What we learned from living in Mongolia

A “ger” tissue box

I wanted to write about our time in Mongolia for a number of reasons. I have lived overseas several times in my life, but many of my experiences are lost to me because I never consistently wrote about them. You always think you are going to remember things, but you start to forget almost immediately. Emma tells me stories about her childhood that I already can’t remember. When she forgets them, they will be gone. Forgetting is part of the human condition; foreign policy mistakes, and public support for them, provide ample evidence of this. But in recording our experiences, thoughts, and feelings while in Mongolia, I felt that we would have some sort of record of what it was like. So my primary motivation has been personal.

But I also want to share with others. Otherwise, I would have just kept a journal (which I have never been very good at), rather than creating a blog and writing a book manuscript. One of the things that I have felt over my years of teaching and just generally interacting with people is that we don’t know nearly enough about what life is like for other people in the world. This is particularly important for Americans, because our country has such a huge impact in the world, and most Americans are almost completely ignorant about it. This has struck me over and over again since I was an anthropology major in college. I once had the idea that it should be mandatory for American high school students to spend a semester or a year overseas so that they could understand that the rest of the world isn’t like the US, and that when we make decisions here in the US—whether choosing a political candidate or what to buy at the supermarket—it affects people living elsewhere in ways we can’t imagine. The human version of the butterfly effect, I suppose.

When I had my daughter Emma, the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to raise someone who understood this. Who got it in her bones the way I did. One of my vivid memories post-childbirth was being high as a kite on some anesthetic while they were patching me up (I went through the birth without any drugs, only to need a spinal block afterwards) and telling my doula that my kid was going to travel the world. And we’ve traveled a lot.

But living in Mongolia was the start of something new for her. At the end of our time there, she was looking forward to coming back to California, but shortly after we got back, she started saying how much she missed Mongolia. Of course, she misses her friends there a lot, especially a kid she always called “Ab” because when she first heard his name she couldn’t remember it. Ab was a very fun kid who was also into art, and they used to chase each other through the school halls and around the gym. Emma’s always liked to wrestle with other kids, and unfortunately most of the kids she knows in the US haven’t been into it, but Ab (possibly because he had younger brothers) was happy to oblige. That was one good thing she learned: the American aversion to physical contact between children isn’t universal, and some kids even think it’s fun.

One of the things she talks about a lot now is how the kids at her school in Encinitas don’t get that people are really different in other countries, and that life is really different. I remind her that they are 7th and 8th graders who haven’t had a chance to experience much yet, and many of them haven’t been encouraged to form their own ideas and opinions yet, either. Vacationing overseas is one thing, but experiencing daily life in another culture is something different. You stop being able to take what you know for granted. None of them have had this experience yet, and some of them never will.

For her, as it was for me, the line that become the hardest to buy is that the United States is somehow the “best” country in the world. For much of her life she’s heard a steady litany from me about the problems our country faces, from increasing inequality to severe environmental destruction to rampant gun violence. In a way, I did this to counterbalance the prevalent attitude that the US is better than other places. Living in Mongolia showed her firsthand that life elsewhere is good too. Every place has its struggles, but every place also has a lot of good things, too. The problems begin when you assume that your way is the best way, simply because you are used to it, and that you have nothing to learn from others.

In Mongolia, some of the things we learned about were the role of history, cultural identity, and family. White Americans have largely been deprived of these things, as we exist increasingly in isolated nuclear families devoid of a specific sense of history or culture. Many people argue that an awareness of history and culture are limiting, acting as straightjackets or blinders that keep us from the continual reinvention that life in the United States seems to demand. But we are who we are—all of us—because of history and culture, and understanding that can be liberating as well. To quote Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier,” “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.”

This is certainly not to say that history is a “true” reflection of the past. Mongolia had its own period of historical erasure under the Communists, and the national history that has been deployed since then is highly selective, just as our stories about the founding fathers are in the United States. Chinggis Khan has been resurrected from the ashes and become a symbol of Mongolian exceptionalism, which is not all that different from American exceptionalism or the other nationalisms that abound in the early 21st century. And in some ways urban Mongolians are becoming cut off from their past as well, as they seek to reinvent Ulaanbaatar as a capitalist commercial crossroads (albeit overlaying the “traditional” control of businesses by family, as well as Chinese domination of the market). But nearly everyone I met there had relatives in the countryside and would go visit them on a regular basis, maintaining a connection to the kind of life Mongolians have been living for centuries.

