Family First


Mongolian Wife Faces Separation from Two Beloved Daughters

When I arrived at Mongolia’s large brick residence in Po-tomac, Md., Oyuun Mijiddorj, wife of Mongolian Ambassador Ravdan Bold, called in her two grown daughters to join us in the living room where she already had all the family photos ready to show—a small indication of the importance of family to this tight-knit clan.

The older daughter, 25-year-old Buyandelger, nicknamed Buyana, began to discuss her wedding last summer to David Lee, a Korean born in Brazil who now helps to run his family’s upholstery business in Rockville, Md., while she studies accounting at Montgomery College and works part time at a Rockville baby boutique called Hiccups.

“Of course,” Oyuun said, with a nod to her daughter, “I would have liked her to marry a Mongolian but I also want her to be happy—and David has an Asian look, almost looks Mongolian, and he’s so nice and polite. I love him and he’s a part of our family. If my girls are happy, I’m happy.”

Just then, 23-year-old daughter Buyanjargal, nicknamed Jaga, came in. She is studying hotel management at Montgomery College and was just on her way to one of her part-time retail jobs.

“At home, young kids just go to school—that’s all they do,” Jaga said, reflecting on some of the differences between growing up in Mongolia and the United States. “Here, they play sports, have hobbies, work, make their own money, go out…. Before I came here, I thought you had a lot of free time, but now I realize that everyone is busy all the time.”

But not everything here is all work: “My most favorite thing here is McDonald’s,” Jaga said, clearly to her mother’s horror. “I love their burgers, Big Macs.” Oyuun just shook her head and then adroitly changed the subject.

“Family is the most important thing to us,” said this diplomatic wife. “At home in Mongolia, when we say ‘family,’ we don’t mean just my husband and daughters, but our parents and our sisters and brothers and everyone they marry. I’m second in a family of four girls and my husband is the youngest of five. Everything is about this big family and spending holidays with the family. We respect our elders, and several generations of many families still live in the same house.

“It is our duty, our responsibility to take care of our parents,” she continued. “People will think badly of you if you don’t take care of your elders, especially if you put them in a nursing home like many people do here.

“But my girls are so good,” she said proudly. “They keep in touch and always call me three to four times a day…. We are friends,” Oyuun added, noting that they often go shopping together.

But this close family will soon face a major strain—one common to most diplomats. “My husband is home in my country now because he has just accepted a new job. He is still ambassador, but he has just been also named head of my country’s intelligence agency. I don’t know when he is coming home or when we will be leaving. That’s why I started packing,” she said, pointing to a big box of photographs in the corner. With Oyuun and her husband leaving sometime this year, the parents will be separated from their two daughters—at least temporarily. “I will live here,” pronounced Buyana. “My husband is here. But I will go home often and stay for three to four months at a time.”

Jaga, the younger sister, will also stay to finish school and perhaps work for a few years, but then “I will go back home to live, for sure.”

Oyuun, an economist who will return to work once back in Mongolia, said that she expects to see her girls often and will also come back to Washington for frequent visits.

As Jaga left for her retail job, we left the living room for some lunch. On the way, Oyuun pointed to a two-stringed instrument hanging on the wall. “This is a morin khuur, or horse-headed fiddle, and is used to play our traditional music. Every Mongolian family has one hanging in their home, and it has been registered in the World Heritage of Art and Cultural Objects list.”

But a very different, much more American object was also displayed prominently: a framed movie poster of “Gone with the Wind.” “Everyone says that my father looked like Clark Gable, so tall and so handsome,” Oyuun explained, with a big smile. “He was a very distinguished man—the first judge in my country—and everyone knew him. I have this movie and watch it over and over again.”

In fact, Oyuun and her husband are highly successful offspring of two of Mongolia’s most renowned men. Oyuun’s father was a legendary lawyer and judge, while her husband’s father was a top-ranking general in Mongolia’s military as well as an important ambassador who was posted to North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s. He was also Mongolia’s top envoy to several Eastern European countries including Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia.

But men are clearly not the only ones who excel professionally in Mongolia. Oyuun noted that “70 percent of Mongolian judges are women and 75 percent of teachers and doctors are women. Our literacy rate is 97 percent. My mother was a teacher of the Russian language. We are sandwiched between two giant neighbors, Russia and China, so we must learn languages. When I was growing up, you learned Russia. Today, English is our official second language.”

Another striking figure is that 60 percent of the Mongolian population is under 35 years of age. “They are educated and independent with strong family ties,” Oyuun said, pointing out that “all girls go to college and it is not expensive—only 0 to 0 a year.

“We are a small nation with a great civilization,” she added. “President and Mrs. Bush visited Mongolia in November 2005…. That’s the first time a sitting American president has come to my country. And this past October, President Bush and my president signed a Millennium Challenge [Account], which will give 5 million to develop my country. In 2007, we celebrated 20 years of diplomatic relations with the United States,” she said proudly.

But Mongolia’s own history goes much further back—to a height in the 13th century when the vast and prosperous Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Poland, and Siberia to the Persian Gulf. In fact, thanks to the military exploits of legendary conqueror Genghis Khan, recent genetic research showed that one in 200 men across the globe carry a form of the Y chromosome that originated in Mongolia during these medieval times.

But Oyuun said she doesn’t think she is one of those direct descendants of the great Mongol leader. “Although my family and my husband’s family are from the place where Genghis was born, we can’t say we have his genetics.”

On the subject of her husband, Oyuun explained that she met him in the same way that her parents met each other: “One of my relatives was my husband’s best friend and he introduced us. That’s when we found out that we had been living in the very same apartment building but didn’t know it. I lived on the first floor and he lived on the third. But I didn’t like military men, so he called on me for four years before we married,” she recalled.

Over a lunch of beef and rice, meat dumplings, roasted vegetables and salad, Oyuun reflected on the couple’s life today in Washington. “I love my walks but he loves history. He’s an expert on American-Mongolian relations and has collected rare documents during his research. While we have been here in Washington, he has written a book. Every morning and every night, he writes in the car while his driver takes him to and from the embassy. That’s 45 minutes each way in traffic. On weekends, he writes some more.”

While on the topic of driving, Oyuun brought up an interesting aspect of U.S. life that she clearly appreciates. “I love that everyone follows the law here,” she began. “At home, you can drive as fast as you want even though there are speed limits of 40 miles per hour inside the city and 60 outside. No one enforces them the way they do here. At night in Mongolia, drivers don’t even stop for lights.”

Her older daughter pulls up a chair and counters, “That’s because we have no cameras, no radars like they do here.”

But Oyuun would not be discouraged. “From an early age, Americans understand and are conscious of their responsibilities and freedoms. They can draw a line between their privileges and duties as citizens [starting in] childhood. Driving within the law is a good example.

“When I visited the United States before with my girls, I dreamed about coming back. Each state, each city is different—like a different country. And people are so friendly and polite. Everyone says hello. I love the people, the weather and the big highways, the big open spaces. At home we have too many cars in too little space.

“I love your long summertime because I love warmer weather,” she continued. “At home, we have a very short summer, hot and dry. Our winters are very long and dry and then we have a dusty spring. I love to take walks here, especially in the fall.”

But those walks may be coming to an end, at least for now. As I left, Oyuun sent me away with a warm hug and a beautiful red cashmere sweater. “This is from my country. We are famous for our cashmere. Mongolia is the second largest producer of cashmere in the world after China,” she noted.

After a second hug, she concluded, “I don’t know when I am leaving the United States but when I do, I will miss my girls and this wonderful country. I will come back soon.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.