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Writer in Exile --- Three Seasons away from Freedom

August 3, 2008
By Ming Holden


Tumen-Ulzii Bayunmend, Inner Mongolian dissident writer, when he was younger



There's nothing to remind me of how far I still need to go with studies of the Mongolian language like trying to say to someone who knows no English: "the dominant language is a symptom of political authority." He is a writer in exile, and he has just asked why I wanted to learn a little, 'unimportant' language like Mongolian. After all, it's not like Spanish, which half the population of my home state speak. Hardly anyone who does not grow up speaking Mongolian endeavors to learn it, something I learned while looking for a summer language course and finding only one official one in the USA. But it has become more important to me every time I travel to a developing country and see some scantily clad blonde actress on the side of a bus to find ways to participate in regional culture in the ways I can. Now, to be clear: I love American pop culture. I think it's hilarious and totally entertaining and my favorite movies are romantic comedies. But I am, as Slug puts it, trying to find a balance, and since I am better at language than I am at herding camels, learning the Mongolian language is my way to honor regional culture--and express a little political subversiveness.

I was born where people speak the language being imposed on the globe, the language people in Mongolia and many, many other countries save up their money to be ble to take classes and study--because without knowledge of the English language, a well-paying job here is virtually ungettable. And of course, since no translation is ever perfect, a different version of reality/truth is expressed by each different language, and learning an obscure language is outfitting oneself with a new filter through which to understand reality. And that, that's always scary to People in Power.

One of the biggest honors I have had since moving to Mongolia and starting my work with writers was meeting Tumen Ulzii, this Inner Mongolian living in exile here in UB (Inner Mongolia is in China). He is 40 years old, soft spoken, very kind, and the Chinese police went after him three times in 2005 until he finally came here. The offensive documents were books of essays he'd written (in traditional Mongolian script, which Inner Mongolians still use over cyrillic) about politics, race, and society. Writers in exile are a living, suffering reminder of how high the stakes can get for those of us working in the field of the written word. I remember something Linda Oppen said to me of the years her parents, Mary and George Oppen, spent in Mexico during the 1950s McCarthy-era emigration of many American artists. Linda was a young girl at the time and I said it must have been fun living in Mexico with a house full of animals like they did. Linda gently reminded me that a life in exile is not a happy life, and that her parents were deeply unhappy in many ways during their time there. Ten years away from home. And for refugees--those whose homes are obliterated and never there to go back to--too many people to count live this reality, and it's one I can't imagine, a tragedy of the heart too deep for me to see. While there are certain things I learn when I study new languages, how it feels to be forced out of one's home is not one of them.

January 2008

The day is clearer and much colder in Tumen-Ulzii and I walk the five minutes from my apartment to the Mongolian branch of the United Nations. Uniformed men in their early twenties guard the compound. We move beyond, to the UNHCR office, where I ask one large Mongolian man, Mr. Och, what the holdup is on Tumen’s refugee status.

Refugee situations are never easy, and this is no exception. Mongolia has no UNHCR branch, only a liaison office, so the decision to grant refugee status has to come from the nearest branch, which happens to be in…Beijing. Mongolia also has no provisions in its law for asylum seekers, so as long as Tumen remains one he was at risk of deportation and then punishment at the hands of the government whose officials stormed his house, strip-searched his wife, and arrested his friend Soyolt, another Inner Mongolian dissident, on January 7th, 2008 upon touchdown in Beijing on a business trip. (Soyolt was in the incommunicative world of arbitrary detention without charge or trial somewhere in China while his wife and three children remained in Ulaanbaatar for six months.)  The imminent Olympic Games in Beijing seem to be both a blessing and a curse for Chinese dissidents; attempts by the Chinese government to silence them in the buildup to the Games have resulted in multiple situations like that of Tumen and Soyolt, but the unprecedented amount of attention the international community is currently paying to China’s human rights record can also serve as a form of inoculation for the lucky ones who get noticed.

Mr. Och at UNHCR tells me to secure a letter of support for Tumen from Freedom to Write at PEN New York, and then that a decision should come in the next week, which is something he will tell me for three months. Afterwards Tumen and get beer. Tumen loves that I like beer. It's midafternoon, but around here people drink beer at lunch, at least the demographic I work with (read: middle aged male writers). Bayarlalaa, minii okhin, he says. Thank you, my daughter.  Sain okhin, he says.  Good girl.   

