Today I woke up to a snowstorm outside my window... rare for May even in Mongolia. Granted the snow was wet and melted into big muddy three-feet deep puddles on the street however the mere novelty of waking up in the morning and seeing snowflakes swirl through my window was enough to rouse a blog post from me.
Right now my eighth grade students are blowing up balloons and occasionally popping them. Tomorrow is open house day for Orchlon School, one of the top private schools in Ulaanbaatar, and consequently every youngster in the building has been press-ganged into decorating the school. The eighth-graders were given balloon duty. Right now they are wandering around among piles of gently bobbing balloons, chattering, flirting and blowing out their cheeks.
"This is so annoying!" One student, Ochgoo, informs me, "These are like the cheap balloons too!... like 100 tugriks each! White powder keeps falling off them whenever we blow them up and they pop in our faces and we go 'AAA!' and sometimes the balloons slip out of our mouths and whip us across the face and we're like 'AAA!' or they blow back out and make farting noises and they hurt our mouths and they're really, really annoying."
Ochgoo studied for two years in U.S. before his family moved back to Mongolia. I studied for two years in Mongolia before moving back to the U.S, then to Korea and finally back here. My Mongolian is much poorer than Ochgoo's casual, idiomatic English.
"How many balloons have we got so far?" I ask him.
Ochgoo looks back at the classroom. The desks are barely visible under clouds of floating pastel rubber. About 60 percent of the class appear to have abandoned blowing balloons to play with the finished work. "A lot."
"Bayarmaa says we need 700."
"Aw, c'mon! We have a lot and I can't feel my lips."
I shrug. "Okay, fine. Guess we should stop then. Let's play vocabulary jeopardy."
When my AirChina flight from Beijing dipped down below the clouds three months ago the scenery below me was fantastic. I had never flown into Ulaanbaatar during the day before and was unexpectedly jolted by what I saw. There was nothing below my window. No signs of habitation at all. There was only a vast brown plain, a steppe, stretching off until it crumpled into massive snowy peaks. As an American Midwesterner I had flown into rural airports before... airports surrounded by green patchwork landscapes split by grey ribbons of highway and dotted with large farm houses. Of course I had flown into urban airports as well, looking down on perfectly-formed toy cities as the plane steadily circled. Never had I looked through a window and seen absolutely nothing.
Sitting in the seats beside me were two middle-aged Chinese men who were having a conversation with a Korean university student across the aisle. They spoke in English.
"How long have you been studying in Australia?"
"Ah, is it difficult there?"
"And the women? What are the women like? Their skin?"
When the plane came in for landing at Chinggis Khaan International I chewed my lip and hoped the runway would appear below us soon. Two weeks later a Peace Corps volunteer would tell me that Ulaanbaatar was considered one of the most difficult cities to fly into and consequently Koreanair and Air China used only their most experienced pilots for that leg. I was thankful that I had not been in possession of this knowledge at the time we were landing.
Half an hour later the passengers disembarked at the largest international airport in Mongolia. CHI has one gate and is smaller than the local airport in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As I walked through to the baggage claim area I noticed my seatmates gesturing somewhat passionately to the airport security guard. The men didn't speak Mongolian but it was easy to gather from their sign language and broken English that they were missing a bag. The airport guard called over a portly fellow in an official uniform who had an air of lethargic unconcern.
"What's the matter?" He asked the guard and I felt a small twinge of delight hearing Mongolian again after such a long time.
"They've lost a large black suitcase."
"Large black suitcase? And it's not here?" The official casted a casual eye towards the conveyer belt that was by now almost empty of luggage.
"No, it's not here."
The official shrugged. He didn't even take his hands out of his pockets. "Guess it's gone then."
And for some reason I knew then that I had come home.