Do they really recycle here? Waste disposal in Mongolia and around the world

kitchen trash
Our kitchen trash, sorted.

Throwing trash away is more complicated than it seems, especially when you move to a foreign country. True, garbage is not the most appealing topic, but since most people generate a significant amount of garbage in their daily lives, it’s an important one. Living in an environmentally progressive community in southern California, I got used to trying to create a minimum amount of garbage by reducing what I bought (especially product packaging!), reusing what I could, recycling as much as possible, and composting food waste. Here in Mongolia, I’m still working it out, though I know that I’m creating a lot more waste here than I did in California.

At my house in Carlsbad, my curbside recycling bin is larger than my landfill bin (my landfill bin is the smallest one available). I know recycling is an imperfect solution to the problem of overconsumption and waste, but it is worth doing. I grew up recycling. In New Jersey in the 1970s, there was a recycling center downtown next to the library, so we had to bag stuff up to bring in. One of my least favorite childhood chores was crushing cans for recycling, especially cat food cans. I still remember rinsing them carefully, removing the bottoms with a can opener, and flattening the cans so they would take up less space. I’m not as fastidious with my recycling now, though I still rinse out cans. Eventually, sometime in the 80s, we switched to curbside pick-up. The waste disposal situation in New Jersey was so dire that if people had recyclable materials in their garbage, the garbage collectors wouldn’t pick it up. (I still remember a famous boatload of trash New Jersey couldn’t get rid of; it went down to Central America, and no one wanted it. What a surprise!)

When I lived in Egypt in the mid-1990s, waste disposal was the bawwab’s problem (bawwabs are kind of like doormen; they live on the ground floors of apartment buildings and take care of just about everything). I gave him my plastic bags of garbage, and he got rid of them. There was garbage pick-up in Cairo. In fact, an entire informal economy was built on trash. Garbage collectors were known as Zabbaleen (literally “garbage people”); they would go from door to door and take people’s garbage away in their donkey-pulled carts. They would sort through it and reduce the waste by 80%. At the time, Western waste disposal recycled around 20% of waste, so the Zabbaleen were way more efficient. Most of the Zabbaleen were Coptic Christians, and they kept pigs, so the pigs would eat the organic waste. Then women and children would sort the rest for reuse and recycling. Some 50-70,000 Zabbaleen took care of the waste of the entire city; they lived in settlements next to the main garbage dumps, in what were often extremely unhealthy conditions. I know all of this because the company I worked for in Cairo, Environmental Quality International, worked on improving the living and working conditions of the Zabbaleen, and I edited a lot of proposals and reports about them.

In Japan, waste disposal was different again. We had four different bins to put trash in (burnable material for the incinerator, plastic, metal, and glass). Each kind went out on a different day of the week, so I spent a bit more time than I was used to dealing with my trash. It made me much more aware of what kind of waste I was creating, and how much. The fines for noncompliance were pretty steep, so households were careful to follow directions. For me, the trickiest category was “burnable”; I wasn’t used to thinking of garbage in this way because of the USA’s predilection for landfills. I didn’t consider plastic to be burnable (the fumes!), but it was, along with food scraps and paper.

When I moved to Mekelle, Ethiopia, in 1999, garbage disposal presented itself as a problem immediately. I was sharing a house with another volunteer teacher, and we had to deal with our own trash. There was no trash pick-up. There were yard cats to eat a lot of the food waste, and we had a barrel in the backyard for burning garbage. But there was stuff that couldn’t be burned. A girl who came to clean our house (she was a student from Mekelle University) would take our trash away with her, but I wasn’t sure what she did with it. I asked at my college about how people got rid of their garbage, but most people didn’t really have any. The food packaging was minimal to nonexistent. I saw small bags of trash alongside the roads and in the river that went through town, so I suspected that’s what people did with it. I knew there was a garbage dump somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where. Once I paid a boy to take our trash away, and then I saw him drop it in the gutter down the street. Well, I could do that! But I didn’t want to. I continued to give my garbage to the house cleaner, hoping she was disposing of it in some reasonable way.

Here in Mongolia, my university has sorted waste bins on campus: paper, plastic/cans, and general waste. They are labelled in English, with helpful pictures of what goes where. The cafeteria has bins for liquids, food scraps, and other trash (mostly napkins), and all the dishes are real, reusable dishes. The dorm where I live has garbage bins in the basement, one for general waste and one for comingled recyclables. I was excited about this, until I saw that people were throwing plastic bags containing all kinds of waste into both bins. So I thought, well, maybe there really isn’t recycling here after all. Then a sign appeared at the entrance to the dorm: “Please sort your trash!” A big cardboard box appeared in the basement that people put their plastic bottles in.

campus trash containers
Waste bins on campus, at Mongolia International University

Even with recycling, Emma and I still generate more garbage here than we do in California. We buy a lot more packaged goods here, and the packaging is extremely wasteful sometimes (plastic-wrapped boxes containing plastic-wrapped items). Produce comes individually wrapped in plastic wrap, except for most onions, carrots, potatoes, and most fruit. I need to buy canned beans here because I haven’t been able to find dried beans. Emma doesn’t like the cow milk here, so we’ve been buying soymilk at e-Mart; it comes in cardboard cases of single-serving cartons with straws attached, which are not recyclable here. Nightmare! Also, we can’t flush toilet paper without destroying the septic system, so we collect our toilet paper in plastic bags to throw away (I would burn toilet paper in Ethiopia, and just put it in the trash I gave to the bawwab in Egypt; probably the Zabbaleen’s pigs ate it).

