One of my goals in life is to step on the soil of every single country in the world. Not quite realistic, I know, but I like the sound of it.
This summer, I added Mongolia to my short list of countries I have been to. As part of a program called the Experiment in International Living, I played a flicking game with anklebones, attempted to throat sing and watched a sunrise in the Gobi with 14 other American students. Although I usually prefer travelling alone, I came to appreciate the company of my new friends and the drama that they brought along. After all, these people were my family for 31 days.
The best part of the trip, however, was when we could not see each other for a week during the nomadic homestay. In the countryside, I lived with my host parents and sisters in a ger, a traditional, portable dwelling, surrounded by hundreds of sheep, goats, horses and cows. I experienced some culture shock at first; the first thing I saw was a goat being slaughtered and hung up on the wall. Being separated from the group and not hearing a word in English besides “Los Angeles” was also tough. Having to flick beetles off my face in the middle of the night was definitely not something I will miss.
I could go on about how they didn’t even have bathrooms, but it didn’t really matter because in the end I was able to adjust. What I found more important were the walks to the river with my host sister, where we took up some water to wash our hair and clothes; my daily chores, like carrying a fresh bucket of mare’s milk and fermenting it to make aira; and new sights, like seeing a six-year-old boy herding animals while galloping on a horse three times his size.
While I could not cook or handle animals as well as my family, I was trying to learn as much as I could about their lives. Despite the language barrier, I was welcomed into the family and even started to pick up on some Mongolian phrases. I almost felt like I was becoming more and more Mongolian.
Except I really wasn’t. I realized that no matter how much I tried, I would never be able to fully immerse myself in Mongolian culture. I do not speak Mongolian, nor am I Mongolian by birth.
Even if I were beginning to understand some of the more subtle cultural differences such as their views on time, privacy and nature, I understood that I would never get the full experience of being Mongolian.
Why then, do I want to travel so much? Is it to try something new? To try new foods, meet new people? Is it for the adrenaline rush that comes with going off the beaten path? Yes, it is, but there is a little bit more to it.
While I may never get to see the entire picture, I am taking away a piece of it to contribute to my own picture. More specifically, there are certain advantages that come with having a Korean-American background in Mongolia, like the ability to compare and contrast three different cultures. Traveling forms new connections and opens me up to new perspectives that make my experience unique.
And most of all, who doesn’t enjoy riding a camel?