How it all began

I am writing a book based on our experience in Mongolia, and this morning I wrote out how it all got started. People still ask me how we ended up going to Mongolia. Here’s how:

The email subject line was “Teach in Mongolia?” It was from a professor in my department at UCSD, sent out to the Communication department’s email list, and it changed my life.

I opened the email and read:

“Anyone interested in teaching in Mongolia?  Woo Hyun Won, a senior Korean scholar who has been a Visiting Scholar in our department a couple of times, is running the communication department Mongolia International University.  He is looking for people—including graduate students—who might want to go to teach for a semester, in English.  If anyone is interested in such an adventure I can get more details for you!”

I replied as soon as I saw it. “I am very interested in doing this. Do you have more details?” It was Tuesday, March 6, and I didn’t get a reply from Dan for a couple of days. In the meanwhile, I looked up Mongolia and Mongolia International University. It definitely looked interesting. A complete change of scene.

I knew very little about Mongolia when I saw that initial email. The association with “Genghis Khan” as we know him here in the US, and nomads on horseback were about all that came to mind. I didn’t even remember the name of the capital: Ulan Bator was what I’d learned, but it’s now more commonly written as Ulaanbaatar, which matches the pronunciation much more. (The double vowels intrigued me, and I later learned that it’s to make you pronounce them; otherwise, vowels are often swallowed in the Mongolian language, so it sounds like a string of consonants being spit out rapid-fire. “Ulaanbaatar” is pronounced like “oolahnbahtr, more or less.)

That evening, I also did another important thing. “Emma, how would you like to spend a few months in Mongolia this fall?” Emma is my daughter; she was nearly 12 at the time, and our family is just the two of us, so having her on board would be essential.

Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Only if we can go to Japan on the way.” Like many kids her age, she was obsessed with Japanese manga and anime, and she’d been wanting to go to Japan for a while. “Wait, Japan would be on the way, right?”

“Yes, it’s in the right direction,” I replied.

She laughed. “Remember when I thought Japan was in Europe? Is Mongolia in Europe?”

“No, it’s in Asia. Like Japan.” It was true; she did think Japan was in Europe, earlier that year, even. She was doing a presentation on Tokyo at her school, and had a line in there about Europe, until her teacher looked at her funny, and she did a little more research. Of course, Asia’s pretty huge, and parts of it are right next to Europe, but still.

Mongolia is in Asia…

Then something dawned on her. “What about school?” She was about to graduate from 6th grade, but we’d been planning for her to go to the middle school at her school for years. It was an amazing program with two incredible teachers, and she had been really looking forward to it.

I didn’t want to get into too much detail before I knew any more about the opportunity, but at the time I assumed it would be for fall semester and we’d be back by Christmas. “I’m sure there’s some kind of school there you can go to for a few months, and I’m sure Village Gate wouldn’t mind if you missed part of the year for something like this. We can figure it out.”

She seemed generally OK with the idea, and she didn’t know anything about Mongolia either, so we started looking it up.

Over the next week or so, I found out more details from Professor Won, whom I was able to meet with in my office on campus. He was a dapper man with silver hair and a round, friendly face. He smiled a lot and punctuated his sentences with, “Do you understand what I mean?” (I found out quickly that I didn’t always, so it was a good question.) He explained that MIU (as the university is known) doesn’t have much money and wouldn’t be able to pay much. He also explained that the students’ English was not very good, and their academic level wasn’t what I was used to from teaching at UCSD. None of that mattered to me; I had taught for a year at Mekelle Business College in Mekelle, Ethiopia, which had similar problems, so this was familiar territory for me. He also explained that the faculty were mostly missionaries, but that they didn’t expect me to be a missionary. This was good, because I would be a very unlikely missionary; other people’s religious beliefs are personal and none of my business. I thought it would certainly be an interesting cultural experience to be in that environment (and I was definitely right, turns out).

By that evening (it was Tuesday, March 13), I was sending an email to Professor Won summarizing our discussion and reiterating my interest in teaching at MIU for a semester. I had explained that Emma’s school participated in a Model United Nations program in the winter and spring, and she would want to be back for that, but that if there was mutual satisfaction with my work there, we might consider returning to Mongolia for a longer period. MIU’s need for faculty was dire, and they really wanted people who could stay longer than a semester, despite what Dan’s initial email had said.

Professor Won called me in response to the email, asking if there was a way I could stay for the whole year. I was still operating under the influence of the initial request for a semester of teaching, so I said I’d have to discuss it with Emma. He was returning to Mongolia on March 15, so we’d have to figure it out quickly. What transpired over the next day was a feverish back-and-forth between Professor Won and myself, and some longer discussions with Emma, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to spending a full year in Mongolia if we couldn’t figure something else out. We discussed having her stay with another family in Encinitas for a few months while I taught spring semester, and other possibilities. But in the end, when I went up to say good night to her that evening, she said, “Mom, I want to stay with you. I can go for the whole year.”

As the next several weeks unfolded, I felt a constant rush of emotions. I was grateful to have a kid who would say yes to spending a year in a country she didn’t know anything about and miss a year at a school she loved. That was just amazing to me. A year is a long time at that age, though it’s a blink for us older folks. I felt panic that somehow it wouldn’t work out, because once I have made up my mind to do something, I tend to get fixated on it. (Let me tell you about how I got pregnant with Emma. Oh, wait, I probably will, later on in this book.) I questioned my own sanity. I mean, we have a house in Carlsbad, with a full stock of animals (at the time it was two dogs, two rabbits, two hamsters, a California desert tortoise, a parakeet, and a bunch of fish), and leaving that for a year would be complicated.

But underneath all of that, I felt an incredible excitement. I could finally go back overseas again! Since I had spent nearly a year in Ethiopia for my PhD research in 2003-2004, I had been more or less continuously in the US, except for some international travel with Emma. Here was a chance to spend a significant amount of time in a completely new country, doing meaningful work (did I mention they really needed teachers?), learning a new language, experiencing new people and places, and best of all, doing it all with my favorite person on the planet. My years in California had left me dying on the inside; my reasons for staying so long were complicated, but by this point, we were mainly committed to finishing up Emma’s school through 8th grade (June 2020), and we had been talking about moving away for three years already.

Here was a chance (maybe) to get started on that dream.

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