Mongolian Memories

Misheel Chuluun 


© Copyright 2005 by Misheel Chuluun


Photo courtesy of Pexels.

I am a first-generation Mongolian.  I came to the United States in 1992 when I was eleven years old.

Memories of my childhood in Mongolia under communism are happy. I remember summer camps, alliances and squabbles between neighborhood kids, my first “boyfriend” with his big ears, and the comfort of being normal, feeling that every family was somehow like my own, in one way or another.

In the summer of 1991, my father was offered a job working as a technician with ecologists from Colorado State University in the United States. He was not eager to go.

Under communism, the basic message about America was that it was a violent, hedonistic, and ignorant society, plagued with materialism and drug problems.  Even though Mongolians knew that part of that reputation was the result of communist propaganda, my father still didn’t view going to the US as a positive option.

Neither did my brothers and I. Judging from the imported American movies I’d seen, I feared that I’d get shot. My mom was the only one in our family who thought it was a good idea for my dad to go to the US and encouraged him—“Go only for a few months,” she said.

Instead, my father let the American ecologists begin a tedious negotiation with the head of Mongolian Science Academy. In his youth, my father won the Mongolian Mathematics Olympiad, and subsequently received a full scholarship to study Theoretical Physics at the “Harvard of communist states”—Moscow University—where he completed his PhD in biological time mechanisms. The Academy was incensed that Americans were “stealing the Mongolian Einstein” and didn’t want to let him go. Eventually, however, it was decided that my father could travel to Colorado, but without us. His family had to stay in Mongolia.

My father left in 1991, just as our country—a former Soviet satellite—was transitioning from communism to democratic capitalism. During the transition, my family and I experienced the greatest economic depression Mongolia had ever seen.

As the Soviet infrastructure and economy fell, complete economic collapse set in. Severe food shortages and electric outages, which are especially dangerous in the winter, since Mongolia borders Siberia (the coldest region in the world), quickly became a part of our life. My mom, my two brothers, and I began living on ration stubs, often without any food for days at a time.

The inflation had made all our savings worthless.  I remember buying 5 apples with one Tugrug, before the economic collapse. After, 300 Tugrugs bought a single apple, depending on a volatile rate that changed daily—and all this happened within the year.
And after a few months, apples weren’t even available.

I could remember the days when we’d have light bread, butter, and tea with sugar for breakfast, a meat and potato soup with handmade noodles for lunch, and maybe a meat tossed with some vegetables and rice for dinner.  For snacks, we chewed on hard, dried yogurt/cheese curds, which lasted hours.

After 1991, we didn’t eat like that anymore. The stores named “Bread,” “Vegetables,” and “Meat” had empty shelves with old crumbs and stains decorating the panels.  I stood in line every other morning for 1-3 hours waiting for our daily milk (we don’t drink water by itself, always chai).  One morning when I was in line, I saw through the crack in the fence, where they were watering down the milk to make it last for the crowd. I remember when a pregnant lady tried to cut in front of me, “I’m pregnant and I’ve a baby at home!  Please!” I remember thinking mercilessly that she was using her baby as an excuse when everyone else in the line had a starving child to feed, too.  I ignored her although my conscience told me to respect my elders. I also remember an eight-year old boy dying in that line, crushed under the masses of people desperate to keep others from cutting the queue.

My older brother, who was twelve at the time, used to go to the rationed meats lines to pick up our meat for the week.  I never asked him what he saw there. I didn’t want to know; People were more desperate for meat than for milk.

We never knew such hunger before.  After a few months, my little brother looked the worst, not unlike the African children on TV.  As the youngest, he was small-bodied and very thin to begin with, at seven years old, and from birth, had a sickly constitution.  The effect of the depression carved itself on him more than anyone else.

I was only eleven years old, and I didn’t pay attention to the political and economic atmosphere. I remember worrying that my father had forgotten me, being in the US. “He has a new favorite,” my great grandmother teased, “—the long-nosed, white little girl.”

We’d receive letters from my father detailing things like the fruit yogurt in America.  My dad was aggrieved that we suffered so much while he lived a comparatively luxurious life.  Eight months later, he was able to bring us to the United States, to get us out of the “situation,” as it was called. For those who stayed, the Mongolian “situation” lasted for a very long time.

