Monday, April 3, 2017

After the Carriage stopped....

Some thought I was abandoning a (good though) not-so-exciting life/marriage in pursuit of a Cinderella story when I left the U.S. for Mongolia. Much of what I post perpetuates that fairy tale--and yes, I felt and yet feel that how Zorig and I began and came to be was a fairy tale. But now I've been living abroad for nearly two years. I expect some of you would like to know about the other side of the scales. Most of what people post via social media is the highlight reel of life (perhaps interspersed with an occasional rant or rage about something). Perhaps you've wondered......What about the bad days? What's been hard? What sucks about living there? Don't you miss the U.S.? Your family and friends? Is your life still the fantasy it seemed you were going after? 

I don't know that I'll answer all of that here, but I would like to offer up some anecdotes to share the bloopers or misses in this life of living abroad with my foreign husband and son. You see....I'll forever be a foreigner to them; and they will always be foreigners to me. 

Zorig sometimes asks me, "Do you ever wonder, what am I doing here?" So let me start with an answer to that and then journey down a rabbit hole or two. 

In all honesty, I do sometimes wonder at the circuitous life route that put me here, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in the year of 2017, married to an Asian, a Mongolian man, and mother to a teenage Mongolian stepson. I could not have predicted this reality. So wonder at it? Yes, I do. 

There are hard days. Hard moments. Disagreeing with your spouse or partner is hard no matter what, but add to that reality the fact that you either sold or free-cycled 90% of your belongings and moved around the globe to be with that partner--and yes, the ante is upped. Things feel magnified. Amplified. 

Of course Zorig and I fight or disagree. Not often, but often enough for me. And when that happens a little voice inside me is fearful and says, "uh oh, what if this is it? what if he decides he doesn't want you anymore? Decides having a foreign wife is too difficult?" I guess that shares my insecurity and fears. :)

Relationships fall apart all the time. Mine did in the U.S. But then I had plenty of friends and family around to help me through the falling apart and breaking down of things. I was in a system I knew and understood. It can be scary to imagine doing all of that--HERE. But I have gone through the mental exercise (while in the middle of one of those uh oh moments). I know that I'd be fine. I have friends who would help and support me. If I HAD to go through that terrible outcome. I know that I'd stay. At least into the foreseeable future. I like living in Mongolia. I like not living in the U.S. Being an expat is freeing in many ways. [Though I continue to miss salted butter and sharp cheddar cheese!]

The butter I smuggled home from China LOL
I also imagine people asking....well then, was it worth it? Moving around the world and giving up everything you had? Absolutely. Yes! If Zorig and I ended, for whatever reason, I would be forever thankful to have had GREAT love for the time that we shared it. I intend to share it into old age....but as a friend recently commented, Great Love--no matter if it was shared for days or years--is an incredible feeling and experience. It supersedes any job, accomplishment, belonging, position, or piles of money one could ever acquire (except perhaps having your own children--I can't speak to that). I have no regrets about moving to Mongolia and pursuing this love and this life. I would not go back to my previous life for any amount of money or wishes granted. 

So now that we have that clear, let's talk about the hard stuff. 

It's hard to fight and disagree with a partner that sees and knows the world through a completely different history and lens. It takes a lot of acceptance and unconditional love to just let another person BE who they are. I'm learning how to do that now--in my 40s. My previous relationships probably would have benefited from my doing that....and in my receiving of the same. But I wasn't there yet, and neither were my partners. Z and I hiccup through this process. Some days and weeks are better than others. We fall down sometimes. Have to make amends and work at being better. But we do it. The magic that drew us together and caused us to pursue this life together is yet strong and potent--it covers all things. 

