“The lucky ones come with rain,” my host mom tells me with a soft smile, as the light, little raindrops land and slowly slide down the windshield of her white Prius. The Chinggis Khaan International Airport steadily disappears in the rearview mirror, and I sit tensely with my hands folded in the passenger’s side seat.
“Oh, really? I must be a little lucky then.” I flash a nervous grin and a quick glance at the woman whose house I will be living in for the next five weeks, the woman who will drive me to school every morning and pick me up every evening, the woman who will feed me three times a day, and the woman who will both share her culture and ask about mine with equal enthusiasm.
“A little lucky…must be!” She chuckles, and I can breathe a little easier as we ask all of the typical getting-to-know-you questions and drive steadily towards my new home here in Ulaanbaatar.
Sitting down at the kitchen table for my first meal in Mongolia, we are all silent. My 15-year-old host sister, E—*, scoops generous portions of rice and beef onto two large plates and places them before my host mom and me before joining us at the table, avoiding my gaze the whole time. I learn that E—cooked this meal for us in preparation for my arrival, and she blushes at the floor when I praise her.
Between quiet minutes of chewing the tough beef, I try to strike up a conversation with E—, but I am met with many shy giggles and fretful looks at her mother, T—*, to translate. I eventually give up, and T— has nothing left to say either since we covered a lot of the introductory material in the car ride.
After we eat, I head up to my room, which is actually E—’s room. But she has temporarily moved out and will be sleeping in the same room as her mother while I am here. T— says her husband will be occupied and not at home for the next two weeks—something about a campaign and going to the countryside to talk to people. As it turns out, her husband was working for one of the presidential candidates in the upcoming election, and he was traveling throughout the country to campaign.
Before we embarked on our trans-continental journeys to Mongolia, all of us volunteers were notified of the custom of bringing welcome gifts for our host families. I decided to bring the Arizona edition of the Starbucks “You Are Here” mug series, Chinese green tea for my host mother, classic American candy (like M&Ms and Twix bars), and a white puffball keychain for my host sister.
After dinner, I retrieved these gifts from my room upstairs and present them to T— and E—, who have transitioned to lounging on the couch and watching a Korean drama with Mongolian subtitles. They tell me they love them.
The next morning, I see the Starbucks mug half-filled with green tea in the kitchen, already being put to good use. My host mom looks over her shoulder as she prepares breakfast to smile at me sitting at the table and says, “Every time I use, I will think of Arizona and remember you!”
By the end of the week, all that’s left of E—’s candy are the empty wrappers haphazardly strewn around the house like crinkly little empty Easter eggs.
A routine develops. I creep down the stairs in the early morning, as jet lag helps me rise before the sun. I brush my teeth, take a shower, go back up to my room, write in my journal, and come back down to the kitchen when I hear T— calling me for breakfast. We eat while E— scrambles to get ready for school. Hair wet, and clothes not properly tucked in or straightened out yet, she stumbles down the stairs from her room with her backpack slung over one shoulder to grab a piece of bread and a hunk of meat before we all dash to the car to make it to our first class on time.
The days change, the outfits vary, but the routine remains the same. And so does the breakfast selection. Every morning, it is the same spread on the plastic, floral tablecloth in this modest kitchen: slices of white and wheat bread, a selection of sliced meats (my favorite was a type of ham sausage), some spreads (including a very sweet “Mongolian cream,” as T— calls it), a “salad” of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes with an unidentified sweet-sour dressing, and sweets (either little tinfoil-wrapped Russian chocolates or small chocolate-chip cookies). I help myself to a packet of instant Ye Ye coffee too. Sweet and vaguely caffeinated, I love the drink so much that one day, I ask my host mom where I can buy it.
“Actually, is Chinese brand,” she explains, “but can find in any store here. We take you another day. It is very easy.”
I say, “Ah, yes, ye ye means maternal grandfather in Mandarin and Cantonese!”
“But all the meats and vegetables are Mongolian. Very fresh and good, I find better than ones at—uh, Chinese markets. More fresh and clean.” She seems a little hesitant or wary to criticize the produce of the country that my parents are from, but I brush it off and assure her that I have taken no offense. She goes on to explain where she buys all of her other foods, drinks, and produce. I find this becomes another routine—we talk about food a lot.
