Tomorrow I fly to Beijing, stay the night with a friend, and head on to Ulaanbaatar. I began taking Mongolian through Indiana University last fall, and will continue to study through the American Center for Mongolian Studies this summer.
I will assume a question you want to ask. Why Mongolia? It started in college, when my Chinese teacher and I performed folk songs together. Included in those songs were "Mongolian", "Uyghur", and other ethnic minority folk songs--actually, new compositions from the communist era with Chinese lyrics. What music and languages lay behind those songs? Then I heard Huun-Huur-Tu, the Tuvan throat-singing band. I've linked to my sister Emily's conjuring of city walkers as eerie incarnations of Huun-Huur-Tu's voices. Since those ethereal nights in my Philadelphia studio listening to them, I've wanted to know more: how this music works, why it works the way it does, and who are the people who make it. Tuva isn't Mongolia, true, but the music of the two places share a common spirit.
Here I am, five years later, ready to spend two months in the capital of Mongolia. I hope not to make the mistakes I did on my first visit to China. (One of my biggest shocks visiting China in 2001? They have bread.) Interest in something "exotic" drew me to China at first, but familiarity has kept me studying Chinese. It's easy to see in a foreign country only what you want to see, and that can make it feel very strange and lonely. But the more I travel, the more I see each new place as home. Because every inhabited place in the world, no matter how remote for you, is someone's home.
I just read Jill Lawless' Wild East so as not to arrive with a totally blank slate. Lawless worked as a reporter and editor for the UB Post in the late 1990s. Her book gave me some idea of what I'm in for, but not as much as I'd hoped. Lawless gives what seems to me right now a vivid picture of Mongolia, from its vast desert to the taste of domestic beer. But some things trouble me. Besides the immense changes in Mongolia from 2000, when Wild East was published, to today, Lawless sometimes oversimplifies (for instance, conflating the Huns and the Mongols) or even gets things wrong (sloppy transliteration, questionable translations). With no basis of comparison, it's hard for me to tell when she's exaggerating, when she's slipped up, and when she really knows what she's talking about. Where I can compare, I see her slipping into homesickness: in the chapter on food, she lovingly describes aaruul, dried curds, as a treat "with the consistency of rock and the smell of vomit" (132). Don't listen to her--I've had aaruul, and, to me at least, it's pretty tasty. In many of her observations you hear her pining for home. Not that there's anything wrong with missing home, but too much of her own discomfort inflects her stories. She says she's reluctant to return to Canada at the end, but is she really?
It's hard not to pass judgment. It's hard not to taste a meat dumpling and think of hamburgers. If you're American. If you're Mongolian, the difficulty is the other way around. I am me, an American Jewish suburbanite who wants to feel at home everywhere, even though I know it's impossible. I will try, though, to write about Mongolia just in that way: as a vastly foreign terrain which will soon be familiar, a place where I will not just stay, but live.
Show, Tell, and Sell
7 months ago