Racial identity in Mongolia as a foreigner

My final article at the UB Post, unedited version. My boss requested that I write an article detailing particular impressions I had of Mongolia as a foreigner, but this wound up being a piece on Asian-American identity and the ambiguous place of Asian adoptees in ethnic communities. Link to original is currently unavailable.

When I first arrived, I hopped in a taxi with a Mongolian cab driver who spoke no English. He was a cheery fellow, blasting and humming along to 1960s radio tunes.

While we were waiting in traffic, he asked me something in rapid Mongolian. I shook my head and said I didn’t understand. He said more slowly, “Bi, mongold. Chi?”

“Bi mongold bish,” I replied, the only sentence I knew at the time. He demanded, what was I, then – Japan? Korea? Mexico? I told him, “American.”

I came here with a grant from my university to do an internship in East Asia. As part of my statement of purpose, I said I wanted to not only reconnect with my East Asian heritage, but also to build new roots. As an adopted Asian-American of somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance and without a genealogy record, I’m integrated with neither the Asian community nor the American community.

In my predominantly-white town, I was constantly reminded of my “otherness” as a child when kids would come up to me on the playground, pull at the sides of their eyes, and say “ching chong, ni hao.” On the other hand, among my Asian friends, I was constantly made fun of for not speaking their language “correctly” or “not using chopsticks properly.”

After coming here and speaking to Mongolians who were studying abroad for university, I realized that they go through a similar struggle. Mongolians internationals especially struggle because of their different culture and the nation’s relatively smaller population and even smaller presence abroad.

“Oftentimes, people just think I’m Chinese,” said one Mongolian friend who attends school in New York City. “I’ll go to Chinatown and sometimes, they’ll come up to me and start speaking in Chinese, which I don’t speak.”

Another student who told me that, as his school is a small liberal arts college, he doesn’t necessarily have access to a large, diverse community, but doesn’t always feel comfortable with Americans. “I’m the only Mongolian at my school,” he said, “so my friends are mostly Asian internationals.”

But without language or cultural context of their peers, they, too, are still not quite “insiders” of the Asian communities in American schools, yet are expected to partake in it based on their appearance alone. Mongolians abroad maintain a strong sense of their heritage as “Mongolian,” yet not necessarily as “Asians.” And because they are few and far between in America, it can be difficult to find a sense of community.

Large Mongolian-American communities do exist in pockets throughout the USA. According to the 2010 US Census, approximately 5,000 Mongolians live in California, primarily situated in Oakland, San Leandro, and Los Angeles. There are approximately 2,000 living in Denver, Colorado, and 3,000 – 4,000 in Chicago, Illinois. Finally, about 2,600 Mongolians reside in Arlington, Virginia.

In contrast to Mongolians studying abroad, for whom cultural assimilation is the primary issue, for Mongolians who are long-term or permanent residents of America, the concern is more losing their heritage. To maintain language and culture, some parents in Arlington and California cities send their children to Saturday Mongolian school, strengthening community identity. For Mongolian internationals living near these areas, these communities can be invaluable for establishing a support system.

Additionally, Mongolians abroad remain in touch through organizations like MACA, the Mongol American Cultural Association, and Friends of Mongolia. AMSA, Association of Mongolian Students in America, also creates a network geared specifically towards students studying abroad.

However, while cultural organizations can mitigate the issue of belonging, it can sometimes risk alienating other groups or dividing within, something the Asian-American adoption community unfortunately experiences. Some Asian-American adoptees are vehement in affirming their identities, claiming to be oppressed by whites and demanding to return to their native land to find their birth parents. The other extreme completely denies Asian heritage, feels like no culture accepts them wholly, and acrimoniously scorns others who exhibit interest in reconnecting.

According to Jean Phinney, a renowned developmental psychologist, racial identity is essential to mental well-being. It has been linked to “positive self-evaluation and self-esteem.” If an individual experiences discrimination, positive ethnic identity can also alleviate depressive symptoms resulting from mistreatment. Forcing ourselves to reconnect doesn’t always feel right as outlined above, but denying similarities exacerbates the sense of isolation.

One thing that I think we can learn from Mongolians is the “nomadic tradition” in order to strike a balance between dual identities.

While the Mongolian students I met expressed some loneliness, I was still nevertheless struck by how they had bravely chosen to venture out to an unfamiliar place, spend four years of their lives there, and reach out to individuals that were ostensibly very different.

Another Mongolian I met who studies in the USA told me how she connected with one group of Chinese girls based on their love of volleyball. Her other group of friends, all American, sticks together because one Tuesday night, they snuck onto the rooftop of their dorm, blasted a mix of Billie Holiday and Kpop, and made Snapchats of one another’s terrible dancing until dawn.

They became friends based on the fact that some simple things – love of beauty, creativity, and longing for human connection – are universal.

I think that these individuals’ experiences enable them to recognize that, while they may not conventionally fit into the Asian community nor the American community, they are actually empowered in their non-committed identity. Rather than pigeon-holing themselves to a single place or group or denying what makes them unique, they push themselves to expand. They truly bridge the gaps between cultures.

I am not Mongolian, but I have been able to create a community here that is not solely based on racial similarity. Instead, Mongolia has been an opportunity for me to learn how to be not simply a member of a single country, culture, or group, but a citizen of the world.

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