I was reading an article about the international press coverage of Mongolia, and how the country has been exoticized in the international news. People outside of Mongolia who know a little about it will know about Chinggis Khan (as Genghis Khan is known in his own language), horses, and maybe eagle hunters. The Mongolian metal band the Hu has made inroads in the west as well. But most people don’t know much beyond that. I admit that I didn’t before we decided to move here. In my defense, I was mainly focused on African countries for the previous 35 years. But the truth is, Mongolia rarely makes the mainstream press in the United States, at least.
When I started telling people we were moving to Mongolia back in 2018, people started sending me articles about Chinggis Khan, horses, and eagle hunters, as well as Hu music videos. This is what people know about Mongolia, and they were generously sharing it with me. For many people, Mongolia is an exotic land of nomads and steppes, and it certainly has plenty of those. Half the country’s population lives in what people here call “the countryside.” But half the country’s population lives in cities (especially the capital city, Ulaanbaatar), and Mongolia has many other sides to it.
I’ve been concerned about exoticizing Mongolia myself, in my blog and in my private social media accounts. I have a pretty small readership, all things considered, so my exoticizing the country isn’t going to have as much impact as, say, CNN’s or the BBC’s. The things I tend to write about, mainly what our lives here have been like, would probably be considered quite dull if I were writing about our time in California. But slap Mongolia, or better yet Ulaanbaatar, on it, and it immediately becomes something people are interested in.
I think it’s up to us all to consider why this is the case. Mongolia is the tenth country I’ve studied or worked in, and most of them would be considered “exotic” from the US perspective, with the likely exception of France, which many Americans are either scornful of and/or feel inferior to (there’s a connection there, eh?). In my case, I never really woke up in the morning and said, “I think I’ll look for work someplace exotic!” I was following my nose, first as an archaeologist, then as an English teacher, and now as a Communication professor. In some cases, opportunities emerged, and I took them. (Mexico, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Mongolia). In other cases, I created the opportunity by pursuing something specific (Wales, France, Tanzania, Ethiopia). One (Japan) was a mixture of the two.
I have a new theory about why I have moved around so much (not much by some people’s standards, but quite a lot by other’s), which is a topic for another time. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about why I have always been interested in being elsewhere. Emerson and I were watching the Chronicles of Narnia films yesterday—one of the things we were planning to do during winter break—and in the scene at the beginning of Prince Caspian where the four Pevensies go from the train station to the Narnian beach, Emerson sighed and muttered, “Jealous.” When I teared up at the end of that movie, which I always do (especially when Lucy bids farewell to the DLF, not know if she will ever see him again), we had a conversation about how badly we wanted something like this to happen to us. It seems Emerson and I are similar in that regard, and I was remembering how much, when I was young, I wished I would end up in a place like Narnia. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy then (still do, when I get a chance), and I was always interested in seeking out things and people that were different from my experience. It’s a bit of chicken-or-egg, but I think my interest in science fiction sprang from my search for difference, not the other way around.
On the other hand, it’s not a simple quest for the exotic, or for the Other as they say in my earlier field of study, anthropology. Because one of the things that I’ve noticed about myself is how much I enjoy not just visiting different places as a tourist, but spending time in those places, establishing a daily life there, and getting to know people as, well, people. Part of my teaching practice in the US has been talking about African countries, especially, as places where people live. Yes, their lives may seem a bit different from Americans’ lives, but they are also people who have needs and desires and interests and problems, just like people anywhere else. My focus has tended to be on African countries because I have studied African history, anthropology, and media for decades. So the other part of what I teach is how in different African countries, people’s needs, desires, interests, and problems have all been affected by the influence of other powerful countries that have tended to see Africans as not quite fully human, as either labor to be exploited or inconvenient obstacles to acquiring nonhuman resources.
Now, though, I’m in another environment. The move to Mongolia may have seemed strange to many people who know me, but for people who know me well, it was pretty predictable. Mainly strange because it isn’t in Africa, and predictable because it isn’t the US, and it is someplace new. I’ve been enjoying learning about a completely new part of the world, as well as our daily lives here. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, despite its name, is a place like any other. It’s a place where people live. People with needs and desires and interests and problems. It is, of course, different. Different language which I’m struggling to re-learn since I forgot most of what I had learned during the two years we were back in the US. Different history. Different environment, and different human relationship to that environment (though perhaps not as different as many of the Mongolians I’ve talked to think). Different history, different politics, different economy, and so on.
One of the things I love about this place is the influences of different cultures here. This isn’t entirely something new that has been imposed from the outside by globalization. It also has to do with Mongolia’s position as a literal crossroads in Asian history, as well as its imperial history. The Mongol Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. The imperial legacy isn’t confined to Mongolia, of course. Just one example: There is an ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Hazara, that is believed to be descended from Mongolians. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and Mongolia gained independence, there was a resurgence of interest in Mongolian history within Mongolia, mainly the life and times of Chinggis Khan. (The Mongolian who comes second in the number of commemorative statues and place names is Damdin Sukhbaatar, one of the leaders of the Soviet-backed revolution against China in 1920/21. These are the two historical figures who feature on Mongolia’s currency, as well.)
But globalization has also had a strong impact on Mongolia, particularly as the Mongolian government seeks to leverage the US, South Korea, Russia, and other countries against the almost overwhelming economic influence of China, while trying to financially benefit in any way that they can. Ultimately, Mongolia is nominally a capitalist democracy, but with authoritarian, communist underpinnings. Mongolian democracy is struggling (as Anand Tumurtogoo points out in the article I linked above), and while covering the problems may not fit well with Mongolia’s exotic image of nomads and eagle hunters, it’s crucial to understanding what life is like here. I am only scratching the surface myself.
So my blog and private social media posts walk a line between exotic Mongolia, on the one hand, and a place where people live, on the other. I hope to understand more about the impact of history and political economy on what I see in everyday life here. But no doubt readers’ interest in my discussions of traffic cops and haircuts, and other aspects of daily life benefit from the exotic image of Mongolia. These stories are only interesting because of where they take place and my limited, but hopefully growing, understanding of it.