‘I’ve Always Dreamt of Becoming a Reporter in Russia’

PHOTO by Katya Musatkina / Afisha.Daily
A Chinese journalist on Altai honey, Pasternak and Moscow's confusing addresses

Tszyunchzhi Zheng

27 years

From: Pingyi County, China

Occupation: Moscow correspondent for L'Opinion Moscow and Le Courrier de Russie

I arrived in Russia for the first time in April 2015 to learn Russian in Novosibirsk. I was a student then: I studied journalism in Lille but dreamed of adventures and, honestly, I had always wanted to go to Russia. As a child, I liked Russian music a lot. The Chinese are in general very fond of Russian music and literature. France, however, excited me more, and that's why I first went there to study literature at the Sorbonne. There I saw a book by Joseph Kessel, a French writer and Russian immigrant who is considered to be one of the best reporters of the 20th century. He wrote a lot about Russia and he was the one who introduced me to journalism. While reading his book, I promised myself that I would one day also become a reporter and go to Russia.

France disappointed me: it wasn't easy to study there and I had to move three times during the first couple of years. That was why I became more careful about my dreams and I decided to learn more about Russia, so I went to a language school in Siberia to see the real Russia. Novosibirsk reminded me of China in the 1980s: not too developed but with a soul. I lived there with a family, a mother and daughter. They didn't have much money but they tried to give me the best. They cooked Russian food, which I found more delicious than French food. I really liked Altai honey. Back in Novosibirsk, we had a workshop where we baked pancakes and ate them with honey. I fell in love with Novosibirsk, with my new family and with my school. When I had to leave, I cried like a baby.

I went back to France and badly missed Russia. I found a month-long internship that summer in Moscow at Russia Beyond the Headlines and it all went wrong. We landed at Domodedovo at five in the morning and I got into a car with a sign Real Taxi on its door. I expected that it would be expensive but not that expensive: I had to pay 85 euros for a trip to Tverskaya Street. I no longer use taxis in Moscow. I probably planned badly too by choosing the first available hostel in the city centre. It had great photos and was rather cheap, especially if you keep in mind that it was on Tverskaya, the most expensive street in the city.

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I was scared when I opened the door. The room was tiny, dirty and had horrible old furniture. It was five square metres, just like a prison cell. One day, I came home and saw a flock of enormous red spiders on the curtains; I nearly went mad. I called my editor, with whom I had become good friends, and begged her to come up with a solution. She talked to the hostel administrator and a cleaning lady was sent. By that evening the room was unrecognisable. After that, everything was more or less okay. I even made friends with the cleaning lady and we spoke Russian together.

Six months later I went to St. Petersburg for winter vacation. I studied at a branch of my language school and again lived with a family: a mother and a daughter. Once, Polina, the daughter of my host family, took me to the Hermitage and after that to the Museum of Vodka.

A voucher for a vodka tasting was given along with the ticket and you could drink a few shots. As Polina didn't drink, I had to do all of them. Then we went to the bar Idiot, where the staff again poured two vodka shots for us right by the entrance and I had to drink both. I have probably never drunk so much in my life but I felt fine.

In April, I had another internship, this time at the AFP agency in Moscow. I lived with a woman who turned out spoke excellent French. She lived with a cat at Komsomolsky Prospekt by the Frunzenskaya metro station and she often cooked borsch. Park Kultury became my favourite neighbourhood and we walked all over it. On the last day of my internship, the woman took me to the Krymsky Bridge and told me that Muscovites believe that every wish made on the bridge came true. My biggest wish was to return to Moscow and it happened: I'm now a Moscow reporter for the newspaper L'Opinion and I live in the Park Kultury area, this time by myself.

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I've been here for only a month and I'm still getting used to it. I'm very fond of the Romen Theatre because I like gypsy music and dancing. I really like Red Square and the village of Peredelkino, where Pasternak lived and is buried. I did an interview for Le Figaro with Irina Emelyanova, the daughter of Pasternak’s muse Olga Ivinskaya. I love “Doctor Zhivago” and I’ve watched all the screen versions of the novel. I always wanted to see the place where Pasternak wrote it, although I got seriously lost in the woods on the way to his dacha. I love adventures though, as you may have realised by now.

I'm from a Chinese province and I don't like capital cities. I think that too many people live and work in Moscow and that the city could be cleaner. The architectural chaos here scares me. Something a very contemporary building can stand next to a classical one. And there is the incomprehensible system of addresses.

In China and France it's simple: there are buildings on the street and each of them has a number and several entrances from the roadway. But here it's crazy! The buildings are huge and the addresses contain several different buildings, making the right flat impossible to find. In this respect, Moscow is not like a European city, although Russians have always tried to become part of Europe. This is the dream of all nations, even Japan.

I don't think that Russians are conservative or look too much to the past. Although I hate shopping in China, I like shopping in Russia. You have lots of large shopping centres with quality goods in them. But I still have so much to explore in Russia. I grew up in China, an Oriental country, and I lived in France, a Western country. Naturally, it was a shock. In Russia, I feel much more comfortable. Maybe it’s because we share a common border and a communist past. Also, your music and literature are the basis of Chinese education.