Honestly, some days my trash just freaks me out. But I do my best to feel like I’m disposing of it properly. I bring office paper over to the building where my office is to put in the paper bin there. I was also bringing bottles and cans over for a while, until the “sort your trash” sign appeared. I have a hard time throwing cardboard away, so that accumulates in the kitchen until I bring a load over to the office recycle bins. I’m pretending some other kinds of plastic are also recyclable, like the packages the eggs come in, though I need to look into that.

I’ve been doing a bit of research on what happens to trash in Ulaanbaatar. Uncontrolled urban expansion has made waste disposal a crisis for the city. One of the things I noticed the day that we arrived is how much trash is in the landscape – litter by the side of the road, trash in the river, informal dumps in vacant lots. Also, aside from ordinary household waste, there’s hazardous industrial waste, tires, and electronic waste. Proper waste disposal requires a lot of infrastructure and investment. In the informal settlements that house over half the city’s population, garbage pick-up is nearly impossible because of the lack of roads, waste bins, and other facilities. People are used to putting the trash outside, but once they become settled in a semi-urban area, this becomes even less of a good way to get rid of garbage. Waste is dumped in informal dumps or burned in the open air. Human “scavengers” (as one article called them) collect recyclable waste—including bottles, cans, and electronic waste—and bring it to waste transfer centers, from whence it goes to recycling centers or to China.

Even in the areas with garbage pick-up, disposal is not ideal. There are a few recycling centers in the city, but no comprehensive plan for sorting garbage, collecting recyclables, and delivering them to those centers. The official city landfills are not very well constructed or maintained, from what I understand, so waste often leaks into the environment. Fortunately, several organizations are working in improving urban waste management here. I’ll post more as I learn more about it!

plastic bottles
Plastic waste in the open drainage ditch (stream?) that runs along my street in Ulaanbaatar. There aren’t usually that many bottles – someone must have dumped them.

Being vegetarian in Mongolia

veggie dumplings
Vegetarian dumplings served at the 13th Century Theme Park

I feel like I’ve been blast into the past. It’s 1985, and vegetarianism is still a little unusual, unheard of in some places. Most of my friends are not vegetarian and have never encountered vegetarians before. They think it’s weird, and some of them give me hard time about it. I try hard not to tell people I’m vegetarian, because I don’t really want to have to justify it all the time. Dietary choices are personal (but the personal is political, as 1970s feminism taught us). Mostly, though, people don’t really care why I’m a vegetarian. They just want to feel better about their dietary choices, and they see mine as a threat or, at best, an oddity.

Fast forward to 2018. In the US and Europe, vegetarianism and veganism have caught on and gone mainstream. People are worried about their health. People are worried about animal welfare and cruelty. People are worried about climate change and the environmental impact of food. All sorts of different dietary options are out there, and the two v’s are not that strange. No one bats an eye about someone else being vegetarian or vegan, especially in certain neighborhoods in southern California, AKA vegan paradise. People who make fun of veganism are still out there, but they are easy to avoid. I haven’t had to justify my food choices in years.

Not so in Mongolia, which has a long, proud history of nomadic pastoralism, reliance on livestock for not just food but many aspects of daily life. Meat is food. Dairy is also food, as pastoralists rely on a wide variety of dairy products during the spring and summer months. But not to eat meat? It’s very strange. People are curious. They ask about it a lot. Under the curiosity there’s an undercurrent of bafflement, sometimes, rarely, suspicion. “It must be very difficult to be a vegetarian,” they say, not sure why someone would want to be so unhealthy.

But there are Mongolian foods without meat, and people in the city of Ulaanbaatar are getting interested in eating other kinds of food. The variety of vegetables available has increased tremendously over the last few years. There’s even a large vegetable market downtown (which I haven’t been to yet). Korean food is immensely popular; there are Korean restaurants everywhere, and the big-box store e-Mart has made it to Mongolia, providing a one-stop shopping experience with imports from Korea, including soy milk and tofu. There are vegetarian and vegan restaurants (even a Loving Hut, which I also haven’t made it to, yet).

So, it’s entirely easy to be a vegetarian in Mongolia. Especially if you are living here and have your own kitchen. I’m not sure about the tourist experience, but in our brief trips out of town, we’ve been treated to delicious vegetarian versions of Mongolian dishes like buuz (steamed dumplings) and khooshoor (a kind of fried pie, usually with meat). The farther out of town you get, the more difficult it might be to find vegetarian options; we’ll find out when we do more extensive traveling in the spring (stay tuned!). But here in Ulaanbaatar, every restaurant we’ve been to has had at least one or two vegetarian or vegan dishes, marked as such in the menu.

