The soft padding of our footsteps echoes down the staircase behind us. Besides the scuffling of our shoes against linoleum, my host mom and I are silent as we reach the second floor of the school. I take a deep breath and see a short, broad-shouldered man in a collared polo shirt with black-framed glasses and a friendly smile standing by an open classroom door. He is the principal of Sant School and our in-country coordinator for the program. He nods, murmurs a phrase to me in Mongolian, and waves me through the doorway.
I am greeted by six turning heads — the other volunteer teachers I will be spending the next five weeks with. After the typical introductions of name, age, university, country, and reason we chose to apply to this program, our official training begins. One of the first things I learn about is the historical and political dislike Mongolians have for the Chinese.
We descend the concrete steps of the State Department Store and enter the hustle and bustle of the streets on a hot, summer afternoon. A slender woman waving some fliers and wearing a full-brimmed straw hat and big, round sunglasses approaches me and rambles off a Mongolian phrase. After seeing the blank, confused look on my face, she pauses, points at me, and gestures at the rest of the mostly European volunteers, asking, “Tour guide, no?”
I answer, “Sorry, no tour guide.”
Rose, our program director, tells me that one of my younger students in the afternoon class asked why, if I’m Mongolian, I am living in America instead of here in Ulaanbaatar. Rose says she then had an interesting time explaining that I am not Mongolian.
It is International Day — a special day during our program when all the volunteer teachers will present about our respective countries. Between the seven of us, we represent 13 different countries; I was told to talk about China and Hong Kong.
I was up late the night before finishing my PowerPoint presentation, Googling things I didn’t know, texting my parents back home to make sure I was properly representing the culture. Finally, it was all done. I pull the presentation up on my laptop. I spin around to face the class and say, “Now, I will be telling you a little bit about China.”
An audible gasp escapes the group of 20 students. Murmurs. Whispers. Trying to ignore their obvious shock, hoping this would not make them think less of me, I continue my presentation. At the end, I ask if anyone has questions.
One boy raises his hand. I call on him. “Are you Chinese?”
Another student raises her hand. I call on her. “Are you from China?”
“No, I’m from the United States.”
More murmurs, more confusion.
I find out later that, on that first day of training, the principal had thought I was a host sibling here to accompany one of the other volunteers through the training. That’s why he had greeted me in Mongolian rather than English. He explains that I have a very Mongolian face —whatever that means.
Every day after school, I take a taxi back to my host family’s house. The other volunteers often walk home or share a cab together, but I can’t join them because they live in the opposite direction and very far away from me.
The taxi system in Mongolia works a little differently: you just stand on the side of the street, put out your hand as a signal, and wait for a random, unmarked car to pick you up. There are official taxis, but they are scarce and expensive, so people rarely take them. Instead, anyone with a car who can drive also works as a taxi driver in their spare time to make some extra cash.
Because I take a taxi home almost every day, I know the route home fairly well and know how much the cost should be. I speak to the drivers in English, and they sometimes ask me where I am from. When I answer, “I’m from America,” they usually accept it and charge me 3,000 tugriks (about $1.22) for a 20-minute ride.
Other times, depending on the driver’s curiosity, they will press me, “No, but where are you from from?” Once, I gave in and answered, “China.” That driver charged me 8,000 tugriks (about $3.25). The price is still nothing compared to American taxi prices, but the “Chinese price” for the same ride is almost triple what I usually get charged as an American.
One day, the other teachers and I go to visit the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan. We are walking around in one of the rooms, and I stop to look at a wooden carving. There is a little boy next to me. He looks up at me and says something in Mongolian. I reply, “Sorry, what?”
His little eyes open wide, and he gasps, “Oh my god!” He swivels and dashes off.
The first time I heard anyone mention the presidential election was a week before the election was to happen, when Rose mentioned people may take the day off to vote. We did not know for sure whether or not we would have class that day until two days before, and the final decision was that class was cancelled.
The night before voting took place, the house was quieter than usual. Things were tense. I
asked my host mom about the election, and she sat me down in the tiny kitchen with lemon
wallpaper to explain the whole situation to me. As I knew, her husband and son were both
working for one of the presidential candidates in his campaign. I nodded.
The current Mongolian president had already served two, four-year terms, which was the
maximum by law here—same as in the U.S. There were three candidates running for president; and the one that her family supported, she felt, was the only viable option. She explained that Mongolian politics are messy and extremely corrupt.
Her little hands clenched into fists, and her voice shook as she told me about how the other two candidates were despicable humans—one was the “Mongolian Trump,” as she described him, and the other was the leader of the mafia in Ulaanbaatar, with “five or six secret wives.” Then she raised her eyes to meet my gaze; and she said, “I worry for my country’s future, and for the future of my family.” It was the first and last time I ever saw her cry during my five-week stay in her house.
The next day, the day of the election, my host mom refused to let my host sister or me out of the house. She was worried that, when the results came out, there might be violent protests like there had been after the 2008 parliament elections. She was too scared to let us be out on the street, not that day.
That night, the results were in. Not a single candidate got the majority (50% + 1 vote), so no one won. This was the first time this had ever happened in Mongolian history because the country had only been democratic, and the people had only been voting, for 27 years. It was announced that they would hold a run-off election sometime within the next two weeks, but no one could tell us decisively when. We heard it was to be a Saturday, then a Sunday, then a Friday.
Of course, the flow of information was excruciatingly, painfully slow. So we did not know the official date of the election until a few days before, again. And classes were to be cancelled, again. The Friday that the second election landed on was the final day of our program. We scrambled to adjust our lesson plans.
I asked my host mom about the second election, and her expression was even more grave than last time. She told me that, this time, only the top two candidates from the last election would be running. And the one she supported had had the fewest votes, so he was out. She insisted the election had been rigged, and the votes had been intentionally skewed. She showed me an article she had been reading on Facebook as proof.
I asked if she knew who she would vote for. She shook her head—no. I asked her if she would still vote. She looked up in shock and said, “I have to. It is my privilege and my responsibility.”
The day of the second election rolled around. There was significantly less fanfare. Again, my host sister and I were on house arrest, and the verdict came pretty quickly — the mafia boss candidate had won the election. He would become the president. My host mom told me the news with hollow eyes and a hollow voice. I think her faith in her country faded a little that day.
Photographs by Anita Sheih
Edited by Amber Yildizel