It's difficult to be a mom without the years of training--which for most begin in the womb. I screw up and hurt Enji's feelings sometimes. I'm short with him and cold at times. I hate it when I do it. But once I see what I've done, I apologize and take ownership of my shortcoming or my failure. A pivotal exchange happened in the fall when we had a misunderstanding and he said, "I'm sorry, I'm not used to having a mom." To which I replied, "No, I'm sorry, I'm not used to having a son....but we'll figure this out together." And we do and are. He is a fine young man--compassionate, patient, thoughtful. He makes me a better human being and I enjoy his company. Our conversations are delightful (most of the time--I can only talk about what superpowers I would choose so many times!). That said, it's annoying to have to collect his technology and make sure he gets to bed at a reasonable hour, and eats enough, and focuses on school work, and stops watching silly videos on youtube instead of doing math problems. Yes, it was simpler when I was not responsible for a young soul. But it was also less fruitful. :) To see his grades improve and watch him achieve accolades is worth any annoyance. 

It's both easier and harder to make friends living abroad. Expats stand out so obviously here that we spot one another everywhere. However, expats are also part of a fairly transient group. At my school teachers sign a two-year contract and perhaps--if they can endure the pollution--might renew for a third. But generally they move on to another pasture after their initial contract. Of course one can still be friends....but not geographically together for very long. These friendships seem to stay in the shallow end of the pool. The young people want to party and experience all they can in their short time here and then move on. The single people beyond the young party crowd are doing their own thing, some of them hunting for their mate, some toggling between the groups (but less inclined to hang with those of us married and in a familial living situation). The Christians are plugged into their churches and respective communities. 

I am blessed with my circle of fellow American Wives. They are the ones I know I could count on if dire circumstances were to come my way. As well as being the ones to celebrate accomplishments or successes. We have our private Facebook group and it is a place of solidarity and trust. I visit it every day. However, most of them have small children which makes me feel a bit like an outsider. They accept and include me in everything--but I lack common experiences and that makes me feel as though I'm not fully in the group in some strange way (I fully understand this is my feeling....nothing they do). 

I sometimes long for closer, tighter friendships. I've had many over the years and do what I can to maintain them from afar (hoping to someday resume them geographically). I had my first "best friends" in elementary school. My oldest friend that was my BF for many years is married to my brother. We always seem to pick right up where we left off when we meet in person and in our virtual communications we cut to the chase. We have the history and foundation to do that. Over the years, and changes in career and geography, I've had many best friends. Opening up oneself to that kind of trust and vulnerability is powerful. Supporting/assisting one another through the trials and adventures of life is a great responsibility, and a greater joy. I have one close Mongolian girlfriend whom I adore. Despite our different cultures, we get one another and it's lovely. 

There are other frustrating or saddening things--but they are all on the smaller scale. For example, having small appliances and not being able to find the ingredients one wants to make the dishes one loves (my sweet Mexican cornbread!). Being so far from parents and siblings can be frustrating. Instead of spending hundreds to visit/see them...its more like 2K or more. Communicating with the time difference can make organic conversation difficult. Not having as much contact as I'd like with stateside friends makes me sad sometimes. I miss having a Crossfit gym and a dirt trail to run on. I miss having closets and being able to hang pictures (easily) on the wall (it's concrete here and not drywall). I miss Mexican food. But now we're just getting into inane details and complaints.

All in all, my life is good and satisfying. I love my husband and my son. I love the family we've cobbled together from differing pasts. My work is meaningful and inspiring. There are no guarantees about the future, but I can't imagine ever regretting the decision to move here and forge an unpredicted path in life. I have learned so much about myself and the world. I'm yet learning. But then that's at the core of who I am....I am a learner. 

