People have asked me for a post about Emma’s experience of Mongolia, so I will do my best. She is still sleeping right now (it’s 6:00 Saturday morning as I start this), but we talk so much these days that I think I can represent what she thinks about all of this pretty well.
One of the things we talk about a lot is how people have been pushing this idea of “Mongolia as adventure” on her since she started telling people she was going to Mongolia for a year. We decided that most of those people think we are coming here for an extended vacation, which would be nice, but I have a job and she has school. So much of what we do here is just daily life. Get up, get dressed, go to school, come home, go for a walk (now that the weather is warmer and the pollution has decreased), eat dinner, do homework, go to bed, rinse, repeat.
The big differences are, of course, the setting, and for Emma, the school. I’ve already written a fair amount about that, and not much has changed. As much as I am dreading the end of the school year, she is looking forward to it. She can’t wait to go back to the US at this point, which is totally understandable. When I told my students we weren’t coming back next year and that Emma really didn’t want to live in Mongolia, they said that very thing, “It’s understandable.” She’s been really supportive of me and my love for this place, but she is glad that we are going back.
I ask her what she’ll miss about Mongolia, and she mainly says her friends. She has developed a good group of friends at her school, from several different countries: Faroe Islands, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, and others; some kids are hard to classify by nationality because they have moved around so much, part of the international cosmopolitan. One friend identifies as French Kazakh, for example. One of the things Emma has enjoyed is having friends who like to run around and roughhouse. The girls not so much, but the boys, definitely. They spend recess stealing each other’s stuff and chasing each other around the school to get it back. She is hoping she’ll have some friends like that when she gets back to the US.
When I ask her if she is glad we came to Mongolia, she says yes, because it really gave her a chance to work on her art. She has been developing as an artist for a long time, but here, she can spend hours drawing in her sketchbook or her art tablet. It’s the first time she’s really understood the concept of practice, I think. In California, she wanted to do all these different things, so we were always running around after school. In first and second grade it was swimming lessons, Irish dance, horseback riding, and art. In later years, she dropped Irish dance and swimming lessons for tennis and ice skating, and picked up the violin and acting. She was busy. But through it all she would draw here and there, and she took art classes when they were available, mostly at Carlsbad Art Farm, a 10-acre “farm” near our house, with animals and art lessons. She learned to draw and paint there through master studies and painting live models (the animals). They had Saturday art classes during the school year and a summer camp, though we were crushed to learn that last summer was the end of that. The owner decided she wanted to scale back and take it easy, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for art classes when we get home.
But here, even though her school offers after school activities, Emma decided early on she didn’t want to participate in them. We had brought her violin to Mongolia in the hopes that she would find a violin teacher, but instead she decided she didn’t want to play the violin anymore. She has picked up the ukulele in her Performing Arts class, so she may continue with that. I was secretly hoping she’d want to play the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle, a traditional Mongolian instrument that is nothing like a fiddle), and I pushed it gently in the beginning of the year, but she didn’t want to. I was a little worried about how she seemed to be giving up on things that were becoming challenging (the violin) and not wanting to engage much in the new environment. But I gave her the time, and boy am I glad I did.
Emma draws compulsively now. Like a lot of kids her age, she’s obsessed with anime and manga, so she was drawing a lot in that style initially. Now she has branched out into other styles as well and is trying to draw wolves with more realism, especially. Wolves and half-humans are her thing. She has quite a few OCs (original characters) that she’s developed, but so far she mainly draws them. She and one of her friends from school are starting their own comic book about a girl that farts fire. I’m waiting to see how that develops. But she draws on everything, everywhere. Her notebooks from school are littered with sketches. She even developed a math avatar, who frequently looks angry or sad (she has a terrible math teacher this year).
I was a little worried about her ability to stick to something and work hard at it, but she has found her thing. She is glad we came to Mongolia because she discovered how much she could improve at something if she had the time to work on it. If we had stayed in California, she might not have had this kind of time, because she might have stayed caught up in all her after school activities (though I was working on scaling her back, because it was taking its toll on me). Next year, she wants to do running for a sport, and drawing. And that’s it. Fine with me!
What this has confirmed for me is that kids really need time. In the US these days, it’s something most of them don’t have. Parents fill up their kids’ time with activities, dragging them from one thing to another from a very early age. Emma didn’t do anything outside of school until she was in first grade. I didn’t start her on swimming until she was 7 years old, which it turns out is considered late now. (I used to sit and watch the toddler classes in amazement while Emma was in her swim lessons.) Part of it was me just not having time, as a solo working parent. She started to develop interests—Irish dance from a Saint Patrick’s Day performance at her preschool, horses, acting. When she started first grade in Carlsbad and we had a bit more time, I found the things she was interested in and did my best to cultivate her interests, knowing she’d eventually settle on one or two things that she’d love and really develop. But it took coming to Mongolia for that to happen.
Most parents set their kids up with a ton of activities because they think it’s “good for them,” and because they are afraid of free time. When I was growing up, I had free time in spades. My mom started working again when I was around 10, which was kind of late, but it meant that whatever I did happened on the weekends. It was mainly music (clarinet, guitar, and one year, cello) and horseback riding. I played golf with my dad and did a golf summer camp one year. But during the week, after school, once I had finished my homework, I was free to do what I wanted, which was mostly reading, writing, and watching TV. I had an electric typewriter my parents gave me for Christmas or my birthday one year, and I typed all sorts of things on it—poems and stories, mainly. In the summer, I hung out in the woods or the back yard, reading. It was idyllic.
