Rootlessness is so strange. Don’t get me wrong. I love that world-is-our-oyster feeling that I’ve had since I sold our house in July. That feeling that I haven’t been able to act on because the global pandemic has shut us out of the country we had decided to live in. I love it. But what’s so peculiar and challenging about this point in our lives is that we have left one country in all but physical terms and are living in another country without physically being there. So even though we have a place to live, we don’t feel like we really live here. And it certainly can’t become our home, even temporarily, because in a very real sense, our lives are happening somewhere else.
I’ve had three long-term homes in my life. The house I grew up in in New Jersey, from when I was a toddler until I went off to college, and even then it was my home base until my parents moved to the West Coast in 1994. My parents’ house in Palm Desert, which was also my home base even though I was only there for visits, and then for six months after my dad died to take care of my mom, and the summer before I sold it. And finally my own house in Carlsbad, in which my daughter and I lived for 9 years until I sold it just this past July.
Of course, I’ve had many other homes. I’ve felt attached to them all in some ways, some much more strongly than others. Even ones I only stayed in a short time made a deep impression, like the apartment I shared with a friend on the island of Zamalek in Cairo, with its Nile-view balcony just made for leisurely breakfasts of aish and lebna (bread and cheese) on its strange dishes with a goose standing next to a giant onion. This was my first home in Cairo, but I was only there for a few weeks before I found a longer-term place to live.
The apartment we live in now also feels a bit like home. Sort of. Mainly because we all live here now, me and Emma and our two dogs. But I have been resisting it. Our plan was to be here for a few months before we could fly to Mongolia. I signed a three-month lease, hoping that would be enough. We’ve been here over four months. We could be here a year or more, though I am really hoping that won’t be the case.
It’s a perfectly nice apartment. Small (only one bedroom, and really not much space), but newly remodeled with a fancy kitchen area. It has a small clothes washer and dryer in the bathroom, which was something I was looking for to avoid going to a laundromat during a pandemic. It has a little patio, too, with a couple of storage rooms on either side. The bedroom has an eastern exposure and gets a lot of light in the morning when we really don’t need it (Emma sleeps until noon these days). The living/dining/kitchen part is dark and cave-like, the only light coming in through the sliding glass door to the patio, which faces north and gets some sun in the late afternoon.
It would have been a good place to perch for a couple of months before flying to Mongolia. I never meant for it to be a long-term residence.
We sleep in mattresses on the floor in opposite corners of the bedroom. I got rid of almost all our furniture except for the family room loveseat and chair, which we occupy much of the day, and our old patio table (my parents’ kitchen table from the house in New Jersey), which we share as a desk. We still have boxes lining the walls which I am sorting through before bringing what’s left to our storage unit. All the things I didn’t have time to deal with in the spring when we were moving out of our house. I now deal with it a bit at a time, filling black garbage bags with stuff to bring to the Salvation Army collection trucks down the street.
I talked with Emma about getting a two-bedroom apartment if it looked like we were going to be here more than a few months, but she didn’t want to move again, even with the promise of her own bedroom and some privacy. She has time to herself at night because I tend to go to bed early, and I get up early while she sleeps in, so I have time to myself in the morning. We’ve been getting along well, despite the cramped quarters, and I remind myself that spaces smaller than this house much larger families in most of the world. We are lucky to have a nice place to live, even if it’s not in the country our lives are happening in.
This is the strangest part of this time for both of us. She just finished her fourth week of school in Mongolia, and her classes have been meeting at the school for the last two weeks. She sits at our kitchen table from 5 pm to midnight, attending school in Ulaanbaatar. The first time she saw the class meeting together on her screen, she turned to me and said, “Look at all those people, peopling together.” It’s tragic to think that things could have been like that here in the US if we’d had a different president. Her old school is holding class in person, too, in outdoor classrooms that they set up over the summer. Too bad she graduated.
Now she sits at the kitchen table, looking at her classmates and teachers on a little screen, doing her best to participate in class discussions with teachers who do their best to include the disembodied face and voice coming at them from the other side of the planet. If the action moves around the room, which it sometimes does, she can’t see it, and she misses chunks of the lesson. Sometimes they can’t hear her as she calls out an answer to a question that all the other kids are getting wrong. This frustrates her. A couple of times she’s turned to me as I’m sitting in the armchair in the far corner of the living room, about 15 feet away, and said wistfully, “Mom, I wish we were in Mongolia now.”
All I can say is, “I’m sorry. I know.”
