That second before the subway doors open. A pre-boarding ritual kicks in: You pull your shoulders back. Stand tall. Back straight. Deep breath. Fix hair. Big smile. Enter.
As one of the uncommon people of colour in Moscow, that’s how I first began using the subway.
Anyone who has been the only minority stepping into a new classroom, or who has travelled through the very white American Midwest as I recently did, knows the feeling. An immediate awareness that – friendly and welcoming as people may be (and they generally aren’t, in Russia) – you’re different in the most obvious way possible.
Now, as a minority race in Singapore, being the odd one out or being looked at a certain way because you’re different is far from new to me. The difference is that in Singapore, someone else who looked like me was never too far away. Either way, you knew you belonged.
There are a few things that come to mind when people think about Russia. Cold. Snow. Putin. A questionable love affair with Trump? And the colour white. White for its snow, white for its people. The quintessential blonde haired, blue eyed Olympic ice-skaters, beautiful Russian brides, full fur coats. All of this, more or less accepted as fact.
Before Moscow, I lived in Beijing, where foreigners stood out together. You either were Chinese, or you looked ethnically Chinese and were assumed to be local. Otherwise, you were a clear foreigner.
Here in Moscow, the majority of expats are still white, and so long as you’re not talking loudly all the time (which to be fair, seems quite a feat for some nationalities), white people blend in. At an Indian restaurant I frequent with my white American fiancé, I’m always given an English menu, while his is always in Russian. When someone’s trying to explain something to me in Russian, they explain it to him. Even if it’s been established that he’s a foreigner too, his whiteness is assumed to hold a better chance at understanding Russian than my brown self.
Anywhere in the world, women know this feeling, regardless of race. Here, race amplifies the constant underestimation of your self because of who you are and what you look like.
I soon realised that it wasn’t just me that subway strangers took offence to. It was me being with a white man. On my own, people quite often ignore me, but conversations or small signs of intimacy with my partner are met with scornful looks and scowls. And trust me – Old Russian women sure know how to scowl.
Perhaps it isn’t just straight up racism, but an aversion to multi-ethnic relationships. Perhaps they mistakenly think that they’ve lost one of their own Russian sons to the clutches of a girl of subcontinental ethnic roots. The horror!
During my first week in Moscow, my fiancé and I were politely queuing up for tickets at a subway station when a very angry Russian woman marched up to me and demanded that I get to the back of the line, wildly gesturing to the queue behind me. “I’m with him, we’re together,” I try to communicate.
But she wasn’t having it, because of course I had no place ahead of white people, and how could I possibly be with a white man? “Fuck you and your ugly fur coat,” I wanted to say. Instead I left.
Here, you realise that like minorities anywhere, you often represent so much more than yourself. Because of how I look, I can’t just be a woman having a bad day who snapped at someone. I can’t just be someone with an opinion that’s different from yours. As a minority in a huge city, surrounded by people who look nothing like you, you can represent a country, a subcontinent, a whole continent, an entire demographic of people.
So you bite your tongue. You react (or you don’t) knowing that you represent more than yourself. You let it go, because you refuse to add to xenophobic stereotypes. You smile and give way, hoping that it makes things a little easier for the next person of colour that they meet. You will not let the injustice that creeps up in society get the better of you. You will not be that Angry Brown Woman. You’re on your best behaviour at all times, until one day you realise you’re completely exhausted. This isn’t how it should be.
One day, maybe, Russia will ease up on its xenophobic, vaguely-racist-at-best ways. It’s a slow process of education, awareness, travel and communication, one that I try to push forward with my every action. For now, at least, for the sake of my own sanity, I have begun a less tiring quest to make it absolutely impossible for them to think any less of me. And I think I’ve found a way: To understand what it is people care about most, and use it to my own benefit.
That second before the subway doors close. Two young men on either side of the entrance see me running to catch the train, and they rather chivalrously stick their hands out to stop the doors from shutting; Russian trains are responsive like that. I thank them in Russian, and I smile. “Oh it’s nothing,” they reply coolly, chests puffed out. It’s their job as men to take care of us womenfolk, after all.
In the subway, I’m engrossed in my book (Russia trains are literary like that, everyone reads) and from the corner of my eye I’m aware that at least two people are staring straight at me. I look up and catch them staring, and I flash them another smile. Dostoyevsky! I say, showing off my copy of Poor Folk, in Russian. They pause for a while, and then flash an approving smile in return.
Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol. Who knew that my life hack to surviving Russian streets and subways, to being accepted into this seemingly impenetrable society, could be bought for cheap at the nearest second-hand bookstore?