"Where are you from?"
That's the first question I am usually asked whenever I step into a cab. Actually, it is the first question I am asked whenever I find myself in a casual social situation in Mongolia. It could be in line at the bank, discussing fruit at the grocery store or chatting with a secretary while waiting for my job interviewer to finish his meeting. "Where are you from?"
I usually want to respond casually: "I am a citizen of the world." Such post-modernism doesn't really fly during idle chit-chat however ... so I just say "I'm from the U.S."
"Ah." That makes sense. I look pretty American so everything fits together. A few years earlier it was a bit more confusing. I lived in the countryside, in the Gobi village of Gurvansaikhan, and practically everyone knew me. When visitors arrived at the town however there were some awkward situations. One man, seeing me leave my ger, halloed me and started speaking unintelligeably. I stumbled verbally, cursing the fact that I had been slacking off on my Mongolian studies. "Uh... I'm sorry, what?
He continued to speak, asking me something. I thought miserably of my friend Andrew (nothisrealname) who lived in a neighboring village and could already speak Mongolian close to fluently. He could probably understand this man with no trouble.
"I'm so sorry, my Mongolian bad- is bad... Say again please?"
At this point my neighbor came out of her house, saw us and yelled at the man: "SHE ISN'T RUSSIAN, YOU DUMBASS! Speak Mongolian!"
Russian. Of course. He thought I was Russian. I laughed internally. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the time and most of my colleagues were manufacturing "Bi Oros Hun Bish" ("I'm not Russian") for swaps and exchanges during the holidays. It made sense though... Russia is a country that borders Mongolia. Summertime sees lots of Russian tourists descending on Mongolia and wandering around UB. Many more Russians than Americans visit Mongolia each year. Since then, whenever I hear the familier semi-sneezy sounds of someone addressing me in Russian I make sure to verify my American status... even though I haven't lived in the US for some time.
Some of my friends have a great time being asked "Where are you from?" John (nothisrealname), a tall Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer, would usually not be asked this question until people heard him speak. Then curious questions would rain from all around him. "Where are you from?" Erdenetsetseg (notherrealname) asked him as we all sat eating together at a pub one cold winter night in UB.
"Oh yes... but, uh, originally? Um, your parents?"
"Aw yeah, they're not from Brooklyn"
"Yes, yes... where are they from?"
"Yeah... near LaGwahdia."
Perplexed look."New Yawk," John would clarify, grinning.
Erdenetsetseg would start to look a little flustered. "Yes, but... uh, how can I say this? Your ... ancestors?"
"Aw yeah, Gramps and Gram? Yeah, they're from Guangzhou."
"Guangzhou.. oh, you're Chinese." And Erdenetsetseg's curiousity would be satisfied.
Except that John wasn't Chinese. He was American. He spoke only English and "pathetic" (his words) Mongolian. The idea that non-Caucasion persons could call themselves Americans would always be a point of some confusion for my Mongolian colleagues. While teaching at a private Ulaan Baatar school my American literature class were assigned a passage from Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club." It was a chapter where the little girl June fights with her mother over piano lessons.
"Okay, let's talk about the cultural differences seen in this story," I said, starting off the class discussion, "How can cultural differences be applied to the conflict between June and her mother? Where was June's mother born?"
"Right. June's mother was born in China and grew up there. Most of her experiences in her life come from her Chinese upbringing. Now, where was June born?"
"Right. June was born in America. America is the only country she knows. But her family is Chinese. So is June Chinese or American?"
"Is she?" I launched into full discussion mode, deploying meaty questions towards my eighth-grade students. They all wore the glazed expressions of adolescents who knew that only forty minutes stood between them and the end of the school day. "Is she? What defines a person in terms of culture? Yes, June's family is Chinese but her experience is American. Her friends, her neighbors, her school, her community.... it is all American. The language she speaks is the language spoken by most Americans Her character is more rebellious than that of her mother... and yet there are parts of her that can also be described as Chinese. So is she Chinese, or American, or a mixture of the two, or something else entirely? What is she?"
I sighed. My idealistic, multi-cultural soul slouched off for a drink and I told the class to turn to page 253 and read quietly.
It sometimes comes as a shock that what Americans regard as an unforgiveable sin- racism- is not only accepted elsewhere but even institutionalized. I remember the indignant rages I would fly into when I would read signs in hotels which would specify that all foreign persons be charged 5,000 tugriks more than Mongolians. "I will pay no more than the Mongolian price!" I'd shout and thrust the money at the clerk.
"Avakhgui," she'd say, "I'm not taking that."
I'd storm out and pitch a tent outside of town. Mongolia has no camping regulations when it comes to camping outside municiple limits. Because a large proportion of Mongolians still make their living from nomadic herding, camping regulations would simply be ridiculous and- if instituted- ignored.
Of course Mongolians are not alone here when it comes to occasional discriminatory feelings towards foreignors. While interviewing at a Korean-run school in Mongolia I ended up chatting with the bursar's assistant, Yongnim (notherreallname) while my interviewer arranged his paperwork. As Yongnim and I spoke a tall Korean man holding hands with his fifteen-month-old daughter entered the room.
"Ooo," Yongnim cooed as the little girl toddled towards us, "Anyo..." She talked in Korean for about a minute to the child, who only stared shyly. After she left with her father Yongnim laughed and said, "The little girl was born in Mongolia. Her father is very afraid that she will only speak Mongolian. He has asked that we all speak Korean to her as much as possible."
"Oh," I said, "Is his wife Mongolian?"
It was an innocent question, but Yongnim acted like I had asked whether her colleague enjoyed fellating goats. "NO!.... No! No, no of course not. She is Korean. They lived moved to Mongolia together and had a child."
Of course it would be naive and arrogant to say that Americans surpass Mongolians and Koreans when it comes to racial tolerance. We don't. But we are taught to repress racism, like repressing intestinal gas in social situations. To see it released so freely and unselfconciously is always a bit unnerving.
The only moment of pure color-blindness that I have experience was last Friday when I was at a dance club near the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. The club was dark with flashing lights. An especially catchy number from Arash had just come over the speakers. As I danced away, a rather drunk Korean businessman, collared shirt untucked, tie askew, glasses fogged, stumbled over to me and slurred something unintelligible in my ear. "Chi....e... yea.. Mongol...bannu?"
"Sorry?" I asked in English.
"Arrr. Are you Mongol- Mongolian?"
Good Lord. Our faces were two inches apart and he thought I was Mongolian! Clearly the man needed new spectacles. Also he was drunk. And it was dark. Oh, and we were in Mongolia.... but still!
"No," I said.
"Wherr... are you .. fprom?"
"America," I said.
"Oooh.... haha..." and he stumbled off. However the secret to racial harmony had been revealed: Dark, drunken, late-night discos. I am a citizen of Arash at three a.m.