Not quite Asian, not quite Russian: A nomadic student’s life

Feb 20, 2019

It was summer in Siberia when I first met Viktoria, or Vika as she is affectionately known to her friends. We were at Lake Baikal, considered by geologists as the world’s oldest lake and a sacred site for the Buryat people, Siberia’s largest indigenous group.

Since the summer, things have changed. Baikal’s deep waters have crystallized into ice, and Vika, who is in her second year at a university in China, is back home in Ulan-Ude, Russia, for Chinese New Year break.

“I never would have thought that I would miss China,” she writes on her Instagram, “but here I am, looking forward to going back. Life is unpredictable like that.”

Vika—who agreed to speak candidly about her experience on the condition of giving just her first name, along with other students quoted in this article—is part of a new wave of Buryat-Russian youth who are studying and residing in China.

They are cultural nomads, switching back and forth between cities in eastern Russia and northern China—much like how Chinese students who study in the West become frequent flyers—and they’re often mistaken for Chinese because of their complexion.

Vika is a Buryat student in Shenyang, China.
Vika is a Buryat student in Shenyang, China. / Photo: Courtesy of Vika

Russia in general has become one of the top 10 source countries for Chinese universities, with the number of Russian post-secondary students more than tripling since 2012.

Straddling the border between Russia and China, the Buryats have had interactions with Russians and Chinese for centuries. Today, the majority of them—about 460,000—reside in the Republic of Buryatia, located in Russia’s far east. The cities here have Buddhist and Orthodox influences and sit closer to many Asian countries than to Moscow.

There are also large Buryat communities in China and Mongolia, with about 7,000 Buryats in the former and 42,000 in the latter. In China, the government classifies them as Mongolian, though the Buryats see their culture as distinct.

According to Sayana Namsaraeva, a noted Buryat scholar, the Buryat space can be defined as beyond borders and diasporic. This nomadic group exists as an ethnic minority in all three countries of residence—China, Mongolia, and Russia—creating varying senses of community, home, and identity.

The recent wave of Buryat youth turning to China can be attributed to Russia’s economic stagnation and renewed ties with the country, but the trend also highlights the current generation’s yearning for culture and identity.

Cultural nomads

Many students like Vika appreciate China’s material comforts and progress, but regard its culture as wholly separate from Buryat and Russian culture, which have been intertwined since the 17th century, when Buryat groups were consolidated under Russian rule.

Buryat youth today are largely Russified. They identify as Russian and speak Russian as their primary language.

“China has a rich history, but will always remain mysterious to Russians because our culture and ways of thinking are fundamentally different,” says Narana, 27, who is completing her MBA in Harbin by way of a Chinese scholarship.

Nikolay, 21, considers himself to be both Russian and Buryat. “It’s in Russia where many Buryats feel at home,” he says. “Our [Buryat] culture and traditions are fundamental in the spiritual development of a person. China is a wonderful country, but I wouldn’t be able to call it home.”

Nikolay, a Buryat student in Shenyang, says he identifies more with his native culture and Russian.
Nikolay, a Buryat student in Shenyang, says he identifies more with his native culture and Russian. / Photo: Couresy of Nikolai

There are a minority of students, though, who feel like China represents an extension of their Asian identity, which may not be fully realized in Russia. The country perceives itself as a Eurasian nation, but its notions of “European-ness” have always carried greater weight.

“As someone who is ethnically Asian, I feel closer to this heritage, and I’m certain I will settle in China someday,” says Arya, 21. “Buryat and Chinese culture have many overlaps, such as Buddhist influences.”

Bogdan, 28, feels similarly. He studied in Dalian for eight years and considers China his home.

“I just feel more connected to Chinese culture,” he says. “Buryat culture was never important to me. I appreciate China more than Russia, and the quality of life is better.”

China’s higher cost of living compared to Russia has prevented Bogdan from settling there for now, but he still hopes to go back one day.

Between two superpowers

In some ways, the new wave of Buryat-Russian students in China is a repeat of history. As a nomadic group straddling national borders, the Buryats’ political fate has long been tied to the countries that surround them.

A newly founded Soviet Union in the early 1920s brought political upheaval and purges that led some Buryats to seek refuge in China.

These groups settled in Hulunbuir, a sprawling region in China’s Inner Mongolia. They became known as the Shenehen Buryats, and they were able to maintain their traditions and language, nurturing a strong sense of identity.

The Soviet Union’s strictly sealed borders meant that many Buryat families were separated and lost contact with each other for decades. One Buryat woman recalled receiving a letter from an older sister thought to be lost in China and cried. They were reunited after 60 years apart, when the Soviet Union began collapsing in the ’80s.

Lake Baikal in Siberia is a sacred site for the Buryat people.
Lake Baikal in Siberia is a sacred site for the Buryat people. / Photo: Yvonne Lau

Historically, China has occupied a paradoxical space for the Buryats. It offers potential and enchantment in terms of economic opportunity and cultural curiosity, but there is also a sense of apprehension because of China’s perceived otherness.

Recently, the Buryats celebrated Sagaalgan, the new year’s festivities tied to their lunar calendar, while Chinese New Year passed at the same time.

“Sagaalgan is important to me and all Buryats,” says Ayuna, 20. “But I feel lucky to be able to celebrate Sagaalgan, the Russian New Year, and the Chinese New Year.

“Although differences remain, I’m looking forward to learning more about China,” she adds. “There is a history of our people here, and this will continue in the future.”

BuryatiaBuryatsEducation in ChinaRussiaSiberia