Wang Zhen thought he was going to Japan, and then to Austria - but certainly not to Slovakia.
After finishing culinary school in his native Tsing Tao, a Chinese city of seven million inhabitants, he expected to head off to the island country of Japan to be a cook. When that job didn't pan out, his sister arranged an international job for him. Soon thereafter, a surprised Wang found himself cooking Chinese meals in Bratislava's Shangai Restaurant in Hotel Astra.
"I thought she'd get me to Austria," he says now. "When I came here in 1992, I didn't have any free time for more than one year. I used to work all day long."
But that work, he says, has paid dividends. As a cook, he took a shine to his colleague, a young Slovak waitress named Erika: now the two are married with a three year-old child, and are the co-owners of the Tsing Tao Chinese restaurant in Bratislava. "Chinese men consider European girls as the ideal of beauty," Erika says coyly. "They like our white skin."
Wang is an anomaly in the Chinese community simply because he is willing to speak about his heritage, albeit only after being ordered to do so by his wife. The Chinese community, he says, does not trust American journalists, nor any other outsiders for that matter, and are reluctant to speak to westerners.
"CNN, for example, does not dig into a story, they make the stories up or just report the surface of it," he said. "And Slovak media just take the most interesting part of the international media and report it for themselves."
But the Chinese have other reasons to be wary of their Slovak hosts. Many ethnic minorities say that Slovakia is a difficult place to live if your skin is not white, and the Chinese are no different.
"When she and I walk together, people are rude to Erika... they call her a whore, because apparently only prostitutes date Chinese," he said. "It is not pleasant to think that no matter where you go, people can attack you."
Erika added: "If we have a problem and we go to the police, they ask me 'Why did you marry him?' One time, some teenagers broke the front window of the restaurant and the police caught them. But they were immediately released because the police said they didn't want to spoil their childhood."
Others in the community agreed that the police were of no service. Xiao Li, also the owner of a Bratislava Chinese restaurant, said that the Slovak police were "different" then the police in China, a country which itself has been roundly accused of gross violations of human rights. "The Slovak police are very strict and very forceful," she said in her small basement restaurant. "Plus they often take money from the Chinese who can't speak Slovak because they know they can't argue."
According to another Chinese restaurant owner, Xiao Wang, the ultimate goal for all Chinese who leave their homeland was to reach the US. "We don't like it here," she said. "This is just transitional. Slovakia has made it clear that it doesn't want us to settle down here, they have shown us that we are not welcome."
Police officials agreed that Slovakia is, in fact, a transitional state for the Chinese, many of whom are illegal aliens trying to reach western countries. Daniel Orlický, head of the Interior Ministry's Evidence Department said that his people had been closely monitoring the Chinese community since being appointed to their positions after the September 1998 elections. "We knew that many of these people were illegal," he said, adding that 848 Chinese were legally registered in Slovakia. Chinese residents, meanwhile, put the total number of their community, legal or not, at 4,000.
The illegal Chinese community took a blow during a mid-June official visit to Slovakia by Li Peng, the Chinese Speaker of Parliament (who also refused to speak to the media), when police detained 31 illegal Chinese immigrants who were trying to get to western Europe, where they planned to apply for asylum. Brezno (central Slovakia) police found the illegal aliens (15 women and 16 men) hiding under the bus seats.
"There are many illegal Chinese citizens in Slovakia," Orlický said. "And it's hard to tell who has false documents because they are from a different culture than ours, so we are unable to distinguish their individual characteristics. They all look the same."
Another common characteristic of the Chinese was the community's distrust of Slovaks, said Miroslav Fanek, the head of the Police Presidium's Alien and Border Police. "Even when we want to ask questions of the Chinese we know are legal, they won't talk about anything," he said. "Maybe it's fear, but I don't know what they're afraid of."
Wang Zhen, for his part, says that he's still not sure if Slovakia will be his permanent residence. While his wife Erika says that those close to her have learned to love her husband ("People who know us like us. Our priest adores him, even though, my husband cannot pray in Slovak."), she says that Slovakia may not be ready to accept his heritage.
"People stereotype the Chinese, they think they're totally different and that that they only eat rice," she said.
"I want to put our [3-year old girl] child in a Chinese school," Zhen said. "I love Chinese history, and the schooling here is far behind ours in China."
Zhen added that residence card applications and other bureaucratic hassles were further discouraging him from staying in Slovakia long-term. For example, he said with frustration, it took him more than 2 years to arrange for a parking place in front of his own restaurant.
Restaurant owner Xiao Li, from Peking, agreed with Zhen: "It's very difficult to get our long-term residence permits," she said.
"We have some money and we would like to invest it in this country, but when you have to renew your green card every year, what's the point? Who knows if they'll actually be renewed, and one year is not enough time to invest the money. It's unreasonable."