“Mongolian cream—urum. I love it. Comes from cow, very sweet and light.”
I nod as I spread some on my slice of bread.
“I really like this meat. What is it?”
“Ah, just sausage. Not too fancy.”
“This is buuz. Do you like?”
Mouth full, sauce trickling down my chin from the corner of my lips, stomach stuffed, I nod.
T— seems amused. “Many foreigners like. It is like…Chinese dumplings, no? But bigger, I guess. Mongolian dumplings.”
I swallow. “Yes, they are delicious.”
“What is the difference between these?”
“Ah, some are beef, others are mutton.”
“I see. Which do you prefer?”
“You don’t have a favorite?”
“…Beef is better.”
“I like the beef better too!” We laugh.
T— is a fast walker. I learn this one day in the morning when we stop by the State
Department Store to buy me a new SIM card for my phone. We speed past parents and children and stalls and shopkeepers to the correct booth, where she grabs a number ticket and promptly sits me down in a hard, neon-green, plastic waiting chair.
Finally, our number is called, and she does all the talking as the woman behind the counter looks at me with bewildered eyes. Confused, she asks me a question in Mongolian. I stare blankly back at her. My host mom interrupts our mini staring contest to reply for me. All I can think about is how the employee, dressed in a navy blue dress, matching little hat, tight bun, sheer tights, and shiny black flats, looks strikingly like an airline hostess. She says something to me again in Mongolian. I stare at her again and give a small shrug.
My host mom is starting to get annoyed now. She speaks rapidly, and I hear what sounds like “Mongol-teck,” being thrown around, which I assume means Mongolian. I think I hear a “no” following shortly. And then the two finish discussing the details of the purchase of my phone plan.
Finally, the employee punches in the final cost for me on a calculator. The calculators in Mongolia have not only a “0” button, not only a “00” button, but also a “000” button for ease of typing thousands—hyperinflation. The number she presents me with is 15,000 tugriks. We have spent 20 somewhat painful minutes conversing about my phone plan for the next month, which comes out to be a whopping six American dollars.
I ask how many texts that covers, and T— says, “You pay 10,000 tugriks for texting. Each text cost 22 grips.”
“Sorry, what?” The employee nods her head in agreement. “I don’t think I understand.”
“You paid 10,000 for the texts.”
“Each text is 22 grips.”
“Sorry, what does that mean? What’s a grip?”
Silence and more blank stares.
“22 grips. Mongolian money.” I hear the frustration creeping into her voice now.
Finally, I understand. And I feel like an idiot. “Oh! Each text costs 20 tugriks!”
“Yes!” She and the employee give each other a look.
It is our first big communication barrier. I feel ashamed for not knowing the language. I feel embarrassed for not having realized what she was saying earlier. I feel worried that she is irritated or fed up with me already.
We leave the phone company’s booth and dash through the rest of the massive
department store once again to exit. When we finally reach the car, I am a little out of breath— T–– is a fast walker.
On my last day living in T’s house in Ulaanbaatar, we exchange parting gifts. T— gives me a thick, red, plaid cashmere scarf from the Gobi Cashmere Factory Store, where her sister works. She says, “Send me pictures of you wearing it in winter, studying hard at Brown.” I plan to do just that.
Meanwhile, I have collected an assortment of things during my stay and even shipped some products from the US that I thought my host family would appreciate. But out all the items—from caramel chocolates to Origins face wash to a Yixing clay teapot—my host family say the gift they will treasure the most is the card I wrote for them.
In it, I write about what I have been grateful for, what I have loved, what I have learned, what I believe, what I hope for, what I plan for, and what I will never forget.
I signed the card, “Your Daughter, Anita.”
On the front, I used the help of Google Translate to write out in Mongolian Cyrillic letters, “I love you.” Which I do, and believe I always will.
*the names of host family members have been abbreviated to their first initial to preserve anonymity
Photographs by Anita Sheih
Edited by Amber Yildizel