Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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I am Thankful

My yoga teacher ended today’s class with the following quotation: “Happiness comes when we stop complaining about the troubles we have and are thankful for the ones we don’t.” And so, rather than writing another post about the difficulties of readjusting to life in America, I’d like to take today’s post to give thanks for the good things about being back. Conclusion to the hiking story to come soon, I promise.

I am thankful to be home for this, my favorite major holiday, which I so hated missing last year. I am thankful to have been able to get here while the trees were still awash with color and the grass startlingly green. I’m thankful to once more be able to taste the full flavors of the season in all their glory, without endless searching for unsatisfying substitutes.

I am thankful to have spent the past weekend in the company of many old friends from all over the country, dancing until  ridiculous hours to some of the best musicians in the genre. I’m thankful to once more have this outlet for my energy and creativity, without which my sanity suffered greatly during my time in Mongolia.

I am thankful that I flew through LAX on Monday, and not during the shooting that took place there four days later. And I’m thankful that my friend’s brother-in-law, who was shot in the leg during that event, has since returned home from the hospital.

I am thankful for all the things I’ve learned not to take for granted in the past year and a half: paved roads, running water, stable currency, washing machines, the availability of exotic foods and a wide variety of spices. I’m thankful to live in a city that doesn’t poison the air with toxic smog, and that I no longer have to worry about heavy metals in my drinking water.

I am thankful that, for the first time since I before I went to Mongolia, my brother and I are both home for Thanksgiving, and that we’ll be flying him back from Japan again for Christmas. I’m thankful that he’s so far gotten through jump school without injury despite starting with a sprained ankle, and I’m especially thankful that we’ve started actually talking in the past few months.

My life right now is largely without direction, and that’s a difficult place to be. But I’m grateful for the friends and family who are supporting me while I work that out. I am grateful not just for the troubles I don’t have, but for the many blessings I do.


Please Don’t Ask Why I’m Not Married

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I’ve lost track of how many times this question has been asked of me since I came to Mongolia. Americans typically dance around the topic; maybe we’ll drop a statement based on one presumption or the other and wait for the other party to confirm or refute the assumption; maybe we’ll approach a friend, and ask him or her instead. Most likely, we’ll do a bit of Facebook stalking. But no matter what approach we take, it’s likely to be a cautious one, because the question is presumed to be a pointed one. Why would you ask unless you had a vested interest in the answer?

Here, I’ve had to let all those assumptions go. The question is simply one of many to be levied at me by any Mongolian I’ve just met for the first time. Typically, they start simple (Where do you work? When did you come to Mongolia?), but it’s not long before they veer into territory Americans would consider personal (What is your dream? How many children do you want?).

It’s like junior year of high school all over again, when all anyone would ask me what college I was going to and I longed to erase that question from the English language. When I know, I’ll tell you! I seethed internally, and There is more to me than my college decision. Ask me about something else for a change!

And so I begin to squirm after the first three or four questions, knowing that the children-and-future questions are on the way and reminding myself that these people aren’t trying to put me through my own personal hell. They don’t know that I don’t know I’ll be doing with my life after I finish my time here, or that my lack of direction is a source of personal stress. They don’t know that I was still recovering from a breakup when I arrived here, or that one of my exes hooked up with a close friend while I was here, and that any mention of boyfriends at that time brought the whole mess of emotions roiling to the surface. And so I smile, and I answer politely, and I reroute the train as best I can when I don’t actually now the words for directions, reminding myself of the many reasons not to red-light the conductor.

But there are times when I long to do so. If you follow the boyfriend question with Where do you live? and Do you live alone?, I’m going assure you that I have a Mongolian roommate with lots of brothers and get out of your cab as fast as possible. If you proceed to ask me why I don’t have a boyfriend, I will contemplate spilling whatever beverages we have at hand in order avoid answering the question, and to forestall your offer to set me up with your coworker/brother/son/neighbor/husband’s cousin’s neighbor’s teacher. I’m sure they’re lovely men, all of them, but I have no desire to be set up with some guy I’ve never met and probably can’t actually talk to.

They don’t always start with boyfriend, either, these well-meaning but uncomfortably nosy Mongolians. As often as not, they’ll start with Are you married? or Do you have children? And to be fair, I’m guilty of asking these questions myself. Та гэр бүлтэй юү? is one of the few introductory-type questions actually covered by my minimal vocabulary, and if the silence begins to stretch awkwardly once my new Mongolian acquaintances and I have shared our names and professions, I’ll begin to ask them about the number and age of their children.

