Going to school in Ulaanbaatar

When I originally got the idea for this blog, I thought it would be co-authored by me and my daughter Emma. But Emma just isn’t into writing these days. She is into drawing. In fact, she draws non-stop, here at home and at school. We both think that one of the unintended consequences of moving to Mongolia is that her drawing has really taken off. It may not have happened in California, because she probably would have had less free time. We’ll never know. But I am so glad it has.

So, with her permission, I am going to write about her life here, too. Since the blog’s subtitle is a “mother-daughter adventure,” and so far it’s mainly been mother. Unfortunately, it will be her perspective tempered through mine, but I will try to represent her point of view as fully as I’m able.

When we first got to Mongolia, Emma had to hit the ground running. We arrived on Friday, August 17, and she had an entrance exam and orientation on Monday, August 21. Her first full day of school was Tuesday. We both had high hopes for her school. It’s an International Baccalaureate school, and I had heard good things about that curriculum from other parents. The website looked great, and of all the English-language schools in UB it looked closest to what Emma was used to at her Montessori school in California. We knew no matter what it would be a big change, but this school seemed to be more focused on the “child-centered” learning we had both grown to love from the Montessori experience. Also, the thing Emma noticed right away was that it was the only school that didn’t require uniforms, and the uniforms pictures on the other schools’ websites showed girls wearing skirts (as did the uniform order pages I checked out on my own). For her, this was the clincher. She just does not wear skirts or dresses, except as costumes in plays.

The school’s entrance exam was Emma’s first-ever experience with a test, since testing is introduced at her old school in 7th grade and she hadn’t gotten there yet. She passed, and we had a positive meeting with the Head of the Secondary School, who was also new to the school. She gave us a lot of advice on where to find hiking boots and the like for the week-long camping trip the kids have during the second week of school.

We were also blown away by the school itself. It was huge, compared to the two-room house Emma’s upper elementary class had been in for the last three years. The International School of Ulaanbaatar is a pre-K through 12th grade school with about 300 students, all in one building, and that building is gorgeous. There are two wings, one for the elementary school and one for secondary school, which here is grade 6 through 12. There is a high-ceilinged, light-filled open space at the entrance, with a café where I could hang out while Emma took her test. The rest of the school seemed like a labyrinth, but a very shiny one. Outside, there is a soccer field, and the size of the outdoor space seemed promising, too.

After her test and the interview, we had a break before an afternoon orientation and tour. The receptionist recommended a restaurant, the Garden Restaurant, in an office building across an open space from the school. We walked down the tree-lined street, filled with optimism and curiosity about the new experiences that awaited us. This was also our first time eating at a Mongolian restaurant, though it turned out to be western-style food. Emma had a cheese pizza, and I had a salad. It was very good, and we thought it was a nice place to go and we’d be back, but we haven’t gone there since.

The orientation was impressive, too. There was some information about the school and the IB program, and what the students could expect every day, as well as what they needed for the start of school the next day. The room was full of new parents and kids, which gave us hope that Emma would not be the only new student in her class. The 7th grade was large enough to be split in two classes of 15-16 kids each, so it would be smaller than her Upper Elementary class of 30-ish students, but that had encompassed 4th through 6th grade.

After the orientation came the tour. The middle years group was led by am 8th grader with an indeterminate accent (International Cosmopolitan?). He showed us the library, which was bigger than Emma’s whole school had been, and the cafeteria, where I signed Emma up for a lunch card that she never got (fortunately they take cash; not having to make Emma’s lunch every day has been one of the highlights of my year, though the food service has turned out to be disappointing for kids who don’t like mushrooms and tomatoes). Then we saw the gym, and Emma turned to me and whispered, “It’s like going to a school from the movies!” They had basketball hoops and everything. Afterwards we laughed, because a normal school gym was something she had only seen on TV or film. We also saw the indoor pool (not normal), the theater, and a couple of classrooms. As far as facilities go, this school was packed with them. We left feeling like we’d won the lottery. Well, except I had to pay for it.