We haven’t been to many restaurants, partly because it’s not cheap, and I like to cook at home. Also, Emma is a limited eater, so she is not excited about going out to unfamiliar restaurants and encountering unfamiliar cuisines. It was a bit easier when she still ate meat. When she became vegetarian over a year ago, our eating out options became more limited, especially while traveling. Our favorite restaurant so far is the Big Bull Hot Pot, which is a very short walk from our home. Emma’s happy because they have ramen and tofu. I’m happy because they have an amazing variety of vegetables and mushrooms. They also have veggie dumplings, which we have yet to try.

hot dog bun
One of Emma’s food choices – a hot dog bun with cucumber inside,  from the Coffee and Kebab shop across the street

As far as cooking at home goes, it’s also easy to find vegan and vegetarian options. I have fallen back to ovo-lacto since I’ve been here (mainly lacto, but I eat the occasional egg). It took a few weeks to find a source of tofu (e-Mart!), but there are plenty of canned beans available at the local shops. We rotate between a variety of bean dishes (I even found chili powder!), rice dishes, pasta, stews, and various soups (barley!), and Emma eats fried egg whites a fair amount (she won’t eat the yolks). I’m back to eating yogurt; it’s so good here! And so far, it’s been easy to find broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, cabbage, and zucchini. The variety is greater than I expected, based on what I read ahead of time. And the vegetables are really fresh, too. The only thing we miss is lentils, which I haven’t been able to find.

My experience as a vegetarian has always been that it’s a lot easier than non-vegetarians think. Even in Ethiopia, which has a wide variety of vegan options because the Orthodox Church requires “fasting” (not eating meat) two days a week, people thought being a vegetarian was difficult. It was easy! Same here. You don’t realize the variety of non-meat foods available until you stop eating meat. It makes sense; when I go out, I don’t bother looking at the meat items in the menu because I’m not going to order them. (Though at one shabu-shabu place, the “bull pizzle” caught my eye; it’s hilarious to me that people who will eat bull penis think that vegetarianism is strange.) I don’t imagine meat-eaters look much beyond the meat, so they might not realize what inroads vegetarianism has made.

I have lived in a lot of places where vegetarianism has not been common, so I am used to the range of responses, from disbelief to curiosity to hostility. In my American sub-culture, dietary choices are considered a personal matter (though the personal is political, right?), and people don’t even ask, though I have friends who talk endlessly about being gluten-free (which is now what vegetarianism was in the 80s, I guess). But go elsewhere, and you have to answer a lot of questions and listen to a lot of justifications for eating meat.

Last night, the vice president of my university, who is from South Korea, invited the president (also Korean) and several other Korean faculty and staff out to dinner. My daughter and I were also invited. We went to the Shangri-La Hotel, whose Café Park has an immense, elaborate buffet, with lots of different kinds of food. It was luxurious and, for me and Emma, a bit overwhelming. Even in the US, I steer clear of buffets (except for Souplantation, which we both love). But last night I was really excited by the salad bar, which was delicious, and there were several other vegetarian/vegan possibilities. Emma, on the other hand, had a harder time. She ended up with a couple of different rolls, corn from the salad bar, and a plate of rice with some sauce on it. If we were to go back, I think she would like the salad bar, but last night she was tired and really not up for it. There was also a noodle station which may be worth trying at some point.

leg and veg
Leg and veg on ice at the Shangri-La Hotel

While we were eating, the vice president mentioned our vegetarianism a few times. It came up that Emma was also vegetarian, and the president asked me, “Did you push her?” A natural question; I’m her parent and might have a lot of influence over her diet (if people only knew!). But no, she ate meat whenever she wanted to, up until she decided it was wrong to kill animals for food. (She also won’t buy leather.) She and I both came to our vegetarianism in different ways for different reasons, which might be hard for people to understand. At any rate, the vice president and president continued to discuss our diet in Korean, so I am not sure what they said, but every once in a while, I also heard, in English, “very difficult.” Once, the vice president came back from the buffet with a plate that was half meat, half kimchee and cabbage, and said, “Look! I am being vegetarian! I am following you!” I think we might be the first vegetarians he’s come across.

It’s interesting, because Emma and I don’t sit around talking about other people’s food choices. Especially not in front of them. But I’m used to being a dietary curiosity, and Emma will get used to it, too. Though she’ll probably get less of it than I did. When mainstream newspapers are running stories about how avoiding meat is one of the best ways to do something about climate change, it’s less weird to be vegetarian or vegan. Maybe before long we’ll have shifted, and meat-eaters will be the ones who have to justify their dietary choices, in a world where it makes little sense to grow human food just to feed to animals who are only going to be killed. In Mongolia, though, with a long cultural history of nomadism and a large population of free-ranging meat on the hoof (in 2017, there were around 70 million livestock for 3 million people), eating meat is a completely different story. One which I’ll be writing more about.

Winter is coming



Lately I’ve been waking up at about 3 am to the smell of smoke. After living in southern California so long, I always think Wildfire! Then I remember where I am, and what it really means.

