I and a friend had the strange experience this morning of finding ourselves as sort of double outsiders in a very unique neighborhood of Beijing. After enjoying an all-American breakfast at Grandma’s Kitchen, we decided to stroll through Ritan embassy district. We ended up on the northern edge of this district in an area called Yabaolu. It’s also known locally as the Russian market. For some reason, as this city has developed, the markets and shops in this district cater specifically to Russian traders and tourists. Besides the fact that all of the shop signs are in Russian, another sign that you’ve stumbled into Yabaolu is that the main items sold in the shops are gaudy furs, woolen scarves and gloves. This used to be a giant outdoor market that spilled out onto the streets. Back then we had the added hint of being in the Russian market by the size of the the….ahem….shall we say women’s "small articles of clothing," only in this case they weren’t so small.
What made it an odd cultural experience this morning was that all of the normal street vendors that are omnipresent near every market kept trying to talk to us in Russian. We just looked at them and said, in Chinese, ting bu dong, which literally means "hear no understand." This was always greeted by a puzzled look. As we were walking along the street chatting in English, one chap jumped in front of us for a few seconds, then ran back to his buddies and announced loudly to them, meiguoren (Americans). I stopped dead in my tracks, turned to him and said, "how do you know?" "I could tell by listening to you." I was impressed.
A couple of blocks later we wandered out of the market area, and once again were on streets with only Chinese and just a smattering of English. We felt back at home.