It’s August now, and usually I/we start to think of the coming school year. I took July “off.” I wrapped up the sale of our house, did some administrative stuff (you never realize how many people and organizations have your address until you move, especially when you haven’t moved in nearly a decade), and wrote a bunch. But otherwise, I didn’t do much. I also threw my back out on July 23, so the last week and a half of my “staycation” didn’t go as planned. I was in a lot of pain for at least a week. It was a significant accomplishment just to get in and out of bed—boy, did we pick a bad time to sleep on mattresses on the floor. I’m pretty much back to normal, just in time to start sitting at a computer for large chunks of the day.
And now it’s time to get serious about where Emma is going to start ninth grade, and for me to start to prepare my online classes, since it’s obvious we won’t be going to Mongolia any time soon. Today felt like a real recognition of that when we made the trip to the post office to submit Emma’s passport renewal. We had to send in her old passport, so she can’t leave the country now. We are truly stuck here until her new passport comes in the mail, in maybe two or three months.
Her school options seem to be online no matter what. I feel better about that. Seeing the photos of kids going back to school, especially the crowded hallways with only a handful of kids wearing masks, is terrifying. I enrolled Emma in the local public high school, which is right across the park from our new apartment. They are starting the school year remotely, so that means learning a whole new school system and set of expectations and way of doing things, all online. The other option is online with her old school in Mongolia, which she’ll be attending when we go back. It would make for a smoother transition, and she would be working with the teachers she’ll have for the rest of the year, and possibly next year as well. It’s what we both prefer, but I haven’t heard back from the school there if they will have an online option. Mongolia’s plan to date is to open schools on September 1. There is no community spread of COVID-19 there, so life is proceeding pretty normally. Of course, that could change. But enough of the students from the International School of Ulaanbaatar got stuck overseas when Mongolia closed its borders that there will have to be online education to accommodate them if they plan on enrolling for the year.
But attending school, and teaching, is more than just taking classes. And that is what is beginning to sink in for both of us. We had already talked extensively about what she lost by having to finish eighth grade online after March 13. She got a lot of the academics, and even the discussions with her classmates and teachers (facilitated on Zoom). But all the usual events that mark the cycle of the school year were gone. The Middle School trip to Boston in April. The culmination of the Middle School business (a pizza party, paid for with the some of the money they earned). Completing their individual endeavors, where each student gets to pursue something they are interested in, network with a professional in the field, and plan something for the class. (Emma had organized a class trip to the California Wolf Center in Julian, CA, so her classmates could learn about wolf conservation; it was scheduled for the week after her school went online.) The spring concert. An annual event called Heroes Among Us, where the students celebrate the people who have shaped their lives. The end of year picnic. And so on. We were able to have her graduation, at least.
Now, there is a new year and a new school coming. The beginning of ninth grade, which is a big deal to a 14-year-old. We never imagined high school would start out this way. And as rough as her year at ISU sometimes was in seventh grade, she was really looking forward to returning. She is still in touch with her friends there, many of whom remained in Mongolia (a couple are in South Africa temporarily, and one is now starting boarding school in Denmark). She was really looking forward to seeing them, and would be right about now, if COVID-19 hadn’t jumped into the mix. The beginning of the school year at ISU has typically been marked by Ideals Week, where each class goes on a week-long excursion into the Mongolian countryside. When she was in seventh grade, they went to Hustai National Park for a week of camping and learning about ecosystems. There is also the Fall Fair, a day of crafts and food and music on a Saturday in early September. The older students facilitate activities for the younger students. And there are all the other events that go into making the school experience. Not to mention getting together with friends after school, on weekends, and during breaks. All of that, too.
My school, Mongolia International University, is also replete with rituals and events that fill the annual cycle. When we left in June 2019, I had a hard time thinking I wouldn’t be going through that annual cycle again. The faculty meeting and retreat before classes start in the fall and in the spring, the faculty meetings through the semester which were as much an opportunity to see people as to learn what was going on in the school. Working in my department office with the secretary and the department chair, the three of us sharing a space that is only a bit bigger than a professor’s office at UCSD. The period parties at the end of the semester or to mark someone’s arrival or departure, which seemed to be more about eating and speech-making than socializing, at least for the students. And major events like the Art Festival, held in the fall semester, which gives students a chance to showcase their performance talents.
We don’t know how much of it we are going to miss. We could end up missing the whole year. I’m hoping we don’t. I’m hoping that the Mongolian government will decide to open its borders, or at least let foreign workers in, sometime during the winter. I am trying to keep our hopes up. My heart breaks a little each time Emma tells me the stories about tearing through the hallways with her friends during recess (and invariably getting into trouble with one of the teachers), or any of the myriad funny things someone in her friend group said or did. She missed her “Mongolian” friends a lot this past year, and I know it’s hard for her not to know when she’ll see them.
And I miss seeing my colleagues every day, and meeting people at the Gilgal Café, and hearing groups of students greet me with “Hello, bagshaa!” even if I am not their professor. I miss sitting in the main hall, under the banners, listening to the buzz of colleagues around me. I miss the collegiality of MIU that was so absent from my experience as a lecturer at UCSD the last ten years. The feeling of home that the university creates for its members, and the feeling that I am doing work that is needed and valued. All of these things that go into being part of a school community, that reach far beyond classroom teaching.
We also miss life in UB. As crazy as the traffic and winter air pollution and, let’s face it, the cold can be, UB definitely has its charms. There’s something about the latitude and the sky and the light that is uplifting. It’s like nothing I’d experienced before; I’d always been more drawn to the thick air of the tropics and the rootedness that it brings. In UB, you feel like you could float away across the steppe if you jumped that much higher off the ground. There’s also the craziness on the ground: the people who walk too close to you, the cars going in unpredictable directions, the uneven sidewalks that make you pay attention, the street vendors that spring up as soon as the weather is a little bit warmer, the way everyone goes outside on the warm days, the people wrapped up in their long, brightly colored deel on the cold days. The cultural crossroads, too: the mishmash of East and Central Asian cultures, with an overlay of Russian influence from the soviet era, the Buddhist temples interspersed between crumbling brick apartment blocks and gleaming highrise towers built mainly by the Chinese.
So, yes, now it’s really sinking in what COVID-19 has done to our lives. We’ve been lucky, so far. We have a place to live, and we can keep ourselves safe. I know people who have had the virus, but so far only people once or twice removed from my circle have died from it. That will change as the virus continues to spread in the US, since we have lost the will and ability to keep it at bay. The loss of over 150,000 people to this disease is unfathomable. The disconnect when our president refuses to acknowledge it or even express sadness at the loss (something he seems constitutionally incapable of feeling) is stark.
What I am worrying about in relation to our lives seems trivial. But having our plans completely upended will likely have more of an effect on my family than I currently realize. As time passes, I have more and more moments of feeling lost, trapped, frustrated, even despondent. And still, I remind myself, we are fortunate. I get through each day by picturing finally getting on that flight to Mongolia (hopefully Korean Air, because they seem to know what they are doing in terms of protection from the virus). I think about arriving on campus, getting Emma back to ISU, walking down Peace Avenue, standing in Sukhbaatar Square, seeing that amazing sky again. This keeps me going.