A daughter of privilege in Mongolia resettles in Colorado
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Misheel Chuluun lives in Basalt with her husband, Gabriel, and their two young sons. She writes under the pen name Sam Sterling. Chuluun’s father has returned to Mongolia, where he studies global nomadism and its impact on the ecology.
Misheel Chuluun: My family came to the United States from Mongolia, following my dad’s career. He is an ecologist who has studied and compared the Great Plains of the United States with the grasslands of Mongolia.
Gallacher: How did your father come to be a scientist?
Chuluun: Well, he is a brilliant man. When he was 16 he won Mongolia’s Math Olympiad and was allowed to study anything he wanted. In those days, Mongolia was ruled by the Soviet Union, and the best and brightest studied theoretical physics at Moscow University. So that’s what he chose to do. His Ph.D. was in biological time mechanisms.
He was a self-taught English speaker who improved his language skills by escorting visiting scientists out into the Mongolian countryside and translating for them. That’s how he met the scientists and ecologists from Colorado State University. My dad was trying to find a Mongolian ecologist for these scientists to work with. He couldn’t find anybody, no one that could speak English anyway. So they went back empty-handed.
What my dad didn’t know until later was that the scientists had requested to have my father transferred to Colorado State University. The director of the Science Academy in Mongolia refused their request, telling them that they couldn’t afford to “lose Mongolia’s Einstein.” It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that my father was able to leave the country.
That was a strange time. The same people who were in power before the collapse were still in power in the new so-called democracy. It was interesting, though. As the Soviet Union began collapsing, travel restrictions that had been in place on my father’s international travel began relaxing. That’s when he finally learned of the open invitation from Colorado State University to come there to study and work.
He decided he would go for six months and see how he liked it.
Gallacher: So things weren’t too chaotic with the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Chuluun: No, but just a few months after he left things really fell apart. The economic infrastructure dissolved. Mongolia was almost totally dependent on the Soviet Union for food and its distribution, especially in the capitol where we were.
I remember that summer after my father left as being really rough. We would go for days without any food. All of the stores were empty. My brother and I used to stand in lines with our food ration coupons.
Gallacher: How old were you?
Chuluun: I was 11 and my brothers were 12 and 7. Mom was really worried about us because we only got a fraction of an adult ration.
My older brother stood in the meat line, which was the most difficult. That is where people were pushing and fighting for position. I was in the milk line, which was less violent, but I did witness an 8-year-old girl get trampled to death one day.
We stood in line for three hours every morning to get our allotment for the day. People got pretty disgruntled and angry. Their whole day centered around getting enough for themselves and their kids to eat.
There wasn’t enough food, so as the day went on the people at the end of the line were getting reduced rations. That’s when things would get violent. People were trying to jump ahead in line. I used to watch through the fence as the officials watered down the milk. But we still needed it, watered down or not.
Inflation had rendered money worthless. My brother had saved the equivalent of $1,000 over the years, but by the end of the summer it was worth $10. It was crazy times.
Gallacher: You said you watched a child die?
Chuluun: Yes. I saw her, I heard her cries, but it was chaos and everyone was pushing and shoving. It wasn’t until I saw a story in the newspaper that I realized she had been trampled.
Gallacher: How long did you have to live in that chaos?
Chuluun: The worst of it was through that summer, and then early in 1992 we joined my dad in the United States. When we look at pictures from that summer we see my little brother looking the most sorry. He really looked super thin. We called him “Popsicle” because all we could see was a stick and a head.
Gallacher: Were you glad to leave Mongolia?
Chuluun: Not really. I was reluctant to come here because I had heard so many negative things about the United States and seen so many violent American movies from the ’80s. I was really apprehensive.
Gallacher: Are you referring to the Bruce Willis movies?
Chuluun: Yes, movies that showed the dark and violent side of American cities. I really thought that was what life was like in the United States.
But then I came to Colorado. I remember getting off the plane in Denver and driving through a light rain to Fort Collins. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is just like Mongolia. It’s beautiful and there are lots of mountains.”
You have to remember, too, that I was taught in the schools that the United States was extremely materialistic and that people were cold and impersonal and didn’t care. The Mongolian classrooms were bare except for a picture of Lenin in the front of every classroom.
I still remember the story I read as a child that talked about my thing versus our thing. The value of community and sharing was stressed over individualism. So to me, this land of opportunity and gaining for one’s self was a negative thing.
It’s ironic because I now see that the United States has some of the most altruistic people in the world, and Mongolia is struggling with the “everybody for themselves” mentality.
Gallacher: How did your mother adjust to the United States?
Chuluun: My mother was an artist who went to special art schools from the time she was 12. It wasn’t a hobby with her. She had a master’s and was teaching art in a college in Mongolia. Then she came here and did none of that. I think coming here was a very isolating experience for her. She didn’t know how to speak English, and she didn’t know anyone. Her role and importance as a mother was diminished, too, because my brothers and I started learning English and doing our own thing.
I think, for her, it was a very dark time. She became very depressed and more isolated. My dad escaped into his work, so we kids were left to figure it out on our own.
For example, when I told my dad that I wanted to go to Washington, D.C., for a youth roundtable discussion on Mongolia, he said, “Great, but I don’t have the money. If you really want to do that, you are going to have to make your own money.” So I got an invitation from the Mongolian ambassador and raised the money through my school board and went there and gave a presentation contrasting the Mongolian and the American school systems.
In Mongolia we grew up in the upper echelon of that society and everybody knew each other, but when we came here we were the first official Mongolian family in Colorado. That kind of cultural isolation was hard on all of us but particularly on my mother.
Visitors and tourists comment on the warmth of the Mongolian people. There is this ancient tradition of protecting your guests with your life. If you have a guest in your home you are totally responsible for them. Because there are few people and the land is vast, relationships are sacred. That is what my mother missed so deeply.
Gallacher: How is she doing now?
Chuluun: She is doing better. She lives in Chicago and works as a caregiver, but I think she still feels unfulfilled. She was a recognized artist and teacher in Mongolia, and that all went away when she came here.
Gallacher: So your family in Mongolia was upper class?
Chuluun: Yes, I would say we were along the lines of the better connected. My grandfather was high up in the army and was responsible for settling his community. He helped make it the city it is now. He wrote a lot and is still quoted widely by the Mongolian people.
My other grandfather was the No. 1 literary figure in Mongolia. He wrote in German, English, Russian and Mongolian. He was one of the great thinkers of Mongolia.
My grandmother was an opera singer in the 1950s and ’60s when opera was young in Mongolia. And my aunt is one of the most famous actresses in Mongolia. She won Mongolia’s most prestigious national award for her work.
Gallacher: And you are carrying on the tradition. Haven’t you written a book?
Chuluun: Yes, but it isn’t a great work of art. It came out of a challenge I made to myself after my son was born. It was a way for me to keep from going stir crazy at home. The title of the book is “Write a How-to Book in Seven Days,” and I wrote it in seven days.
I dictated 120 single space pages in three days while researching through 12 books and many websites. I edited on the fourth day and edited again on the fifth day and again on the sixth day. On the seventh day I made the book cover design and the sales copy on the back. Within four months I published it.
Gallacher: What are your husband’s stories about that week?
Chuluun: He covered a lot of baby duties.
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