When we arrived in the United States, I remember thinking, “These people don’t know how to queue! They mill around like cows, looking in every direction but their reason for being in a line.” Americans left space in between themselves in line, not shoulder to shoulder like in Mongolia, but front to back like dominoes. I remember my initial reaction to the fluorescent lights and immense, loaded shelves at King Soopers.  I was delighted!  And I couldn’t pick a single thing to take home.

My story begins here in the United States, but everything I recall is always colored with my outsider perspective. For me, it is not just that I have a bicultural background and made a break from old ties; it’s also that the integration to mainstream America wasn’t as easy as some may imagine.

My little brother used to come home asking why his head was so large and shaped so strangely.  He held his head in front of the mirror with his hand, trying to squish it down to size. I never would have described myself as “exotic” before I compared myself with my pale-skinned classmates in the United States. When kids teased us with “ching-chong-china,” I was offended.  Because the neighboring nomadic and sedentary cultures of the Mongols and the Chinese have been in conflict for thousands of years, the children in Mongolia tease each other with the insult akin to “ching-chong-china.”

My parents spoke with an accent, didn’t own a house, and didn’t understand insurance policies and bank fees, much less investment options and retirement savings.  But it was not even those details—such things were just symptoms of a deeper dissonance in negotiating a new life, in a completely new society.

My parents tried to fit in, but were always suspicious of the courteous compliments that were too easily forthcoming from Americans.  My mom inquired my unprepared date upon meeting him for the first time, “You own your house?  That nice for young man.”  To my friend, “You have such beautiful hands!  Try this lotion.  Here.  Right now!”  And always, “Eat!  Eat!”—with the implication that it would otherwise offend. The comfort of being normal, of “feeling that every family was somehow like my own,” did not exist in America.

My parents eventually divorced, after 21 years of marriage. After coming to the US, their role as parents was minimized by our need to integrate into American ways—and they couldn’t teach us. They couldn’t help us with our homework. They couldn’t discuss politics with us.

My father said to me recently that he would have made an amazing scientist if he went through his schooling in the US and pursued his career here, but having chopped his life up between Mongolia and the US, he always feels that he is starting his life anew, like a twenty-year-old going on fifty-something.  He said it in a Mongolian humorous manner, but the tinge of regret was there.

My father has since moved back to Mongolia and is currently working a dual-role as a Director of the Science Department at Mongolia University and the Minister of Urban Development under the current cabinet.   He now has the respect of fellow Mongolians, but makes sixty dollars a month working for the government.

Other Mongolians have faced the same dilemma and weigh the unhappy options. Mongolia has one of the highest literacy rates for a third-word nation, yet many well-educated Mongolians like our family friends will do all kinds of menial labor in the United States.  A friend of the family, a talented brain surgeon in Mongolia, works as a janitor in Virginia.  Another friend, a dentist in Mongolia, works as a caregiver here. During the weekends, he performs root canal and other expensive procedures to fellow Mongolians for a nominal fee. My aunt, probably the most famous actress in Mongolia, is now seeking work in the US. She is trying not to do anything so menial as to appear in Mongolian tabloids, but any work she finds here will probably be the cause for gossip anyway.

If you ask them why they are here, some will say a Mongolian joke, “Well I don’t mess with politics, but politics mess with me.”  What they mean is that Mongolian politics have become so corrupt, the standard of living so poor, the conduct of everyone so morally bankrupt, and the possibilities for a good future for their children so grim, that they leave all that was meaningful to them just to avoid the stress of living there.  It’s easier to live with a meaningless, menial job than deal with the turmoil in Mongolia.

The surge in violence, alcoholism, theft, homelessness, orphans, gangs, and organized crime, are all indisputably the by-products of the failed transition from communism to capitalism.  Some Mongolians nostalgically wish for the communist era again. Mostly, however, Mongolians in America hope for the day when they can go back home—for a day when it’s livable again.

As for me, I speak English better than Mongolian; I’m attracted to white boys; and I’ve come up with some automatic quips to the FAQ about Mongolia and adult “ching-chong-china” jokes.

My America exists; the Mongolia I remember, the Mongolia of my childhood, does not.

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