Of course, Emma was nervous about the first day of school. And we had also found out that the school’s bus service didn’t extend to our part of town, so I was left trying to figure out how to get her to and from school every day. The school receptionist had told us about an English-language taxi service called Help Taxi, which is what we’ve ended up using. That very first day, the testing and orientation day, my department secretary had helped us get a “regular” taxi, standing out in front of the university and flagging down a car to take us to the school. She had even ridden with us, and then taken another taxi back to the school. (I’ll write another post about the taxi situation here, because it’s quite different from what I’ve experienced in other places I’ve lived.) Help Taxi is a bit more expensive—7,000-8,000 Mongolian tugrik (MNT) compared to a regular taxi at 5,000 MNT (so around $3 instead of $2). But the drivers all speak English, and we’ve been very happy with the service, except for a few snafus. Being able to talk to the drivers is a huge bonus for Emma, since she is not learning Mongolian in school (it’s not offered for her grade-level).

Actually, that’s making it sound simpler than it really was—the ease of hindsight. Someone at the school had recommended that we find a private driver (“That’s what the parents here usually do; it should be cheaper than a taxi, around 3,000 MNT per trip”). I mentioned this to the General Affairs staff at my university, and to my department secretary, and they both said they would ask at their churches and find out if there would be anyone interested. A man came to my department office for an interview, but he wanted 500,000 MNT a month, which was more than my take-home pay, and way more than a taxi, so I said no. We kept using Help Taxi and eventually got used to it. We joked that Emma now had a car and driver to take her to school, even though she really always has; we had a carpool in California.

One of the things about living where we do in Ulaanbaatar is that it’s really not easy to get to her school except by taxi, especially in the winter. At one point in the first few weeks of the year, my department chair got the idea that Emma could take the public bus, so the department secretary researched bus routes and found one with a bus stop about a kilometer from the school. At the department chair’s urging, she rode with me on the bus one day after classes to check out the route. The ride there was OK, once the bus came. We got out, and then waited for the bus going the other way. When it arrived, it was packed. We got in, squashed like sardines, and sat in heavy traffic. And when the traffic lightened up a bit, the driver drove like a maniac. By the time we got back to the stop near MIU, the bus was comfortably full, but I knew that I would never ask Emma to take a public bus on her own in Ulaanbaatar. We ride the bus a fair amount together, but that experience of being squashed is not something I would want her to have on a regular basis if it’s not necessary, and certainly not by herself. Also, I wouldn’t want her to walk a kilometer to and from the bus stop in 30 below zero degree weather. So the public bus wasn’t happening.

Because it’s an extra effort to get to her school, Emma has been a lot more independent this year than ever before, which has been good for her. Except for the first few days, I haven’t been going to school with her or picking her up. She comes and goes on her own. I just arrange the taxi. I have gone to her campus for special occasions: her school performance of Shrek (she was Puss in Boots), parent-teacher conferences, a couple of meetings, some weekend events. But my work schedule is very busy; I’m usually occupied from Monday to Friday at least until 3:00 in the afternoon. And having to call a taxi to get there, or grab a taxi off the street, is enough of an obstacle that I have also skipped some events I would otherwise have attended if it were easier to get there (the biggest one was Back to School Night, which I did feel bad about missing).

Emma being Emma, she made friends on the first day of school, and by the end of the first week she had a posse. There was one other new kid in her class, a girl from the Faroe Islands who had moved to Ulaanbaatar a couple of weeks before. They stuck together in their joint confusion, got lost together, and generally started hanging out together from that very first day. The girl and her father had also been on the tour with us the day before, so we had known there was at least one other new kid in her grade, and luckily they had been put in the same class. Perhaps this was an advantage of the school not being good at integrating new kids; the new kids banded together. They were still routinely getting lost between classes a few weeks into the school year. The other kids in the posse were two girls who had both been at the school for a while and had been friends already. They were happy to have a couple of other kids to hang out with, so even though the four of them hung out together, often they would break down two-by-two.

Having these friends is what has made going to school bearable for Emma, and they are what she missed about Mongolia when we went back to California for two-and-a-half weeks for the winter holidays. They are also the reason why she doesn’t want to change schools part way through the year, which is a relief for me. The posse has gotten together on some weekends and holidays, and one of them comes over to our place for sleepovers (our apartment is kind of small and not equipped to handle a lot of extra people). I was rather shocked when, at a parent-teacher conference, one of her homeroom teachers said that Emma had said she didn’t want to make friends because she was only going to be here a year. Emma insists she never said that, and I knew she already had friends by that time anyway. And that kind of holding off really isn’t her style. She always came bouncing out of the first day of even a week-long summer camp saying, “Mommy, I made a friend today!”