Ulaanbaatar has a couple of distinctions: It’s the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures dipping down to -40 degrees Celsius in the winter, and its average annual temperature is also below freezing (-2.4° C). For a couple of winter months, it’s also one of the most polluted cities in the world, with air quality five times worse than Beijing’s on a bad day. These two facts are connected, since January and February are the coldest months, and the most polluted. The smoke I’m smelling early in the morning is from home heaters, which burn wood and charcoal, and in poorer neighborhoods, old tires, plastic, and other waste.

We knew about Mongolia’s problem with air pollution before we came and brought a supply of pollution masks designed to filter out particulates, which are the most serious problem (as I’ll explain in a bit). Emma’s school here in UB also sold pollution masks back in October, so we bought a couple of those, too, since they were billed as filtering not only fine particulates, but also viruses and allergens. Another teacher here advised me to buy indoor air filters for our apartment, and now I know why. We’ll be doing that this weekend. They’ll go along with the humidifiers we already bought because the air is so dry.

The air pollution comes from a few different sources, including blowing dust from the nearby desert and unpaved streets in the city, lack of vegetation in the city, coal-burning power plants, and vehicles. But the worst source in the winter time, according to an air quality analysis by the World Bank, is the home heating smoke from hundreds of thousands of ger (yurts) that have sprung up around the outskirts of the city.

People have been flocking to UB from the countryside for years, as herders experience catastrophic livestock losses because of extreme climate events and loss of grazing lands. Dzud is the name for an extremely dry summer followed by an extreme winter, causing massive livestock deaths. There have been several of these already in this century, and as people lose their livestock, they move to the city to find work. Many of them have little money, so they set up their ger in informal settlements that are not connected to the city’s infrastructure (power grid, heating system, water, sewage). During the winter, people burn whatever they can to keep warm, and this has caused a tremendous increase in air pollution in the coldest months.

Because the city of Ulaanbaatar sits in a depression between mountains, the air pollution accumulates during the winter as well. My department secretary told me that in January, you can’t even see the nearby buildings. I’ve come to enjoy our view of the mountains from our 5th floor apartment, but it’s getting hazier every day. The haze comes from particulates, which are microscopic bits of pollution that are suspended in the air. Breathing particulates, especially long-term, is bad. They can travel deep into the lungs, worsening asthma, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses. Places with a lot of particulate pollution have higher rates of lung cancer, as well. But the biggest problem is among babies, young children, and pregnant women, who are all more susceptible to pollution’s effects. Air pollution causes around 130 premature deaths among children each year.

Organizations like the World Bank are working with the Mongolian government to reduce the air pollution, with modest results. They are promoting the use of energy-efficient stoves for ger, helping families to insulate their houses, and even promoting the sale of hybrid cars—I was surprised at the number of Priuses here, many more than I see on the streets of southern California. The ger settlements are still growing; almost half of Mongolians now live in Ulaanbaataar, and almost a quarter of the country’s population live in the ger districts. Connecting those people to better energy sources is crucial to solving the air pollution problem. Mongolia has a lot of potential for solar and wind power, and those are starting to be developed.

In the meanwhile, I’ll probably be writing more about this in the coming months, as temperatures drop and pollution levels rise. Emma and I are fortunate, because we have the resources to afford air filters and masks, and we can also leave if our health is badly affected. The people I worry about more are the people in the ger districts, who have no choice and few resources to improve their living conditions.

Mongolian Culture Day

me and Tungaa
With Tungaa, my Mongolian teacher

My school requires all new international faculty to study Mongolian for the first year they are here. I was very glad about that. We get “course relief” to do it—supposedly it takes the place of teaching one course—but in my case, my department’s need for instructors was so great that I do it on top of teaching a full load of four courses. I’m happy for the opportunity, though, because not only did it force me to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet (so I can read signs), but it also helps a bit with basic communication. And I love learning new languages. I pay for the classes, but the cost is not very high, around $50 per month for three private classes a week. They take place just upstairs from my office, at the Language Education Institute (LEI), so it couldn’t be more convenient.

My teacher is Tungaa. She is a good teacher. She’s very patient and kind, and she has a good sense of humor. Her whole face lights up when she smiles and laughs. And she is good about repeating things when I look at her like a stunned mullet as I try to parse the words she has just said. She is, as I learned through our “conversations” in Mongolian, 54 years old and a grandmother. She’s a very popular teacher, so her schedule is packed. When I first started, I had classes on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:00 pm, which was hard for both of us. Sometimes she was visibly tired, and I was usually exhausted. My third class was Friday after lunch, which was a lot better. After a few weeks, she asked me if I could switch to Thursday at 11:00 (between two of my classes) and Friday at 11:00, so now my Mongolian learning is packed at the end of the week, but on Fridays, with two hours of lessons, I make a lot of progress.

I love studying languages. As I get older, it gets more challenging. I can feel a difference in my ability to retain new information, especially when I’m tired at the end of the day or the week. I hadn’t had the time or capacity to study any languages in my regular life in California, though Emma and I started with a Pimsleur Swiss German program in the car a few months before we travelled to Switzerland last summer. I know a smattering of Swiss German already from life-long exposure to the language and speaking some as a child, but it was good to have an excuse to practice it with Emma, who picked it up pretty quickly. But I was so busy getting our house ready for house sitters before we left for Mongolia that I couldn’t start on Mongolian until after we got here.