Because I wish it, too. For my part, I’m teaching a full-time load at Mongolia International University. We just finished our second week of classes. I’m teaching one class of seniors, one of juniors, and one of freshmen. The last class is the hardest, since I am just meeting the freshmen online. I’ve known the other classes for two years, so it’s a bit easier to communicate with them. But I feel bad for the freshmen, starting out their school year this way. The Mongolian government will only let university students back on campus in October, though they may still change that and have the classes stay online longer. This is the difference between my classes and Emma’s; at my school, everyone is still online.
Another difference is that I don’t see their faces. Most of my students are dialing in from weak networks, so they turn off their cameras to avoid too much strain on their connections. They are also still at home and may not have privacy. There may be a lot going on in the background, so their microphones are off, too. I end up trying to hold a discussion with a screen full of letters or photos. Talk about alienating.
I’ve been lucky this semester in that my classes meet first thing in the morning in Mongolian time, so I have class from 5 pm to 8 pm my time. It’s when I’d typically be cooking dinner and then winding down, not teaching, since I usually get up between 4 and 5 am. But so far it has been going well. I record lectures for the students to watch on YouTube, so our “live” meetings are only for part of the class time each week. They are intended to be opportunities for each class to come together, ask and answer questions, and talk about the material. It’s a poor substitute for the social component of an in-person class.
One of the biggest barriers is language. They are studying in English, and they have a wide range of English ability. Some of them speak quite well, but some of them are clearly struggling to understand. In the in-person class, it was easier for me to understand them, as well, because I could hear them better, see their faces as they spoke, and ask for clarification when I couldn’t understand them right away. I could also get help from another speaker of their language, and they would often confer in their own languages in response to a question I asked before offering an answer in English. We had whole-class coping mechanisms to deal with the language barriers that simply do not work online. In Zoom or Google Meet (I’m using both), they can answer questions in the chat, and I can ask them there (if I remember to) if they can’t understand my spoken questions. But the whole thing feels awkward. It requires a lot of patience and humor.
I keep trying because I want them to practice listening to and speaking English. They have few enough opportunities now, and some of my more fluent students have complained that they are losing their abilities in English because they’ve been away from campus for so long. I also want them to see themselves as a class, even if it’s only little squares on a screen. I really worry about the freshmen in this regard. They are missing out on all the rituals of the beginning of the school year that would help cement them as a cohort. They are not even all in the same country, as two of them are dialing in from Russia.
As our lives settle into the school-year routine, we joke about living on Mongolian time, though Emma is doing this more so that I am; I am still mostly on my usual schedule, except that I have to remember to have dinner ready before Emma’s classes start at 5. She now eats two meals a day, something like breakfast at around noon or 1, and something more like lunch at around 4:30, unless she has her live, in-person art class, which runs from 3 to 4:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays here in California. Sometimes she has cooked eggs during advisory (her second period) or even later. Her “lunch” is at 10 pm.
What we are missing even more is our nightly walk. We used to walk for anywhere from 35 minutes to nearly an hour every evening. When her school first started in mid-August, we switched it to her lunch hour, which was at 9 pm then because they were on a modified online schedule. When her school started to meet in-person on September 1, her lunch break became shorter and shifted to 10 pm, which is when I’m usually in bed. So we’re still figuring that one out because we both need the exercise and the time outdoors.
At some point, we’ll be able to look back on this time from a different perspective. Hopefully from our full-time physical lives in Mongolia. We haven’t given up on being able to go there, even though it’s all up in the air. We had a brief conversation about that yesterday, that even if we’re stuck here for a year, we’ll still go to Mongolia because we feel committed to it. There is a possibility we’ll be here until next summer. I hate to think about it, but if we can’t get in this fall, flu season is going to hit, and the Mongolian government will have another reason to keep its borders shut. I think Emma’s school will keep letting her attend online, since the system has already been set up, and there are other kids attending from other countries. I can certainly keep teaching online, though it’s not ideal.
The main question is the mental and emotional toll of living between two countries on two different continents for that long a period of time. Right now we’re taking it a week at a time. But when we were walking the dogs yesterday I was telling Emma that what I was having a hard time with is that I usually throw myself fully into wherever I am, even if I know it’s only temporary. And we’ve said goodbye to California. We both no longer want to live here. If we can’t get back into Mongolia, we’ll have to figure out another place to go. But COVID-19 has made the world less welcoming, especially of Americans, so that may be a real challenge. I think that’s why we are hanging onto Mongolia with both hands, even though our feet stay on California soil.