It’s my second morning waking up in Ulaanbaatar. I actually woke up several times this morning, starting at 12:35 am, then back to sleep sometime around 2. I woke up again at around 3:30, and after a decent-feeling sleep I woke up for the last time at 5:30. Tonight, I have to remember the melatonin.
It feels good to be back here. Really good. Part of it is that everything is so familiar, and I have, a couple of times, almost tricked myself into thinking that we are back for another school year. Yesterday was the first faculty meeting of the year, and while MIU has had significant changes in personnel and some new administrative positions, the cycle of the school year is much the same. I even had the feeling a few times that Emma was here, too—just off at her school for the day and coming home by taxi as usual. Then I’d remember I’m only here for three weeks, and she is with friends in California, getting ready to start her school year there. And, knowing how these things go, the first few days will pass very slowly, but then things will pick up and it will be over before I know it. So I also feel a bit like a ghost here, haunting my old stomping grounds but doomed to fade in too short a time.
The trip over was uneventful, compared to last year. In fact, it was downright boring, which doesn’t make for an interesting blog post, though I suppose it merits a paragraph or two. I flew Korean Air this time, and that could be why it went well. I started with a short Delta flight up to LAX, and then a surprisingly easy transfer from Terminal 2 to Terminal B (the international terminal) by a bus that isn’t described on the official LAX website. I got to the gate in plenty of time for the next flight to Seoul-Incheon International Airport. The humongous Airbus 380 was waiting; I had never flown in one of those before. We boarded and departed uneventfully, and the flight went very smoothly. I was kind of dreading having the same exact vegetarian meal I’d had on every other Korean Air flight; white beans, couscous, and squash stuffed with rice. Not a bad meal, especially for economy class airplane food, but we had it on two flights to and from Thailand, as well as to and from Tokyo, so after eight encounters in a relatively short span of time, it was getting tedious. The longer flight over the Pacific, though, had a very different meal. Green salad (fresh, even!), with ratatouille, steamed spinach, and rice. There was a second meal served a little too far out from arrival (three and a half hours), which I barely remember because I was asleep when they served it, though they woke me up for it. I suppose it was meant to be breakfast; this time it was steamed vegetables with rice, and fruit on the side. These are probably some of the better vegetarian meals I have had on any airline; they were vegan, though I had ordered ovo-lacto, and the food was not overcooked.
Even though I slept for a few hours, I also caught up on movies during the 13-hour flight: I watched Tolkein, All is True, and Red Joan. I was awake for all of Red Joan and Tolkein, but I passed out during All is True, so I watched it a second time to catch the first half. Dame Judi Dench was wonderful as Shakespeare’s wife Anne, and also as Joan Stanley in Red Joan, so I was happy. Finally, we landed at ICN at around 5:00 pm the next day (I left on Tuesday morning, and it was now Wednesday), and I had just enough time to clear transit security and walk the long, long walk to the gate that my third flight was leaving from—Korean Air again to Ulaanbaatar. I think I fell asleep on the plane again, because suddenly I was looking out at the characteristic street layout of the Mongolian capitol, as we flew the length of the city from east to west before turning and descending into Chinggis Khan International Airport. I could easily spot the conjunction of roads where the MIU campus sits.
On each of the flights, the seat next to me happened to be empty, so I felt like Emma’s ghost was traveling with me. I thought she would have liked the film Tolkein, and we will probably watch it together after I get back to California. Walking through ICN’s Terminal 2, I kept remembering the time spent there with her, especially our early morning layover on the way to Bangkok when she managed to sleep on the floor of the transit lounge where we had ended up because the Nap Zone had loud snorers in it. It definitely felt strange to be headed back to UB without her.
Once I landed in UB, I found Gerelee, my department secretary and good friend, waiting outside of baggage claim/customs. ULN is a dream airport to arrive at. It’s small, and not many international flights land there, so the lines at immigration are not very long. It also has the chillest immigration officers I’ve ever encountered. The guy this time asked for my residence card because of my expired residence visa, but I explained that I was back as a tourist, and he even smiled. Astonishing. Waiting for my bag took a while, but it was there, and out I went to see Gerelee’s smiling face. She said we were waiting for another student who was coming in on my flight. Apparently not, because we waited for over an hour, but no student. Eventually we gave up and headed for MIU. At this point, it was around 11 pm. Our driver was tired from picking people up at the airport all night the previous night, so at one point on the road along the mountain side of the Tuul River, he pulled over to let Gerelee drive the rest of the way.
The drive to MIU was so familiar. We went past Zaisan Hill, where Emma had had her 13th birthday party and also hung out a couple of times with her friend Ab (not his real name, but it’s what she called him when she couldn’t remember his real name, and it stuck). I heard their laughter as we drove by. Even that late on a Wednesday night the tank memorial was all lit up, and behind it the steps leading up to the Zaisan memorial. I had seen the memorial from overhead on our approach to the airport, and it brought back vivid memories of my climb up there last spring. We crossed the Tuul River near the president’s house, and drove past River Garden, where Ab lives, and then on past Emma’s school, the National Park, a dark and silent Naran Tuul market, around the two traffic circles on either side of MIU, and into the parking lot. Gerelee drove right up to the dorm entrance, and I got my bags out and realized, after she handed me the key to my room and drove off, that I couldn’t remember the door code to get in. I punched several combinations, all of them wrong, before walking towards the parking lot to get some help. The security guard punched the code for me and let me in, but I didn’t quite see it over his shoulder. I’d have to ask someone tomorrow.