So I guess you could say that I climbed out of the carriage and though life is not a happily ever after for anyone, I do find myself in a "happy now" most parts of every day. I'm content with that. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

First Trip to China

Shanghai selfie with greenery
Last weekend I journeyed to China, Shanghai to be exact, for the first time (to both). Prior to the trip my only knowledge of China was the Beijing airport. And that's never been a positive or a comfortable experience. That proved to yet be true this trip as there were no direct flights from UB to Shanghai and I had to connect through Beijing (of course). On the way there I had exactly 1 hour and 45 minutes between landing and take off. Thank goodness I didn't have to pee....because I was either in motion, or in line (immigration, transfer, security) the entire time. To make it that much more entertaining, I de-boarded a plane in the International Terminal (E), walked through Immigration (had necessary Visa), then caught the tram to terminal C to make my Domestic Transfer. Had to again go through Security (with another document check just before), then walked to my gate where I immediately walked down the gangway. Oh wait...then down some stairs to where we were herded onto a bus and then driven BACK to Terminal E where we climbed stairs to another gangway to board our plan. It was literally just a few gates down from where I de-boarded!!! And may I add....every line in Beijing is LONG. Bottom line: They need to employ more staff. 

In Shanghai, the Hongqaio Airport was FAR more accommodating and properly staffed. On arrival there were clear signs on where to go to get a taxi. I think there may have been 500 people in line (perhaps a slight exaggeration...but not by much), but it moved swiftly and efficiently. I landed before 10 pm and was in  my hotel by 11, and it was a 22 km and 30 minute drive (with the traffic we encountered). 

Egg hardboiled in tea...on the breakfast buffet
I am ignorant when it comes to China. I wanted to get my phone out and take a picture at the airport....and then second guessed myself and thought..."oh, will someone confiscate it then?" Yes...I recognize the silliness and stupidity of that fear. I was in a foreign land and didn't know at all what to expect. Bad on me for not researching or inquiring. :(

What can I say? Well, I hated not having access to my email (all my email is through Gmail--including my WORK account, we are a Google School for goodness sake!) or to Facebook (proper or Messenger). Honestly, it felt like I went to another dimension or something. I had no cell messenger. Thank goodness I thought to tell Enji to add WeChat so that I COULD communicate with home. WeChat is *basically* China's version of Facebook. I did a little research.....and yep, it was developed by Chinese citizens. Okay, I is it about keeping the money in China? OR is it about control and censorship? According to this Reuters article, Google products of every sort have been blocked. There's even a site dedicated to the censorship, analyzes and discusses censorship in China. Now....I've only been to China once and for 3 days. Did I survive my unplugged time....of course!  I have some new-made friends that live in China and love it--most of them are married to Chinese men (visit WWAM Bam to learn more--I'm a contributor)....but I have to say, I hated not having access to the tools of my life and existence. I could not communicate with my husband. I couldn't share pictures for my mom or dad or siblings to see. And frankly, that pissed me off! I have a VPN....but not one that is China Grade, apparently. 

When I spoke with my fellow educators and one that taught in China--the ones attending the AP training that took me to China--they explained this was China's control over the poor people. Anyone who has any money has a VPN and can have any online life they desire. So....that's disturbing!! Right? 

Skyline view from the Bund
The complaints out of me....I will say that I had the opportunity to venture into downtown, or rather to waterfront Shanghai, on Saturday evening. I was so appreciative of the fellow educators who teach in China for inviting me along. They knew the small words and cultural nuances necessary for a night out. I was dazed and say the least. I cannot begin to express how I felt on the pedestrian street that took us to the Bund. I was surrounded by HORDES of people--mostly Asian, certainly some foreigners--and overcome by the lights (think Vegas on steroids) and sounds. It was consuming and staggering. UB is the largest city I've ever lived in at 1.4M. Shanghai is at 24M. OMG. Can you even imagine!?!?? To put it in perspective, NYC is 8.6M. I've not yet visited NYC. I'd like to. 

I will wrap up by saying....the AP training was good. I enjoyed talking with fellow educators--I was in a class of about 31 and my table had two women teaching in China and a man teaching in Tokyo--we got along famously.  I am beyond THRILLED to take on this challenge and forgot how much I LOVE teaching literature and writing. I am hard at work reading (currently tackling A Farewell to Arms) and preparing for the fall. My flight home was uneventful. But I will leave you with this strange observation. What kind of boob job did this grandma get? It's from the take off and landing video that Air China shows before takeoff. She's sitting next to an elderly white-haired man. I meant to get a picture of the young woman in the video...she makes Barbie look symmetrical and balanced!!!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Tsagaan Sar, Take Two

Believe it or not, I'm celebrating my second Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia. I wrote about my First Tsagaan Sar over a year ago, this year it came later. Hard to believe but March begins tomorrow. 

