Friday, August 27, 2021

Maral Gankhuyag

My name is Maral Gankhuyag. We moved to the Pike five years ago, my freshman year of high school.  I didn't go to high school on the Pike though. I commuted to Yorktown High School rather than Wakefield because I had started there. Before we moved to Columbia Pike we were living at River Place in Rosslyn. I grew up at River Place. My whole lived experience is here. I was two years old when I came to the US. I’m twenty now. I was born in Mongolia, in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. My mom's from Selenge which is in the upper part of the country, by Russia. My dad's from the west, Bayankhongor, which is what comes to mind when you think about the Mongolian countryside, the steppes, the yurts, everything. 

My dad is very artistic. My mom is a medical doctor, but she's very supportive of the arts. She was an ophthalmologist in Mongolia, but when we moved here her license didn't transfer so she started school all over again from the beginning and now she's working as a nurse supervisor. My dad makes traditional Mongolian masks, and I grew up around that. Because he didn't have his own studio space when we first moved here, he would make them at home. When I'd come home from school, he'd be working on the masks and I'd come and help him play around and then just carry on. He'd always be doing his stuff in the background and even if we weren't actively involved in it, we were always hearing about it, involved in it. 

I also went to Mongolian school as a kid. As soon as it opened my parents sent me and my brother. I started at the preschool and graduated at the high school level. They taught everything about Mongolian culture. They do language mostly because that's what most of us struggle with and they have history and culture classes. At the end of the day they would have extracurriculars. They'd have music lessons, traditional Mongolian music instruments. Me and my brother did Mongolian traditional dance. There was traditional Mongolian wrestling, a chess club, there was a singing class. It wasn't super organized at the beginning, but everyone was friends and everyone knew each other. We were just happy to be there and happy to be around each other. The school was every Saturday from nine to two. I was there when I was little so I got to know everyone really well. Without that school, I don't think any of us would really have met each other. Maybe my parents would have known everyone in the community, but me and the kids my age and younger needed the school. We would socialize with each other a lot. All the parents would talk and collaborate and they'd throw parties and invite everyone and then invite their kids and then I'd get to know people my age. But it was interesting because when I went to public school during the week, I never really knew any other Mongolian kids. Maybe I knew one other girl or one other guy and that was it. And we were obviously close, but we also had our own friend groups, but when we'd go to Mongolian school on the weekends, it'd be "Oh, we're really good friends." 

I can speak Mongolian, but I have an accent, an American accent. I wouldn't say I'm fluent but I can communicate with others understand everything really well. When I am with other young Mongolians, if we both speak Mongolian then sometimes if we're going to gossip or something like that in public we'll speak Mongolian. But most of the time people my age, and especially those younger than me, we're just more comfortable with English. It's easier to speak English than Mongolian but if the situation calls for it, then we’ll speak in Mongolian. 

We're Buddhists. We used to go to a temple in Maryland called KPC, Kunzang Palyul Choling. That's my childhood temple, but when we moved here, we started going to Drikung Dharma Surya on Ox Road in Fairfax because it's a bit closer.

I went to Arlington Science Focus for elementary school, then to Williamsburg Middle School, and then to Yorktown High School. I did the whole thing. My schools were predominately white, I don't think there was a lot of diversity. I did meet kids from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but I don't think that was ever something that we openly really discussed. We knew we weren't from America but it was harder to start a conversation about their background because that was growing up in Arlington for me at least. When I was younger it was something that I didn't really share openly. I just wanted to fit in and assimilate, but as I got older and into high school I was like, "This is crazy. I know all these people from all these different backgrounds and I don't know where their family’s from..." I didn't use to invite anyone to my apartment because I thought "Oh, I don't live in a big house. My house isn't decorated the same.” I was very shy and closed off about that. Even if I did have friends who were immigrants, we didn't really know a lot about our backgrounds, it was mostly just us as individuals and us at school. 

It's hard to describe any experiences of prejudice growing up. Looking back on it now, I sometimes realize, "Oh that was a prejudice thing." But when you're younger it's hard to pick up on it or why someone said that to you. I remember one time in elementary school I was eating a chicken sandwich, and this guy was like, "Oh Asian people always eat stinky food." I said to him, "It's a chicken sandwich. I got it from the school cafeteria." I don't know why he said that. You don't know how to think about it because you're just confused. Obviously as a kid you know that you feel upset, but then as you get older you realize that was just a racist, prejudiced thing to say. When you're kids, you're just a kid. I wouldn't say my experience growing up was as difficult as I've heard other people's experiences, because I would say Arlington is a pretty accepting community. I think that if people say anything prejudiced towards me, it's more from an ignorant point of view rather than from being malicious, trying to hurt me.