That parent-teacher conference was odd for several reasons. It was during the fourth week of school, and it was called a “listening conference” because the teachers were supposed to listen to the parent talk about what kind of student their kids is and what they wanted from the school year. Emma asked the teacher if she could attend and was told it was optional, so she came to school with me for the conference. When we sat down at the table, the teachers looked at her and said, “You’re not supposed to be here” and had her leave the room. But who knows better what kind of student she is than she does? I don’t go to school with her every day. All I know is what I hear from her. I think I was surprised because at her old school she was taught to understand and advocate for her own learning, and all the conferences always involved the student. This one just seemed to be leaving the most important person out of the picture. In the end, I think it was really an effort to suss out the parents more than anything because most of what they asked me, they could have asked her and gotten a better answer.

At one point one of the two teachers asked me, “What are your goals for her from now to December?” I blurted, “I want her to survive.” Which was true, and still is. From the shocked look on the teacher’s face and the uncomfortable laughter, I could tell that was really not the answer they were expecting. I covered it up by laughing, probably a bit too loudly, and said, “I mean, it’s not just a new school. It’s a new city, a new country, a new culture. That’s a lot. I just want her to make it through the next few months in one piece.”

That’s when the teacher pulled the “not wanting to make friends” line on me—“Is it true you are only staying for one year?”—which was kind of a low blow. The implication was that I needed to have better goals for my kid for her to be happy, which is not how it works. My kid is the one who has to have the goals; my job is to help her figure out if they are reasonable. I think they are used to much more hands-on parenting at her school, to children being directed by their parents and teachers instead of having a say and managing their own affairs. A couple of times Emma has said that a teacher has told her, “I’m going to talk to your mother if this happens again,” about something like not being able to find homework in the online system (which is an utter nightmare), as if it’s a threat. My response is always, “Please do. Please talk to me.” Of course, they never have. But I leave it up to her to manage her own learning, her relationship with teachers, and her relationships with classmates, because that’s her job, she is good at it, and it’s not my place to interfere.

And, of course, there are things her school does very well. She really likes some of the teachers. Her English teacher has a wry sense of humor that Emma appreciates. She loves her science teacher and her science class. She enjoys learning Mandarin and was very excited when she was able to carry out a transaction in the Beijing airport without using English. She has a couple of interesting courses that give her a chance to explore different ideas from new perspectives, particularly Design and something called Individual and Society, which is kind of like Social Studies. And she got to be in a large-scale drama production in a real theater, along with some of her friends, when her school put on Shrek: The Musical (well, except for when the student doing the make-up decided to put duct tape on her face for cat whiskers and nose; that kind of sucked). And she is learning what it’s like to go to a “regular school,” which will be useful for high school, too.

In the end, coming to Mongolia will have been a great experience for both of us. Things are getting a bit easier at her school, as we knew (or I knew; she was skeptical) they would. It always takes several months to adjust to a new place, and she was adapting to not only a new school, but a new curriculum, a new home, a new city, and a new culture—a completely new environment. I am the only constant. I’ve been amazed at how well she has adapted and how she takes everything in stride. She really, really, really misses her old school, but she knows I am happy here, and that’s important to her, too. I am glad to see her settling in more and having a better time at school, though I know it’s nothing like another year at her old school would have been. I am forever grateful for her sense of adventure and her willingness to go along with what I need to do. I think if she had ever really, really put her foot down, we wouldn’t be here, but she is not like that.

So here we are.

5 thoughts on “Going to school in Ulaanbaatar

  1. Jericho, how would you characterize the price of the private school there – e.g. in proportion to your pay (not needing specifics! 🙂 ?


  2. Oof. Middle school can be so rough even without the other transition and cultural components. Especially given the real difference in school cultures (from her old school to the new one — the school culture alone seems like a huge shift). I think the expectations about hands-on parenting is true for private prep schools here, too. It’s been an interesting adjustment for us to hear so much focus on things like high school and college admissions from the beginning – when we were just interested in transitioning to middle school smoothly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine! We were lucky that Emma’s former school cultivated independence, self-awareness, and autonomy in learning, and I knew any other school would be a shock to the system. I am continually amazed at how well Emma has adjusted and taken everything in stride, even persistent verbal abuse from another student and a teacher who has basically refused to teach her. It’s good preparation for wherever she ends up for high school. And I can also understand why such a large percentage of my students at UCSD had anxiety, depression, and other disorders. There is so much pressure on kids to excel at everything that they never have any time to just relax and be themselves. This school shows signs of that in 7th grade.


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