These questions are, in fact, much easier to answer. No, I’m not married, and no, I don’t have children; yes, I want them someday, but not for a very long time. Three words (no, no, later), and we’re usually out of the woods and on to safer territory. Except, of course, for that one conversation with a school administrator whose name position I can’t recall. Why?, she asked, throwing a new wrench into the works. When I was your age, I was already married with two children!

Please excuse me while I run screaming from the thought.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the topic; three of my friends have gotten married within the past two weeks, joining the ranks of what seems like half the girls from my freshman dorm. It’s rather frightening how many Facebook friends’ names I no longer recognize because they’ve gone off and gotten married while I wasn’t looking. 

If, at the age of 22, you are confident that you have found the love of your life, and you’re ready to get married and start having kids, then more power to you. I wish you every happiness. But I am far from ready to start down that path, and I’m a little sick of questions implying that something must be wrong with me.

Not that my Mongolian acquaintances are trying to imply that; I know they’re not. They’re just curious about yet another characteristic that makes me different from most of the people they know. Mongolians tend to start their families young; most of my female coworkers in their early to mid-twenties are married with a kid or two. I imagine early marriage and childbearing are especially common for countryside dwellers not pursuing higher education, but they aren’t limited to this group. It’s very common for a couple to have a child while they’re still in university; the child is typically raised by one set of grandparents while the parents finish school. The parents may or may not be married by that point; often they wait until at least one of them has a job before tying the knot.

That I am without husband, children, or even a boyfriend at the age of twenty-three doesn’t make me a complete anomaly here, but it is somewhat unusual. It’s natural that the Mongolians should ask about it, especially when doing so is in their line of introductory questioning anyway. I’m getting used to it and learning not to twitch. At least I haven’t been asked when/why I got fat, as some of the other American women have. 

Tact: one of the most culturally variable concepts I have ever encountered.

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Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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Most of us think of “roommate” as a fairly simple concept. You pick a friend (or are sometimes assigned a stranger) to live with, and then the two of you split the living space and the rent. If you get along well, maybe you agree to share food and set up a cooking rotation.

That’s what you’d expect of an American roommate. But upon arriving in Erdenet, it quickly became apparent to me that having a Mongolian roommate is an entirely different experience – it’s more like having a part-time host family.

I’d estimate that some relative or other stays the night at least once a week. Sometimes, it’s her mother or father, who live in the ger district. Often, its her two nieces (the duu of last week’s post). Last night, it was their parents, Namuunaa’s sister and brother-in-law, who I think live in the same hashaa as her parents. I think. They’ve told me their names enough times that I feel embarrassed asking again; maybe I’ll just get Namuunaa to write them down for me, so that I can actually remember.

These frequent visits leave me with a couple of obvious choices. I can shut myself in my room, and sometimes I do – usually when Inguun’s been getting into everything, or I have lesson plans to write or other work to do. This week, it’s lesson plans and NaNoWriMo (I still have half of today’s wordcount to get through, plus all of Saturday’s to make up).

But in addition to being antisocial, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to shut myself away while the relatives are here. I do try to talk to them at least a little, though there’s still not a whole lot I can say. Mostly I’m limited to simple questions like “what kind of food are you cooking?” And answering questions posed by the adult relatives is complicated; they don’t speak as slowly as Khaliun does, so I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves. And even when I do understand what they’re saying, I don’t always know how to answer.

Last time he was here, for instance, the brother asked me how long I’ve been in Mongolia. Or maybe it was how long I’ll be here. The only words I caught were чи, хэдэн сар, and монгол – you, how many months, Mongolia. To cover all the bases, I told him that I came in August and I’ll leave in June (or rather, “I go June,” since I don’t know how to form the future tense, and I couldn’t remember the ending for the dative/locative case). I got the message across eventually, but it took awhile.

In some ways, it’s really nice to have them over. Khaliun is wonderfully patient with my laughably bad Mongolian, and as long as she’s not throwing a tantrum or spilling milk on everything, Inguun can be pretty darn cute. She recently added two phrases to her vocabulary that even I can understand: сайн уу and баяртай. She spent most of yesterday afternoon practicing these, which is to say that every five minutes, she’d peek around my doorframe, say ‘hi,’ and then disappear again.