I’m now in college, studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I just finished my associate's degree in fashion business management and I'm continuing on for my BS in advertising and marketing communications. I thought for the longest time because my mom's a doctor, that I was going to be a doctor, up until my senior year of high school. Then one day, because I really liked New York and when I was younger, my dad would do flea markets and set up shops or do shows in New York and we'd drive up there, take the Greyhound up to New York, I was like, "Oh, it's fun. It's exciting. It's a trip." I really liked New York. So I knew I wanted to be there. My brother and I we were really into fashion when we were little kids but I had never really considered fashion as a real option for myself because I thought, "Oh, it's hard, am I going to make money?"  But I found FIT. It's relatively cheap because it's a part of the State Universities of New York so tuition there is way lower than the other schools even though it's in Manhattan. So it was accessible to me. I thought, "I'll apply and if I don't get in, I won't pursue that. But if I do, I'm going to give it a shot" And I ended up getting in. I knew I wanted to go in for business, because I figured the art aspect I could pick up on my own. Outside of sketches and small projects for myself, I don’t do a lot of actual fashion designs. I'll sew skirts and shirts for myself and maybe I'll have some shirts for my friends or I'll knit something for myself, but outside of that I'm not really super interested in creating my own design brand, as of right now. Maybe later I will. I ‘ve now finished my business management degree. It's not quite as creative as I wanted it to be, it's very analytics- and math-based and now I want to go into journalism. So I thought that marketing communications would be a better fit.

It's funny, because I was put in a HILT class in elementary school, which is the high-intensity language training. People always assumed I didn't know how to speak English, and I didn't for a long time because my parents spoke Mongolian at home. So to me English was always something that was hard for me to pick up. Not necessarily because it really was, but people would treat me like, "Oh, you're probably not good at English." All throughout high school and middle school, English class would always give me a lot of anxiety. I didn't know if I could write all those essays. I had one English teacher in high school that would always just fail me on my essays. I would read other people's essays. I wouldn’t think mine were better than theirs, but I'd wonder why my essay would deserve a failing grade. I really liked the creative aspect of writing, but the school system made me feel like I shouldn't be in writing. Because, I don't know, you're not American or English wasn't technically your first language. But when I got to college I found that I really liked writing. Once that feeling of failure and being in school and writing for a grade and being under someone's thumb dissipated, I realized "this is something that I actually really enjoy." It makes me happy to write because it's not something that I thought I could really do when I was growing up. I think the part about journalism that I like is that you can do interviews, you can get to know people better. I specifically want to do fashion journalism. It's writing about someone's story and I like that aspect.

If I was to write my own story, I feel like my first instinct would be to give my family background because I am a very family-oriented person and I wouldn't be who I am without my family. So I think starting with, my parents and my brother and how I grew up, would be the most important aspect to me or to getting to know me.

I’m planning to stay in New York now. I see a future there. I think the biggest part of it is that New York always has something going on and everything is very accessible. It's expensive to live there, but you can walk to a gallery around the corner or you can take the subway for twenty minutes and go to something that you're interested in seeing. I feel like it's very experience-based. For me it's hard to be here in Arlington because you need to drive somewhere to go to events or you need to know people who are doing something to go do something interesting. Arlington does have a very lively arts scene, but I like the quick pace in New York. You can go do something different every hour. 

I’ve maintained my friends here, though. I met him my oldest friend Eric, who's also Mongolian, when I lived in River Place and we're still in contact. And a lot of my closest friends are friends I went to high school with and we visit each other at our schools all the time now.

I’ve noticed many changes while I’ve lived on the Pike.  They’ve been doing a lot of renovation on the infrastructure here. The roads were torn up for three years for a gas pipeline for the longest time. I remember when I was first learning how to drive, it was on the Pike, and I was so confused about what to do because all the roads were full of potholes. I had to swerve around and there would just be like a stop sign, not actual light signals. But now it's so much easier because there are lights, it feels safer to drive. They just redid this entire strip. I remember in high school I was doing an internship at Arlington Independent Media we did a documentary about the Nauck [Green Valley] neighborhood. We did an interview with an Arlington spokesperson who said they're getting ready to renovate Columbia Pike and Lee Highway. And once they renovate Columbia Pike, they're going to move on Lee Highway.

They're getting ready to put in new infrastructure, move in more people, that Amazon headquarters is coming to Crystal City. It seems like they're putting up more apartment buildings. Even the apartment buildings right across the street, they're really new. and it seems more and more people are moving in every day.

I’m seeing any other changes, too. There are still a lot of families here, but now I feel like I'm seeing more younger single people moving in, younger professionals, not as many families in these apartments. I would say I've seen more white people here than it was even just a couple of years ago. I remember when I first moved here, in the back area behind our apartments I would see kids running around with their parents, with strollers, and now I just don't see that as much. I don't know if it's just people aren't playing outside as much or if it's these families are moving away. I do feel I've noticed more young white people living here and then commuting to DC rather than who was here before. In Rosslyn that was a normal thing for me to see, but when I moved to the Pike I definitely saw that difference and now it's starting to look similar to how Rosslyn was. It was more diverse and family-oriented when I was first here.

