Origin: Beijing, China Occupation: Actress, Gogol Centre
I spent 20 years in Beijing and finished high school there. There are no free secondary schools or colleges in China – all students have to pay tuition fees. So when I discovered I could go to Russia and get a free university education, I thought, why not? I knew precious little about the country at that time, apart from a bunch of the usual clichés – the cold, the heavy drinking and bears in the streets. However, on the whole, the Chinese see Russia in a very favourable light, as it is a former communist country. At school, we learned about Lenin and Stalin, the history of the USSR and how it supported China.
I passed my exam and was admitted to the Tula State Pedagogical University. They enrolled me in a foundation course because I didn’t speak any Russian. During my first year I understood what makes the Chinese different from Russians and other nationalities. The Chinese don’t understand what they want from life – our government transforms people into robots that are programmed to do as they are told. I had spent 20 years studying my ass off. In my final year of school, I got up at 5:30 am, finished classes at 10:30 pm and did my homework with a torch because at midnight they would turn off the lights in my student dorm. In Russia, I finally had time to think about who or what I wanted to be. I took a piece of paper, wrote down the names of jobs I was interested in and finally decided I wanted to be an actress, even though I had done no acting at that time. I had heard something about the VGIK University of Cinematography, so with a little help from my Russian friends (they told me when the audition was due to take place and what I needed to do), I went there and got accepted.
The acting classes weren’t easy. At school, I used to know exactly what to do to get good grades. At VGIK, you needed to be imaginative; some people liked your work, others didn’t – sheer torture. I still have a lot of gaps in my knowledge. I know Chekhov, Gorky, Pushkin; we did “The Chameleon” by Chekhov and Gorky’s “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” at school. However, I have never read Dostoevsky as it wasn’t on our school syllabus. People keep telling me, “Yang Ge, you are so ignorant, there are so many books you’ve got to read” – but what if I don’t want to? I have had nothing but schoolwork for 20 years and I don’t want any more of it.
To be frank, I had a tough time when I arrived in Tula. Beijing is such a modern city, all skyscrapers and no outskirts. In Tula, our eight-storey dormitory was the tallest building in town – you could see half of Tula from the top floor. Even when I first came to the centre of Moscow to take my entrance exams at VGIK, I thought it looked like a village. When Russians need to show a modern city in a film, the only possible shooting location is the Moscow City business district. Beijing, however, is futuristic through and through. Our office buildings look quite contemporary, while in Moscow office space is frequently located in scary-looking, old industrial areas.
My dormitory is two kilometres from the VGIK building and there is no public transport service available. It was hard to get accustomed to it at first. In Beijing, wherever you are, you are never far from an underground station – they are very closely spaced. I used to be a really slow walker when I first came to Moscow and I thought it was because of my little feet. Now I can easily march five to ten kilometres a day and feel great. When my mum was visiting me here and we started walking from my dormitory to VGIK, she quickly got tired and said, “It’s such a long distance to go on foot – why don’t we take a taxi?”
Muscovites generally love walking. When Russians suggest meeting, they will say, “Let’s go for a stroll!” In China, we normally say, “let’s go get some grub!” When we want to meet our friends or business partners, it’s always in cafes or restaurants. We have cheap cafes everywhere.
Of course, the grub in Russia is pretty good too. I love eating at Truffaldino, a cafe owned by my friend from Italy; their chef is Italian too. Truffaldino has excellent pizzas and incredible homemade limoncello with caramel and lavender. Obed Bufet is great for fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly-squeezed juices; it is cosy and not as expensive as other cafes. I am fond of that Chinese place near the Frunzenskaya metro station (I forgot the name).
My favourite Russian food? Pickled cucumbers. Russian pelmeni are just like the traditional Chinese jiaozi, which are typically eaten at New Year. However, in Russia they are always made with ground meat, while in China they can also have a vegetable filling. I eat pelmeni with soy sauce, not with sour cream like Russians do. I am fond of pilaf, if it’s not too fatty, and plombiere ice cream. My Russian friend, who put me up for a while, had a mum who cooked amazing borscht – I’ve never tried anything like it. She was also an ace at rissoles and salads. And herring butter, which is a sandwich spread made with finely-chopped herring. It’s really delicious, although I’m not so keen on herring or sprats. They often say that we Chinese eat caterpillars and chicken feet – yuk! But actually there are very few things in Chinese cuisine that are eaten uncooked. In Russia, I couldn’t get used to beetroot – it tastes like dirt and bleeds colour, making the other food turn an odd pink. Now I know the right way to eat beetroot is with garlic. But the worst dish in the world is okroshka. Potatoes with kvass – hello? I hate it so much I can’t swallow a single spoonful.
I am an actress at the Gogol Centre. I also act in films and sing. When they ask me if I would like to do any films in China, I usually say that I am one of a kind in Moscow, but probably not in my home country. In Russia, there are no other Chinese women with a degree in acting, but who needs me at home? The Chinese film industry is a highly lucrative business but there are very few filmmakers who are interested in cinema as an art. This is why most films are of an inferior quality: there wasn’t a single Chinese film presented at the Cannes Festival this year. The films make money because of the stars, who are treated like idols. The success enjoyed by wonderful Russian actors like Evgeny Mironov, Vladimir Mashkov or Danila Kozlovsky can’t compare with the craze for C-list movie stars in China. The fans crowd to meet them in airports and these guys are rewarded with flats and cars, although they have nothing but good looks to their credit.
A film released in China around New Year made one billion dollars in box-office receipts. I sometimes worry that if someone offered me a role in a Chinese picture, I would cave in because I could do with one billion dollars myself. But what I love about Russian filmmakers is that many of them sincerely care about art and being professional, not just commercially successful. The young actors are seriously concerned about social problems. We have endured all the recent attacks at the Gogol Centre with no help or support from anyone. Kirill Serebrennikov, the founder and art director of the Gogol Centre, never gives up, he keeps moving on. He could have finished his career long ago but he prefers to stay active and inspires us to do the same.
I sometimes think of what I would have become if I had stayed in China, and I always feel sorry for that girl. By now, I would have got my degree and I might have been working as an interpreter or translator as I had always been told. In Russia, I have been able to realise what I really want. Russia is a place where a girl became a human being. I might fancy moving somewhere in the future, but right now I am happy here.