Celebration was an eerie place where the houses were identical and looked luxurious from a distance. The lawns were close-cropped and too green. The streets were blazing white and wavered in the 105 degree Florida heat. In an especially creepy touch there was often music floating up from fake rocks planted in a ghastly parody of tastefulness on the corner of each intersection.
This was all bad enough... the awful houses, the treeless landscape of mercilessly fake green, the plaster rocks,... but what Kerry Kanvassers especially abhorred about entering the soullessly gridded streets of Celebration was the fact that the community was full of Republicans. Of the five hundred or so houses we were assigned, only one residence was registered as democratic. Even for Orange County this was bad.
Ulaanbaatar has its own Celebration, a white ghetto of diplomats' families housed behind vigorously guarded metal gates. This collection of pastel-colored delux apartments is called Star Apartments. In order to enter Star Apartments you must announce yourself to the Mongolian security guards and have them buzz the families to confirm that your presence is allowed. Mongolians who loiter too long outside the gates are told to depart by security officials.... often in a most patronizing manner. Once I took a taxi to Star Apartments, but did not have the correct change to pay the man. As I rifled through my purse in the back seat, the car idling by the Star Apartments gates, a police car pulled alongside us. The driver, a stern-looking police man with sunglasses and five stars across the shoulder of his uniform, stuck his head out of the window. "Hey!" He yelled at my driver, "Do you think this road is your own personal toy?"
"No sir," My driver answered quietly. I was struck by his diminutive tone of voice. Most Ulaanbaatar taxi drivers I knew, when accosted rudely, would tell the other guy to go fuck himself.
"I suppose you think you're having fun here."
"Move along. This isn't a playground."
I quickly handed over the money to my driver, told him to keep the change, and got out of the car.
Going to Star Apartments is a regular activity for me because I currently tutor two little girls in English Literature. Their father is an American man who works at the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar. Their mother is a Finnish woman who is eager to maintain her little girls' education as the family moves about the globe.
The two little girls, Theresa (notherrealname) and Valerie (notherrealname) are twins. They are twelve years old, trilingual and absolutely charming. During lessons when they are around me they speak fluent, unaccented American English. When they are alone together they speak Finnish. Theresa and Valerie's conversation can fly from Cleveland to Helsinki in the space of a second.
In their short lives Theresa and Valerie have had more amazing experiences than most adults. Theresa and Valerie were born in Korea and are consequently Korean citizens despite the fact that they speak no Korean and do not remember the country at all. Their family moved from Korea to Slovenia when the girls were two. "We left Ljubljana when we were four," said Theresa, "We lived in this old embassy building... well, it was more like a big house than an embassy building but it used to be an embassy. It had a big garden in the front."
"I don't remember that at all," said Valerie.
"You don't? Don't you remember the photograph of Mom with the two of us? We were wearing matching white winter jackets and blue mittens. It was really cold over there, I remember that."
Valerie shook her head. After Slovenia the girls moved to Jakarta. They spent most of their childhood in Indonesia. They also have lived in Japan, China and New Zealand. "New Zealand is awsome," Theresa said, "Japan too.. they had these awesome lava slides."
One time, while reading the Earnest Hemingway story "A Day's Wait," I asked the girls about how they defined courage. "Do you think the boy in the story was courageous?" I asked.
"No, I thought he was stupid," said Theresa, "I mean, how couldn't he know the difference between Celsius and Farenheit? He was ten!"
"Actually, I think he was nine."
"Still, it's so easy! Celsius and Farenheit... two different scales. It was just dumb that he didn't know that."
"Well, most American children don't really know the difference between Celsius and Farenheit, especially at that age," I said, "But the real question was how did the boy react when he thought he was going to die? How did he show courage? Have you ever been in a frightening situation? How did you react?"
"Mm.." I could see Theresa thinking hard. "Well, I don't think I've ever been in a really frightening situation."
"There was that bomb attack, remember?" Valerie said, "When we were at school? In Jakarta?"
"Yeah, but that wasn't really frightening," said Theresa, "I mean, it was on the other side of the city. We just got sent home early and then later Dad told us that there had been a bomb attack."
"I felt the ground vibrate."
"No you didn't"
"Yeah! The ground vibrated!"
"Yeah, but that wasn't scary. She wants to know something scary."
Valerie furrowed her brow. "I don't remember. I mean, there were always all these drills at school in Indonesia... Terrorist drills, fire drills, tsunami drills."
"There were never any tsunami drills."
"There weren't? Well, I remember the terrorist drills. Those were weird. We just had to get on the buses, have the buses drive around the block ten times and then we had to get out and go to a teacher's house. I mean, I don't know how that was supposed to protect us from terrorists."
"No, those were the fire drills. The terrorists drills were where you had to hide in the closet in each classroom so the terrorists would think the classrooms were empty and wouldn't take us hostage."
"Moving on," I said, "The next story is a time travel story called "The Third Level." In it the narrator describes going back in time from the nineteen- fifties to the nineteen-twenties. He steps out onto the train platform and sees an old-fashioned locomotive...."
"What's a locomotive?" Theresa asked.
"You don't know what a locomotive is?" I asked, surprised.
"Well... I know what a motive is... so a locomotive..." Theresa was at a loss.
"Like... crazy?" Valerie guessed.
"So... like, a crazy motive?"
I was touched by the earnest, logical way the girls figured out "locomotive." It all made sense. HE HAD A LOCO-MOTIVE FOR PAINTING HIS TOENAILS BLACK! "No, no," I said, "A locomotive is an old-fashioned train ... one used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."
Today I tutored the girls again. We read "Melting Pot" by Anna Quindlen. "Do you know what the 'melting pot' refers to?" I asked.
"Yeah, pottery," said Theresa.
"Like, pots and kilns," said Valerie.
"Not exactly," I said, "Well, in one sense, you are right. But the term 'melting pot' usually refers to American society. It is a 'melting pot' where people of all cultures gather together and melt into one culture: American culture. The term 'melting pot' became popular with the essay 'Beyond the Melting Pot' by Nathan Glazer and...."
"No, I'm sorry," Theresa said, then giggled again, "Sorry, sorry.... it's just the name, y'know? 'Glazer'... like glazing pots and he wrote an essay about melting pots."
"I don't get it," said Valerie.
"You know, like glazers glaze pots and make pots and plates and put them in kilns..."
"Don't they glaze donuts?"
"Yeah, donuts too... but also pots."
"I've never thought about it like that," I answered truthfully, "But let's go on. Can you think of a way that a society can act like a mixing bowl when it comes to seperate cultures....."
The doorbell rang. "That's our math tutor," Theresa said.
"Oh, has it been an hour already?" I asked, "So it has. Okay girls, I'll see you on Friday."
"Okay, goodbye," Theresa chirped, leaping out of her chair, "Valerie, tule mukaani!"
With that, a lesson finished and with twenty crisp American dollars in my pocket, I left the freshly clipped lawns of Celebration, Mongolia.
"Shall I call a taxi?" the security guard asked me.
"No thanks, I'll walk," I replied. I stepped back into the familiar smog and concrete of Ulaanabaatar.