Mongolian is definitely challenging. The Cyrillic alphabet has been easier to learn than, say, the syllabaries of Amharic, Hiragana, and Katakana (from when I lived in Ethiopia and Japan). But there are more vowels than in English, and I can’t always hear the exact distinction between them. Many of them are not pronounced in spoken language, anyway, though they appear in written language. Also, my Mongolian for Beginners textbook tends to present a LOT of information all at once. Like, the numbers from one to a million. Or 30 adjectives at once. Or all variations on the genitive case (basically, the possessive form of a noun). When I taught ESL, the current wisdom was to not teach more than 10-12 new words in one lesson, or to teach one structure at a time, to give students a chance to master things before moving on. I’m still working on the 30 adjectives from a few weeks ago, and in the meanwhile, I’ve “learned” colors, clothing, days of the week, months of the year, and the genitive case. Whew!

One of the benefits of learning at LEI is that they have extra events for the students. There was a beginning of the year field trip to the Chinggis Khan statue complex, which unfortunately was held on a day when I had to teach so I couldn’t attend. (I was able to see the statue on a weekend trip a few weeks later, and I will write about that in another post.) They also have “Mongolian Culture Day,” which just happened on Friday, November 2. It’s a whole day of activities related to Mongolian language and culture, including several competitions for the students: handwriting, speech, singing, and reading. I signed up for giving a speech, and I wrote out one of the stories for the handwriting competition in my child-like handwriting. (Reading and writing make me feel like I’m in first grade again, carefully shaping each word and trying to sound them out.)

OK, so Mongolian Culture Day. It started out an hour late, but that was OK, because it gave me extra time to obsess over my speech, which I was nervous about. The teachers and LEI staff set up displays around the sides of the room, including traditional clothing, goat ankle bones (which are used for a variety of games), cups, bowls, utensils, and several kinds of dairy products, including horse and camel milk and solid products like cheese and dried curds. The walls were covered in examples of traditional Mongolian script, as well as the students’ writing samples. Tungaa was setting up a table in the back of the room for preparing some traditional Mongolian food for us to try, including a salad, milk tea, and dumplings.

The festivities started out with an informative presentation on the history of Mongolian writing. It was way more complex than I’d realized, and I’ll try to write a separate post on it. But I hadn’t realized that in the 1940s they tried out the Latin alphabet for Mongolian but it didn’t work with the number of sounds the language has, so they switched to the Cyrillic alphabet at that point. But over the centuries, several different scripts had been used. Now students are learning the vertical script again (Mongolian was written from top to bottom of a page), but the Cyrillic writing remains official. Many Mongolians can’t read the traditional script because it wasn’t in use for a couple of generations.

mongolian writing slide
Examples of Mongolian writing, from the slide show

Next, we all introduced ourselves in Mongolian. I choked and fell back on the Japanese pronunciation of my name, which was weird (since I’ve been here, a lot of the languages I’ve learned have been coming back to me even though they are nothing like Mongolian, especially Japanese and Amharic—my foreign language brain has been activated, I guess). Then I was the first to go in the speech competition—yay! My “speech” was basically an extended introduction of myself, how long I’d been studying Mongolian (two months) and how I had a 12-year-old daughter who was living here with me. Very profound stuff. I struggled and failed to understand the speeches of the other students, all of whom had been studying for a year or more.

After that, a man played the morin khuur (often translated as horsehead fiddle), a traditional Mongolian instrument that’s a bit like a small rectangular cello with two strings and a horse’s head at the top of the neck. The fingering was fascinating to watch; it was the first time I’d seen one played. Then some of the students sang, including a Korean husband and wife duet. There was also a dance performance by a young woman; it was fluid and graceful and evoked a horse’s movements. There were also some shoulder movements that reminded me of Ethiopian eskitsa. I definitely want to see more dancing while we’re here.

After the reading competition (which I thankfully did not participate in), there was some free time so that we could look at the displays and help with the food preparation. I made a couple of buuz, or dumplings (but they were meat, so I couldn’t eat any). This was useful, because we had some veggie dumplings on one of our weekend trips that Emma loved, so maybe I can try making them sometime now that I know the technique. I like Mongolian milk tea, suutei tsai; it’s basically boiled milk and water with salt. (They serve it in the school cafeteria as well.) Emma doesn’t like Mongolian dairy products; I think they have too much flavor for her, since she’s so used to bland American-style milk.

Making the buuz (dumplings)

One of the teachers explained the different dairy products to me and how they are made. Dairy forms a significant part of the nomadic Mongolian diet, especially during spring and summer when the baby animals are born; the young livestock are separated from their mothers so that people can use the mothers’ milk. Mare’s milk, called airag, is especially valued. It’s slightly fermented, about 2% alcohol content or less, and everyone drinks it when it’s available. The fermentation process removes the lactose (which is higher than cow’s milk), so it’s good for lactose-intolerant people. Airag also has medicinal properties, believed to be good for immunity, digestion, and some chronic illnesses.

