At The Mongolian School Of Los Angeles, Culture Is Preserved
The school rents a cramped space on the second floor of a building owned by the Kwan Um Sa Buddhist Temple, a religious organization that services the Korean community. As I walk from the sidewalk and duck through a nondescript door, I notice Korean characters overhead. Just as the Mongolian community is almost unseen among the vastly greater numbers of Koreans in Los Angeles, the Mongolian School is invisible from the street, tucked away on the top floors of a Korean business.
I walk up two flights of stairs, and enter a low-ceilinged room with tables, folding chairs, and piles of schoolbooks. Posters of Genghis Khan hang on the walls. Inside are Maya and two seven-year-old students, waiting for their brother to pick them up. Maya asks me if I play chess. I do, and for the next fifteen minutes I frown in concentration as one of the boys slowly, and meticulously, destroys me. The boy’s brother had warned him that I would beat him; I had protested that I was no good at all. I was happy, and slightly embarrassed, to have been proven correct.
Like a yurt, the Mongolian school seems to have been thrown together by people on the move. In fact, everything about the Mongolian immigrant community in Los Angeles is new and unformed. Maya tells me that Mongolians only began coming to America about fifteen years ago. (She herself made the journey five years ago.) Most Mongolians left their native land to earn money. Others came on student visas or as temporary visitors. All of the Mongolians who came to California settled in Koreatown, where public transportation was plentiful and housing was affordable. Altogether, the community consists of about 2,000 members.
But, not all Mongolians who come to Los Angeles intend to stay forever. Some of the immigrants plan to stay for only a limited amount of time, and then return to Mongolia when that time has passed. These Mongolians tend to have temporary or student visas, and maintain close ties with the land of their birth. In fact, some of the money these immigrants earn in the United States is used to buy houses and cars in Mongolia. When they leave America and step off the plane in Ulaanbaatar they will have relatively luxurious accommodations waiting for them.
Despite ties to their native land, Mongolian immigrants are not fully transnational. Maya states that while most immigrants regularly make phone calls and send e-mail to friends and family in Mongolia, most do not travel back and forth, as the flights are very expensive. Furthermore, though Mongolians in Los Angeles send money to friends and relatives in their native land, the amount depends on the salary earned by the immigrant. Their ties are as strong as they can be, considering that Mongolia lies thousands of miles to the west.
When Mongolians arrive in Koreatown, they tend to fall into a narrow range of employment categories. The men work in restaurants, drive trucks, or repair automobiles. The women also work in restaurants, as well as in beauty parlors and nail salons. A small fraction of the immigrants own their own businesses. In fact, a woman who owns an auto-repair shop enters the Mongolian School during my visit, but does not reveal herself. She stays hidden in the front room and talks to Maya, while I absorb my surroundings.
The Mongolian School was founded in 2007 because, like all immigrant communities, the first-generation Los Angeles Mongolians found that their children, born in the United States, were not learning the language and culture of their parents. As I talk to Maya, I learn that the first-generation Mongolian immigrants feel that the second-generation are “changing.” The children do not know the traditional Mongolian holidays, like Nadaam, which commemorates Mongolian independence from the Manchu dynasty in 1921, or Tsagaan Sar (translated as “white month”), which celebrates the new year. The children are also not familiar with the Mongolian custom of addressing one’s elders in formal ways (for instance, referring to an older man as “uncle”). Maya is one of a small number of teachers at the school who are trying make sure that the second generation does not forget this, and other, aspects of traditional Mongolian culture.
One of the first-generation immigrants who has noticed the generational changes is Mike, 40. He has two children, Eddy (Zorig, in Mongolian), who is fifteen years old, and Cindy (Nyamkhuu), who is ten. Both children were born in Mongolia, and emigrated with their parents ten years ago, when they were very young; thus they are part of the 1.5 generation of Los Angeles Mongolians.
One of the ways in which the two generations differ is their facility with English. Both Cindy and Eddy speak English fluently, while Mike struggles. And, though both children understand Mongolian when it is spoken to them, only Eddy is able to speak it. (Cindy was too young when she left Mongolia to have learned the language.) In fact, Eddy acts as a linguistic bridge between the first-generation Mongolians and the English-speaking world around them. At home, he speaks a mix of Mongolian and English – most Mongolian families speak only Mongolian within the home – and often translates English words for his family. At school and with friends, though, both children speak only English.
While Eddy used to come to the Mongolian School regularly when he was younger, he no longer attends. Cindy, however, comes every Saturday.
One of the school’s primary functions, it seems, is to teach chess. Maya is the chess teacher, and she tells me that chess is a national Mongolian pastime. Everyone in Mongolia knows how to play; she herself was taught by her father. Apparently she has learned well, because she has earned the rank of Woman FIDE Master from the World Chess Federation.
The room where I sit seems almost like a private chess sanctuary. Like the queen on a chessboard, Maya rules this space. Stacks of chess books lie on a table by the stairs; photos of students at chess competitions (holding trophies) have been placed on walls; a teaching chess set meant to hang vertically – the pieces are magnetic – hangs on another wall. Here, chess is not just an intellectual enterprise. It is a vital connection to a home across the ocean.
In general, the Mongolian community in Los Angeles is not settled. Immigrants regularly leave Koreatown for the suburbs of Chicago, where housing is more affordable. (Maya says, with astonishment in her voice, that a family can rent a one-bedroom apartment outside of Chicago for $700 per month.) The Mongolian School itself, too, is not settled. Though it was founded in 2007, it has had two directors. The current director funds the entire school by himself, though the school is searching for grant money to help with expenses. Maya says that, because of financial trouble, the school almost shut down in September of 2010, but somehow they found enough to continue.
Moreover, their landlord, the Buddhist temple, just sent them an eviction notice, requiring them to vacate the premises by May 2011. Maya plans to talk to a lawyer in a few days. And, she knows Zoljargal, a local Mongolian lawyer who has trained both in Germany and the United States. Zoljargal regularly assists Los Angeles Mongolian immigrants with legal matters; she might be able to help now. Meanwhile, Zula Damdin, the head of the Los Angeles Mongolian Association, is searching for a house that the community can buy, so they will have more space and no longer risk eviction.
Slowly but surely, the Los Angeles Mongolians, like many other immigrant communities, have begun extending their roots into the Southern California soil.