Tumen is extremely quick, but there are some things he says that boggle me. He can understand lesbianism, but not male homosexuality, and he wants to know why it exists—and how the sex happens. He thinks Hitler’s fine, since he wasn’t as bad as Stalin. He likes President Bush, purely because Bush is the President of the U.S.A.

He does have a few good friends here. Uchida is a gentle Japanese man and a great friend of Tumen’s. I meet with both men several times at the pub around the corner from where I live. I write up a bio of Tumen to forward to PEN’s Freedom to Write program, and the men check over it, Uchida translating, while I dig into fried meat and rice. Though they are both in their forties they look and sound like school buddies hunched over a cheat sheet, casual and affectionate. Afterwards, I tell them I need to go and clean my floor. They say they would like me to stay and drink beer with them instead. “Tomorrow,” Uchida says, and at the same time one man mops with an invisible mop and the other sweeps with an invisible broom.

In the pub Tumen scribbles in traditional Mongolian script. My Mongolian teacher, Tuya, is the only younger Mongolian I’ve met to know traditional Mongolian script, which Inner Mongolians still use exclusively. Tumen, fluent in Mongolian, Japanese, and Chinese, is confounded by Cyrillic type. Though it was only instituted in 1944, It has taken deep hold here in (Outer) Mongolia. The pages of Tumen’s notebook are covered in the rows of lacy black script whose verticalness, Mongolians say, makes you nod yes to the world as you read instead of shaking no.

Inner Mongolians see themselves as part of a larger Mongolia and maintain that Inner Mongolians helped Outer Mongolia to achieve independence. This view is not shared by the Outer Mongolian public, and anyone from any part of China is at physical risk here--as the “f*cking Chinese go home” graffiti outside my apartment and the recently acquired black eye of my young Chinese friend Li, who is here to study, can attest. Tumen speaks differently; Inner Mongolian dialect has a “j” sound where outer has a “ts” and the pronouns are a bit different. It’s a small city. He does not feel safe.

February 2008

Tumen has Tuya and me over for a real Inner Mongolian dinner, presenting a modest and bare but immaculately clean apartment on the worse side of town, near the black market. He gives me some kind of grain cereal at the bottom of a bowl of milky tea, then surprises me by thumbing off pieces of meat from the boiled sheep on the table and dropping them one by one into the bowl, something he keeps doing throughout the meal.

The second time I come by myself during the February holiday of tsagaan sar. He invited me weeks beforehand to be present on the first day of his wife and daughters’ ten-day visit. He and his daughter, Ona, a delicate university student with very good English, pick me up in a taxi (which in Ulaanbaatar is usually a regular guy in a regular car who could use a thousand tugriks or two). On the way up the stairs Tumen takes us one floor too far and then can't figure out why his key doesn’t work, and Ona gives him grief for it in universally understandable tones. The apartment is full and Tumen clearly happy, bickering with Ona, their voices zinging in Mongolian and Chinese across the kitchen. Tumen is immensely proud of his daughter, who tested into the top 10% of university students in China. I took videos of them singing traditional Inner Mongolian songs and smiled at his wife, a quiet geography teacher a few years older than Tumen, feeling guilty for knowing what was done to her at the border the last time she visited her husband, trying not to imagine it now that I had seen her tired face.

April 2008

It’s not spring by the standards of my home in California—it snowed last week—but it's sunny enough for sunglasses as I wait for Tumen in front of the State Department Store. He approaches in a long black coat and shades that make him look like a spy in a big-budget movie. He smells my cheeks, the customary Mongolian greeting, and as we walk away from the throngs, he says, “Min! United Nations OK!” and gives  a thumbs-up. I whoop and call Och, who confirms. Tumen is an official refugee, eligible for resettlement. The letter Larry Siems at PEN Freedom to Write in New York sent expressing concern about Tumen was crucial to the decision.

To celebrate, Tumen takes me to a Korean restaurant. He lays several strips of fat with a bit of meat attached (Mongolian meat always comes this way) on the griddle set up at our table. My Mongolian is better than it was six months ago when we met, but we still do a fair amount of the gesturing.  He’s keen to know which presidential candidates are leading in my country, and overjoyed that Obama is dark-skinned. He now wonders where I think the best place to resettle would be. America? He mimed an injection into his arm, and then reading a book, then put his arm high into the air: hospitals and university fees are high in America. Resettlement can be a long and difficult process. Canada or Europe, we hope. He is very concerned that Ona go to a good university. He loves dogs, but can’t have one here. Somewhere where he can have a dog. Tumen insists that when I visit Hohot next month I stay with his wife. Sain okhin, he says, kissing the top of my head.  Good girl.



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Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

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