Last year I explained that the holiday is a blend of Thanksgiving with New Year's plus a little something extra. That yet remains true. However, as we visited yesterday (three homes between 1 and 9 pm)--the day is known as "Visiting Day"--it occurred to me just how much the day is a marathon of eating and drinking (for the visitors). It's a day of work--constant cooking and cleaning--for those that host. I can't lie, I'm relieved that we don't host and only visit. That's a selfish statement, I know, but it's honest. 

As for the "marathon," I think about just the variety of things I drank yesterday, visiting three homes, and it included, milk tea at each place (you MUST begin your visit with the drinking and eating of WHITE things), then in no particular order: vodka, seabuckthorn juice, airag (fermented mare's milk), black tea, red wine, and some Chinese sake. I declined on the beer and whiskey options. As soon as you drain your cup or mug or shot glass, someone is right there to refill it. 

We celebrated this year's Tsagaan Sar differently. As Enji lives primarily with us now, we celebrated Tsagaan Sar eve just the three of us--our nuclear family--which I really enjoyed. Zorig and I had shopped the day before and he began cooking in the afternoon for our evening meal. We spent time cleaning our apartment (think spring cleaning!) and preparing for this new year--the Year of the Fire Rooster. Zorig laid out our table with some of the traditional items (aaruul, dried fruits, biscuits, vodka). When the food was ready, we all changed our clothes into something more than sweats, and sat down to dine together at the table. Zorig toasted the New Year and wished us all happiness and health and love. We ate and drank and talked. It was lovely. 

Then on Visiting Day, yesterday, we relaxed in the morning--after getting up "early" as is tradition--and having some milk tea with dumplings in it. In the afternoon we visited three family member's homes, same ones as last year. We may have one more place to visit today as we ran out of time last night, arriving home after 9 pm. Because we went later in the day, there wasn't the huge crowd that we had last year at the first place. This made for more enjoyable visiting, in my opinion, though it lacked the big family photo op. The day was sunny and pleasant, reaching nearly 30 degrees fahrenheit. While I can't say I conversed more this year (I confess that I do not have a talent for learning languages and have temporarily suspended my Mongolian language sessions for the time being), I will say that I understood a lot more of what was being talked about. As I mentioned last year, some of that is interpreted through body language and gestures, but this year I did understand many more words being said. 

Each place you go, you stay for at least 45 minutes or so, as you must wait for a fresh plate of buuz (steamed meat dumplings--see pic on last year's post) to be set on the table. I confess that while I CANNOT eat buuz like a Mongolian--I really do not know where they put them!--I do try one at each place to make comparisons. I love how diverse and different they can be. Did the maker use minced meat or ground meat? Is it mutton or beef or horse? Did they use onions? What about the fat--sheep tail or something else? Spices used? Tightly packed,or loose? I can't nearly tell you all nuances between them, but they ARE different. I can tell you that I ate more than the customary one at one place yesterday! 

This year I'm more in awe of the pace of the day. People go from one place to the next, eating and drinking at each, for hours and hours. Hosts are concerned with keeping your cups and plates full, it's rude to not eat or drink. This year I was more confident, knowing that I'd always enjoy the aaruul (I've acquired the taste for it), try one of the buuz, and sample the vinegar based salads. I was even brave enough yesterday to sample the potato salads at a couple of places. It tasted better than I expected. :) Proving once again, it's good to be brave and try something new or different. 

Enji and I still have today and tomorrow to relax before going back to school on Thursday. But then it's a very short week!. Next week is broken up with International Women's Day on Wednesday--no school then either. Before we know it, Spring Break will be upon us.