When Mongolian people first meet me and learn about my mix (Mexican-Mongolian), most want to know how I see Mongolia, where my opinions lie, essentially if I love Mongolia or not. On their side, it’s probably to gauge whether I’m ‘still’ one of them, and to measure how far our relationship will go. I can see Mongolians from all walks of life trying to figure me out, to size me up. Some from good spirited curiosity, and others with distrust. Both ways are fine; both give me something to think about and I’m grateful for this ‘quizzing’ process, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t tire me out sometimes. Ironically, the only time my mix didn’t perplex anyone was when I was in the country, in хөдөө. The country folk were just happy to have me there, to have me help out around the house and give them something to laugh about. Precious? Isn’t it? It is. That’s why I love that I ever chose to visit Mongolia. I got to experience that irony firsthand. City folk, well, we tend to overthink things.
To be honest, I do have my complaints about what I know of some facets of Mongolian society. I say ‘know’ not because it is a universal fact, but because it is merely my experience. For example, seeing any Mongolian man really very drunk makes me uneasy. My heart begins to beat fast. My chest begins to feel heavy. My breath gets stuck in my throat. I heave sometimes. I lose my own balance. It’s just my phobia, don’t judge me for it, dear reader. Another thing that really throws me off balance are confrontations directed in Mongolian. Something about the sharpness of the words just makes my heart sink. If I find myself in any situation like that, in Mongolian, my first instinct is to disappear, to flee. I’ve learned to manage it better with age (thank God), so now when I want to flee it’s less about fear, and more about just not finding myself around that kind of blunt and brute energy thatI am sure is present in every culture. (I try to be impartial, you see).I was introduced to unpleasant things through this lens- I get that. This is why I have a special sort of emotion for my Mongolian heritage. It’s not a perfect one, it’s not necessarily the most peaceful one within my mind, but it is raw, it is real, and it is personal, and there’s peace in that.
I have nice things to say, too, though, and I mean them. ‘Mishell, what does it mean to be Mongolian?’ someone asked me before. I’ll attempt to answer this here:
To start off, I don’t know how to translate ‘шар’. But ‘шар’, the kind that wills you to move forward, not the kind that makes you resent others, is a trait that I’ve always found distinctly Mongolian in my life. I need that fire to keep me going.
* A fearlessness to jump into the big abyss because the Mongolian can handle any challenge. Maybe I got this understanding from watching my mother jump into situations without a guarantee, like going to Mexico by herself and making a life of her own and learning Spanish from a pocket dictionary, and making it. By making it I don’t just mean surviving either. I mean, to actually find joy in the situation.
You see, my mother was never Mongolian to me just because of her blood, or her language. Her Mongolian-ness cannot be measured by whether she wears a ‘дээл’ or celebrates her national holidays with vigour or whether she knows her history by heart, though I admit those are important. Identity and culture have always been an invisible thing to me. Her Mongolian-ness was always something to do with her ‘drive’ and how those affected her actions.
* ‘Ядаад байх юу байсан юм?’ It’s a phrase I’ve heard most of my life thanks to my mother. I guess I could roughly interpret its meaning to be ‘what could be so difficult about it?’/’there’s nothing to it’ in a yeah-can-do attitude. Its Spanish equivalent for me is ‘si se puede’ (it’s possible, doable) but the two phrases are vastly different in their approach- at least to me. The former challenges, the latter reassures. One is hard, one is soft. When my mom went to Mexico, she probably thought to herself ‘за ядаад байх юу байсан юм?’ despite her doubts and despite her fears. When we decided to move to the USA and we needed papers, she probably thought ‘ядаад байх юу байсан юм?’ despite the obstacles. I’ve heard this phrase over and over again, through the hard times, and through jokes. ‘Ээж нээх онгироо шдээ’, I tease her. And she laughs boisterously, freely. ‘Гэхдээ зүгээр ээ, би ээжийгээ дуурайсан бас нэг онгироо юм байгаа’ I say. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. I like the word. I mean ‘онгироо‘ in the best way, because I have seen how being too ‘онгироо‘ can bury us, but not being ‘онгироо‘ enough can weaken. Being the right amount of ‘онгироо‘ can be healthy; it can help us build confidence, and help us overcome obstacles.
I see this within myself now. I am far away, and I have to do this and that. I have to overcome this and that within myself and outside of myself. I am way in over my head sometimes. I go a little crazy and then wind down and remember in the end: Ядаад байх юм алга, and I do not want the world to defeat me just because it knows my weakness. This is when the ‘шар’ kicks in: I will not be defeated from within by my demons. My ‘онгироо‘ fearlessness helps me get through day to day with some level of confidence in that life will be okay, GREAT, even. And these kinds of realisations can only be approached with blunt and brute force to have any meaning at all.
There’s a million ways I could answer the question ‘Mishell, what does it mean to be Mongolian?’ I can only speak for myself, and this is my answer for now: to be Mongolian means to be headstrong, determined, and able