I got up this morning (it’s 4:30 am) to work on my research project, but the Internet is down. This has happened a lot this week, after several months of pretty good service in the dorm where we live. The WiFi on campus has also started to be more erratic than usual. There are a lot of things about connectivity that I don’t really understand. For the last couple of mornings, there have been long periods where I could use Facebook and Messenger on my “American phone” (which has no cell service; it’s a glorified WiFi interface here), but not email or other apps, and no Internet on my laptop. I can’t really complain, though, because we’ve had a much better Internet connection here than I thought we would. It works well about 80% of the time, and most of the rest it’s just slow or intermittent, not out completely. But now, this is forcing me to write, even though initially I didn’t know what I wanted to write about.
We have four weeks left in Mongolia. It will go quickly. I’m kind of shocked that we’ve already reached this point. By now, the students have heard I’m leaving, or in the case of the freshman and junior classes I’m teaching, I’ve told them. I’m feeling so conflicted right now. Part of the stress is that my department has not managed to recruit a replacement for me yet. I’ve been working on it, but it’s not easy to find someone who wants to live and work in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for very little pay. You have to be in the right sort of circumstances to do that, as I was when I saw that email last March asking if anyone wanted to teach in Mongolia for a semester. (In my case, it turned into a year, and could have gone much longer if Emma had wanted to live here.) I am sure they will find people to cover the courses, because the university’s president is on a recruitment trip for the school now. But the students are unhappy, and I am very sad myself. Emma, on the other hand, is mostly thrilled, except that she’ll miss her friends.
So, four weeks left seems like a good time for both planning and reflection. I have made a list of places I wanted to see in Ulaanbaatar that we haven’t gotten to yet: The Choijin Lama Museum (which Emma calls the Trojan Llama Museum), the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the Ulaanbaatar City Museum, and the Ethnographic Museum are on the list. We’ll be taking one more trip out of the city to see Khuvsgul Lake, in the same rift system as Lake Baikal in Siberia (the deepest lake in the world). It’s where the reindeer herders live, the Tsaatan, who I’ve been wanting to see since I first heard about them. We’re going right when Emma gets out of school, and then we have about a week left to pack up and get ready for our visit to Japan.
There is a lot I wanted to see and do here that we didn’t get around to. When I realized a couple of days ago that we only had a month left (we leave on June 21), I had a flat-out panic attack. There was a lot I wanted to do myself that I didn’t have time for because my teaching schedule changed after I came here, to double the number of courses I was supposed to teach (four instead of two), so I had a lot less time than I thought I would to pursue my own interests in air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. I have a couple more interviews coming up, but that’s going to have to be it, for now. Being sick for much of the month of May didn’t help, either.
But when I think about what I have done, and what we have done, I feel like our time here was well spent. I have thoroughly enjoyed my teaching at MIU, especially getting to know the students. I will miss them very much. And Emma made a really good group of friends at school that will (hopefully) keep in touch through digital media of various sorts. In the second half of the school year she became close friends with a boy from South Africa who is a fellow artist. They exchange drawings and chat online already, so that will probably keep up after we leave. Unfortunately, as we were discussing the other day, there isn’t one online forum that they all use, where they could get together in group chats. Some use Google Hangouts, some use Instagram, some use Skype. But at least it’s easier to stay in touch now than it was when I was her age.
I’ve also (so far) written 66 blog posts (including this one), plus a few partial posts that I need to finish, plus however many more I write over the next four weeks, plus parts of the book that I am spinning off of this blog, that so far has the same title. I will also be continuing to write when we are back in California, on issues of reentry and what our plans are for our next overseas adventure, and I have another blog I’ve set up called “Alien in North County.” (I set it up a few years ago but never got it going. Without any posts, and without having gone live, it somehow has 6 followers!) I also have a lot of material for my website, Green Path Solutions (https://greenpathsolutions.biz/).
Both Emma and I have grown a lot from our experience here. I have regained a lot of the confidence that I had lost in my terrible work situation in San Diego. I have figured out how I really want to spend my time. I have learned a lot about Mongolia and Mongolians, through teaching at MIU and the conversations I’ve had with people elsewhere in Ulaanbaatar. And I have new perspectives on the issues I really care about, especially the impact of our climate crisis.
Emma has had a chance to experience a way of life that is very different from what she was used to in northern San Diego County. I am really looking forward to her perspectives on our life there when we go back. She and I are both committed to moving somewhere else after she finishes 8th grade in June 2020. She has developed a lot as an artist. She has also learned a lot in navigating a more conventional school than what she was used to in California. Her school here was certainly a bit of a nightmare at times, but she has learned how to handle difficult teachers, difficult peers, and incomprehensible expectations, which is what characterizes the school experience for most kids around the world. She has also had some very good teachers, with wicked senses of humor, who have helped her to grow as a person. And, as I mentioned, she’s made some really good friends.
Our perspective on the US has shifted as well. It was good to have it not be “home” for a while, though we are obviously still citizens. From here, it feels like the country has changed a lot since we left. Perhaps become more itself. We were in a bit of a bubble in our North County community, and for us that bubble has burst. I was never entirely at home in it, but Emma was, because she hadn’t known anything different until now. Of course, it’s difficult to talk about a country as vast and varied as the US in a unified sense. It’s definitely a country of many cultures, and the perception some people seem to have that the US used to be a country of liberty and equality but isn’t now under the current administration belies the lived experience of most Americans since the country was founded. The perception that some people have that we are moving towards more freedom and equality is based on white nationalism and patriarchy. It’s abundantly clear that people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants are still not fully citizens of the US in the way that most cisgendered, heterosexual, white men who were born in the US are. Many of my friends say this is the last hurrah of white nationalism and the patriarchy, and I hope it is (of course, they wouldn’t go out without throwing a hissy fit), but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for life on Earth.
Speaking of which, what has been the most unsettling for me has been the US government’s turn away from any responsibility for our environment or our climate crisis. The unraveling of the EPA, the co-optation of the Department of the Interior by the fossil fuel industry, and the general complacency of the American public as this has happened have been upsetting to see. Especially since Emma and I have been living in a country that has seen terrible disruption already because of our climate crisis, and where hundreds of people die every year because of the continued use of fossil fuels. We can see what happens when you don’t regulate air quality. We can see what is happening because our global environment has been traded in so that a few billionaires can accumulate more wealth. We can see the unequal distribution of responsibility and impact. It is real.
So, we are going back to the US with new perspectives and a new feeling of what it means to be living on Planet Earth in the Anthropocene, this epoch characterized by our species’ overwhelming impact on our only home’s geology and ecosystems. We don’t really know what the future will hold for us as a family or for our species, but we have a deeper appreciation of how amazing the world is, and how much we don’t want to see it destroyed. This has been Mongolia’s gift to us, and we hope we can live up to it.