Thursday, April 8, 2010
Contemplating Comfort and Corona
Many of my students competed in the English Olympics and therefore were exempt from school for several months. Their school administrators would rather have them study for the test than attend classes. So I ended up with quite a few visitors in the American Center (AC) during my normally quiet mornings. One morning two of my favorite students rolled in around 11 and we chatted until it was lunch time at 12. I had to print out some photos so they agreed to come with me and show me where the print shop was. My friend had visited the AC earlier in the day and, while I was printing, texted me to see if I'd like to come over for lunch. "Sure!" I responded without hesitation. I looked at the two girls, who had been so diligent about helping me with the printing process. 'Will you eat lunch?' I asked. They both stared at me silently. One shook her head. The other goes "in Mongolia, we only eat when we are hungry." I asked them if they were hungry and the former nodded. I know that one of the girls only drinks a cup of boiled water for breakfast and the other only has one, perpetually absent parent. So I said "well then, come with me. We'll have lunch with my friend." So I sent my friend a text letting him know we were going to have guests, picked up my photos, stopped on the way for a loaf of bread and took the girls to my friend's house. In America this would be a strange thing to do, invite two young girls into your man-friend's apartment for lunch. But in Mongolia, where the lines between teacher, surrogate parent and friend are non-existent, I felt quite comfortable with this gesture. My friend was more than happy to have them for lunch and, because these two students are particularly precocious, we spent the time chatting pleasantly. We ate pasta with a veggie/tofu tomato-based sauce, much to my student's surprise. The sauce was quite a bit spicier than they were used to and they were perplexed by the absence of any real meat, but the girls bravely and ravenously devoured their bowls. When we returned to the AC after lunch, they excitedly told my counterpart all about the exotic fare they had eaten and proudly explained how the spiciness had given them headaches but they didn't mind. This short respite from my day, complete with students who make my time here worth all the struggles and my friend, the closet person I have in Hovd, was blissful. During our lunch, Batsetseg's boyfriend, a semi-famous young morin khuur (or Mongolian horse fiddle) player swaggered in and accepted a bowl of pasta. The girls had never met such a well traveled Mongolian, the boyfriend has been all over Europe giving concerts, and filled the kitchen with questions about foreign lands. The boyfriend answered all of their queries good-naturedly Sipping my tea, I felt that this was home. We made a strange, motley family sitting on stools and stolen chairs in the small kitchen and somehow, in my mind, it all fit. This feeling of home, like many of the emotions I seem to find blog-worthy, washes over me unexpectedly. One minute I'll be giggling with students over their new found love of Calvin and Hobbes and suddenly I realize that there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be. But this feeling doesn't come overly often; it is hard won through days of freezing, contemplating and gritting my teeth with frustration. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been nicer, perhaps even easier, to take a different path. Recently I was thumbing through Facebook photos of friends and family who live what I consider to be very comfortable lives. Tanned grins in front of tropical backgrounds beamed at me, as Corona flowed freely and fresh salsa sat waiting for a diving chip. You can even hear the crash of the crystal blue waves. This is a place devoid of mangy dogs, outhouses and stocked with all the fruit a girl could wish for. Easy life, right? But then again I wonder who am I to judge these lives? Just because these people live differently doesn't mean that their lives don't come with their own hardships. Sometimes I think it would be nice to sit by the beach with friends, work normal jobs and have a steady boyfriend. When those thoughts cross my mind, somehow my memory always darts back to New Years. On that night, my counterpart had invited me to her apartment where she was apparently on babysitting duty. The only one in the apartment over thirteen, I realized that it would have been a rather depressing New Years had I not obliged to come over. Realizing that made me glad I had left my friends, who were in the middle of Twister and other New Years festivities, to join her. We sat behind a table laden with food and cake and chatted. After about an hour or two of playing 'swing the little kid around by his hands' with the two 5 year-olds and watching fireworks (a stunning spectacle when seen through the eyes of a child), my counterpart's mother came home from a party and my counterpart was allowed to leave. Her 'special friend', an illicit boyfriend who is also a friend of mine, came to pick us up and walk me back to my foreigner's party. They leaned on each other in the dark, holding hands and giggling, feeling safe because they thought I couldn't see. It was on that walk that the same feeling, the feeling of being home, came back to me. Fireworks exploded in the sky and the smokestack that looms over the city, vomiting smog from the town's only heating system, was dressed in it's finest: cheery green and red lights that twinkled in the night. We walked pass the University dorms where boys hung out the windows, legs dangling and faces thrust into the cold air. They all sang; some sang the same songs, some chose different ones. Condensation issued from all of the melodious mouths and the sound of their songs warmed me. That felt like home. The festive family feeling of that joyous walk embedded itself deep in my core and remains with the memory of that night. So would it be great to be lounging by a sunny poolside, the most recent trashy mag in one hand, a fresh margarita in the other? You betcha! But for now, these moments, so hard fought for, so unexpected and rewarding, would win over the tropics any day.