Notes toward a visit to the Ambassador’s house
Mongolia Luce scholars are few and far between—it’s rare for a scholar to choose the land of -40 over Thailand or Indonesia, and those with en eye toward lucrative careers tend towards China and Japan. So both former Mongolia Lucers I am in contact with have been overwhelmingly supportive—down to which gym I should use, in the case of wonderful Charlie. He recommended Star gym, which has a Jacuzzi and sauna as well as an elliptical, which is what I need for my back injury since regular sidewalk running is generally hard on it and, when it gets icy, an incredible risk. The jacuzzi and showers have already been saviors, as when I got strep throat two weeks in and on the days when hot water was simply not to be found in my building.
When Fulbright Scholar, poet, and translator Lisa Fink invited me to her farewell reception at the ambassador’s house, I was surprised to learn that the ambassador lives in the same complex that houses my gym. But it make sense—the accommodations there are quite upscale (as opposed to my apartment rent and other lifestyle prices, gym membership is the one thing I decided to spring for) and the community is gated and guarded 24-7. The wealthy mining companies pay for their expat employees to live there.
This is what I love about Mongolia—the borough of Brooklyn has more people. I didn’t deserve to be at the Ambassador’s house. I mean, I thought I didn’t. But a whole bunch of young people were there, including Delgdermaa, the sassy eyelinered metalhead poet Lisa worked with, and other hippies and travelers and activists. I wasn’t even the only recent acquaintance lisa invited—at least one other dude had met her the week before. The Ambassador, an affable guy called Mark Minton, knew upon hearing my name who I was and when I had arrived. I know that it’s the business of the Ambassador to know these things—he told me when I expressed surprise that he’d been keeping count of my glasses-of-wine consumption that it’s his job to be observant like that--there just aren’t that many people here period, and it follows that there aren’t that many expats. The expats that to make it here are a self-selectively adventurous and varied group, and by and large they’re welcome here. Mongolia is at the point not just population-wise but “development” wise where one person really can make a difference.
Anyhow, Ambassador Minton had me do a cold reading of Invitation to Miss Marriane Moore by Elizabeth Bishop in honor of Lisa’s accomplishments (it was after he asked me to do this and before I stood up to read that I had all that wine). Elizabeth Bishop has brought me to my knees before, but I had not read this poem before—ever—but because I was also here to work with writers Ambassador Minton asked me to read it instead of him. I had barely been able to say a sentence to the Ambassador without stammering; this did not bode well for my impending performance, but I got up and I did it, and if I do say so myself, I did it rather well.
Ambassador Minton sat around with us for a while in his living room, telling stories about getting jeeps caught in Mongolian rivers. He was very disturbed by what he heard from the women that night about how unsafe it is to walk alone here after dark, somehow he hadn’t known. Interesting what government officials do and don’t know. This government official went to Columbia and loves poetry. He knows what the New York School of Poetry is, which is great, but even more great is that he offered his support of my project this year: to get a Mongolian PEN Centre started. I left with his card in my pocket and an invitation from him to borrow from his library of poetry books come the long dark winter.