We also had a chance to eat a Mongolian salad, niislel salat, made from cubed potatoes, pickles, and other vegetables, with some cubed ham that I was able to avoid, in a mayonnaise-based sauce. Potatoes and carrots are plentiful here, and people also like picked vegetables (easy preservation). The steamed buuz we had made were also served.

After lunch, the teachers and judges presented the awards for the various competitions. I was shocked to receive the award for the best speech; one of the judges told me that they were touched by the fact that I’d participated after studying for only two months. Honestly, it was nice to receive the encouragement. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to spend several hours steeped in Mongolian language and culture. The more I learn, the more I love it here. For me, this is the true value of living in another culture and learning another language—an appreciation for how diverse human societies are, and how people adapt and enrich such a variety of environments. I’ve been lucky to have experienced this several times in my life, and now to introduce it to my daughter as well.

Why I love my work again

MIU D building
Mongolia International University’s main building

It’s taken me a while to write a post about my work here because I needed to let enough time pass to gain perspective on it. I’ve really been happy here so far, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. The last time I had such a great time teaching was in Ethiopia. Hmmm…is there a pattern there? Read on.

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to teach in Mongolia was because I was in a terrible work situation in the US. I was teaching as a part-time “temporary” lecturer at the University of California, San Diego (which was a lot of effort for very little money) and picking up extra gigs on the side (teaching, editing, whatever) to help pay the bills. I stuck with it for a long time for complicated reasons, which I often heard oversimplified in a variety of ways by people who knew me. It was thoroughly demoralizing. (Being part of the new majority of contingent faculty has been quite an experience; most college and university courses are now being taught by people like me, but universities don’t want to own up to it because they benefit from having a steady supply of cheap, replaceable instructors to churn through, so not many people know about what our working conditions are like. When you have some time, do an online search for “contingent faculty” and see what pops up. Or just check out the website of my union, the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, Most of my students at UCSD never knew the difference between me and a tenured professor, but the difference is vast.)

Another reason was that I had been itching to go overseas for quite a while. I had never lived in the US for a long time once I graduated from college. In fact, the day after my college graduation I flew to Mexico City to start working on an archaeological dig. After that, I went to Yugoslavia (which was a country then), then to Boston for a few months, then back to Mexico, and on to France. And that was all before I started my master’s degree. As an ESL teacher, I taught in Japan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. There were periods where I stayed in the US for a few years in a row, but after I finished my PhD research in Ethiopia, I was in the US continuously for 14 years. Again, the reasons for this were complicated—aging parents, young child, economic precarity, etc. But I was dying inside, and I knew it.

So when I saw the email about a university in Mongolia looking for faculty in Media and Communication, I jumped at the chance. I was lucky enough to meet with Mongolia International University’s vice president, Professor Won, in my office at UCSD. He told me about MIU: that it doesn’t have much money, that the students don’t have very good English, that the working conditions aren’t very easy. I was ready to say yes on the spot, and nothing he said dissuaded me. It helped that I’d taught in Ethiopia, at a small college in the town of Mekelle, so I knew what it was like to teach in a low-income country with few resources and students who didn’t know perfect English. (Well, come to think of it, many of my UCSD students have trouble writing complete sentences, too.) It was just what I was looking for.

I don’t regret my decision.

Mongolia International University is a great teaching environment. From before the school year even started, I could feel the difference between MIU and other schools I had taught at. It’s what my department chair calls “a special kind of grace.” It’s a very caring environment, where faculty are encouraged to support their students as human beings and learners, and where there is also concern for helping newcomers find their home. For instance, there is something called the Student Care Program, where faculty meet with students outside of class and get to know them, try to find out what their individual situations and challenges are, and what their aspirations are. After nearly two decades at UCSD, MIU seems so incredibly humane.

I felt welcome here from the start. I felt like I belonged. Part of it was having status that I haven’t experienced in a long time—I’m an American with a PhD, coming to a university that has an explicit internationalizing mission, educates in English, and wants high quality international faculty. The school’s motto is “Educating tomorrow’s global leaders.” It’s ambitious, but there’s a genuine spirit of looking outward, and a feeling that, as the vice president said in a recent email, we can change the world. This is what was missing from my experience at UCSD—a feeling that people have value and make a difference, for each other and our world. At MIU, this includes faculty, staff, and students. We’re all in it together.

The students aren’t always as serious about school as my Ethiopian students were, but being able (and encouraged) to see them as human beings makes teaching so much easier. Also, our students in Media and Communication have serious ambitions. Most of them want to be journalists. The news is important to them. They recognize its social and political impact. This is a stark contrast to most of my students at UCSD, who had little interest in the news (though that changed a bit after the 2016 election, especially for my sociology students, who were generally more aware, anyway). My students here know what’s going on, not just in Mongolia, but also in the USA and the rest of the world.

Professor Won was right about their English. MIU promises instruction in English; that’s one of its main selling points. The faculty are a mixture of Mongolian, Korean, American, and other nationalities. There are also international students, mainly from Russia, South Korea, China, and several other Asian countries. The students come in having studied English, sometimes only for a few hours a week, but they haven’t been in an all-English educational environment before. The textbooks are English-language college texts. The lectures and class activities are in English (though my Mongolian students talk to each other in Mongolian during class). The international students seem to pick up English the quickest, as well as the Mongolian students who spend time with them. A few students in each of my classes speak English very well, even among the freshman. But there are students who struggle to get a few words out, and who I’m sure don’t understand most of what I say. A handful write English very well, but most of them struggle with that, too. They have the opportunity to study English here; the university has a Language Education Institute (where I study Mongolian) that offers ESL courses at all levels.