I eat more when the relatives are here too Namuunaa and I gave up on cooking for each other a while ago, since, our schedules and meal times are pretty incompatible. But the brother-in-law always feeds me if I’m around while he’s cooking. It’s a nice gesture, and pretty typical of the everything-is-everyone’s attitude that most families seem to have. I just wish I liked his cooking more. LIke most Mongolians I’ve met, he uses a lot of oil and salt, and he usually cooks with mutton. I don’t mind mutton in a lot of foods – I like it in хуушуур/бууз (dumplings), бутаатай хургаа (rice with stir-fry), and цуиван (stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever met an American who doesn’t like it). But in noodle soup, (made with mutton, noodles, water, maybe some salt and garlic, and enough fat to create a nice layer of grease at the top), the flavor’s just too overpowering for me. Even after I threw some spices and lemon juice into my bowl, I still couldn’t manage much of it. I’ll put the bowl back in the kitchen – I’m sure someone will eat it. Mongolians aren’t picky about sharing food.

I had meant to do laundry today, but since the sister had the same idea, I may have to wait until tomorrow There’s a mountain of clothes in our hallway, which she’s slowly working her way through. I guess they don’t have a washing machine, so Namuunaa lets them use ours. It meant I was without internet for most of the day, since you have to unplug the router in order to plug in the washing machine. Also that I haven’t showered yet today, since she was also using the tub to do laundry by hand. But the lack of internet, at least, was probably a good thing. I’ve a lot of writing left to do today, and if there’s no internet to distract me, so much the better.

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October 13

October 13, 2012

If you follow my blog to hear about my life in Mongolia, I apologize for the continued interruptions; your scheduled programming should resume on a more regular basis next month. Bear with me, and you will understand why this month in general, and today in particular, have made that difficult.

Fall has always been my favorite season. It’s the season of sweaters and mulled cider, of apple picking and pumpkin pie, of crisp, sunny days and cold, clear nights. It’s when the trees dress up in their best and brightest in preparation for Halloween, my favorite holiday. It’s the season of my birthday, and also those of an aunt and three cousins – all within the space of a week! Every romantic relationship I’ve ever had has begun in the fall, and a great many friendships have started then too, as I meet new people with the start of each school year.

But it’s also a season of loss and death, and not just the metaphorical everything-dies-down-for-the-winter kind. October in particular is littered with dates of loss and unhappy memories, though they just barely stretch back into September as well. My paternal grandfather died on October 24, 2008; my maternal grandmother, on September 22, 2009; and this year, my paternal grandmother, on October 1. That’s a lot of loss in only a few years, and it makes each October more bittersweet than the last.

October 13 epitomizes that feeling for me. I’ve celebrated it one anniversary, and October 12 as another. But before it ever marked a beginning, it marked an ending. October 13, 2006 was the Friday before homecoming my junior year. That particular Friday the 13th delivered on its promised misfortune when two teenagers from my home town – one a high school senior, the other a graduate of the year before – got drunk and wrapped their car around a tree. The other passengers survived, but Ross Trace and Danny Bell did not.

We lost other current and former students in the next year, an alarming number of them, but none of those dates are imprinted on my psyche in quite the same this way. I know without consulting a calendar that October 13th fell on a Friday in 2006, a Monday in 2008, and a Thursday in 2011. I didn’t know Ross or Danny, had never even met them, but their loss affected me all the same. It was a wake-up call for all of us, the first time many of us had experienced the death, not of an elderly grandparent with a long life full of stories, but of someone just entering adulthood.

It was the reason that the following Monday was the quietest school day I’ve ever experienced, as we all stumbled in shock from one class to the next, too solemn and shaken to make the halls ring with the usual talk and laughter. It was why we had no homecoming parade that year, out of respect for the dead. And it was when the orchestra director’s usual pre-dance pep talk – “the most important thing is that you come back on Monday, and that you remember what happened” – stopped being funny. Two students didn’t come back that year, but the rest of us will always remember.

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Boiling Over

They warn us that will happen to all of us eventually. That within a few months, our fascination with the culture in which we’ve immersed ourselves will wane, and we’ll be suddenly disenchanted and homesick.

I’ve hit that point.

