Apparently I am a magnet for small children.
It’s spring in Mongolia, and the balmy 50-degree weather has brought the children out in hordes to play. They are everywhere: running through school yards, traversing the streets in packs, thronging to the playgrounds at the center of every apartment complex. I understand their enthusiasm; it’s been a long winter, and they’ve been cooped up indoors indoors for months now. You don’t go out to play in the snow in the dead of winter here, as children do in America; it’s just too cold. The snow is too dry and powdery to pack together, and the smaller children, when their parents do bring them outside, are so bundled up as to be almost immobile. The youngest ones are, in fact, immobile: puffed out to twice their size and spread-eagled by their snowsuits. The local PCVs call them “starfish babies.”
But now they’ve shed their layers and run rampant throughout the city. This I’d expected. What I hadn’t expected was to draw so much attention from so many of them.
There’s a sizable Russian population in this town, and thus the Americans are accustomed to being mistaken for Russians. Орос хүн, people mutter as we walk by; they hail us with здравствуйте! and try to tell us prices in Russian. But although blondes and redheads are particularly likely to be assumed Russian, I have largely been exempt from this trend. Blonde I may be, but my face is too round and my features too soft to fit the Russian profile. The only people who usually try to talk to me in Russian are drunk men. One man tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation despite my blank stare and unabated pace. Finally his friend elbowed him; “she’s not Russian, stupid,” he said in Mongolian.
But small children make the same mistake. Lacking the more sophisticated profiling abilities of the adults, most seem prone to the belief that all white people are Russian. Is she Russian?, they ask as I walk by. No, say some of their friends, she’s English. And unlike the children I’ve encountered in the countryside, the youngsters of Erdenet have no problem running up to me to settle the debate. Four times in the last three days, I’ve been stopped by children in the street or on the playground. Aнаа, анаа! they call, using a term of address for an older sister. Та орос хүн үү? I tell them that I’m not Russian, but American, and the ones who guessed correctly grin in triumph. Some of them gape at my ability to speak even a little Mongolian; others ask what I’m doing in Mongolia. Hello!, they often chorus, eager to show off the few English words they know.
When I ask them their names and ages, they chatter at me in rapid Mongolian – eager, I can only assume, to share their life stories. My utter lack of comprehension is usually lost on them, and often they follow me even after I’ve walked away, shouting goodbye! in English if they know it and Mongolian if they don’t. Today a five-year-old boy bounded over to me on the street and tried to talk to me in Mongolian. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t understand, but this little one was nothing if not persistant. Анаа, нааш ир, he said, reaching up to take my hand. I followed him to his mother’s delguur; what else are you supposed to do when a five-year-old takes your hand and says, “big sister, come here” ? His mother laughed when he led me in and greeted me in Mongolian. I asked his name, confirmed that he was her son, and said I had to go; when I left the shop, he ran after me shouting Баяртай!.
As a blonde living in Asia, I’ve gotten used to being stared at. But I don’t remember being swarmed this way when I came here in the fall. You’d think I’d lose novelty over time, rather than gain it. But either I’m more interesting now than I was in the fall, or the children have gained some courage. Either way, I’m not complaining. This morning’s encounter was the most adorable thing that’s happened to me in a while. Even if it did make me late for my lesson.