As I write this, I am listening to the elephants upstairs. Sometimes it sounds like they are trying to pound through the floor. Someone is playing Offenbach’s Can-Can on an electronic keyboard. Someone (else?) is screaming. And the elephants are jumping around, rattling the walls. In other words, the upstairs neighbor’s kids are home from school.
One of the big adjustments of coming to Mongolia was moving from our single-family house in a relatively quiet neighborhood (neighbor’s power tools aside) in suburban southern California to not only multifamily housing but a university dormitory, combining faculty apartments with rooms for over 200 undergraduate students. Living in the dorm has been great, all things considered, though there certainly have been interesting moments. I was told by the university’s vice president that we could get housing in the dorm during my very first conversation with him last March. I was pretty excited about this, especially about losing my 50-mile-roundtrip car commute to work. I was happy about being carless. Emma would have the longer commute for a change, but her new school’s website said they had a bus service, and I was fairly certain she would be using that. (As it turned out, she couldn’t and has to go by taxi.) I had no idea what the dorm would be like, but we were looking forward to the new experience.
I have to say we haven’t been disappointed. I love our apartment. I did from the moment we first saw it. We are on the 5th floor of a 7-story building, and we are on the southwest corner. Our living room window and balcony face south towards the mountains on that side of the city, and our bedroom windows look out towards Ulaanbaatar. We can see the sunrise from the living room, and the sunset from the bedrooms, especially now in winter, when the sun is far to the south. Emma loves it, too. In fact, when we were given the opportunity to move to the top floor, which I thought would be good because of the elephants upstairs, Emma was the one who said no. Even though the elephants have kept her up at night. I was kind of glad to keep our apartment with its western exposure; the other one would have been facing south and east, and we would have lost our view of the downtown. Silly me, I also worried about the sunrise in what would have been our eastern-facing windows, not really thinking that the sun doesn’t rise here until 8:40 these days (though by the time we leave at the end of June, sunrise will be at 4:52 am, which is plenty early). So we decided to stick with our original apartment.
The things I enjoy the most about it, aside from the view, are the light and how clean and empty it is. I decided when we moved here that we weren’t going to accumulate a lot of stuff. I have my books and materials for teaching, and Emma brought some pictures to decorate her room with (though she’s ended up sleeping with me in my room, and her bedroom is just used for changing clothes). We have minimal furniture, though I did buy a sofa early on so that we’d have something comfortable to sit on. Boy, did that backfire. Our sofa, like our mattresses, seems to be solid granite covered with a layer of cloth. After a marathon drawing session, Emma will moan, “My butt hurts…” I slept on it the other night when Emma had a friend sleep over, to see if it would be better than sleeping on Emma’s mattress on the floor (her bedframe is broken), and it was surprisingly comfortable to sleep on. But aside from the sofa, a folding camp table, and a little stool I found for free near the trash which has become our “TV” stand (we watch Netflix on my laptop), we are just using the furniture that was already here: the two beds, two wardrobes, a desk, a bookshelf, a small table that became Emma’s desk, and two stools that we use for end tables.
The apartment contrasts starkly to our house in Carlsbad, which is light and airy on one side, but dark and cave-like on the other, and the cave-like side is the one we tend to use the most (it has the family room and kitchen, as well as my home-office/bedroom). Our house is also full of stuff, accumulated over seven years of living in one place. I also still have a bunch of my parents’ stuff; I’m gradually sorting it and deciding how to dispose of it, whenever I have a bit of free time. And now there’s also our house sitters’ stuff, which made staying there for the holidays extra-interesting. We did a big purge before we left for Mongolia to make room for the house sitters (a single mom and her daughter), and we’ll do another when we get back, because I suspect Emma will have outgrown a lot of her stuff when she returns to the US as an official teenager, and also because we have figured out how to live with less.
But back to the dorm… One of the hilarious things about it is the kitchen, which also contains our clothes washing machine. The kitchen consists of a small sink, a single hotplate, a kettle, a rice cooker (which I bought when we first arrived), and a decent-sized refrigerator. There’s enough counter space to prepare meals, but figuring out how to do everything with a single burner has been pretty interesting. I have two pots and a frying pan, so sometimes I need to clean a pot between dinner courses (as last night, when I made pasta and steamed broccoli and needed the same pot to cook both). Emma likes to eat simple food, which makes it a lot easier, but sometimes she doesn’t like to eat what I eat. I love to make a barley soup that she barely tolerates, and a split pea and lentil soup that she loved when she was four, but tastes change. She loves mac and cheese, and, well, I just don’t. So sometimes we end up eating different meals, which can be tricky. I try to generate leftovers whenever possible to keep things simple.
