It was fall in Mongolia, and the dusk falling round the State Department Store, the central meeting place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, made it hard to see anyone's face—not that I knew what the man I was supposed to meet looked like. I had just arrived for the year to work with writers, and my desire to see a Mongolian branch of International PEN created was shared by an Inner Mongolian writer living in New York. When we emailed he told me to look up a Mr. Tumen Ulzii. I thought the two were friends, but later I’d find out that this man knew of Tumen because of Tumen's status as a prominent essayist on the Chinese government’s actions towards Inner Mongolians and as a leading figure of the People’s Party of Inner Mongolia. That night, with only the most basic Mongolian words under my belt and about ten English words under his, Tumen and I relied almost entirely on pens, paper, an electronic dictionary, and universal gestures. Tumen is keen and quick. He told me the first bit about himself—his wife and daughter, who are still living in China, and the books he wrote about race and politics that brought Inner Mongolians in from the countryside just to meet him—and precipitated the banning of his writing in China and, after he left China for Mongolia in 2005, police raids on his office and home.
The day was clearer and much colder in January when we walked the five minutes from my apartment to the Mongolian branch of the United Nations. Uniformed men in their early twenties guarded the compound. My passport was not with me because I put it on my dresser to remind myself to get more pages at the American Embassy, and Tumen had called while I was out to say it was a good time to go the UN. They let me in anyway. Tumen and I crossed the asphalt of an eerily quiet parking lot with white vans to a pink Soviet-style building, where the receptionist clucked at my passportlessness. We moved beyond, to the UNHCR office, where I asked one large Mongolian man, Mr. Och, what the holdup was on Tumen’s refugee status.
Refugee situations are never easy, and this was no exception. Mongolia has no UNHCR branch, only a liaison office, so the decision to grant him refugee status had 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 remained 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 Ineer Mongolian dissident, on January 7th, 2008 upon touchdown in Beijing on a business trip. Soyolt is still in the incommunicative world of arbitrary detention without charge or trial somewhere in China (while his wife and three children remain powerless here in Ulaanbaatar), having been allowed one phone call back in January wherein he reported that Chinese officials had told him that if he makes a fuss or alerts any foreign media, things will get worse. 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 told 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 would tell me for three months. Afterwards Tumen and went and got a beer. Tumen loves that I like beer. It was 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 met with both men several times at the pub around the corner from where I live. Uchida, who studied in Inner Mongolia, showed me pictures of his 4 month old baby on his cell phone. The baby and her mother live in Japan. I wrote up a bio of Tumen to forward to PEN’s Freedom to Write program, and the men checked over it, Uchida translating, while I dug into fried meat and rice. Though they are both in their forties they looked and sounded like school buddies hunched over a cheat sheet, casual and affectionate. Afterwards, I told them I needed to go and clean my floor. They told me they would like me to stay and drink beer with them instead. “Tomorrow,” Uchida said. “What tomorrow?” I asked, and at the same time one man mopped with an invisible mop and the other swept with an invisible broom.
Tumen had read the book about wolves by Mongolia's National Library director that I was helping translate into English. In the pub he wrote a note for me to give Akim 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, which looks like a molskeine, 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.
He had 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 (also called “thieves market”). He gave me some kind of grain cereal at the bottom of a bowl of milky tea, then surprised 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 kept doing throughout the meal. The second time I came by myself during the February holiday of tsagaan sar (“white moon” or “white month”). He had 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, picked 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) and we stopped for groceries—he wanted to get beer for me and he wanted Ona to have one too, like me, which she does not usually do and which I tried to stop. On the way up the stairs Tumen took us one floor too far and then couldn’t figure out why his key didn’t work, and Ona gave him grief for it in universally understandable tones. The apartment was filled and Tumen was alive, 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 was sunny enough for sunglasses yesterday as I waited for Tumen in front of the State Department Store. He approached in a long black coat and shades that made him look like a spy in en big-budget movie. He smelled my cheeks, the customary Mongolian greeting, and as we walked away from the throngs, he said “Min! United Nations OK!” and put his thumb up. I whooped and called Och, who confirmed. Tumen is an official refugee, eligible for resettlements. The letter Larry Siems at PEN Freedom to Write in New York sent expressing concern about Tumen had been crucial to the decision.
To celebrate, Tumen took me to a Korean restaurant. He lay 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. I admitted I'd forgotten to give Akim the note Tumen had written. Tumen put up his pinky finger the way he does when he talks about his daughter's English mistakes: "Muu!" (Bad!") and we hooked pinkies. 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.