Archive | August, 2010

Coming Home

8 Aug

I anticipated a period of strangeness once I returned to America.  I chuckled at the expected stress of consciously listening to every passing conversation, my ears attuned to picking up any English I could.  I expected to notice fat people, cargo shorts, enormous servings of food, et cetera.  That was what friends had said about going home on a visit.  “It’s a little weird for the first three or four days,” they said, “but after that, you get used to it.  After a week, America’s boring again.”  But for some reason, my experience was (and still is) very different.

I passed through Korea for a few days after leaving Mongolia, picking up bags and saying not “goodbye” but “see you later.”  The thrill of hopping borders, languages, and currencies with ease got to me.  Landing in Korea felt like coming home.  I marveled at the forested mountains, smooth roads, neon, and restaurants that actually served what was on the menu.  Korea seemed delightfully orderly, safe, friendly, and lush.  I was seeing Korea with new eyes, though I knew so much about it.  I moved about with a new confidence, speaking more Korean than I normally did, feeling less burdened by social obligations to Korean culture, venturing into new places and situations with a swagger.  I’ve got this, I thought.  I am so damn good, doing this, conquering all without a hiccup or stress. “You have the travel glow,” my friend Chris commented over a farewell dalkgalbi lunch.  I was thrilled at that prospect and boarded the plane to America with such an aura guiding my thoughts.

But arriving in America was a shock, one that ended my arrogant traveler’s air.  Immigration in Detroit, in particular, was a surprise.  The polite, deferential Korean manner was gone.  Despite the looped welcome video that portrayed a friendly, multicultural America, the immigration authorities were of a very different ilk:  short haircuts, brusque manner, intrusive questions, combat boots and handcuffs hanging from belts.  Though I had been through U.S. immigration a number of times before, it had never been a shock like this.  I even stumbled a little bit in answering questions and the ICE agent behind the counter eyed me.  We are Rome, I thought.  We are not cutesy or Confucian.  We are keeping the Huns east of the Rhine. ‘Militaristic’ was the word that ran through my mind, one I had always associated with Imperial Germany, never my own country.  I wondered almost aloud if this truly was the land of liberty I had always believed in.

Faces, manners, clothes seemed odd.  I had never realized the extent to which Hawaiian shirts have taken up residence on the torsos of middle-aged American men. Stewardesses seemed cold or annoyed, never smiling, always inconvenienced by your request.  The vacant looks of many people was surprising too.  I had seen resignation, anger, greed, curiosity, resentment, and sadness in foreign eyes, but never had I seen so much blankness in human faces.  Were my countrymen really nothing more than walking Blue Screens of Death?

On the ride from the airport to the hotel, I found myself evaluating my own country like all the others I had passed through.  I couldn’t help but gauge and compare everything from cars to socks to roadsigns to food packages to conversational formalities.  I didn’t feel American, evaluating my homeland so critically and dispassionately.  Had I lost something, some essential part of my identity, never to get it back?

Nonetheless, I began to notice and comment on things.  I realized everything moved much more slowly than in Korea.  That surprised me.  I had always thought America was a bustling, make-hay-while-the-sun-shines nation that never stopped.  But even the cities seemed like a drowsy Aegean village compared to Seoul.  I had called Seoul an anthill before but had wondered if the comparison was just.  It is more than apt.

The expansiveness of America was particularly remarkable.  The sky, the road, my yard and house — everything had so much space to it.  Only Mongolia’s space was comparable but even there, in Ulaan Baatar and the rural villages, everyone was close together.  The nomads had space but that was out of necessity.  Americans just spread out, like a good stretch after waking, across the land.  And because of that space, Americans can have so much stuff.  We have huge houses with room to store.  I was amazed at how many things I had in my room that could make life richer — hundreds of books, expensive outdoor gear, even my old construction tools.  Even my truck was incredible, a huge piece of costly machinery that would never have fit on a Korean road.  My family and I are not rich.  Yet we have (and, as a result, can do) more things than most people in the world.  My old haunts in Bundang were affluent; to own an Audi in Korea like my neighbors, given the import taxes, you must have a lot of disposable income.  But I could do, learn, experience, and simply have more than them.  I had space to accumulate stuff to enrich my life.  But that was not all of it.

