Between worlds: On homesickness, not feeling like an alien, and finding home

What I look like these days

The last few days have been really hard for me, and I thought it was mainly just end of semester fatigue; classes wrap up next week, and teaching four new courses at the same time has definitely been challenging. Plus, another friend died—this time the mother of one of my daughter’s former classmates in California, and a longtime part of our Village Gate community. That one hit me hard, too, because she is someone I really admire, and also because I can’t stop thinking about her son (who is a year or two older than my daughter) waking up every morning without his mom. I saw them both before we left in August, and it hurts to know I won’t be seeing her again. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of my friends need to stay alive for a good long time now.

But I also realized I’m feeling homesick for the first time since we came to Mongolia. It’s ironic, because we are going to the US for a visit soon – leaving next weekend. But maybe that’s typical, too. As I’m setting up get-togethers for Emma back in California so she can see all her friends over the break, I am thinking more about our life there. Of course, there’s the house full of animals that we are going back to. I miss/don’t miss the dogs and the rabbits (it’s complicated), but I do miss the house full of life, and I’m looking forward to spending time with them all (except for our tortoise, who is hibernating in the garage, so we won’t really get to hang out with him).

I’m also thinking about the warmth, about being able to go outside without putting on hundreds of layers. My body remembers living in a colder climate, so this bundling up seems familiar. New Jersey, where I grew up, and Massachusetts, where I lived for nearly a decade, are nothing like Mongolia in terms of the cold, but at least I experienced something like a cold winter for a good chunk of my life. Asahikawa, Japan, where I lived for nearly a year, had a ridiculous amount of snow, but it wasn’t nearly as cold as Ulaanbaatar, either. So even though Ulaanbaatar is by far the coldest place I’ve every lived, there is something about the short days with the sun low in the sky, and the billowing steam of my breath, that is like home. But I lived in San Diego, California, for nearly 20 years, and our one year in Pittsburgh after I finished my PhD was enough to make me realize I really, really do prefer a warmer climate. Like Hawaii, for instance.

I love it here in Mongolia, though. There are many things that are not so easy (like crossing the street, which I’ve gotten much better at), but I love my work, and I genuinely enjoy living in Ulaanbaatar. And Mongolia is a fascinating country. Yesterday I was talking with my department secretary about a couple of books she was reading about Mongolian history—not Chinggis Khan (or Genghis Khan as he’s known outside of Mongolia), but 20th century Mongolian history, when Mongolia was under the Soviet Union. One was about the attack on Buddhism after the Soviets took over, the slaughter and imprisonment of monks, and what happened to their families. The other was about rural life under Stalin, when people were barely surviving. I found a French translation of the first book on Amazon (Le moine aux yeux verts, or The Monk with Green Eyes), so I’ll be reading it on my Kindle. I’m hoping the second one will be translated, too.

Mongolia has gone through major social and political transformations, and yet my impression is that people are mostly calm and peaceful and take things as they come. I’ve only been here a short time, but I’ve really enjoyed the people that I’ve met. They remind me a little of Ethiopians; life isn’t always easy, but it is life, and we will live it. Maybe there is something about living through a lot of social and political upheaval. I’m thinking about this a lot, and I’ll probably write about it when I’ve been here longer and am not just going on first impressions.

I’ve also been realizing something over the last couple of weeks that I hadn’t thought about consciously since I’ve been here. One of the things that makes Mongolia, or at least Ulaanbaatar, different from most of the places I’ve lived outside of the US is being able to walk down the street, as a foreigner, without feeling like I’ve grown a second head or have purple skin.

In Ethiopia, there was a constant reminder that I was an alien. People would say “farenji” when I walked by. “Farenji” is the word applied to (usually white) foreigners; its origins may be from the Arabic word faranj or afranj, in turn derived from the Persian word farang, referring to the Franks, Germanic peoples who ruled much of Western Europe–think Charlemagne.  (And, of course, for Star Trek fans, there’s the connection to Ferengi, the aliens that started out as racist caricatures of Jews.) Adults would sometimes hiss the word farenj just as I passed them on the street, an intake of breath that I found characteristic of Ethiopians (they literally inhale sharply but quietly while raising their eyebrows to say yes). Kids were less subtle; I’d walk down the street to a chorus of “Farjenji! Farenji! Farenji!” to which I’d reply “Habesha! Habesha! Habesha!” (“Ethiopian!”) and receive an explosion of laughter in return. Occasionally kids would shout “China!” and I’ve heard this has become more common as the Chinese have more of a presence in Ethiopia. Sometimes it wasn’t so friendly, and I remember a couple of times feeling small rocks bouncing off my back, and turning to see children ducking around a corner or even, on rare occasions, staring at me openly with hostility.

In Cairo, it was an issue of being a Western woman. We are perceived as being “loose” and hypersexual, so it was common for me to be grabbed on the street, by the arm or the breast or even the crotch (what I think of now as the Donald Trump School of How to Treat Women). Men would whisper things as I walked by that I tried not to hear; taxi drivers would ask me point-blank questions about my sex life. I only felt physically threatened a handful of times, but the near-constant barrage of harassment was not pleasant. I dressed modestly, compared to many European and American women I saw—long pants and long sleeves, even in the heat of the summer. I still loved walking around the city, but there were days when I would stay home all day if I didn’t have to go out.

Here in Ulaanbaatar, I can walk around without turning a head. It’s refreshing. No catcalls, no people bumping into me on purpose, no staring. I’m just a person, walking around among other people. Sometimes kids on the bus will stare, but they will also often get up to give me their seat (age is deferred to around here; I get up to give older people my seat, too). I really enjoy this anonymity, since I love walking more than just about anything else, and I often had to steel myself to go for long walks in Cairo, Addis Ababa, or Dar es Salaam (where kids would shout “mzungu!” at me; literally, “whitey!”). Here, what has started keeping me in is the cold. I bundle up to go out, and I wear my pollution mask if I’m out for more than 10 minutes, but I don’t enjoy walking around in the cold very much.

Which brings me back to homesickness. Even though I don’t feel like an alien here, and even though I was long past ready to leave San Diego, there are things about my home of the previous 18 years that I do miss and will always miss. Just as with every place I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time. But living in many different places unmoors you. It frees you to claim wherever you are as home. You realize you are really just hovering above the earth, landing here and there, and wherever you land and stay for a bit is home. All of it is home.

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