It’s becoming official that we are not staying in Mongolia after this academic year. I had kind of hoped that we might both love it here, but only one of us does, and practically, staying for another year or two isn’t going to work. I have told my department chair and university president we’ll be going back to the USA at the end of the year. And I’ve started to tell the students, which is really, really hard.
Talking about leaving has been much harder than I thought it would be. Knowing that we are leaving is much harder than I thought it would be. But it is the right thing to do. I love Mongolia International University; it’s a wonderful place to work. It’s not always easy, but it is rewarding, and the students are fun to work with. If it were just me, I would stay, I think, despite the insane winter weather (for this adaptee to Southern California) and the horrible air pollution (which would provide me with something long-term to work on). The need for faculty here is tremendous. Because of low local salaries, an international university like MIU has a hard time recruiting faculty. My department especially needs people, because there are going to be seniors next year for the first time, so they have to cover all four years of the curriculum. And there is only one other full-time faculty member, who is also the department chair. I feel terrible. I have been trying to recruit a replacement, but so far I haven’t found anyone who wants to come to Mongolia for a semester or a year.
Emma, on the other hand, is happy to be leaving. She hasn’t liked it here very much. Part of that has been her school experience (which I’ve written about). Part of it has been Ulaanbaatar itself. It’s not the world’s most beautiful city, though it is interesting and has beautiful aspects. But it’s not so easy to live in if you are used to suburban San Diego. A lot of it is the winter, just not being able to go outside barefoot (she was so excited when she walked back to our building from another building on campus without her shoes on the other evening). And the air pollution, which, quite honestly, worries both of us. She is not as affected as much younger children are, or as children who live here permanently, especially in the ger districts, the informal settlements where most of the air pollution originates (as I’ve also written about). But it was hard to get her to wear a pollution mask as much as she should have, and I wonder what the effects of even this exposure will be. The air pollution here is no joke.
Even so, much has been positive for her, too. She has made really good friends at her school, from places she knew little about before. It’s fun to hear her talk about her friends and the stuff they get into together. She has been able to hang out with them outside of school as well. She realizes that she is going to miss them a lot when we leave, but she’ll be able to keep in touch with them, too. We’ve also been able to see some really cool and beautiful things here that we probably never would have experienced if I hadn’t taken this opportunity. We got to spend spring break in Thailand, which we never would have done otherwise. And she has also had a lot of time to work on her drawing, which has become really important to her. When I ask her if she’s glad we came to Mongolia, she usually says, “Yes! Because I’ve really been able to work on my art.”
But she is also really looking forward to going back to California. She has good friends there, too, and they are in touch via Instagram and Google Hangouts, and she can’t wait to see them again. We also still have our house, which is the only home she really remembers (I bought it when she was five). She can’t wait to see our dogs again (who, let’s face it, would not adapt well to the Mongolian environment, being part Chihuahua, though we’ve seen Chihuahuas here). And then there’s the beach, which we haven’t always visited as often as we’d like, and which we had started taking for granted. Being landlocked was a real wake-up call! We’re now making plans to go much more often. In fact, we are making plans for all sorts of things to take advantage of what we both hope will be our last year in California. Especially spending more time outdoors in the fresh air and warmth. As much as we are both looking forward to going back (I admit, I miss it too), we are not thinking about staying there.
So I am starting to face the fact that our time in Mongolia is finite and shrinking. We’re heading for Japan for two weeks after the semester ends in June, and then we are flying back to California on July 8. There are things we haven’t seen yet in Ulaanbaatar that we still want to see, mainly some museums and Buddhist sites. And we are going to take one more trip out of the city, probably to Lake Khuvsgul in northwestern Mongolia, for a few days in June. But it’s time to get serious about what we want to do here before we go. We have seven weekends left, really, some of which will be taken up with things like Emma’s birthday, which we are still figuring out. And it will all go quickly. Really quickly.
So, besides asking Emma what she is going to miss and what she has gotten out of being here, I am thinking about these things for myself. In some ways, I haven’t accomplished all I was hoping to while I was here, because my focus was much more on teaching that I originally thought it would be. My teaching load was double what I was originally told. Despite that, I have gotten a lot done, and I have still more to do over the next two months. I have managed to carve out time for writing, which I had rarely been able to do in California. Not spending two or more hours a day driving a car has really helped. Life has been a lot simpler here, which has also really helped. There has also been something tangible to focus on (the air pollution problem), though I would have liked to have done much more on that (and could have, with a lighter teaching load).
Also, Emma and I have become much closer than we might have been in California. Part of our experience of being strangers in a strange land is that we have gotten to know each other much better. We have had more time together than we did before. This time has been incredibly valuable for both of us. We talk to each other every day, not just about surface things like what happened during the day, but about all sorts of things. As touching as it is to hear that Emma tells her friends that I am her best friend, I think she really means it. I hope we have created a foundation for a solid relationship through her adolescence and adulthood, and what I jokingly (kind of) call my “dotage.” I don’t expect her to be there for me the way I was for my parents, but I kind of hope she will be, sort of.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
I will certainly miss MIU, and all the people I have met here. It has been wonderful to be part of something positive, and to know that I am making a concrete difference in people’s lives. It’s also been great to have been able to make real contributions to the organization I work for, and to have those contributions be valued by that organization. I hope I can continue to contribute, one way or another, well into the future. The university environment is so different here from the USA, or at least from the University of California. There are some strange aspects (like having to submit lesson plans every four weeks, which I’ve never had to do before), but overall it’s been a rewarding and life-affirming experience. Which makes it very hard to leave.
But now I know what I am looking for, and I also know that I can still have value in a community that is willing to take my contribution. I grew up with a strong sense of service, which is not a word that is often held in high regard in the US. A desire to make things better not for myself, but for other people, and for our world that we are lucky enough to live in. It sounds cheesy to write about this, to pin actual words to what I want my life to be about, and to make them public for other people to judge. But having grown up in a society where definitions of success are so narrowly materialistic, and not holding them as my own ideal of success, has been difficult. Even now, I still measure my accomplishments against those of my peers and think, wow, I haven’t really done much.
But life isn’t always about doing. It’s about being, as well. About being a positive influence on someone else’s life. About being helpful for others. About being gentle with our earth. And all of this is what I am still trying to be. Coming to Mongolia has helped me get back to that. To realize again (and hopefully for good) that life isn’t about having a fancy house or a new car or a high-paying job or a lot of stuff. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing because I’ve never been that interested in it. Life is about seeing a need and filling it. It’s about making space for others, and for our amazing world.
Sometimes I think it might have been better if I hadn’t uprooted Emma and taken her to Mongolia for this year. If I hadn’t taken a position I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep long-term, and given people hope that I would be here for them until they graduated from university. But I think my being here has made an important difference for all of us. At least, I hope it has. And really, it’s far too early to get sad about leaving now, when I still have to much more to do before we go.