Now that Emma has discovered time, I am no longer worried about her. I used to be concerned that she flitted from one activity to another, dropping them as they became more challenging or involved, or required too much practice. What if she’s one of those people who never figures out how to get really good at something? Or…what if she’s like me, taking a long time to get to the point where she knows what she really wants, and maybe never being able to do it the way she wants to do it? Which, let’s face it, is most people. But she is more like my brother, I think. He was an artist from an early age and became very self-directed in pursuing a career in film. I think she is more like that.
So now, in Mongolia, she has discovered that working hard at something is worthwhile, especially if it’s something you love. (And school has taught her that working hard at stuff you don’t love is necessary.) She also identifies herself as an artist, but one who is interested in science, and especially wildlife conservation. Did I mention wolves? She loves wolves. Science has been one of her favorite subjects in school here, and she is looking for ways to pair her art with science. Her career plans are still vague (she’s in 7th grade, so that’s fine), but they are a bit more realistic than what they used to be. My personal favorite was when she wanted to be a “nocturnalist.” She identified herself as a “night person” early on, and she decided what she wanted to do when she grew up was run a babysitting service or camp that would teach kids about nocturnal animals. Parents would hire her to babysit, or send their kids to her camp, and she would keep the kids up, teaching them about bats and other creatures of the night. Interesting idea, and she developed it to an astonishing level of detail, but in the end, she wasn’t sure it would fly. For a long time after that, she wanted to run a dog rescue. That was better, from a practical standpoint. At least it’s a real thing.
But one of the things we talk about a lot is how climate change will affect her career plans. She knows that the world she will live in will be very different from this one, and that the change could happen very suddenly. This is the scary part—not knowing what her life will be like. I think it scares me more than it scares her at this point. She is not afraid to think about it and talk about it, but it doesn’t seem real to either of us. Most of her ideas of the future are based on her present, which makes total sense. And it’s completely impossible for us to imagine what the world will be like in 2030, when she’ll be starting her career. Around that time is when climate crisis will switch into ecosystem collapse, if humans don’t get their shit together. Not all humans, but those that are directly responsible for the climate catastrophe we are now experiencing. Mainly the oil and coal barons who refuse systemic change. Those people really need to stop what they are doing, so that our kids can have reasonable lives. Whether or not they will is an open question. I imagine they are banking on being rich enough to ride out whatever happens to the rest of us. But we just have to hope that somehow we can stop the catastrophe train we are riding right now and send it back in the other direction.
Anyway, back to Mongolia. It’s been good for Emma to see life in a completely different place than southern California, but only time will tell what effect it has. I told her I was writing this post, and she just said, “Insomnia.” It’s true – the last few months she has had a very hard time falling asleep. We think it’s because she’s not getting enough exercise during the day. We started going for daily walks around the neighborhood as soon as the weather got above freezing, and on weekends we take longer walks, going downtown, or exploring along the main roads around here. Sunday afternoon we are going to check out a cemetery I can see from one of the MIU buildings, looking north. But Emma needs real workouts (as does her mother) and those are hard to get here. We go up and down the stairs in our building, but there’s not much to do in our part of the city except walk. There is a bicycle rental place in the national park (a city park near her school) that has opened up recently for the spring/summer, so we will go there one weekend, and maybe also one or two days after school. There are a lot of gyms in Ulaanbaatar, but none of them are close enough to where we live to get there more than once a week or so. In fact, what we’ve concluded about living at MIU is that it’s quite far from most of the places in UB that we’re interested in visiting.
There are quite a few things Emma seriously dislikes about living here in Ulaanbaatar. The winter was very hard for her. She hates wearing shoes, and this is not a flipflop kind of place. Not being able to go outside whenever she wants has been rough. The air pollution really disturbed her, too. Now that it’s nicer out, she feels slightly better about being here. But the part of the city that MIU is in is not the nicest, either. It seems to be in the auto repair zone: there are car parts places, tire outlets, and repair shops. Downtown UB is more pleasant, with some interesting older buildings, better walking routes, and more parks and trees.
Another thing Emma has really started to dislike is how people tend to shove her around. She’s only 12, and for a 12-year-old she is not very tall. When we are getting on and off the buses, people will shove her aside to force their way on or off. I’m a bit harder to shove, I guess, but she really gets pushed around a lot. There is no personal space here; apparently you are supposed to apologize if you step on someone’s foot, but it’s totally OK to bodycheck or slam into someone. I used to apologize when I accidentally jostled someone on the bus or in a shop, but I gave up when I realized people were pushing us around without thinking twice. Emma hates it, understandably, because she’s usually a lot smaller than the person who is shoving her. She says it takes all her willpower not to punch people in the gut.
But in the end, yes, she is glad we came here. It has been an interesting interlude, with many unforeseen consequences, which is what we were both thinking it would be. In some ways, she has become more willing to try new things (though not so much in the food department; she still prefers her Annie’s mac’n’cheese above all else). She now understands in a visceral way that life can be fundamentally different from what she experienced in San Diego (some of her classmates at the International School don’t even get that because, as she says, they haven’t had me for a mom). And she will have a life-long attachment to this place called Mongolia. Whenever, wherever it comes up, she will remember the time that she lived here.