My girlfriend came to America only a week after my return, having planned a surprise last minute trip.  I had to quickly step back into being an American in order to show her in this crazy country I lived in.  The experience not only helped me recognize what I proudly wanted to show her, but it showed me what she was amazed by.  Through her eyes I learned to appreciate greasy American food again, and struck up conversations with strangers while waiting in line.  I enjoyed driving fast, breathed fresh air, and hiked alone in silence through ancient, unspoiled nature.  I learned again what I had forgotten.

If there is a virtue in wandering, it is that one gains a new perspective for understanding life and people.  Yet there is a cost to this, as there is a cost to every virtue.  Adhering to a principle often can force terrible things on people, such as alienating a father or a friend over an issue of politics or morality.  Thus, doing Right does not ensure completely Good results.  The cost of wandering is that, in gaining perspective, you lose it as well.  To throw yourself fully into another place means ignoring and forgetting, though unintentionally, about where you come from.  Your knowledge of who you are, knowledge that stems from how you were formed and raised, is obscured.  You forget how the fabric of your own past is woven with that of your family, friends, and nation.  Having grown up in it, breathing it like air, you can identify that rich tapestry in your heart and mind, even if you could not vocalize it to others.  But without contact with those threads that continue to weave themselves, you are forced to rely on shaky and select memories, opinions of others, news reports and scattered books, all run through filters that wash out the essence of where you come from.  You dwell on the peripheral or strange or bad or sentimental, because that is what is easy for most people to understand and talk about; your world takes on the character of a cheap broadsheet daily.  Eventually you cease to battle for what you know because it has no air to breathe; your perspective becomes twisted and faded.

I forgot the essence of my home because I left.  But perhaps I never would have realized its nature or even its presence had I not felt it rush back into a void that I did not know existed.  I have felt the most profound sense of joy and thanks for who I am and where I come from since my return, an unexpected gift but one of the best I have ever received.

Nomad Faces

6 Aug

I have never seen such beautiful people in all my life as Mongolian nomads.

Beauty can be had by tough faces worn by wind, sun, and hard living.  But their beauty runs deeper than that.

For these nomads in the Gobi Desert, it is indeed a hard life.  At most times they are about a dozen gallons of water away from thirst, yet they carry on with remarkable aplomb.  This past winter in Mongolia was a bad one, a zud as it is called.  It means the snow is so deep at times the animals cannot dig to the grass.  Many herders lost a good number of their animals.  One nomad told me he could not ride his favorite horse in the local naadam because she was still too skinny.  You’d think the people wouldn’t be much healthier.  Their diet consists mostly of noodle soup with mutton and maybe some onions, carrots, or rice, or fried mutton or potato dumplings.  Yet they tough it out through incredibly harsh conditions.  I walked with a nomad family for a good twenty kilometers one day.  The father could only have drank perhaps a half liter of water the whole way, though he surely was pouring as much sweat as me.  I don’t know what the temperature was that day but when a Gobi nomad specifically comments that it’s really hot, you know it’s really hot.

They live hard lives but that does not mean that they are insignificant or unhappy ones.  The nomads I met were among most friendly, giving, hospitable people I had ever met.  They were incredibly relaxed and playful, always ready with a game or to show you something interesting near where they lived. Though they had very little and undoubtedly knew that I had much, they did not display avarice or resentment.  They freely offered whatever they could.

They live in a different world, no doubt.  But theirs is not one of Biblical poverty, a picture which the term nomad conjures in the mind.  The children go to school and every single one I met was literate.  Occasionally you will meet a family with a child at university in Ulaanbaatar.  Every family I met had a motorcycle, some even two.  Most families had a photovoltaic array that charged a battery from which they ran their TV and satellite dish.  All had cell phones which they hung from the roof poles of their ger.  One of my most lasting memories are those of Mongolian women standing, mixing food, while talking through a dangling, ten-year old Nokias to their friends many kilometers off.  Such modern connections made a stark contrast with them milking and killing their own animals.

