WHEATON – Nikita Chernyakov does not drink often, but said he is often asked if he likes vodka.
“People have very stereotyped notions of Russia,” said Chernyakov, who came here from Russia in 1992.
“A friend of mine, this Russian girl, baby-sat for an American family. The lady of the house asked if we have polar bears on the streets of Russia,” he said. “I told my friend that the lady may have been joking but she said that she thought she was serious.”
Chernyakov, who runs a flower shop in Wheaton with his Russian stepmother, just tries to brush the comments off as part of the price of living in a melting-pot society.
Others in the thriving Wheaton Triangle, an area full of immigrant-owned and operated small businesses, have similar stories to tell.
When Carlos Velasco arrived in Washington in the late 1960s, Hispanics were not as prevalent as they are today. He said some people he met thought he was a Greek or an Arab, and even those who recognized him as Hispanic had preconceptions.
“Some people realized that I am Spanish. But there are some Americans who tend to think that everybody is Puerto Rican or Mexican, when such countries are different from each other,” he said. “A Puerto Rican is such a different person from a South American.”
Trinidad native Rahamut Hosein and his wife, Gandaye, said people often assume they are Indian until they hear their Caribbean accents and then assume they are from Guyana. He shrugs it off.
Of course, there are other hurdles to overcome in a new country. Charles Kassis taught himself English while working his first job as a busboy at Washington hotel after coming here from Palestine in 1956.
And then there is the Mid-Atlantic weather to get used to.
“The weather was terrible,” said Velasco. “It was very cold and very hot and humid. I was used to very mild weather.”
But the Wheaton Triangle merchants all stuck it out. Some, like Kassis and Velasco, even went back to their native countries and brought sometimes- reluctant brides here to settle down with them.
“I came here just to study,” said Velasco, who owns a television repair shop. He said he only planned to stay a few years.
“One thing led to another and I decided to stay for a little while and practice what I had learned,” he said. “Time went by and the proposed two to three years became five, then 15.”
Chernyakov said he came here from St. Petersburg with his father and stepmother in 1992 because they wanted “to look for something different.”
Not all the comments about Russians have been innocent, he said. One former co-worker goaded him about Russian food shortages. But such incidents, and such people, are few and far between, Chernyakov said.
And for those who ask him about Russians and vodka, he does admit that drinking is a problem in his native country. But he also notes that drunken driving is a rarity in Russia because cars are a luxury.
“But here people drink and then they get into a car and drive,” he notes.