Oct

20

Message from Mongolia

Written by

One-time B&W writer Natasha Chichilnisky-Heal, rather than starting junior year, lit out for Mongolia. They have investment banks there too!

kyThere’s a common saying in Mongolia: “margash, margash…” Translation: “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Perhaps what amounts to an expression of Mongolian time-dilation explains why I’ve decided to delay my return to Columbia for a year. After all, the yak just don’t roam quite as freely in Manhattan as they do on the steppe, and I don’t think I do either. [At right: River in Baltsengel soum, Arkhangai aimag, Mongolia.]



I came here in June of 2007 with a plan to intern at the first Mongolian investment bank, Mongolia International Capital Corporation, for three months before returning to my junior year at Columbia College. I’d picked my classes, settled my living situation, met a boy, and generally gotten myself pumped for 2007-2008. This year, I thought, would be different. I would dig into my studies, go to my classes, build my resume, and generally be impressive as all hell. Mongolia was supposed to be a an interesting stop along the way from spring to fall, a break from the never-ending pressures of New York and an escape from the US in general.

sfdI arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, at 2:00am after a seven-hour delay in Beijing. My new boss, a Swiss Columbia graduate named Emanuel Steiner, and two of my new Mongolian coworkers (Bayasgalan and Batbayar) picked me up and drove me to my new apartment. I had been warned that it was very “Mongol,” but at the time I’d had no idea how to interpret that modifier. There were no lights. The furniture was monolithic and made of polished wood. I later discovered that all the wiring systems came together under the drainpipe of my kitchen sink, where they daily invited electrical fires. My wall was covered with paintings of the moon rising over silvery lakes and stunted Mongolian horses loping across the empty plains. I almost cried myself to sleep, with no money, phone, or clear expectations.

[Above: Ex Peace Corps volunteer Ryan Finn looks pensively at the structure of Hilary O’Gorman’s ger poles. Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai aimag, Mongolia]

The next morning another Mongolian coworker (Dulguun), now studying in London, knocked on my door to fetch me to the office. She brought me to an Austrian café on the way to work, and we sat and shared some rolls with butter and coffee. I arrived at the MICC office less than seven hours after my arrival in the country, was given a desk, assigned to work on raising funds for a canned meat company, and soon began to scour my mind for some explanation of what I was doing in Mongolia.

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[View across main plaza of Ulaanbaatar, Sukhbaatar Square, including the Parliament building, National Opera house, and gaping Mongolian herders. Ulaanbaatar]

Over the next few months I settled into my Mongol-ed out apartment, dug my heels into my work, grappled a bit with Mongolian (which sounds a little like an animated Englishman speaking backwards), got kidnapped, was hunted down by the American Embassy, fell in with a gang of Peace Corps Volunteers, and ate goat (I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of five). I also managed to fall in love with a country, a boy, and most surprisingly a way of life that involves sheltering in a felt-covered wood-frame tent through -40 degree Celsius winters. Mongolia is a truly unique mixture of Soviet-era consciousness and infrastructure and Chinggis Khan-era lifestyle. The people are loud, pushy, deeply attached to their nomadic and empire-building history, and amazing at coping with adversity.

dfsI realized somewhere along the way that I was here to do what I could for this country, and to see what it could do for me. Simply by virtue of being white and having some experience in the American and European finance worlds, I can be a gateway for foreign investment in Mongolia. I and others in my position are supposed to represent the bridge between the existing Mongolian financial infrastructure and financial institutions in more developed nations. I think it hits me most when I’m bumping along a typical Mongolian “road”, a beaten dirt path initially traveled by cows, in a 20 year old Russian van—one of my favorite clients is a Mongolian road-construction company. Maybe I can help them raise the funds to pave the road to the second-largest city in the country. What would happen then?

[At right: Peace Corps volunteer Robert Shore squatting over goat khorkhog, a traditional Mongolian meal preparation involving a whole, dead goat cooked in a hole full of hot rocks. Arkhangai aimag, Mongolia]

My mother always says happiness is the feeling you get from being useful. Despite the constant frustrations of time, food, weather, and language, I feel I am useful here. The social concerns of the New York City 20-something melt away in a city where most of my friends are either volunteers far from home or middle-aged international financiers, there are two good nightclubs, and the only thing to “do” is drink vodka or fermented mare’s milk in a circle of ten. But even here one finds a blossoming underground cultural movement, and occasionally bumps into student activists and bizarre international film festivals. There’s even a Mongolian Columbia graduate running the hippest art gallery in the country. So life is, of course, different, but the important things remain the same.

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Seat of the Mongolian nationalist movement. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


kk

Sunset on the town of Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia.