Chinggis Khan

One thing that I was astonished to learn soon after I arrived was that it is OK for professional women to have children. In fact, it is actively encouraged, and there are systems in place than enable working women to keep their jobs even after they have children. There is paid parental leave, and women can be given up to two years off following childbirth with the guarantee that they will be able to return to their job afterwards. Five months of the leave are paid by the employer, and the Mongolian government provides an allowance after that. Not the full salary, but as Gerelee (my department secretary) told me, enough of it to make a substantial contribution to supporting the family. Mongolian kindergarten starts at age 2, so that parents can return to work, but the first two years are considered important bonding time for mother and child.

Some of the encouragement to have children by the state is with the idea of increasing the Mongolian population for nationalistic purposes. One of the national holidays is International Women’s Day, on March 8th, as is International Children’s Day (June 1). There are big public celebrations on June 1, as well as a tradition of giving children gifts. I was surprised to learn that the government gives out medals and cash awards to women based on the number of children they have, starting with four children. I’m not sure how these medals are regarded, and whether they actually influence women’s decisions to have children. The women who told me about them were laughing about them and thought they were “kind of strange,” but it was clear that from the government’s point of view, the more kids the better. This is at odds with Mongolia’s precarious natural environment; for example, the lack of water in Ulaanbaatar calls its expansion and even its future into serious question. But after my experience of having a child in a profession that actively discourages women from having children (but rewards men for it), the fact that having a family could be considered a normal part of life was refreshing.

“Children’s Day” celebration at Bayanzurkh City Hall

This doesn’t mean that there is gender equality in Mongolia, and it’s possible that women could also be penalized economically in the long run (I haven’t seen any studies about this). It just means that from a social standpoint, having children isn’t held against women the way it is in my experience in the US. For example, there was a professor in my department at the University of Florida who wouldn’t take women as advisees because they were “only going to have babies.” Of course, this is technically illegal, but it’s a prevalent attitude in academia.

My Mongolian students also spoke of certain familiar forms of discrimination against women. We talked about gender a lot in my cross-cultural communication class, and they told me that while it’s generally OK for Mongolian men to have foreign girlfriends and wives, it’s not OK for Mongolian women to date or marry foreigners because it dilutes the Mongolian blood. This was something they felt as discrimination, and in need of change, and quite similar to attitudes about interracial relationships in the United States.

Among other contrasts to my experience in the US, education is also highly valued in Mongolia. Shortly after we arrived in Ulaanbaatar last August, the school year got started. The Saturday before the opening of school is a big celebration. The schools have open houses, and parents and children dress up, go to school, and listen to speeches and meet the teachers. Parents give their students flowers and balloons. I was able to see some of this in our neighborhood because Emma wasn’t feeling well that day, so I walked down Peace Avenue to the supermarket to buy her some things. The kindergarten and public school around the corner from MIU were thronged with people, and there was a big balloon arch out in front of the school, under which a podium had been placed for people to make speeches. I couldn’t imagine American parents and children getting excited enough about the opening of the school year to go out on a Saturday and spend the day at school.

These are just a few of the differences we noticed between our life in southern California and life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. There are many more, and similarities as well. When I ask Emma, she says one of the big things she misses is the “chillness” of Mongolians. She always felt that people were more relaxed and could go with the flow better than people do where we live in California. There was a sense that life isn’t completely organized, and neither are people. Imperfection is just part of the deal. It made it easier to cope with things that would come up, from massive traffic jams to poorly announced changes in public policy (like the plastic bag ban that may or may not have come into effect last March, which I’ll write about in another post). We try to preserve some of this in our lives now, because life everywhere is unpredictable and needs that kind of flexibility.

One thought on “What we learned from living in Mongolia

  1. Jericho, the way you experienced Mongolia is the best way to become aware of a culture. I remember when my brother and I had been camping in Mexico and went into Mazatlan, we actually heard someone say something like, “This place would be great if it weren’t for the Mexicans, all speaking Mexican and all that.” So Americans are capable of going out into the world and coming back with no sense of it whatever. In my research with La Clase Magica in San Diego, I felt very much that people from Mexico missed the culture there and really made sacrifices to come here, which many people here have no idea of. It’s transnational activities that force many to migrate. But I won’t go into that. Piper’s experience of a summer in Mexico during middle school left her always wishing there was richer culture here, that Americans thinking there so lucky is a false paradigm.

    As to memory, I’m put in mind of the English article on a study in which families were compared as to their recall of an event – a royal parade. The families that reflected together over the years about the past event had far more similar and complete recall of the event.

    Liked by 1 person

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