I know that my feelings are misdirected. That the reason all the minor frustrations I’ve been living with have suddenly turned into a knot of anger in my chest and explosion of unwanted tears has little to do with Mongolia itself. It’s because I’m here, about as far across the globe from Chicago as it’s possible to go, when right now the place I should be—need to be—is at home with my family. I can deal with missing birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s hard not to be there when the rest of my family is together, but I can at least Skype in, and they will happen again. Not being able to attend my grandmother’s funeral and wake, though—that’s different. I’m stuck here, on the other side of the world, when all I want to do is go home to celebrate her life with everyone else, and wish her goodbye.

But it’s hard to keep that frustration from boiling over into the rest of my life here. So at the moment, I’m not just frustrated by the differences between Mongolia and America; I hate them.

I hate not being able to talk to any of my coworkers.

I that I can’t even go to the post office on my own, because I need someone to explain why they won’t sell me a ticket.

I hate not knowing what my roommate means when she says “all teachers go out now” – whether we’re going to a restaurant or a camp or some other place from which we won’t return for hours, or just out to the front of the school for some kind of assembly.

I hate missing the assembly congratulating this or that teacher for getting married and looking like some schmuck who isn’t happy for him.

Even more, I hate I’m probably better off missing it because I’d just feel out of place and wouldn’t understand anything.

I hate that the teachers don’t bother to tell me that we’re having an assembly and I therefore will not be having a lesson for the teachers.

I hate missing the chance to leave for the weekend earlier because no one bothered to tell me that plans had changed.

I hate wanting to vote conscientiously and not being able to because I can’t find anything other financial information about the non-presidential candidates on most sites, and the sites that offer more detailed information refusing to load.

I hate that my Mongolian teacher’s idea of a lesson is presenting me with a list of words and phrases to memorize, when what I need from her is speaking practice and activities that make the words stick.

Next week, I’m sure my anger will subside. I will appreciate the surreal blue of the sky and go hiking in the nearby mountains and roll my eyes resignedly when I arrive at work only to be told I didn’t need to come. Next week, I will reapply myself to my language lessons and talk to the delguur lady and ask Namuunaa when we can visit her family again.

But this week, I just want to be home.

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Rest in Peace

October hath struck again. My grandmother had a stroke last night and died in her sleep. A peaceful way to go, at least, so I’m grateful for that. But she is the third grandparent I’ve lost in five years, all of them in late September or October. She was also the last grandparent I had still living. And of those three, she is the first whose funeral I won’t be able to attend.

I wish more than anything that I could be there right now. Funerals are important. Grandpa’s wake was an all-day affair; it was a party, a celebration of his life that helped to balance the bitterness of the actual burial.  A gust of wind blew the picture board right off its stand at Gram’s funeral. I only ever knew her as a snowbird, but she had lived in many places earlier in her life, including Germany, Japan, and I don’t even know how many states. Now, we knew, she was off on her next adventure. I won’t have those kinds of memories this time. I won’t have a rose from the funeral, to dry and keep on my desk.

Nor will I return to my room to find that my roommate and friends have covered my wall with notecards and my desk with colored pumpkins, as I did freshman year. The pumpkins are long gone, of course, but the notecards have gone on the wall of every dorm and apartment I have lived in since then, including this one. I am immensely glad to have them now. Thank you, Kristin, and Corry, for love that I can hang on my walls no matter where I go.

I never really contemplated this possibility, when I decided to leave the country for a year – that my grandmother might not be there when I got back. Given the number of doctors she’s had for the last few years, I probably should have. There’s a reason I don’t throw away her cards – haven’t for the last few years, in fact. But it never really occurred to me that our hug a few days before I left was the last I’d ever give her.

I don’t even fully remember where we were, either, whether we went back to Granny’s after dinner that night or just said goodbye in the parking lot. But if it’s the latter, it’s still a fitting place for a last goodbye. My last memory of my grandfather is at Riggio’s, too; he was hitting on the waitress, much to the amusement of everyone (including Granny). After four years apart, they’ve been reunited.

During my junior year of college, I contemplated doing a writing project on my grandmother’s life. I had realized that I knew next to nothing about it. I don’t know any stories about her childhood, or even most of her adult life. The patitsa we’ve had at a couple of family gatherings and the accent my aunts and uncles adopt when imitating Granny’s mother are the only traces left of her Slovenian ancestry. In the end, I decided against that project, consolidating my work so that I could use the same book for projects in three different classes at once. I Put aside my questions about my grandmother’s life, figuring that I would ask them later.

But I never did, and I guess now I never will.