What we miss about living in Mongolia

Our view of Misheel Expo and Bogd Khan Uul on our last day in Mongolia

Now that we are back in the US, our experience of Mongolia has entered a new phase. We both miss it and talk about our life there a lot. Emma of course misses her friends. She had her first couple of social outings with friends from her old school, both group events (the beach and bowling), and while she loves being back and is looking forward to the school year, after each one she said, “I really miss my friends in Mongolia” and described how each event would have been had they been there. (“Ab would have grabbed something of mine and run off with it, and I would have chased him, and Charlie would have grabbed it, and we both would have run after him.” This is how she spent her brief recess at school, running after and wresting with her friends.) We knew this part of it would be the hardest for her, so we’ve been talking about it for a while now. She is still in touch with her friends in Mongolia via various social media (they all seem to use different ones), but of course it’s not the same. We’re also talking about going back next summer, though that will depend on where my next job is.

Aside from her friends, she misses “how chill people are there.” Our life there was a lot more relaxed than our life here is, and she’s noticed how demanding people here are, and how they expect everything to go their way. I was telling her about a woman I encountered in the supermarket parking lot who seemed to be really upset that I was putting my shopping cart away in one half of a two-part cart corral while she was taking a cart out of the other half. I wasn’t anywhere near her, and I wasn’t going to be near her, but she had to stop and watch me carefully to make sure I didn’t abruptly attack her or something. (She was getting a different sized cart, or I would have just offered her mine.) Emma replied, “I miss the chillness of Mongolians.”

And today, when I was picking her up from her first art class at a new art school, Emma suddenly said, “I miss Help Taxi.” Help Taxi is the English-speaking taxi service we used to get her to and from school. She said she misses taking the taxis, and especially one driver (plate number 4900) whom she had a lot towards the end of our stay, who would talk to her about books and sometimes give her French lessons. I don’t miss having to remember to reserve taxis for her, but I’ve got to say, I miss having taxis take her to school every day, too, and I will miss it a lot more once school here starts up. For Emma, it meant a certain independence from me, and a feeling of making her way through the world on her own, every day. Parents driving kids to school does them no good, but it’s the system we created for ourselves in my part of California by defunding school districts (including busing) and crippling public transportation.

Taking a taxi: Better him than me

We both also miss the random animal parts we used to see while going for walks in our old neighborhood. We had a game we played that the first person to spot an animal part would get chocolate when we got home. “Look, there’s a dog ear.” “Oh, hey, someone’s vertebra.” “Oops, someone lost their skull.” She really wanted to take one of the skulls home, which would have been cool but would have taken too much room in the suitcase (though we did see quite a few smaller dog skulls). It also might have been hard to explain to customs. Who knows, maybe we’ll find one here somewhere.

Sheepskin in garbage dumped along roadside

I miss people very much, especially my students and colleagues at Mongolia International University, but also just Mongolians generally. Probably because I couldn’t understand much of what people were talking about, I agree with Emma’s assessment that Mongolians seem a lot more relaxed than the people we’re surrounded by in northern San Diego County. More willing to take life as it comes instead of forcing it into their own expectations. We also both miss the Mongolian language and how interesting and different it sounds from any other language we’d heard. We are both a bit sad now about being able to understand what people are saying. Sometimes it’s just better not to. And, since I was studying Mongolian as well, I miss eavesdropping on conversations and trying to understand them, or at least the one or two words I could sometimes pick out of the rapid stream of utterances issuing from people’s mouths. That “Aha!” feeling of suddenly knowing what people are talking about, if not exactly what they are saying. And I miss reading the Cyrillic alphabet. I was finally getting good at it.

I really miss the sky. We see it every once in a while when we are out and about, but we don’t see very much of it from our house, because there’s a steep hill out back and too many trees. I love the trees, and I missed trees in Ulaanbaatar, but now I miss the amazing cloudscapes we could see so easily there. Especially from our fifth-floor apartment with its amazing southern and western views. Even when we were going around in the city, the sky was such a major presence. And out in the countryside, it was half the world. I realized here how little of the sky we see here when we were driving home on El Camino Real the other day, and there was an amazing array of different types of clouds, with some thunderheads behind them. It reminded me of Mongolia.

I miss the simplicity of our life there. We had an apartment instead of a house – much easier to take care of. The longer I’ve had my house, the more I’ve become a fan of not being responsible for repairs and maintenance. And we had less stuff in Mongolia, so it was much easier to clean the place. Here, I’m always have to maneuver around furniture with the vacuum cleaner, instead of being able to move in straight lines. I miss the open space of our apartment, even though it wasn’t that big.

And having a car again, and having to use it, is not my favorite thing. The car still ran when we got back because the house sitter had driven it just enough to keep the battery alive. But one of the first things I had to do when we got back was take it in to get the air conditioning recharged. I didn’t get around to it until after Emma’s summer camp at the San Diego Safari Park out in Escondido, where it’s about 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is in Carlsbad. It involved 500 miles of driving during the week of the camp, because it’s 25 miles one way, and the afternoon drives were hot, hot, hot. I am also just not a fan of driving, for a whole host of reasons. It’s terribly inefficient from an energy standpoint (everyone having their own car? Crazy!). Plus, the greenhouse gas emissions and the contribution to our climate crisis. But this was Emma’s only summer camp this year, and it’s one she’s done every year since first grade, and this is the last year she’ll be doing it. And she had a great time, learning a lot about everything from elephant endocrinology to animal surgeries to habitat design. It fueled several new career aspirations. So I guess the driving was worth it, though my favorite days are the ones where I don’t drive.

