The Schoolteacher With No Tenth Grade

This piece is part of the the Eucid Series, which highlights the voices of contemporary, urban women from Mongolia to draw up a genealogy of female mentorship. At the end of each interview, each woman was asked to name a role model, who was then interviewed—and theirs is the story which will be published next.

Today, we meet Chuluuntumur Damdin.

I was a bossy girl. I taught all things to my siblings, because my mom and father, they were busy. They were just working for the socialism.

I stayed in the apartment with my four siblings and my grandfather. The younger sister after me, she was responsible for cleaning and tidying up the room. The next one was responsible for paying the bills and things outside of the household. The youngest sister, she went for bread and sugar. When I entered my home, my younger sister always brought me my slippers. It was her duty. Another younger sister was just preparing my cup of tea and slicing my bread. It was her duty. Because I was the oldest.

And my grandfather, he knows me well, and sometimes he asks me to come into his room and gives me his special tea, the Mongolian tea of milk and herb pepper. He made it on his own and in his way. He offered me a cup of tea he had made, and he said: “Close the door. Please come into my room.” And he says to me: “You are a smart girl. You can do everything, but please be gentle with your siblings.” He kind of gave me encouragement.

“You are the smartest girl I know.” He said that. He gave me that. It is kind of the Mongolian smart man. He is doing right. He is just managing me, just by observing me and talking to me.

Here is one funny thing: When I was in fifth or sixth grade, my parents always left early in the morning. If they were late, the socialism would punish them, so they left in the dark and came back in the dark. And in Darkhan, there is only one photographer for the—you know for documents, you need the small-sized photo, what is the name of that photo?

The passport photo. There was only one photographer for the passport photos. And one of my younger sisters was in first grade, and the teacher asked her to bring this passport-sized photo, but my parents weren’t coming home until late, and the photographer closed at five. I was the biggest sister, so I needed to do something. I offered to draw her.

I drew first the square—three centimeters and four centimeters and cut it out and started drawing her. She trusted me a lot. She was sitting there in front of me for maybe three maybe four hours. Of course, it had to fail. I was overconfident. I am overconfident. But she kept my drawing. It is kind of blurry now, a blurry thing.

Then there was the revolution. Because of the revolution, many teachers lost their jobs, including my parents. Most people, they went to China, they went to Russia, they bought the small bargains and came back to sell them in Mongolia. But my father was sick. He could not go to Russia or to China.

My mom had five children. She had a medal. She had her patriotism. But still they needed more income. They moved to the ger district and started planting vegetables.

That was so hard. Not hard in our hearts, but our family had five children and we had—because there was—the bread was very rare. Butter was—maybe once a month we could buy a kilo of butter. Sugar was also kind of rare. So in that time we got some small paper ticket, kind of permission paper. With that paper we could get in line for the bread and buy the bread. Three loaves. It was depending on the number of children.

In the last year at my school, we didn’t have any students for the tenth grade. Most schools have no students in tenth grade, because the women rarely gave birth that year. Even for five, ten years after the revolution, people didn’t want to have a baby, because they didn’t know what would become of their lives.

[Her son interjects in Mongolian.] Amoka is just asking me: did I add him to the class group on Facebook. Yes, he is added. Okay, that’s good. He needs to practice for our arts competition on Friday. Last weekend, we took our students to the countryside for the herding, so they could learn the Mongolian traditional way. We teachers are always busy, so busy, you know that.

My parents, they said later: “If we were young in democratic times, we work so hard to save some money for you, but now we spent our young ages working just for the state development. We don’t have money to give you.” After the democratic revolution, they were selling potatoes, tomatoes, plain vegetables they just planted in their fence, so it wasn’t enough to earn more. We just barely covered our living expenses. For my university tuition, my mother worked as a janitor at the school, because if someone works at the government organization, this organization will pay university tuition for one of their children.

My mother graduated only eighth grade. She was 16. She went to a one-year college for becoming a kindergarten teacher. She could have gone to university herself, but she needed to start working at an early age, to earn money, because my grandfather decided to be a lam, a monk. He was 60 years old. He said to her: “You need to finish your study, earn money, help your family. I want to do my thing.”

