Feature: The less traveled road for a successful Chinese woman in Russia

Updated: 2013-03-22 09:43


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Yuan Yi, a well-dressed Chinese lady in her 40s, ran up the stairs in Moscow's crowded Novokuznetskaya metro station with a light and graceful step.

It was a busy Friday afternoon. She was heading to one of her working places, the Voice of Russia radio station near the metro station.

Living in Lobnya, a town some 27 km from downtown Moscow, Yuan got used to the peaceful country life in the birch forest, which is far away from annoying "city diseases." When going to Moscow for business and work, she usually parks her car near a metro station to avoid traffic jams.

Delicate face, honeyed voice, quick mind, attentive expression. It was hard to tell her occupation judging merely from her appearance. She could be an office lady, a teacher or a lawyer.

Indeed, Yuan has got a PhD in law from the Lomonosov Moscow State University. She used to be a lawyer and teacher in China. She is now a broadcaster in the Voice of Russia radio station. She is also the boss of her own company. "It's not crossover, I just enjoy doing different jobs," Yuan said.

Days before Chinese President Xi Jinping's first state visit to Russia, experiences of Chinese living in Russia like Yuan testifies to the ever expanding scale of so-called people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.

Compared with other full-time colleagues in the radio station, Yuan, the part-time reporter, editor, broadcaster and host of two columns, enjoys a more flexible working schedule.

She goes to the office every Friday to produce two programs, one helping moderate Russian learners to advance their language learning, another offering legal consulting to foreigners living in Russia.

The media work for her, Yuan said, is more like a revitalizer from routine life, as it offers her a chance to meet people out of the business circle and learn new things.

Every time when encountering new words and expressions in Russian, she put them down carefully in her notebook, "Just like in the college years."

Yuan has been living in Russia for almost 20 years and learning is always a keyword for her.

Twenty years ago, the 21-year-old law school graduate passed China's national judicature test and became a full-time college teacher and part-time lawyer in the central Henan province.

The road in front of Yuan was bright and smooth, yet she decided to give up everything she had for another one: coming to Russia, assisting her husband with his business.

After the birth of her son, she immediately started to learn Russian. "I was eager to blend into the society instead of being deaf and blind."

The language was the first challenge in her new life. Getting up at five in the morning, taking intensive courses everyday, memorizing words in the metro. "Just couldn't wait to use the expression I learnt one day before," Yuan recalled, saying the surviving pressure was the best impetus for learning.

One year later, finishing the language preparatory course with outstanding results, Yuan was admitted by the postgraduate Law School of Moscow State University.

Legal articles were much more challenging than words and grammar. As a young mother of her newly-born boy, Yuan again conquered that mountain with her diligence and endurance.

Yuan, a good handler of multiple tasks, started the bean sprouts business when busy writing her PhD papers.

She got a nickname from the business circle, "queen of bean sprouts," as her company was the major supplier of bean sprout productions for Metro and Ashan, two leading supermarket chains in Moscow.

Choosing the bean sprouts, an industry which rarely draws public attention, Yuan and her husband did thorough market research with great caution. Compared with other industries, it required less investment and working staff, Yuan said.

From a tiny family workshop to a medium-sized localized company that supplies 90 percent of bean sprouts to large supermarkets, the road took Yuan and her husband over 10 years to go through.

"I was just lucky," when asked how could she make such a successful business from nothing, Yuan made a modest smile, without elaborating.

The hardship of doing business as a foreigner in Russia was not hard to imagine, though. Back in the 1990s, when the couple tried to supply Metro supermarket with their products, they received no reply.

Yuan didn't give up. She went to Metro's Moscow headquarters and managed to get the telephone number of a manager from the doorman.

The Metro manager, who became Yuan's long-term business partner, later told Yuan that there were four enterprises applying for that supplier position, Yuan was the first and the only foreigner to call in. The lady's keenness impressed him. Yuan got that order. "It sounds dramatic but it was real," she laughed.

According to Yuan, Russian business people highly value mutual trust and long-term cooperation. Once setting up a brand with good reputation, the partnership will usually last for a long time.

Years of hard work paid. Yuan and her family got the permanent residence card in Russia, which means they enjoy citizen treatment as locals, only "without the right to vote or being elected as president, but campaigning for the mayor post is still possible," she joked.

Since her business operates smoothly and stably, Yuan said she now intends to focus more on culture and trade cooperation between China and Russia. As a business leader, industry insider and active coordinator, she serves as a bridge connecting Chinese and Russian business circles.

Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization brought about new opportunities, and China-Russia economic exchanges are more intensive with broad prospects, she said.

Meanwhile, China encourages its enterprises to go abroad. "A number of regional governments and enterprises have already seen huge business potential in Russia," Yuan added.

Living in Russia for two decades, Yuan admitted she has been fully localized, from expressions to way of thinking.

She even didn't notice that change. Once she went back home in China, her parents said she was not as "indirect and reserved" as before. "It was not bad. I chose this road, I got used to it, and I will go on this way," Yuan said.