A few days before going to Heihe, I had met up with friends from Beijing to visit Harbin’s Ice Festival. My first taste of Dongbei, a region which has captivated me for some time, was exhilarating and somehow managed to meet or exceed all of the outrageous expectations I had set for it. However, from there I would be proceeding to Heilongjiang’s principle border crossing with Russia on my own: no one else was particularly interested in this unheard-of place, and nor where they persuaded by my inexplicable enthusiasm. My train there left on the eve of Yuanxiao, the Chinese Lantern Festival. Chinese railway journeys are often underwhelming in their array of scenery, as one city centre gives way to suburbs, then industrial estates, and maybe a power plant before melting seamlessly into yet another city of millions. The journey between Harbin and Heihe, however, was magical. Although the streets of Harbin were disappointingly bereft of snow, this long stretch of countryside was a picture of perfect white set against a clear, pitch black sky, with a full moon stalking the train from behind a palisade of powdered poplar trees. Occasionally, a different forest would emerge—a forest of smoking chimneys protruding from wooden houses, and the darkness would be punctuated by an ellipsis of red lanterns strewn across the narrow cart-lanes.
Besides a fondness for Dongbeihua and jiaozitang, I also had personal reasons for wanting to see this place for myself. As a Hong Kong-born Eurasian who has spent most of his life ricocheting to and fro between Hong Kong, Canada and the United Kingdom, I have always considered my own identity a border-identity of sorts; even though Britain, Canada and Hong Kong share no physical borders they do share the mental boundaries of lands intimately linked yet severed by distances as vast in their cultural and historical scope as their actual distance, and I think of myself as having to straddle that distance in defining who I am. As such, I have a fascination with actual, literal borderlands. In the spaces where countries meet, unusual things happen; anomalies occur. The distinctions taken so for granted in the hinterlands are called into question. The lines between one set of people and another can become blurred and more flexible.
This is precisely what I found in Heihe. Although people invariably assumed I was Russian at first and began speaking to me in that language, once I explained that I wasn’t they took it in turn that I must, therefore, be Chinese. After all, one is inevitably one or the other in this city, and I was clearly speaking Chinese, not Russian. After saying that I was wasn’t Russian, they might simply ask, matter-of-factly, ‘you’re Chinese then?’ but continue what they wanted to say without needing an answer. My taxi driver from the railway station explained it like this: ‘I often mistake Kazakhs or Kyrgyz for Chinese and start speaking to them in Chinese, then they have to ask me to speak Russian. It can be very confusing.’ In borderlands, you can’t take anything for granted. Looks can be deceiving. Typically, I didn’t get asked by people in Heihe if I was ‘Eluoside’ (Russian) or not, but rather, ‘ni shi Suliande ma?’—‘Are you a Soviet?’. The question, first posited in the station forecourt soon after my arrival, threw me aback and made me wonder if the overnight service from Harbin hadn’t also transported me backward in time. However, I quickly realised it was because people from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, whose people also exist in pockets within China’s borders and account for some of the country’s 55 ethnic minorities, all speak Russian, and therefore the linguistic divide is more telling than the ethnic. Several times after saying that I was from Hong Kong, the people I met even guessed that I was mixed—something which, veering as I do in appearance to my European roots, virtually no one picks up on elsewhere. Nowhere in the mainland was I less gawked at than in Heihe, and it was distinctly refreshing not to be regarded as an oddity on the streets.
Having spent much of my childhood in Ottawa, arriving in this snowy, frigid, slow-paced little city felt strangely like a homecoming, and at times I found this feeling unexpectedly reciprocated by the attitudes of the people there. At the railway station, as I was waiting to board the train back to Harbin, the woman sitting behind me struck up a conversation with the girl beside her, who told her that she was studying in Harbin. Afterward she asked the same question to me, and I explained that I was studying in Hong Kong and that I’d like just be catching my flight back there from Harbin. ‘Oh,’ she said, nonplussed, ‘then you were just in Heihe to spend Spring Festival with your family, right?’ Of course, she wasn’t right; but I was unaccountably touched by her erroneous deduction. She had actually assumed that I was a local!
In Hong Kong, my family and I had recently been subsumed in a battle to be recognised as ethnically Chinese by the government there and receive SAR passports—and lost, with grim predictability. On the way to Heihe, I had thought it would be fun to use my infantile grasp of Russian to play along and let the locals think I was one of their Soviets. Unfortunately, I hadn’t expected them to be completely fluent in Russian. I didn’t stand a chance. But nor had I expected, for the first time in my life, to be so immediately and amicably accepted as Chinese. If only the bureaucrats on Gloucester Road were so broad-minded! Denied an opportunity to be someone else, what I got instead was something that my own place of birth had declined me: the chance to be myself.
Tragically, my initial elation was dealt a swift and lethal blow when a coterie of PLA officers surrounded me and asked for my passport, then harangued me with an array of inquiries into why on earth I had come to this godforsaken place, and on my own at that. At the end of the day, this was still the People’s Republic and I was a suspicious foreigner. So much for that. Some time thereafter, however, as I sat back down with a warm cup of Nescafe from the Russian Products Wholesale shop, they assembled around me again—but this time sitting, and eager to talk about their hometowns and girlfriends. At the end of the day, these were still Dongbeiren; and their legendary hospitality was not about to let me down at the last hurdle.