It’s just past mid-February, and the weather forecast for today is 22°F and sunny. Emma is reading Webtoons (her Sunday morning ritual) as I write this, and we are about to take the bus downtown to see How to Train Your Dragon 3, which Emma has been asking me about for a while. I figured out how to order tickets online on the movie theater website yesterday, in a moment of feeling competent. I imagine I can figure out how to retrieve them at the theater when we get there. It’s a nice Sunday morning in February here in Ulaanbaatar, so why do I feel so blah?
One thing is that I have been fighting off some kind of virus for several days, I think. I took a health break on Thursday and just rested and drank tea after Emma left for school. I had some digestive issues that kept me going to the toilet, as well. Not my favorite. I was also coughing a lot. Friday was a bit better, but we had to get up to get the 7:15 taxi to both go to Emma’s school for parent-student-teacher conferences. I feel bad about Emma having to leave so early for school; if she goes at 7:15, she gets there around 7:30 or so, and she goes to the library and reads until school starts at 8:10. If she leaves later, she could get caught in traffic and be late for school, so we stick to the earlier time. She says she likes the reading time, but it’s hard to get her up in the morning! And one of her teachers commented on how she always looks so tired in class and doesn’t seem to get enough sleep.
The conferences were bizarre. A few days before they happen, kids are supposed to write down their goals for every course for the rest of the semester, but they never really talk to the kids about what constitutes a “goal.” Emma was told that some of the things she wrote down as goals weren’t goals, but if you have never had a conversation about what you mean by “goals,” how can you expect a kid to know what they are? Likewise, some of the teachers had the expectation that Emma would start the conversation, but she hadn’t received any coaching or even a description of what the conferences were supposed to be like, so she wasn’t sure how to proceed. I’m sure to the teachers she seemed recalcitrant (to me she just seemed confused), because they clearly expected her to know what to do. It’s possible that the kids learn about these conferences earlier on in the program, like 5th or 6th grade, so they assume 7th graders know the deal. There’s a lot of that at her school, expecting people to know what everything is without explanation. What mainly happened was the teachers all told Emma what she was doing wrong, and occasionally what she was doing well, with me listening on. It was grueling.
By the end of the conferences (basically an hour and a half of speed-dating the teachers), Emma had had it. She shut down and was on the verge of tears. I was exhausted myself and happy to get out of there. We decided to walk part way home, so I cancelled the return taxi, and we walked through the cold past the national park. I asked her if she wanted to go to a coffee shop. I felt like she needed a treat after that painful ordeal. We crossed the street to a Tom N Toms (Korean Starbucks), and tried to get in on the wrong side. There was a door; it was just locked. We went around to the other side and got in. It seemed like a metaphor for life these days; we are always trying the wrong thing first.
Once we got in, we saw bagels on the menu and got all excited. I was going to order while Emma went to sit down. She wanted a bagel and chamomile tea. I asked for two bagels, and the guy working the counter said, “No.” Emma’s back-up was something called “honey butter bread” – there was a plastic model in the case of what looked like buttered toast with a mound of whipped cream, criss-crossed with honey. I took a look at the very complex pretzel menu and decided just to order two of the same thing. Then I ordered a caffe latte for myself and tried to convey the concept of chamomile tea (which was on the menu, and in Mongolian even) to the guy, but he kept coming back with caramel. I finally gave up and thought, well, we’ll see what she ends up with. I paid for our order, and he handed me a buzzer.
I joined Emma at the table she’d picked out. It was in the full sun, so I took off most of my layers. And we waited. And waited. And waited. And I noticed that “honey butter bread” was shortened to “honey butt” on the receipt and had a mature laugh. And then we waited some more. And people who came in and ordered after we did got their stuff and left. So I made a mental note to order everything to go next time. I was about to go see if he had forgotten us when the buzzer went off. I went back, and there were only our drinks, on a nice tray. I waited for a bit while he waited on someone else, and then asked about the food. He said there was no honey butter bread, did we just want “choco butter bread” instead. Yes, sure, whatever at this point. So he handed me back the buzzer, and I went back with our drinks.
Sure enough, Emma had gotten some kind of caramel latte. I handed her her water bottle, because I decided it was just too much to go back and try to explain chamomile tea again; he was already nervous enough about our food order. Emma didn’t want anything else to drink. After another 10 minutes or so, our buzzer went off, and I went to get the food. There was one honey butter bread and one choco butter bread. The man apologized several times, but I told him it was fine and thanked him. He seemed really stressed out, and I felt bad about that.
Emma wanted the honey butt, of course, so I had the choco butt. By then we were both feeling a lot better, though Emma complained about the whipped cream (she is not a fan), and I thought I would ask my Mongolian teacher how to say “Please, no whipped cream” in Mongolian for next time. Though I think the butts were a once in lifetime experience for us.
The best part of the morning was not having to stand out in the cold very long before catching a nearly empty bus to go home, and then being able to sit next to each other after a couple of people got off at the next stop.
I think this is why I am feeling so blah about everything right now. On the surface, everything is going fine. I mean, life is good here. Emma has her friends at school (one of them came that night for a sleepover, and they had a really good time together). There’s still the ridiculous cold and pollution that make it harder to go outside than I’d like, which means that I don’t go for many walks, so I don’t get much exercise. But aside from that, we’ve figured out how to do what we need to do to manage on a daily basis, and even when things don’t go quite right, the results are fine. I feel bad about not knowing more Mongolian, but I am mainly learning grammar rather than communication in my Mongolian classes, so my fluency is really poor.
But I’ve reached the point I remember reaching several other times when I was adjusting to life in a foreign country where everything was fine on the surface, and I was mostly functional, but also just a bit tired of always navigating the differences, and simply feeling out of sorts. Wanting things to go the way I expect them to, for a change. And feeling a bit homesick and missing my friends. I know this is temporary, and I will get reinvigorated again, most likely when teaching starts up again on February 25. I’m looking forward to seeing my students again, and hearing about what they’ve been doing for the last few weeks, so that will be fun.
The last six weeks have in some ways been idyllic. I’ve been writing a lot, and otherwise getting a lot done, and mostly getting enough sleep. We’ve been getting out and about, both on the weekends and also during Tsagaan Sar, the three-day lunar new year celebration when Emma had nearly the whole week off school and decided to take the whole week off. We’re discovering more to do in Ulaanbaatar, and I have a long list of things to do, see, or try on the weekends. I’m also planning what should be a fantastic spring break trip for us. So really, there is nothing specific to complain about, except that winter is starting to seem really long.
I’m wrapping this up on Sunday evening. Emma is finishing her Mandarin homework, and we just got back from seeing the movie. We tried and failed to get bagels again, and this time we were both disappointed. We did have some really good vanilla muffins, but they just weren’t the same. So now I’ve gone online and found the one place in Ulaanbaatar that makes its own bagels, the Khaan Deli, which is run by an American (the website calls it The American Diner). I’ve heard it has the best pancakes in UB, so we were planning to try it soon, anyway. If they have bagels to go, I’ll fill the freezer.
I’m also feeling a little bit better about life this evening. It’s normal to have a few blah days, no matter where you are. Well, except maybe Hawaii. But here in Ulaanbaatar, the blahness is accentuated by the cold weather, which we are both thoroughly tired of. Today, though, it did feel quite a bit warmer, and it’s supposed to stay in the 20s for the rest of the month, so there is hope. I always remember February being a bit of a slog, even though it’s a short month, but March is around the corner now, and spring should follow after that. It does snow here as late as April or May, but there hasn’t been snow since sometime in October, I think, so even if it does, it probably won’t be much and won’t stick around long. We’ll see.