking out of my neighborhood to get to work, and three bored-looking policemen were waiting by the metro, in the unlikely event that some unsavory person would stroll on by. Naturally, they asked me to show my documents. The ensuing five minutes of unintentional comedy could be summed up, as Strother Martin so eloquently stated in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” The police resorted to using a translator to ask me stuff, complete with me responding in a mixture of atrociously accented Russian with some English sprinkled in for good measure. While I floundered to explain my labor status in Russia, I couldn’t help but notice a Central Asian guy, who was also pulled aside, laughing and making side comments about this spectacle. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to have somebody else make fun of your situation when you’re both pulled aside by the police? Your ego takes a pretty big hit. On the bright side, I’m glad that I could provide a memorable moment for all three parties.

There’s a second, less scary point about all of this. As a mixed race person, I get some weird looks. Honestly, if you looked at me from afar or at a bad angle, you’d just think I’m Caucasian. If you stare long enough, you can see that I’m clearly not 100 percent Caucasian/Slavic (I’m Anglo-Saxon, but the point stands). Thus, hilarity ensues when police I’m Central Asian but Central Asians have no idea where I’m from. Sigh. Though, for what it’s also worth, a former colleague of mine told me her initial impression was that I was from Kazakhstan (as she initially saw me from the side, from which I admit I especially look Asian), so stranger things have happened. Lord knows how many times I’ve been minding my business when someone comes up to me and asks, “Hey, where are you from?” At this point, I’ve mastered the art of blowing peoples’ minds when I respond to their questioning. Normally this settles the issue, but inevitably there’s always that one guy who doesn’t trust my genealogy and has to ask, “No really, where are you from?” I know ethnicity in Central Asia is a mess, but I find their lack of faith in my answer a bit disturbing. Once I explain that, no, really, I am American, and I look different due to the fact that my dad’s from America and my mom is from Taiwan. Satisfied, people then let me go with a knowing smile, which might be attributed to finding the equivalent of a unicorn.

Even if people ascertain that I’m not from Central Asia, that doesn’t mean the bizarre experiences go away. Take the time time that I was walking to a lesson, and there was a man handing out flyers for a random nearby cafe. Once he locked onto me, he noticed that I was distinctly non-Slavic. He asked me in Russian, “Are you Asian?” to which I affirmed that I was. From there, he guessed, unprompted, that I was from North Korea and then capped things off by telling me he likes Chinese food. I can laugh at this, but at the time, it was a surreal set of circumstances. I know that there are some nuances to distinguish which Asian background people come from and that it’s not super common knowledge, but seeing this guy be so wildly off the mark was something else. If I recall correctly, I explained that I’m mixed race, so hopefully I was able to enlighten him where he won’t make this mistake a second time. Not much I can do, but I hope that my actions can gradually chip away at this issue of unintentional ignorance.

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Note: I originally wrote this, in a longer form, four years ago as part of a submission for a different website; it ultimately wasn’t published due to many different factors. Things have changed a bit given the time between the original idea compared to now, but not to the point where this is antiquated. Thus, I thought it was time to revisit and edit it into a more compact, updated form for the blog.

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