I took the talking elevator, my old friend, up to the fourth floor (“Fourth floor, going up. De door is closing”), to room 406, which is my home while I’m here this time. It’s on the opposite end of the building from our old apartment, 503, which had the wonderful view of the Bogd Khan mountain. This time, I get a sunrise view, but no sunset, and I can barely see some hills to the east and north of campus, past the apartment blocks on this side of the city. My balcony overlooks campus. I have two rooms, one of them furnished with a desk and a few of the lockers they give students to store their stuff in, and the other with a bed and another locker. The fourth floor of the dorm houses graduate students and LEI students (the university’s language school, Language Education Institute), so it doesn’t have the population density of the first three floors, where something like 16 students sleep in bunkbeds in each set of rooms. But it’s more densely populated than the fifth floor, which was mainly faculty apartments, and from what I recall from last year, it can get pretty noisy. So it will be a lively few weeks.
By the time I got to my rooms, I was wide awake again, so I took a few minutes to look around and decide how to use the space. Besides the two rooms, I also have a “kitchen,” which has a refrigerator, an electric burner for a stove set on a table, and another desk and chair, which I can use for food storage and prep. There is no sink, but I can use the bathroom sink to wash dishes. Earlier in the day, Gerelee had brought over the stuff I had left for my friend Nadine to use when she came to teach a summer intensive course, and for me to use now. There were two wool duvets and a pillow for the bed, but no sheets, as well as a box of pots and pans, a few bags of kitchen stuff, a rice cooker, and a bedside lamp. There were also three suitcases that were not mine in the kitchen, some stuff covered with a towel on the desk in the kitchen, and someone else’s clothes in one of the lockers in the bedroom. I knew I wasn’t going to have a roommate, so I decided to ask about it the next day. Someone had moved out in a hurry, I guess, and not quite finished.
Looking around my rooms is when I really started to have the feeling of being a ghost. I’d had ghost Emma with me on the trip over, sitting in the empty seats beside me and walking through ICN, waiting with me for the suitcase in baggage claim at ULN. But now I am the ghost, haunting a familiar but unfamiliar room in our old home. The floor, the moulding lining the walls, the desk and chair, and the rock-hard bed all bring me back to our old place, one floor up and down the hall. The wallpaper here is a little different, a pale, slightly sparkly bluish grey. But the place is similar enough. Several times since arriving I’ve caught myself waiting for Emma to come home from school, though this space would be too small for the two of us.
As I get back into the MIU routine, starting with that first faculty meeting, I find myself thinking that we are back for another year, me and Emma, and anticipating the year ahead. The walk across to M building and my department office triggers this feeling, as I think about how it feels now in the warm sunshine and how it will feel in the frigid, dark, polluted winter mornings. As much as I look forward to getting back to Emma and our home in California, I can’t help but wish for another year here at MIU. I’m glad I could be here even for a few weeks, but part of me also feels like maybe this was a mistake, a misguided desire to turn back the clock to last August, when the year before us was an exciting unknown, instead of now, when our year in Mongolia is over and done, and I’m facing one last year of our life in California before who knows what comes next. Or, maybe I’m just here because I can be, and because it feels like the right thing to do for the students, who really don’t like the online classes.
I also can’t help the feeling that I’ve come home. Walking around campus, going across the road to the Tenger Plaza supermarket, and down the street to Nomin Wholesale to buy sheets, all feels like home to me, and our summer in Carlsbad has all but faded from my memory. What is home, after all, but the familiar? The place we know so well we can navigate without even thinking about it? The place where we live right now? But, I remind myself, this is only for three weeks. Three weeks from today (it’s Saturday morning now as I wrap up this post), I will be waking up in Carlsbad and going to pick Emma up from her friend’s house, eager to hear her stories about the first few weeks of school. This first weekend will pass slowly, but once the routine of classes begins on Monday, time will rush forward, accelerating heedlessly until I get on that plane to start my way back to California.
Seeing people here has also produced mixed feelings. People are happy to see me. I’ve already run into several of my former and future students, and they are all as glad I am here as I am. Many of the faculty have expressed confusion: “I thought you left?” It’s strangely difficult to explain the situation. I’m here because I was asked to teach two courses online this fall, but I had enough time before my classes started at UCSD to come over for a few weeks to start the semester here in person. I couldn’t come back for the whole year because I had promised Emma, after a disappointing year at her Very Expensive School here (which I couldn’t have afforded for another year anyway), that she could attend 8th grade in her old school in California. We both needed this to happen for her. Also, I have a job and a house in California, and two dogs that would freeze to death in a Mongolian winter. At this point in my life right now, I need to be living in Carlsbad, but Emma’s school there ends after 8th grade, so we will be moving on after that. The exact location is yet to be determined, but it likely won’t be Mongolia. Even so, we will always have a connection to this place, an attachment, and Emma talks about wanting to visit again, to see her old friends here before they move to other places. We think about coming back next summer.
So, I will be haunting MIU for the next three weeks, teaching and living here, gradually fading until I disappear entirely, only to persist as a voice online, guiding my two classes through the rest of the semester. I will leave a good chunk of my heart here, but another chunk of it is waiting for me back in California, about to start her last summer weekend before 8th grade begins. I feel fortunate to have this connection to MIU, and to Mongolia, and very, very lucky to have a daughter who shares it with me enough to say that it’s OK for me to miss her first three weeks of 8th grade to come back here.