In general, I am feeling overwhelmed by how complicated our life here is. I had six months of mail waiting for me when I got back, after six months of receiving no mail. I went through it on our first day back, threw most of it in the recycle bin, and started dealing with the rest of it. There wasn’t very much important stuff because I do almost everything electronically, but there were a couple of surprises. I have a long list of things I have to do, some of which were put off from before we left for Mongolia, and every day is spent tackling one aspect of house repair or another, cleaning, sorting through Emma’s stuff because she outgrew a lot while we were away, making phone calls, checking various accounts, getting the yard back in shape again, and generally getting back into the swing of life here.

But one huge benefit of having separated ourselves from this life for a year has been the gift of perspective, of realizing what is necessary (not much) and what is expendable (most of it). We are paring down, letting go of old habits and practices, and figuring out what we really need and want. For Emma, this had meant taking a hard look at her toys and other possessions and realizing that she really doesn’t need a lot of them. Also, while we were in Mongolia, she focused on drawing, and that has become her main interest. From second grade to sixth grade, her after-school hours were spent shuttling to one activity after another that she had wanted to try, or that were necessary to do outside of school: swimming lessons, gymnastics, Irish dance, horseback riding, art, ice skating, acting, tennis. We don’t regret that time; she had the opportunity to experiment, which many kids don’t have. But we’re both kind of relieved to pare it down to art and running.

And I was finally able to develop a regular writing habit. This is something I had wanted for a long time, but I’d never been able to incorporate it into my daily life as much as I could in Mongolia. I need to keep it up now that we’re back in the messiness of southern California, with its inefficient lifestyle and endless demands on one’s time.

Most of all, I simply miss Mongolia. The feel of the place. The rhythm of life there. The stark contrast between the city and the countryside. The craziness of the traffic (and not having to drive in it myself). The walkability of the city and the frequency of the buses. The fascinating mix of cultures in Ulaanbaatar. The feeling of being at a global crossroads. The incredible potential of the place tempered by the despair of how difficult it seems to get even simple things done. Even the extreme, interminable coldness of the winter. (But not the air pollution; I definitely don’t miss that. Though I miss the opportunity to learn firsthand about it; still a couple of posts coming on that front.)

Crossroads

And I really miss how alive I felt when I was there, because of all of that. Honestly, I think I laughed more in one year in Mongolia than I had in 18 years in southern California. I’m lucky enough to be going back for three weeks in September, but I know that time will go quickly. Far too quickly. And then I’m not sure when, or even if, I’ll be back again. But I certainly hope so.

16 thoughts on “What we miss about living in Mongolia

  1. Thanks for this, Jericho. I was on a bike ride yesterday in Wisconsin and I was thinking about how I love the trees here, but I miss the Mongolian sky. I grew up with a sky like that and it was so nice to see it again.

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  2. I love this kind of new-perspective writing, and I love getting to learn more about Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar from you. It’s also great to see the things which Emma did enjoy of your life there. Wishing you both luck with incorporating the newly-discovered ways-you-want-to-live into your current lives!Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Thanks, Anne. It was really past time for a shake-up. I have lived in the San Diego area longer than I have lived in any one place my entire life (19 years minus one year each in Ethiopia, Pittsburgh, and Mongolia). I’ve been tired of it for a while, but Emma’s school is really great, so one more year!

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  3. Your feelings resonate so much with me. My favorite days are the ones with no driving. One of the best days of my life was the day I sold my house and stopped being responsible for it. Simple spaces without clutter make me happy (and are so much easier to clean). It sounds like you both learned so much in the past year about what’s important to you and how you want to live. That knowledge and the experiences that created it are priceless!

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    1. I love our house, but I’m also really looking forward to selling it next summer. It will be such a relief. Yes, the year in Mongolia was a great test of how we want to live next, and how I want to live from here on out.

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  4. Thank you, bagsha! For the Intrtersting articles that you share with us! I really like them))) Yes, Mongolia is an unique country and has its own atmosphere and small things that you seem like you cannot live without (I have the same feeling, when I am at home in Russia)

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    1. Hi Dima! Thank you for the comment and kind words! It’s funny how a person get used to living in a place fairly quickly and miss it so much when they go “home.” I’m glad you have the opportunity to experience life (and education) in another country. I think it’s good for expanding one’s perspective. Looking forward to seeing you again in Ulaanbaatar in another month!

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  5. mongolia is in my bucket list. it seems like an uncomplicated place where life is not much of a rat race. what i learn here is that there is more beauty and more love in making one’s life simpler. how do i sign up?

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    1. I definitely loved living there, though the city can be a bit crazy and things don’t always make sense. But that’s part of the fun. I really recommend at least a visit!

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    1. What are you interested in doing? If you have an advanced degree, there’s a university that needs professors! I’ll be back in September, but only for a few weeks. Do you have something specific in mind?

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  6. Welcome back Jericho and Emma! Great post as always. Your comment of “I laughed more in one year in Mongolia than I had in 18 years in southern California” makes me really sad… it’s so easy to forget to enjoy our lives in this hectic world we live in. I cannot move to Mongolia but I will try to remember to relax and laugh more.

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