When I phone Amaglan in Mongolia, the first thing I want to tell her is that it’s snowing here in the U.S. But I can’t find the words for it. This shocks me. I sit there, holding the phone, watching the snow falling onto a triangle of lawn at my parents’ house in suburban New Jersey. I listen to the cadence of Amaglan speaking in Mongolian, carefully enunciating words as language teachers do, as she did when she taught me.
The snow is falling thick and fast, I want to say. But I can’t.
Instead, I say other things. I say Happy New Year and she says the same; she says it’s freezing cold all over Mongolia, especially in UB. But a few weeks ago, it was warm enough that she got together with some of the other teachers at that place near her house, that café where they have the good tea, do I remember.
Yes, I say. I do.
Really, she laughs, you really remember after all these years, that one café we went to once?
It’s only been five years since I left, I say.
Long enough to forget, she says.
Actually, it’s the opposite, I say. It’s long enough to remember. She hears the defensiveness in my voice. She changes the subject. We continue talking. The snow keeps falling. I mourn those missing words.
In 2007, when I first get to Mongolia, it is New Year. The Year of the Pig. I’ve arranged to live with a city family before heading off into the countryside. The city family lives in UB or, as no one ever calls it, the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The city is crowded with blocks of old apartment buildings, Cyrillic signage, new skyscrapers, and fashionable restaurants, which reflect Mongolia’s past as a Soviet satellite state and its present as a capitalist democracy.
The name Ulaanbaatar begins with the “oo” sound, as in “who.” As in “who are you, where are you from, why are you here.” The answers I repeat until they are rote because then, even I have to believe them. I’ve had Mongolia on my mind for years, I say, since Bombay where I was born, and the U.S where I now live. Don’t ask me why. I just know I saw a photo of the steppe in a geography book when I was ten and that was that. Maybe it was a city girl’s longing for space; maybe it was something in the blood, kin stirring to kin as if I knew those spaces of old. It felt like a calling, I say, and so I conspired to make it possible. I’ve come on a year-long Fulbright research grant. I’d like to see the steppes, live with families and record sounds.
Anything. Everything. Stories and songs and sounds of everyday.
Norov, the mother of the family I stay with in UB, says, there is so much I wish I could share with you but I don’t have words, I’m sorry. But Onika translates. She is thirteen, slim as a willow and quick in English, which she learned in her Russian-medium school. She loves Justin Timberlake, Harry Potter, and above all, American Idol, which I watch for the first time in Mongolia. On International Women’s Day, the father, Choijamts, cooks fish – the go-to dish for special occasions in a landlocked land – and we eat Russian torte. Onika plays Beethoven on the piano. We sip Mongolian wine. Then, with her father accompanying her, she sings a song about four seasons on the steppe.
Spring comes like the beloved, softly to the steppe, they sing. Spring comes newborn to the steppe. Except that spring is not gentle. It is fierce and windy. I can only encounter people in the present tense. No other time frame exists. Whatever words I manage to string together in one phrase are blown into another phrase. My “hello” becomes “goodbye,” my “how are you” becomes “who am I” and I keep confusing hair – oos – with water – os – which causes terrible confusion when I am thirsty or need a comb. But somehow, Monjago understands. She is in her thirties like me. She has a broad open face, and light brown eyes, far-seeing, intuitive. She finishes my sentences, sometimes even starts them.
I spend a month with her in the countryside proper, in a ger proper. In that round, white, felt-covered home, we are five: Monjago’s husband, their two kids, and me. And in a ger next door, her husband’s brothers. And around us, hundreds of cows, sheep, goats and horses doubling in number every minute during calving season. And beyond that, a hill, and beyond that, the flat yellow steppes of the eastern province of Hentii.
This is the yag hoodoo, the famed Mongolian steppe where nomadic herders live with their families in clusters of ger homes. Most make a living off their livestock – though this has become increasingly difficult with overgrazing and a recent spate of severe winters called zuds that scientists attribute to global warming. There is an ongoing exodus from the steppe to Ulaanbataar, which now houses the majority of Mongolia’s population of three million.
In Hentii, spring is all about births – horocks (lambs), ishigs (kids), togals (calves) – and winds: fierce winds, soft winds, dry blustery winds, moist winds, winds that bring smoke from distant forest fires, and winds that hit the ger with full force so that bits of plastic on the roof make a flapping din, and people raise their hands and yell, “Holdorei” so the wind hears and knows to move far away.
I feel like a child. I speak when spoken to. Conversations fly above me, and I strain to catch words, ecstatic when I hear one I understand, or better still, my name. Then I raise my voice and try to speak. I am tiptoeing on a cultural boundary of my own making – they put up none, I am welcome everywhere – but I am wary. I especially don’t want to step right on the threshold of the ger – that is bad luck, Onika told me before I left. So I step over gingerly, holding my breath.
Monjago sees this. She takes me in hand and I become her shadow. I go where she goes, milking cows in the morning, cleaning out pens, gathering manure for the fire, herding goats, running after stray calves. I follow in earnest, I listen, and spring becomes a season of bearing witness and tentative steps.
