Some thoughts on being a foreigner in Mongolia

Today we were at a place called Zaisan Hill for Emma’s 13th birthday party. It’s an upscale entertainment center, with a movie theater, a trampoline park, a food court, a spa, coffee shops, and a wedding chapel. It’s just down hill from the Zaisan Memorial, which we haven’t visited yet. We’ll make it there before we leave Mongolia. The memorial commemorates Mongolian and Soviet soldiers killed in World War II and Mongolia’s relationship with the Soviet Union, but there is also an amazing view of the city, looking east, north, and west. For today, the idea was to keep six teens/tweens happy for a few hours, and the weather wasn’t great, so we stuck with the entertainment center.

While Emma and her friends jumped at the trampoline park, ate pizza, and generally hung out, I had a bit of downtime to read. But, as I usually do when I’m out and about, I started people watching instead. I was hanging out in the food court part of the Zaisan Hill complex, watching people come and go. Suddenly a family came through, a couple and three kids, and I realized they were speaking English. They also looked very strange. It took me a moment, but I realized that they were Caucasian, and that was why I thought they looked strange. From the accents, they were Australian. They really stood out from the other diners.

I realized that I have gotten accustomed to being surrounded by Mongolians, and at MIU, Koreans and a handful of Russians, Americans, and assorted other nationalities. But most of the people I see everyday are Mongolian. I’ve gotten used to it. Sometimes when we are walking down the street, Emma and I will pass another foreigner, but more often not. People stare at us sometimes, especially kids, but we pretend not to notice. Emma feels it more than I do, I think, or at least she comments on it. Sometimes people will start talking to us in Mongolian. I understand one word in 20 or 30, so it’s pretty hopeless. I have no idea what they are saying to me, so I tend to walk by without responding, especially if they are men who have no reason to be talking to me.

It was kind of funny to have such a strong reaction to the Australian family today. They actually seemed a bit ugly to me. Really, we white folks are rather funny-looking. It reminded me of when I lived in Mekelle, Ethiopia, where I was mainly surrounded by Ethiopians, who are some of the most beautiful people on the planet. I got used to people looking like that, and farenjis (white foreigners) seemed very odd-looking when I saw them. Mongolians are beautiful as well, but in a very different way. Obviously, no matter where you go there’s a lot of individual variation in facial features and so on, but I’ve gotten used to being among people who don’t look like me and who I generally find more attractive than people who do look like me.

 I realize that I haven’t written very much about specific people in this blog. In large part this is because most of the people I’ve gotten to know well are either my students or work colleagues. I have ongoing day-to-day interactions with them, so they are important in my life here. I find that to write about people you have to some extent objectify them, reduce them to certain characteristics (“What is this person like?”). I have a hard time doing this with real people. I certainly have stories about people, and I will tell them in time. I also have a hard time generalizing about people. You often see statements like “X people are polite” or “kind” or “aggressive” or “stoic” or “energetic” or what have you. Some people seem fond of ascribing national characteristics. “Americans are loud.” Except for when they are not. It’s risky territory, trying to write about what people are like.

It’s easier to write about what people do. Along those lines, people have treated me and Emma in a very friendly way. People will jump in and help out when it’s clear that I am having trouble with the language, or when I am not sure how to do something. I have loved especially how Emma has been welcomed here in Mongolia. This doesn’t happen in the same way in the US. Children seem to be very important here. Children’s Day (June 1) is a national holiday. Kindergartens, which are everywhere, are the most brightly colored, beautifully decorated buildings. When we are out and about, we tend to see people interacting with children in gentle and loving ways. I have heard stories, though, of children being physically abused in schools, so it’s important not to judge by appearances. And my students have stories of strict parents who expect their kids to do as they are told. But it’s also been perfectly acceptable for me to prioritize Emma in my life—to look after her when she is sick, to try to be home when she gets home from school, to spend time with her in the evening and on weekends. People seem surprised when I show up at things without her: “Where is Emma?” If I say something like, “Oh, she is at a friend’s” or (last semester) “She’s at a rehearsal at school,” people say, “You should have brought her with you.” I try not to feel less interesting than she is, but sometimes it’s hard.