I have had to make major adjustments to my teaching style. I’ve been drawing heavily on my earlier training and work as an ESL teacher. That was a long time ago (1990s), but it’s sure coming in handy. The students can only read a few pages of an English-language textbook at a time, so the reading assignments are short. I try to give frequent writing assignments, as well. In class, I rely on PowerPoint much more than I ever have, for going over main points from the readings, showing lots of examples or illustrations, and introducing terms and concepts. It requires much more preparation than my courses at UCSD did. At UCSD, I had to teach assuming that most of my students didn’t bother reading what I’d assigned, but students were confident enough to think they had something important to say, even if they didn’t know what we were talking about. Here, that’s not the case. Everything has to be broken down and built back up again so that (I’m hoping) most of the students can follow the main ideas.

But this is one of the reasons I love it. A lot of the students at UCSD tended to assume they didn’t need to learn anything more; they already knew what they needed to know and were just there to get a degree, which was something they thought they needed to get a better job. For them, with a few exceptions, college wasn’t about learning. It was job certification. In fact, a lot of my students would resist learning so strenuously I often wondered what they were afraid of. (I think it’s because of how we do K-12 education in the US, but that’s a whole other story.)

Here in Mongolia, students are at least trying to learn. Education has a value that it doesn’t have in the US. The first day of school is such a big deal that the Saturday before school starts, every school from kindergarten up to high school has an open house where parents and kids get dressed up and go to school. Little girls wear fancy dresses and flowers in their hair. Little boys wear suits. It’s an important day. I walked past a couple of schools on that day, and they had huge balloon arches out front, and people were selling flowers, candy, and soft drinks. It was like a big, city-wide party, celebrating education and the new school year. Can you imagine? (I’m still kicking myself for not having my phone or camera with me that day to take pictures—it was amazing!)

Professor Won was right about other things. The university doesn’t have a lot of money, and some of the conditions can be a bit frustrating at times. It’s certainly not easy. But I haven’t been this happy at work in a long, long time.


Indian quinoa in Mongolia? USDA Organic, even.


The other day I was shopping at Tenger Plaza, my local supermarket, and I found quinoa in the grain section. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, quinoa originated in South America, in the Lake Titicaca basin of the Andes. It was domesticated around 7,000 years ago for livestock use, but people also started consuming it 3,000-4,000 years ago. It has a higher protein and mineral content than other grains, so it has also recently become popular in the USA and other places around the world as a healthier alternative to rice, wheat, and oats. Ironically, though its status in the USA has risen among foodies, it has been considered a low-status food in the countries of its origin. When the Spanish conquered the area, they considered it “food for Indians,” and tried to suppress its cultivation. At times, they forced farmers to grow wheat instead. More recently, though, Bolivian farmers worked with international aid organizations to export quinoa, and it has succeeded as an export crop. These days, many people living in quinoa growing regions can no longer afford it. They eat white bread, noodles, and other processed foods, which have gained status among young people.

I had gotten used to eating quinoa in California, and Emma likes it as well. Finding it here in Ulaanbaatar was a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t cheap—around $4 for a half-kilo package—and the first thing I noticed was that the package was in English. In fact, it was certified USDA Organic (a symbol I haven’t seen in a while), but next to that was an unfamiliar purple and orange logo with a bird in the center: “India Organic.” I flipped the package over and saw “Product of India” stamped on the back. The company is Nourish You, and the package read just like one you’d find in an American health food store with a US-style nutrition information chart. It was clearly packaged for potential export to the USA but had also found its way to the shelves on Tenger Plaza in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I bought a bag of the plain white quinoa, and also a mixture of quinoa and brown rice.

When I got home, I looked up to find out more. It was started by a group of “young biotechnologists” who were concerned about the poor eating habits of Indians. Presumably wealthier Indians, as they also run an online shop featuring not only quinoa but chia, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, as well as boxes of muesli, with prices ranging from 177 Indian Rupees (around $2.50) to 825 rupees ($11). Their products are also available at,, and other websites. Their own website features a blog with nutrition tips and recipes for their products.

Its presence in a Mongolian supermarket might seem a bit strange, but it fits in with a trend I’ve noticed here in Ulaanbaatar—an interest in healthy eating. Yesterday, on our way back from a department lunch at California Restaurant on Seoul Street, I saw an Italian vegan restaurant called Bosco Verde. I’ve also heard that there is a Loving Hut here, and there are numerous vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants listed on TripAdvisor. At the Shangri-La mall, there are a few smoothie joints, and smoothies seem to be popular here. People have also mentioned that Korean food has also become a popular option as urban Mongolians try to add more vegetables to their diets.