In the stillness of summer, I find my words more easily. Heat loosens the tongue and I navigate the present and the past with ease; sometimes, even the future. Ulaanaa and I talk for hours. He is twelve, and nicknamed for his red cheeks. For about a month, I stay with his family in the northern province of Hovsgol.
At seven every morning, we let the cattle out of the pen, and saying, “duuch duuch,” lead sheep and goats through valleys and forests, and up and down the sides of mountains. Sheepherding involves a lot of walking and sitting and watching sheep, watching the sky, watching the breeze blow over the grass, picking flowers, letting your mind wander, shouting loudly after goats when they go where they shouldn’t, and running after them when shouting isn’t enough. It involves, everyday, the experience of sun, wind, shadows, brown butterflies, the buzzing of cicadas, the persistent symphony of flies.
Ulaanaa slides down the slopes of mountains on rubber boots; he opens his mouth to catch the rain when it comes; he gets on all fours and growls after goats who flee; he breaks off tree branches and brandishes them at sheep; he drops his jacket on them and laughs as they trot away with it bouncing on their backs.
He won’t be a herder like his father, he says. He’ll drive a Russian jeep fearsome enough to take on Mongolia’s roads. He already knows the route he’ll travel; he’ll take the road that goes along the eastern shore of Lake Hovsgol, what some call the worst road in Mongolia.
I understand, I say. In language, we are the same age. I follow him as he follows me; we get to the ends of sentences, syntax intact except for when I am distracted by a butterfly or a yellow flower that everyone says is good for colds.
One afternoon, he sings a song, and asks me for one. I’ve been expecting this because most people I’ve met either ask me for a song or offer up one. On a slope, surrounded by goats and sheep, I sing one verse of “Que sera sera” and another of a Hindi song about the full moon.
Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho, Ya Aaftaab Ho
Jo Bhi Ho Tum Khuda Ki Kasam, Lajawab Ho
Are you full moon or the sun?
Whatever you are, I swear, you are beautiful beyond compare
I pity the cattle but Ulaanaa grins and says they’re strong, they can take it and they’ve heard worse.
By the time I leave Hovsgol, I’m running with him down the green slopes. Who tiptoes across grass?
In the autumn, I stay with Sainaa and her husband Demee in the South Gobi desert. They live in a small ger surrounded by an expanse of reddish brown earth covered with tufts of low green bushes. They have a small herd of goats, camel calves, and camel mares.
My first morning there, Sainaa is impatient. She rattles off directions quickly.
“Gather the dried dung, and use it to tend the fire while Demee and I milk the goats. Keep the fire going, don’t let it go out! And then later, in the afternoon go and gather the camel calves – see them, right over there about a quarter mile away, go round them up and bring them back near the ger. Got it?”
I do get it. This amazes me.
“What’s the hold-up?” she says as I stand there, dazed.
“First of all,” I say, “there’s this shock that I understand everything you’re saying. And second of all, there is what you’re saying itself – you realize that I’ve never done any of this before?”
“So what,” she shrugs. “Yav, go.”
I try tending the fire but it goes out. Sainaa sighs and shows me. I have better luck with the camel calves. It turns out that they are obedient. I make clicking sounds. They respond. But their mothers, the camel mares, do not. For them, I must learn a new language: camel-speak.
The most important word, says Sainaa’s husband, Demee, is Haa. It means stop. In the evenings, when the camels are milked, he says, they must be organized into a line so they can be led off, one by one, and milked. I am a camel shield. I must say haa to any camel that moves out of turn.
So I stand in front of a line of camels, usually at sunset. I say haa. I yell haa. I sing haa. I even plead haa. Once in a while, the camels listen. Mostly, they don’t. Sainaa and Demee don’t seem to mind so much. Since it’s just the two of them now – their teenage daughter is back in school in UB – they seem to appreciate the company. Or maybe they just appreciate the chance, every evening, to watch my shielding attempts and laugh their heads off.
Winter takes me to Bayan-Olgii province where people speak Mongolian slowly and clearly because it is their second language. I revel in almost full comprehension; it is dizzying to fully understand a sentence with all its nuances and reply in kind.
In this westernmost province of Mongolia, ethnic Kazakhs are the majority. Some came from Kazakhstan and some from Xinjiang in China. With a mixture of Turkic-speaking groups like the Uighurs and Kazhaks, Xinjiang has always been a volatile region for the Chinese. In the late 1930s, after it was further destabilized by a Soviet invasion in the Xinjiang War, many Kazkah nomads began looking towards Mongolia. Their exodus started in earnest after the Communist takeover in 1949. But Doldabai’s family left earlier than most, in 1942.
I hear his story one winter afternoon. His relatives, with whom I am staying for a few weeks, bring me to his house for a visit. Just to say hello, they say, just for some tea. Tea turns into a feast. For hours, we sit and talk in a white adobe house, eating roasted meats and toasting with vodka. There are deep red tapestries on the walls, and in a room to the side, a wooden cradle built by one of Doldabai’s nephews for his daughter. She is asleep in it, gurgling quietly as we talk loudly. Small square windows frame a landscape of brown steppe and patches of ice, frozen rivers, forests of elm and Siberian larch, and in the distance, immense snow-covered peaks.