Even though it was socialist time, he decided to be a monk. He was a very interesting person. First, he was a herdsman, of course. But he was studying from a very young age to be a lam, lamaa monk. His first teacher was his brother. His brother was a famous monk from that time. This was before the revolution, the other revolution.

During the revolution, some monks were killed by the people from the Party. The People’s Party. The People’s Party people. They were saying the monks are too old, too traditional. So they killed them. How to say it? Like, even though that person didn’t do anything wrong, just because he is a lam he is killed. People were just influenced, maybe, because of Russian influence, and wanted to destroy, to destroy our cultural things. So in Mongolia, some people were very famous and had much nationalism, they were very patriotic.

Those people were killed. One of them may be his brother.

Some people came with a gun to the home of my grandfather while he was herding the sheep outside the ger. Three people came and erased his brother. His brother, at that time, was about 30. And also tes negiig—how to say—they opened all things in the house and the box, the Mongolian traditional box. They opened them, and if there was a silver cup or other things, they just took it. They even took half of the sheep and horses, and they took his brother and they left with him.

He was shot—maybe after one year, two years. I am not sure. And in his heart, my grandfather has still been thinking about him for a long time. Because when my grandfather was eighty-something, our democratic revolution had already started, and it was successful, and afterward they declared some names, some names from the earlier revolution, the names of people who weren’t wrong but were killed anyway.

His brother’s name was declared. And some people of the People’s Party asked forgiveness from the families. At that time, I was in his house, in his apartment, and two people came to my grandfather’s home, to his room, and gave him two million tugriks and also the paper, the official document that said his brother wasn’t wrong, he didn’t do anything wrong. My grandfather just got that paper and said to me: “For killing my brother, they give me a paper and two million tugriks. It’s nothing to me.”

So he was kind of depressed.

During the socialism, he was a nurse. He was a member of the People’s Party. He was happy to be a member. Everyone wanted to be a member of the Party. Only the good ones, the ones good at studying, were awarded with the membership. It was an honor. Everyone who had a good position was a member of the Party.

When he was sixty, my grandfather decided to become a monk. But it was still socialist time, so he wrote a letter to the head of the People’s Party. He wrote a letter, and he said: “I want to be a monk.”

People said he was lucky. He sent the letter directly to the head of the Party. If he had sent it through the organization, he would be killed. If anyone saw it, he would be killed. But the head of the party, he was at this time a very old person, and he just mercied my grandfather. He was tired and old and just mercied him.

My grandfather lost his party membership. He was fired. He became a keeper. Watchkeeper. No, gatekeeper. Shopkeeper. Then three or five years after was the revolution, my grandfather built his monastery in Darkhan. The first monastery in Darkhan.

People are still angry. Who lost their family, they are angry. But who didn’t, they don’t know, they just think it was good times, it was peaceful, the democratic revolution. People who wanted to become the ruling party, they just went on the hunger strikes.

I was a kid. Everyone was in front of the TV, even my parents. My parents were saying, “it’s right,” because life was becoming very difficult, and my father was saying people need a right to choose how to live, how to earn their money—because in socialist time if someone sells something, he is punished. If someone buys something from abroad, mostly he sells it only in a hidden way. And at school, all the kids were talking about it. My parents are Democratic Party, your parents are People’s Party. It was autumn, right? Namaar-san, tiim?

It was autumn, kind of freezing cold. Just three days or five days, they are on the square doing the hunger strike. They were talking right. They were overconfident. But the People’s Party people mostly are old people. They are smart people. They don’t want to have a war. They just gave their seats to the young people.

I was a little girl, just trying to understand.

Now, I am in the Women’s Leadership Group. Tomorrow I am going to Ulaanbaatar. I have lunch with the ambassador from the United Kingdom, and I need to choose what question I should ask her.

The person I admire a lot in Mongolia is Uyanga from the embassy. She is so strong. Because she couldn’t see well, we are thinking maybe it will be hard for her to marry or to learn English. But now she is married with her son, and she learned English very well. When I first met her, I just talked to her in English a few minutes, and I asked her about my pronunciation. She told me, “consider your –ed endings,” and she was right.

So now, I consider them.


Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant to Mongolia.