As far as organically grown food goes, it’s possible to find in supermarkets. I am not yet sure about produce here, but I’ve heard that there is hydroponically grown lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers that are essentially organic. I’ve found local organic flax oil, buckwheat, and sea buckthorn juice (which people drink here to boost their immunity in the winter). I’ve started paying more attention to labels as I get more familiar with my local supermarkets. I always look to see where food comes from (Mongolia, China, Russia, Korea, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Germany, and even the USA, just off the top of my head). If there’s any English, I read it, but often the packages are in many other languages, and English isn’t one of them, or they are only in Mongolian.

My label-reading here is different from my label reading in the USA or Switzerland, where I’m checking nutrition labels for sugar content and reading the ingredients. Here, it’s more with a curiosity about the origins of the food, since the imports are so apparent. I look for Mongolian foods, wherever possible, and I’ve been able to find quite a lot. Dairy and baked goods are easy, as well as eggs (which Emma eats a lot of now), tea, oatmeal, and honey. Some foods are not necessarily grown here but are packaged and sold by Mongolian companies. Now that I can read some Mongolian, it’s easier to look for local foods, but I usually tell from the address or telephone prefix (976).

The challenge for me now is that I don’t have a large kitchen, so my meals have to be quite simple. In California, I have a stove with four burners, an oven, a microwave, a juicer, a blender, and an Instant Pot. I also have a lot of pots and pans, since I took my parents’ after my mom died and added them to my own. Here in Mongolia, I have a hot plate and a rice cooker. My apartment came with the hot plate, and I bought the rice cooker on our first shopping expedition. I have a frying pan, a small covered sauce pan, a covered wok, and a larger casserole. So, I do a lot of one-pot cooking, and re-heat leftovers on the stove. We have a bit less variety in our diet, but I am getting a bit more creative with what we have to make things a little more interesting for me. Emma is happy with a simple diet, so that is good.


Keeping cool in Ulaanbaatar

snow open window

One of the things I knew about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, before we moved here was that it has the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world. It has an average annual temperature of -0.4° C (31.3° F). I’ve lived in San Diego, California, for most of the last 18 years, so I wasn’t really looking forward to the cold. My daughter was born in San Diego, and only spent one year in another climate; we lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for almost a year when she was three. It was hard to get her to go outside in the cold there, and now she was taking great pleasure in telling people we were going to freeze our asses off in Mongolia.

It’s late October now, and it is cold outside. This morning, the Weather Channel app told me that it feels like 4° F, with snow and wind, a high of 24, and a low of 14 (the temperatures here are going to be in Fahrenheit; sorry, non-American readers). I’m looking out my office window now, and the snow is blowing across the school’s parking lot, though it seems to have stopped falling now. But the office window is open, and I’m sweating in my long-sleeved t-shirt. The Media and Communication Department office is really, really hot. The radiator has been blasting away for weeks now, with no way of shutting it down.

Our apartment is also hot. I was able to turn all the radiators off, but the hot water pipes in each room still radiate heat, and the building seems very well-insulated. I open the windows every day, for at least part of the day, to let things cool off a bit. I close the windows again at night, because the air quality gets worse as people start using their coal heaters and stoves in nearby neighborhoods. (Air quality here is a whole other story, which I’ll write about more than once, I’m sure.)

We fully anticipated being cold in Mongolia. We didn’t come prepared for it, because we didn’t have the clothes, and once I knew we’d be coming here the winter season had long passed in California, so we couldn’t really buy anything. But we brought our warmest clothes and boots (including Emma’s ski wear from Tahoe), and I planned on buying cashmere and parkas here, assuming Mongolia would specialize in warm outerwear. (We did buy parkas, but they ended up being Columbia, which were being sold at American prices.)

The first day we wore our parkas

We didn’t really anticipate being hot. Really, really hot. Back in August when we arrived, it was balmy, even during the night. We kept the windows open a lot, and we wore short sleeves. When it started to cool off a bit in September, and drop down into the 40s at night, I thought, here we go. We bought throw blankets to snuggle under in the cold evenings at home, warm blankets for the bed, and cashmere sweaters. We were set for the cold.

Then, the heat came. The city of Ulaanbaatar has a centralized steam and hot-water heating system for much of the city. The system comes on when the nights start to get cold in mid-September (temperatures dipped below freezing by September 6, which I remember because that’s my mother’s birthday). I heard that the heat was supposed to come on September 15, but that it might be a little later for MIU because it was on a different system. The 15th (high of 61, low of 23) came and went with no heat, but a couple of days later, hissing, sputtering, and moaning sounds filled the apartment. The heat had arrived.

snow view
The view from our apartment on the last day of summer 2018

And it is really hot. Did I mention that? Emma just had her fall break, a whole week off school (I was still working). She spent the whole time on the sofa, drawing and reading, and wearing a swimming suit top and shorts. I feel strong environmentalist guilt over keeping the windows open while the heat is cranking away, but the alternative seems unbearable. We have trouble sleeping at night because of the heat, as well. I am glad we are not freezing our asses off, like Emma had thought, but I miss being able to regulate the temperature, not to mention control my energy use.

I’ve been told it will get even hotter inside as it gets colder outside, so it’s hard to anticipate what it is really going to be like. We’ll just have to experience it.