Doldabai says, bear with me. I have a bad leg, a bad ear, this eye doesn’t open so well anymore. His voice is deep, scratchy, and full of feeling. He speaks of unrest in China, especially when the Communist party began gaining power in Xinjiang: how his family lost their property, how his parents decided on a new life in a new land. It was autumn when a procession of men, women and cattle left Xianjiang on foot. It took months. Many died along the way. Many more became sick. That first winter in Mongolia was so cold, they dug holes in the ground, and slept in them. But they endured and they have been here, in this very village of Aag Araal, since that time.
Everyone is quiet. Doldabai smiles. Slowly, he stands. He begins to sing then, a melody I’ve never heard before. When he is done, his niece says it is a song he made up on the spot called “kharaoling.” It’s in their tradition, she says, to improvise a song to fit an occasion, and this song is “about you, my daughter who has come from far away, may you travel well, may you live well.”
I sit there, struck into silence by the grace of it all. I sit there, humbled as a grand old man who has undertaken such a long and difficult journey raises his glass to me.
Now, years later, I am on the phone with Amaglan, thinking about all I stand to lose by forgetting. I am reeling from those words I have lost and how she was the one who helped me to find them in the first place.
When we met, she had no English except for hello and I had no Mongolian except for the Mongolian version of hello, sain baina uu. But she mimed, pointed, gestured and taught me my first words of Mongolian. My first class, she walked into the room where I sat waiting – and walked right out. Then she walked in again, saying what I later understood was ”I am walking”: bi yavaj baina. She sat, saying bi bosoj baina: “I am sitting.” She smiled widely, bi ineej baina; she shook her hips, bi bujiglig baina: “I am dancing.” Every class became a game. With the help of other teachers at the language school where she worked, I got to phrases and sentences and tenses.
Inexplicably, rapidly, I took to it. It baffled me. I have some Hindi, and I studied French in school but, for goodness sake, this is an Altaic-Turkic language written in a Cyrillic script. I hadn’t heard anything like it before.
Except for a few weeks in the spring, I traveled everywhere without a translator. In between trips to the countryside, I came back to the city, took lessons with Amaglan and other teachers, and fortified by more phrases, more grammar, I went back out. Often I was utterly lost, but I absorbed what I could, when I could, in increments. What I didn’t understand in April, I understood in June. And even though it was gradual, the shock of comprehending was tremendous.
Suddenly I could talk to Norov, my Mongolian mother, without Onika having to translate; suddenly, we were speaking to each other. Some afternoons, we would sit in the kitchen and have suu-tei tsai, a milky tea with salt, and talk. Bor ohin min, she would start, my dark daughter, and ask me questions like how did the day go, when was I going next to the hoodoo – the countryside – what did I think of Mongolian men, what did I remember about India, was Bombay like UB?
There were times I forgot we were talking in Mongolian. It was like that feeling you get when you’re reading a good book and the world it describes is so vivid that you forget you’re accessing it by reading. You forget what separates you.
Mongolia changed everything – how I live, how I see the world, how I see myself. When you travel, you tend to cultivate a persona different from that of your everyday life. You’re open to everything and you take better care of yourself emotionally. Because you know you’re out of your comfort zone, away from home, you work on letting go of whatever you can so that you can move with ease.
At different points during my time in Mongolia, I remember thinking: one, what if I lived with the same persona I traveled with, and two, if I could manage here by planning only one step ahead instead of ten, instead of trying to see the whole road – well, couldn’t I manage my life like that too?
And that’s really what I’ve done since Mongolia – followed what calls. It’s led me to New Mexico, where I now live, and into a period of writing and directing creative projects in theater, poetry, fiction, that I would never have imagined for myself and that only came about because I was able to let go and fully follow what moves me. This has felt like a revolution. For me, it is.
But.just when I have processed my experience in Mongolia and realized how it has reverberated, the language that found me so quickly is beginning, in bits and starts, to leave. Everyday I find it easier to write about Mongolia; everyday, I have to work at remembering Mongolian.
It makes me think that perhaps, my facility with the language had less to do with having a “good ear” and more to do with being so open: without buffers, so that everything around me in Mongolia came right on in. Did I go there without buffers or did the buffers disappear when I arrived? Is it the place that opens the traveler or the traveler who opens because she is traveling to that place?
I know there are ways to compensate for losing language: practice more, study more. And I know loss of words does not have to equal loss of memories. Except for me, they’re connected. Those moments where people offered up something true and unguarded were in a language common to them, rare to me.
What to do? I write. I share what I can, while it is vivid. I write to honor the generosity with which people made themselves known to me. In re-telling their stories, I feel I’m continuing a process in which our connections expand, the world contracts, and far away becomes close.
Well, ok, then, Amaglan is saying, you stay well. Happy New Year again.
I hesitate, looking at the snow, mourning my lost words. And then it comes to me. Tsas orj baina, I yell. I point to the falling snow as if she can see it. Tsas orj baina.
Here too, she says. I can almost see her smile. It’s snowing here too.