 My parents are moving out to Manassas soon. Their money goes a lot farther out there than it does here.  It's a big house with an acre of land. It's a big difference. I've never lived further south than the Pike. I have traveled further south into Virginia, driving down to Richmond and road trips down to North Carolina. I've driven through it, but I haven't really stopped and stayed there for an extended period of time. It does make me nervous, but I haven't outwardly experienced anything prejudiced. I think it's more that I'm just nervous about it, but it hasn't actually happened. I did track for a year in high school and we'd go to these different high schools for track meets, ones in Manassas and Woodbridge and even further. It was definitely different. Our team would have Asian kids, black kids, southeast Asian kids. Their teams and the people in the stands would all be white. Maybe my teammates didn't notice, but I'd always notice, "Okay, I see how it is here.” I'd be anxious or suspicious of it but once I got there, usually everyone was fine. But I'm only there for short periods of time. So I don't know, going to high school in Manassas, I would be terrified probably. But I don't know if it actually would be what I make it out to be in my head.

I've heard stories of prejudice from my friends in Fairfax County. It's interesting though, because I have Mongolian friends there and I hear the way they talk about being Mongolian. To me it's very upsetting. They'll say, "Oh, that guy hates meeting other Mongolian people." Then I'd say, "What? Your entire family's Mongolian. I'm Mongolian." I think he means fresh off the boat immigrants, because they're not exactly assimilated to the culture here, maybe they're a little behind on trends. I have even heard other Asian kids saying they only want to hang out with white kids. All their friends are white. They don't really want to associate with other immigrants because they know English well and they know the culture well and they distance themselves from that because they're like, "I don't want to be affiliated with that."

I have a lot of pride in who I am. I think the Mongolian school helped and being around other Mongolian kids helped. My dad is a Mongolian spokesperson, does everything, plans, coordinates everything in the community, and I've just been around that. So naturally, my brother and I picked up on that. We are always going to tell others to be proud of who you are, don't forget where you're from, don't forget your culture. I think maybe some other kids grew up with parents who were just trying to make ends meet who said, "You need to learn English, you need to do this," so that they don't get bullied. Because that is something that you're worried about. You don't want your kids to be ostracized just because they're from a different country. I think when the new immigrant kids are younger they believe they need to fit in, to go to school and be happy and productive at school.  As they get older, it's becomes internalized. They may start to turn on other immigrants who aren't at their level and look down on them. I don't think that's right, but I do see where they're coming from, because to other white kids, we're all the same. They're trying to prove themselves even if it's not the healthiest.

My parents are very strong, they're hustlers. They get stuff done. The entire Mongolian side of my family are all very hardworking, very humble, honest people. I never grew up in Mongolia, but that is how I see a lot of Mongolian people. I think Mongolian people always pride themselves on being witty and quick on their feet and always able to get things done. In my experience, that's always how it's been. I worked at the Mongolian school for a little bit and every time we'd have an issue, I would tell someone and they'd be “let’s do it." Maybe we forgot a costume for a little girl who had to go on stage in five minutes and all the Mongolian ladies we'd all just come together, throw together some fabric, sew it all up and then boom, she's on stage. The problem's fixed. I feel like Mongolian people are very accepting of you and they're team workers, they like to work together, they're very supportive of each other. I don't get that sense from outside of my Mongolian culture.

I grew up listening to Mongolian music and seeing Mongolian art and listening to Mongolian stories. I believe this is really a unique history that not a lot of people know about outside of our community. When you get down to the history and the music, it's so unique and so different from anything you've ever heard. When you hear the moriin khuur, the horse headed fiddle with the two strings, played in a room full of Mongolian people everyone will go quiet and we'll just listen. It's something I grew up on. You get the sense that everyone feels something in their heart from it. 

I remember a funny story. My dad manages a Mongolian band which tours sometimes. As a little girl I was on tour with the band in Denmark and they had two humped camels there, Bactrian camels. The sponsors of the event told us the camels were from Mongolia. We had the moriin khuur with us and one of the musicians started playing it and the camels came running towards us. The camels stood there near us and it looked they were listening. And then they started crying. We felt that was so interesting. I feel like things like that even if it's not something you're mindful of; all Mongolian culture is so cool. You just feel it, it's very intuitive.

It's definitely harder stay in touch with the culture in New York. I don't know any Mongolian people in New York. Most of the other Asian people are Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian. I haven't met a single other Mongolian person in New York. But I've seen galleries that feature Mongolian art or Inner Mongolian art, and that's about as close to it as I get.

 When I was in middle school and high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of Arlington. I didn't fit. I thought it was not diverse enough. I felt there's nothing for me here, really, outside of my family, of course. But I had to come back for the COVID-19 quarantine, so I've been here this entire year and I've been learning to appreciate Arlington more because they do have a very diverse population, even if it's majority white, but especially on the Pike, there's restaurants and there's a little bodega, a little supermarket over there that sells Hispanic foods and stuff you wouldn't find in a Safeway. 

I think the Pike is a little pocket that I've learned to appreciate. If you go out of your way just a little bit to learn and interact with all the people that live here, you realize "Oh, everyone is here..." We're here to make a life for ourselves and for our families. I've learned to appreciate it more in that sense, but I don't know. It's bittersweet to leave Arlington, but I think I've just been excited about New York for so long that I can't think of anything else. But I’m still young. My parents didn't end up where they started. I did. Well, sort of, sort of. 

Photographs and interview by Lloyd Wolf.