I’ve also noticed that it’s OK when people take time off work to care for sick children. In the US, I always feel like I should pretend I don’t have a child. When Emma was little, she was in daycare eight hours a day, sometimes more, so I could get work done. I would send her in sick, even, so I wouldn’t miss a class. When she got older, I could leave her at home alone, though there was a stage in between where I had to use the Super Expensive Babysitting Service to look after her when she was home from school. At MIU, our department secretary Gerelee’s son was sick with pneumonia in the winter (a too-common ailment here among children), and she stayed with him in the hospital for a week or two. I know Gerelee has struggled with childcare when her son has been sick, and she’s had to keep him out of kindergarten for long stretches of time because of illness, but her husband and parents have helped out as well.

My students here are also a nice change from my students in the USA. They are very friendly and polite, but as we’ve gotten to know each other better, they are also very curious and interested in life in other places. We have a lot of interesting conversations comparing life in Mongolia with life in America. Most of my students are women, as well, and we get into discussions about gender disparities here, and how they compare to the US. I’ll try to write more about this in a separate post (I feel like this one is quite rambling enough already). They will also seem very serious at times, and then suddenly erupt into bouts of laughter. They speak a lot of Mongolian with each other in class, so I don’t always understand what’s funny, though they usually explain it to me.

When Emma and I are out in the city, among strangers, people seem very serious in going about their business. Kids are often running around, yelling and roughhousing, especially now that the weather is warmer, but adults are often focused on what they are doing and where they are going. When I interact with people in stores, they seldom smile or say anything. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner, or if that is how people are here, but it reminds me of where I lived in the Boston area, where people usually wouldn’t talk to you unless you asked a direct question. It’s very different from the rote friendliness of southern California (which is often just surface friendliness, anyway). Maybe it has something to do with the climate; people conserve their energy for dealing with the cold. Maybe outward friendliness is a warm weather luxury.

Parents and kids out walking on a car-free day in downtown Ulaanbaatar

Part of it, too, is that I am not always outwardly friendly myself. I am a genuine introvert; talking with other people can be a strain for me. I am interested in people, but too much time with them leaves me exhausted. Teaching is quite challenging sometimes. I do often smile, though. Emma makes fun of me for not only smiling but emitting a little chuckle after I say hello to people around the dorm and on campus. “Why do you do that, Mom? It’s weird!” I am not sure why I do it, but I think it’s just a habit I got into at one point. Oh, here comes that weird white woman again. Why does she laugh when she says hello?

When we go back to the US, I am going to miss the people here. Not only the friends I’ve made, my colleagues, my students, but Mongolians in general. I am not looking forward to being among Americans again. Part of it is being able to understand what people are saying. People always seem more intelligent when you can’t understand them. I am used to having no idea what the conversations I overhear are about. I can safely ignore what other people are saying. It’s kind of relaxing. When I’m in the US, even if I am trying to keep to myself, I can’t help but overhear what other people are saying, and most of the time I’d rather not. But part of it is just how people here seem. They are usually calm and peaceful, a bit serious, and easy to coexist with.

I think for the most part, though, anywhere you go people are inscrutable. You can think you understand them, or you know the patterns of interaction you are supposed to use to interact smoothly with others, but especially when you are in a completely foreign culture, those patterns are often wrong. For example, I’ve often spent a bit too long waiting at a shop counter for the cashier to notice I am there. I’m so used to the constant American “Can I help you?” I’ll clear my throat and say “Hello?” and they will keep doing what they are doing, and then suddenly look up with surprise that I’m standing there. I also have this strong inclination to wait my turn, which a lot of Mongolians really don’t have. People will shove past me as if I am not there, and it goes against my grain to shove back. Still, people here are more forgiving of cluelessness than they are in Switzerland, say, and I do appreciate that. I occasionally feel like the dumb foreigner, but it’s usually because I’m being genuinely inept.

So, the Australian family at the Zaisan Hill food court, speaking a language I could understand, was a reminder that pretty soon I’m going to be back among fellow English-speakers in what’s still a majority-white environment (northern coastal San Diego County, which is quite a contrast to the Latino communities to the east and south). It will be kind of nice to be able to blend in a bit more easily. But I will still feel like a stranger in a strange land there. It will just seem more alienating, because I shouldn’t. They are supposed to be “my people,” after all.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on being a foreigner in Mongolia

    1. That’s a good question. Sometimes. I taught cross-cultural communication last semester and we talked about how humor is very culturally specific. Sometimes I’ll say something in class that I think is funny, and they don’t think it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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