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The General

Maria Repnikova

My new office was located in a modern newly painted building. The China-Russia centre was a ghost centre, with many offices and very few people. I walked into my office and found two desks there, positioned next to each other. My new mentor was sitting at one of them, and I was to sit at the other. I was looking forward to having my own space, and was a little agitated by having company. Declining sharing an office with the top party official and the director of the centre, however, would be a serious insult. So instead, I greeted my mentor, thanked him for the desk and sat down to work. Director Li handed me a few Chinese articles about China-Russia economic relations. I tried reading the first one. It was full of repetitive long sentences on the progress made in economic cooperation between the two countries. It sounded like a long speech by a party official. When I got to the end, a few hours later, I found the name of the director at the bottom of the last page. At that moment I noticed Mr Li looking over at me. He didn't even ask what I thought of the article, but immediately asked whether I could translate it into Russian. I shrugged my shoulders, not sure how to respond. I then said that my written Russian isn't good enough for translation, and I'm therefore not qualified to do it. Director Li frowned a little, and just said: “Eh, Hao”, which means: “Ah, OK,” and continued doing his work. At 12:30 he announced that it's time for lunch. We walked through the university park to the cafeteria. There were many choices of meals, but Mr Li went straight to the soup stand. “One sizzling soup with tofu and vegetables and one with beef,” he ordered. The soups cost a total of 50 cents and were delicious. They came in heavy metal pots and took a while to cool down. Mr Li ate fast and didn't talk much during his meal. When we finished he said we would walk before going back to the office. It was snowing and the walk felt refreshing. Mr Li walked confidently with large steps. He wore a small cap, a suit and a long winter jacket. He looked like a Manchurian general. Since then I secretly called him the General.

We returned to the office and Mr Li lay down on the leather couch. I stepped out of the room for ten minutes and came back to a loud snore. My mentor was getting his beauty sleep. His legs were hanging off the couch, hair sticking out, jacket crumbled. It was a strange sight to see the composed General suddenly collapsing and snoring on the first day of our work together. This would certainly not happen in Georgetown, I thought to myself. Mr Li awakaned as suddenly as he fell asleep. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, stared at me for a moment with a faint smile, nodded at me, as if saying “good morning”, sat back at his desk and started reading. This ritual of post-lunch walk and snore was repeated every day for the next eight months. I slowly got used to it and started taking my phone calls outside during the snore break.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon I packed up to leave the office and walked back to my dormitory. As soon as I walked into the room, my phone started ringing. It was the General. I didn't pick up the phone a few times, feeling overwhelmed by the first day, and hoping he'd call back later, but he persisted in ringing. Finally I picked up. “I am at the university restaurant with a few officials' friends. Come and join us. “ I mumbled that I'm tired, but the General would not take no for an answer. I took a deep breath and walked to the restaurant. As I walked in I was greeted by five men, all former colleagues of Mr Li from the Harbin municipal government. We shook hands and sat down. Mr Li introduced me as the “American Maliya”, and the men nodded with approval. They took out cigarettes and smoked as they poured shots of “baijiu” (China's rice vodka). I made a terrible mistake of agreeing to try it, and couldn't refuse a sip for months to come. I understood almost nothing from the conversation and felt drunk and tired at 7:30 pm, when the dinner was already over. This was another routine that was to repeat for months. Dinner with unknown officials, impossible to refuse, became part of my Harbinian existence.