But the presence of modernity seems not an indication of the corruption of traditional life, but rather that the nomads, despite their frugal life and isolation, are still central the Mongolian nation and its future.  One day I observed a brand-new, black Toyota Land Cruiser appear out of nowhere and roll up to the ger of the family I was camping with.  Three Mongolian men, clean, wearing polo shirts with turned-up collars, got out and went into the family’s ger bearing gifts: bags of candy, bread, and vodka.  After about twenty minutes, they bid farewell and drove off in the direction of the next closest family, several kilometers away.  Upon going inside, I saw the father reading a pamphlet from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.  The political parties were actual out canvassing the nomads, even though that might mean only a handful of votes for perhaps a hundred kilometers in driving.  Mongolia is a democracy but it is difficult to believe that moniker when the per capita income is $2100 per year.  Yet these nomads, some of the poorest yet also most independent people in the country, are important constituents, a linchpin in democratic power.  If they weren’t, why would the parties spend so much time and money traveling such great distances, dispensing gifts and pamphlets, for so few votes?

People are not created equal.  We in the West, rather uncreatively, think of equality in terms of money or rights or whatever term is politically palatable at the moment.  We almost always equate poverty with a lack of money.  But defining these nomads as all poor based on money is wildly inaccurate.  Many of the nomads are not poor, but not out of any great disparity in wealth.  Rather, the difference seemed to stem from character.  A few families I met were saddening to be with.  The children, like the girl above, were excited and enthusiastic to be around visitors but only because they clearly craved some sort of positive stimulation.  The father was either herding animals or lounging in the ger, aloof to their needs.  The mother spent her whole day cooking, boiling water, and tending the fire.  She did nothing else.  Their life seemed austere and soul-draining.  Yet the next family was quite different.  They seemed much, much happier and robust in spirit.  The mother had just as many children and just as many responsibilities, yet she managed to not only take care of the necessary chores but also found time to shear some of the sheep and do embroidery work.  She was a strong-willed, active woman and it showed in the cohesive and healthy attitude of her family.  The monetary and material differences between the two families were negligible but the wholeness of their members were very different.  Poverty as we define is indeed a poor measurement of the quality of one’s life; the latter family was perhaps happier and more balanced in its existence than most Western families I know.

I constantly chided myself for romanticizing about the nomads and their way of life.  But was I really romanticizing?  Even in the small villages in the desert, the people were happy, welcoming, fast with a joke and seemingly content.  Most nomads seemed to live whole lives, more whole and happy than many modern people I know.  Was their way the worldly approximation of an ideal?  That depends what you consider an ideal way of life.  I don’t know if living as a nomad is a better life than others.  But I think crucial components of it point to what can make a better existence.  Part of it certainly stems from their Buddhist beliefs.  They are an intrinsic part of the world, inalienable from it, and thus feel a part of the cycle of life and nature.  The nomads are also immediately responsible for their day to day existence; it is necessary for them to toil to provide what they need and it is evident where their sustenance comes from.  They are dependent on community and generosity.  Whether from his neighbors or strangers when traveling, a nomad can always expect to receive help or food or water wherever he goes because he would provide the same to anyone else.  Finally, they have a sense of tradition and past.  There is not a battle of competing narratives as in the West.  They understand implicitly who they are, where they come from, and how they should continue on in that manner.

I will make this assertion now and stand by it: for the vast majority of human beings, the simpler their lives are, the easier it is for them to live happily within a spiritual and moral framework.  And is not living spiritually and morally the most important thing?

Mongolia is special because you find there what you don’t find anywhere else in Asia: a big country of very few people, poor yet with a real, working democracy.  It is not bigoted or insular but outward looking, ready to embrace any ally it can in protecting its identity against its imperialist enemy to the south.  That struggle will be a long and hard one but I think that, if a country is only the sum of its people, Mongolia stands a good chance thanks to its nomads.