I sit in one of those mesh ergonomic rolling chairs designed to provide lumbar support, in front of a glossy, faux-cherry desk, typing hesitantly.
On my right is my bed, complete with a memory foam mattress topper, a jersey knit comforter and an excessive amount of Target throw pillows. The harsh sound of concrete striking concrete — courtesy of the bustling construction site of College Station’s soon-to-be latest apartment complex — vibrates through the window on my left.
I stare at the sentence I’ve just written for my new blog post: “Perhaps the essence of being Mongol lies in keeping in touch with our roots, the centuries-old nomadic way of life that continues to be practiced in spite of rapid urbanization.”
Behind me, thousands of miles away in northern Mongolia, distant aunts and cousins twice removed rise from wooden beds. They cast open the felt doors of their tents and greet a sprawling world of grassland and mountains. A world bereft of iMacs and the mechanical crane’s beep.
In first grade, I embarked on a military campaign to resurrect the Mongol Empire.
During a series of 20-minute recesses, I proclaimed myself the universal ruler of Rock Prairie Elementary, declaring war on all who resisted surrender — and when deciding that territories alone weren’t enough to sustain my newly formed state, I demanded tribute in dandelions from those who made the smart choice to comply.
For all my strategic genius, my only successful conquest was an uninspiring three-square-foot area that stretched from the monkey bars to the water fountain. Genghis Khan would have shed a tear. I shed multiple.
In fifth grade, I dressed up as the Khan himself for Halloween, frightening many of my peers and their parents (shout-out to my mom for hand-sewing the costume!). For my sixth-grade science fair project, I researched the endangered wild horses native to the plains of Mongolia. And when my seventh-grade history teacher told my class that Mongols don’t exist anymore, I wore my “Mongols of Texas” shirt to class every day for a week, making sure to sit in the front row each time — a perfect show of passive-aggressive outrage.
I’ve always felt an intractable urge to project my Mongolian heritage onto people, to make them hear the words “Mongolia” and “Mongol” in any capacity, in any context. Having spent most of my life in the small, suburban town of College Station, Texas, I’ve often imposed a responsibility on myself to educate others on Mongolian culture and to draw attention to a country that has been so largely ignored by the global community and underrepresented in a variety of environmental and political issues.
Though I’ve long stopped glorifying war and idolizing one of the most bloodthirsty historical figures of all time, I took it upon myself to champion the most obvious quintessentially Mongolian part of history: the practice of traditional Mongolian pastoralism, the ancient nomadic lifestyle that many still follow today.
Every season, white-toothed and dark-skinned nomads, those who called themselves “Mongols” for centuries before the reign of Genghis Khan and his grandsons, pack up their gers — durable tents with intricate interior wood support — and migrate to new land with their livestock, like they’ve done for a really, really long time.
Many of my extended family rank among these humble, tenacious people, something I’ve always thought was incredible. In high school, I wrote incessantly about the topic on a personal blog, for my school newspaper, in response to interview questions like “What drives you? What are you passionate about?” I especially liked writing pieces bemoaning the fact that fewer and fewer nomads exist every year, with many moving to urban centers to seek out a living.
But do I even have a right to do that?
Here are the facts, without the superficial home-is-where-the-heart-is flourishes: I have lived in the U.S. since I was five years old. I have completed all 13 years of schooling here. Most of the Mongolian I’ve spoken for the past 12 years has comprised of Sorry, Thank you, I love you and Mom, I’ll clean it later. I think in English. I have spent exactly two years and one month in Mongolia — two years before I could remember things and one month in 2012.
How can I be a proponent of Mongolian nomadic culture when the only Central Asian steppes I see on a daily basis are the ones displayed on the front of the postcard my mom got me from the Ulaanbaatar airport three years ago? How can I write about the difficulties Mongolian nomads face when my sheer ability to communicate with them is doubtful, when I have lived in a completely different environment from theirs practically my entire life? When I’m profoundly disconnected from the difficulties of living in harsh Mongolian weather without electricity or the comforts that characterize urban life?
Worst of all — how can I mourn the decline of their culture? I may be connected to these people by blood, but I am undeniably separated from their struggle, their joys, their simple day-to-day existence. It’s inherently presumptuous of me to think like an “insider” when I am simply looking inside, catching glimpses of a vibrant culture here and there from my parents, documentaries and occasional summer trips.
In approximately three months, I will hand over my Mongolian citizenship and U.S. permanent residency to become an ~Official Citizen of the United States of America~. Legally, on my passport, I will cease to be Mongolian.
But as I type on my MacBook Pro and sit on my plush extra-long twin bed, I can’t shake the feeling that I already traded in my Mongolian identity long before I ever touched a naturalization form. Definitely before I started my blog geared towards “spreading” (read: extrapolating on) my parents’ culture. Likely before I conquered the playground in a gross caricature of Mongol history.
Perhaps even before my 2-year-old feet left Mongolian soil a decade and a half ago.
Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.