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34 Comments

  1. this is actually  

    pretty fucking awesome

  2. slavic  

    slavic languages/places are so cool

  3. wow  

    is mongolian (is that what it's called?) slavic?
    i had no idea

  4. SlavicDude88  

    Not really. Mongols have a different, more Turkic ancestry than Slavs. While they use a Cyrillic alphabet, their language is from a different root and their culture is fundamentally different (ie, nomadic as opposed to agricultural).

  5. this piece

    was amazing!! good job bwog! just inspired me once more to continue to strive towards feeling "useful"

  6. I hate you

    And love you at the same time :)

    I've wanted to go here for as long as I can remember (well, really ever since I was assigned to write a report on the country in the sixth grade).

    Thanks for making me feel even more restless in the middle of midterms!

  7. Anonymous  

    wow, i am mad jealous, and incredibly impressed. bwog needs more job-related pieces like this one, so people realize that working for an i-bank in the city isn't their only option after graduating.

  8. ...

    Having had a class with her, she is quite a true genius.

    Also, I'm a little more curious to hear about the fact she was kidnapped? And I love how she threw that in there in the middle of a list of things to make it seem like a minor detail... Definitly made me do a double take.

  9. Agreed  

    a lot more interesting than most other study-abroads.

  10. dispatches  

    dispatches are like a mini vacation. keep them coming, please.

  11. awesome  

    Things like this remind me that students do some fascinating things while they're here. It's nice to realize that not everyone is a Butler-till-8AM, hyper-focused student.

  12. wtf!?  

    "I realized...Simply by virtue of being white and having some experience in the American and European finance worlds, I can be a gateway for foreign investment in Mongolia."

    What is wrong with you? Are you actually that naive? I'm sure the Mongolians were cheering in the streets at the arrival of the little white girl who was going to save their country.

    "...there are two good nightclubs, and the only thing to "do" is drink vodka or fermented mare's milk in a circle of ten. But even here one finds a blossoming underground cultural movement, and occasionally bumps into student activists and bizarre international film festivals. There's even a Mongolian Columbia graduate running the hippest art gallery in the country. So life is, of course, different, but the important things remain the same."

    The important things? THE IMPORTANT THINGS!? This is a third world country, which doesn't even have a paved road leading to it's second largest city. Shouldn't that be a tad bit more important than whether or not it has a hip art gallery?

    This is the most self-important piece of crap I have ever read. I think the writer would do us all a favor by staying far away from both Columbia and Mongolia.

  13. PLEASE

    could she or someone she knows PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE offer a decent translation of Tatar's song "Gantsaaraa"? I would be grateful beyond words.

  14. ok . . .  

    ok, so it might be a little "self-important" but I think its hard (though not impossible) to write a piece like this without sounding a little self-important. The peice was very well written and I love this feature . . . so yeah, I definetly hope there's more travel bwogs to follow. Also, hometown dispatches, perhaps when everyone goes home for winter break?

  15. Wow...  

    I have GOT to do some world traveling after I graduate. The only other countries I've been to are Canada and India — okay, so we spent a night in Amman because we had to switch flights on the way to India the first time I went, and I was in Schiphol (Amsterdam's airport) for a four-hour layover between flights the second time — but this extraordinary story really makes me want to just go...somewhere but here. Bravo, Natasha!

  16. Uhh  

    When you're rich and self-important, you can do anything. Also, being in Mongolia automatically makes your story fascinating to people who have never been to Mongolia, even if what you're doing there is actually quite ordinary for an expatriate who doesn't speak the language. It was a very well-written article, though.

  17. I've met too many  

    of this type of person while I was abroad. Maybe she dug a little deeper into the country than comes across in her piece, but the expat-who-hangs-out-with-expats and moves in a new elite is a common type, and it takes little special talent to move somewhere 'exotic' and become one. However, she writes better than most of them.

  18. Youre so ja-jaded  

    What exactly is your problem with her? Her article is not only better written most of the expat trash literature, she's doing something good for the country. And considering MICC is the first Mongolian investment bank, her experience as well as the good work she's doing is relatively unique. So unless you want to go on some diatribe against i-banking and international finance, your criticism of Natasha is as banal and cliche as typical expat soul-searching accounts.

    • well  

      Their main problem is that they go to columbia, and this is how people at columbia act towards each other.

    • Jaded  

      Yup, jaded. In general, FDI is a good thing for a developing economy, but working at an investment bank is hardly community service - it's still a profit-maximizing venture that has its winners and losers. You don't have to be a Marxist to see that. While it's a cool job and she's a good writer (If I can speak for the other commenter we've no problems with her personally), nothing she's doing as an expat soul-searcher is particularly unique, and it does smack of a certain amount of haughty privilege. I think what we jaded commenters would like to see is a little more concern for the people and existing culture that the investments are 'helping'. The article is paternalistic, and that's not a cool attitude, even from well-connected foreign investors.