I really appreciate having the washing machine. It makes life a lot easier to be able to do laundry by machine in our apartment. I’ve gotten so used to its small size that when we went back to California for a bit in December, I was baffled by how cavernous our machine there is and couldn’t figure out how on earth to fill it. The washing machine likes to walk across the kitchen floor during the spin cycle, as well. Sometimes I’ve found it more than halfway out of its little cubby under the counter. We don’t need a clothes dryer here, because the apartment also came with a drying rack, and the air here is so dry that clothes that are washed in the morning can be put away by mid-afternoon. (We don’t need a dryer in California, either, but I haven’t managed to put up a clothesline since I got our side-yard cleaned out, so I still waste electricity.)
Another fun feature of living in the dorm is the elevator. We take the stairs to go down, but often take the elevator to go up, especially when carrying stuff. The elevator talks in a woman’s voice, English with a Korean accent. Emma swears her pronunciation changes every time, but I don’t feel like it does. “First fleur, going up. De deur is closing. Fifth fleur. De deur is opening.” It definitely adds to the atmosphere. When I’m by myself, I have mainly stuck to the stairs to save energy and get a bit of exercise, unless I am carrying groceries. But sometimes I take the elevator just to hear her speak. I’m going to miss her when we go.
Aside from the apartment itself, living in the dorm has been beneficial for me. I love being able to walk down the stairs, fifty steps across the pavement, and up a few stairs to my office. That is my commute. I have a lot more time each day, which really helps in every aspect of my life. I am working a lot—teaching four courses per semester, studying Mongolian, and doing research on an environmental communication project—so having the extra time really helps. I was still extremely sleep-deprived last semester, but it was better than how things generally are in California. Living here also makes it handy for when students need to get into the department office, or someone leaves the light on in the office when they go home for the day. Once, though, I got a call from a student after I’d gone to bed, asking me to let her into the office to retrieve a notebook. That was a bit much.
One of the things I have noticed here is that there seems to be little sense of privacy or personal space, at least in some regards. A few times people have just walked into the apartment without knocking. I took to locking the door when we’re home pretty quickly, but every once in a while, I forget. This floor is faculty apartments, so I would have assumed people would realize it is a professor’s apartment they are walking into, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Usually they get it when I start to usher them out, but they keep talking to me in Mongolian, despite the completely blank look on my face.
There is also a lot of noise, aside from the elephants upstairs. Right now, there is a lot of pounding going on somewhere, maybe on my hall or the floor below. It can be hard to tell sometimes. Sound travels well here, and Emma and I speculate about how much the downstairs neighbors hear from us. I know they can hear me vacuuming, because we can hear the scraping of the vacuum brush across the vinyl floor upstairs. And we can hear other washing machines, as well, especially the spin cycle. During the day, when it’s quiet, I can hear the elevator sometimes, even though it’s at the other end of the hall. But it’s not usually that quiet. Yesterday, there was a lot of door knocking going on, not our door, but still very audible. I’m not sure what it was about.
There has also been a lot of construction continuing in the building. It was built last year and opened for residents last spring semester (2018), but they have still been working on it. When we moved in in mid-August, they were putting in cooking and laundry facilities in the basement. There is now a large kitchen and washing machines for the students to use. They also converted apartments into more dorm space, from what I could tell. When the people next door to us moved out shortly after we moved in, workers installed bunkbeds and did some other work there. There was a massive installation of bunkbeds on the fourth floor, which I believe is graduate student housing (there is a Graduate School of Public Affairs, as well as Computer Science and Foreign Language Education at the university).
Of course, the building is primarily a student dorm. Freshman are given priority in the undergrad housing, and there is also an off-campus dorm that houses 100 students. When the students are here (right now it’s break, and they aren’t allowed to live in the dorm between semesters, it seems; they have to move out and store their stuff in one of the rooms), the place can be a bit of a madhouse, especially at the beginning of the year, right before and after midterm week, and before and after finals week. There was a lot of partying the weekend before we left for California in December, for instance, which was right after classes ended. Usually it ends at a reasonable hour for a college party (midnight or 1 am), but way after our bedtime, and after the posted quiet hours (10 pm to 8 am).
There have also been a few times where I lost sleep because of bizarre occurrences at night. One night, it sounded like someone was pounding on our door. Again, hard to tell because the way sound carries here (a few times I thought someone was knocking, but it was at another door). I got up to see, but no one was there, or even in our hall. Then there was a lot of shouting in the stairwell, and I thought I heard a professor’s voice. Then more door pounding and shouting. It finally got quiet again after an hour or so. I don’t know what it was, because I didn’t feel like putting clothes on to go out and investigate, but it took a while to go to sleep after that. Also, the building has some durability issues in terms of its construction, and pieces of the ceiling fall down in Emma’s bedroom and the living room. Sometimes the crash can be quite loud, depending on how large the piece is. The General Affairs folks (who are in charge of the building) know about it and will probably make repairs at some point. In the meanwhile, we make a lot of jokes about it.
Most of the time, though, it’s just run of the mill noises—music, laughter, loud talking, kids shrieking, and so on. In the end, it’s kind of fun to live here, and to see what life is like for my students. And it’s been interesting for Emma to get a sense of university dorm life, as well. Still, we miss our quiet house sometimes.