  19. Ugh  

    That's the point. It's not community service, but it still produces good results. Of course, there are losers, but would you prefer her working for an NGO? Because even if she did, I suspect that you'd still be critical of her experience in Mongolia. As the tone of retreat is apparent in your more recent post, what path would you suggest to Natasha? Should her native/indigenous/Mongolian coworkers also quit their jobs at MICC and engage in...whatever alternative career that you have NOT recommended?

    And you haven't responded to the fact that MICC is the first Mongolian investment bank. How is working for MICC NOT unique?

    And of course she has a certain haughty privilege. That gives you the right to completely denigrate her? You ask for a little more concern for the people and existing culture that the investments are 'helping'."

    Here it is:
    "...one of my favorite clients is a Mongolian road-construction company. Maybe I can help them raise the funds to pave the road to the second-largest city in the country. What would happen then?...My mother always says happiness is the feeling you get from being useful. Despite the constant frustrations of time, food, weather, and language, I feel I am useful here."

    Read the entire post before casting your judgment. And then you might feel a little tingling inside of you; it might be the feeling of pride for the works of other Columbia students.

    • Ehh  

      I specifically noted that I don't see anything wrong with working at an investment bank, but I don't think it qualifies as altruism. If you're working for profit, I don't think you get to brag about how you're helping the downtrodden and oppressed at the same time you're profiting from their economic inefficiency. It's capitalism, not charity. Sure, it contributes to economic development, and that's great, but I don't think it justifies "haughty privilege" since you agree with that phrase.

      Ultimately, what's unique about MICC is its location. Working in Mongolia is unique, yes, but it is not fundamentally any more noble than any other expatriate pursuit.

      I have nothing to criticize about the job or the person, only the paternalistic attitude. Reading this post was like reading Levi-Strauss, and that's what I'm responding to. That is, an outdated desire to 'help' without a whole lot of consideration as to whether or not white people are culturally superior to nomads. I don't think it reflects upon Natasha as much as the entitlement attitudes we all share, and I've taken pains in my arguments not to denigrate her at all.

      The attitude in this post, despite the feeling of utility you point out, nevertheless is one of superiority. And that's what I don't think is justified, no matter how helpful one's role is. I'm proud that fellow Columbia students do things that ultimately do help out people around the world, I just think a bit more humility might be in order.

      Finally, since you suggest I hadn't read the whole post, here are a few of the phrases that reflect the attitude I'm talking about:

      "The people are loud, pushy, deeply attached to their nomadic and empire-building history, and amazing at coping with adversity."

      "the only thing to "do" is drink vodka or fermented mare's milk in a circle of ten. But even here"

      "Simply by virtue of being white"

      • Natasha

        Thanks to everyone who read and thought about the piece. I've got too many things to address in the 29 comments listed above. Some commentators have doubted the altruism of working for an investment bank. Let me be clear: this is not a selfless adventure into a third world country. I live in an apartment in the center of the city, I have an American boyfriend, and I work in an office building with access to high-speed internet. I'm here because it's interesting, and I feel I can benefit.

        I've been described by commentators as joining another elite class of expatriates. This is true and not true. The people with whom I associate the most in Mongolia are my Mongolian co-workers, some of whom have studied in the US and elsewhere outside Mongolia. I am not in the Peace Corps, nor am I on a cultural sensitivity trip. I'm working here.

        About naivite: simply by virtue of being white and having some experience in the American and European finance worlds, I can be a gateway for foreign investment in Mongolia. I believe most people having worked as a foreigner in a professional capacity in a developing nation will agree that, interestingly enough, this is true. There is a calculable value to a white face. The one who made that calculation was the Mongolian who hired me.

        I think the structure of the piece indicates quite clearly that it's not a focus on fun days with FDI. I left Columbia for personal reasons, not to impart the glowing wisdom of a 20 year-old college student. I'm happy to learn what I can here.

        Thanks to those of you who said it was well written, and to everyone who felt stimulated enough to engage in a debate on any of the issues raised.

  20. Geoff Aung  

    If anyone's still looking at this thread...

    I studied abroad in Mongolia in the spring, and the work of foreign investment in the country - it seems fair to say, at least - is both hugely problematic and hugely crucial. But what I certainly believe Mongolia needs less of, and I mean this in the best way possible, is foreign "experts." Mongolia is overrun with people looking to exert their "good hearts" and "fresh minds" upon the landscape - social, economic, political, and otherwise - of Mongolia. So to Natasha, it's cool that you're up to what are clearly supposed to be "interesting" and "exotic" things in Mongolia. But I would also say that you should act with a great sense of self-awareness. Foreign investment is not a uniform phenomenon.

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