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.
This week, we meet Uyanga Erdenebold.
“It’s one thing if you go hungry, because there is no food.It’s a very different thing if you go hungry, because people don’t see it as a problem that you don’t have food.” — Uyanga, TEDx Ulaanbaatar
Sorry, I was listening to Gone With the Wind, and I lost track of time. Can you hold on a minute? I need to make myself a glass of water….
I used to read books at the windowsill when I was a girl. I read and did my homework there; I had a desk and a chair, but I needed more light. After school, I rushed to the windowsill and raced the sunset, trying to get my homework done before the light went down. I wouldn’t even change clothes first. Even then, it was a race, me against the light.
I was diagnosed with my condition when I was four years old, but I don’t know if people were fully aware of the implications of the condition. I wore glasses. At eight, I started attending a regular school. My problems started right away—because I couldn’t see well, couldn’t see the lines on the notebook, my handwriting was terrible, and my teachers would scold me for that and send me home with extra homework. They thought I was just being sloppy, something like that.
I remember one-minute reading. In Mongolia, when you are learning to read, you do one-minute reading: you read one text from the book for one minute. The teacher counts how many words you read, and the more you read the better your grade. For me, of course, that was very difficult, because I couldn’t see clearly, so I memorized every text. I just rattled them off from memory to get the grade.
After a year, it became obvious I couldn’t handle the school. My parents didn’t want to send me to a special school. There was only one school for children with vision impairment in Mongolia, and it was in Ulaanbaatar. To get there from our home, you had to take an overnight train. I would have to live in a dormitory, and I wasn’t super independent when it came to brushing my hair or making my bed. I had never made my bed before that time. But I could not be illiterate and uneducated, so I had to go.
I knew Cyrillic. I had learned the traditional Mongolian script. Now I would learn Braille. At that point, though, I could still see, and our Braille books had Cyrillic words printed under the Braille words, for parents to read along with their children. So it was tempting for me to read the Cyrillic words. Braille is much slower. You have to figure out the dots with your fingertips. I was annoyed with being slow. I wanted to be quickest. I had to be blindfolded in class so I would learn Braille.
I learned there to focus on learning, not on missing home or how difficult life was, or the stigma.
There was such stigma attached to being in a special school. People immediately assumed you were intellectually deficient. As a teenager, you naturally have so many insecurities. Add to that being visually impaired and wearing thick glasses and going to a special school and being called retarded.
That was a frenzied time. I was always trying to prove myself to other people. I tried to read everything, to learn everything. And if I couldn’t—if there was a math problem, a geometric graph, and I couldn’t do it quickly, I would get so frustrated, so angry, I would cry. Just doing it wasn’t enough. I wanted to do it quick, faster than normal-sighted children.
Now, I am far more comfortable in my own skin. I have people who know my worth and value my opinions. But still there is this element of having to prove myself or explain to people—like, in Mongolia, one journalist asked me, “How did you manage to get a job at the U.S. Embassy?” Or at university—people told me if I loved my family more, I would just stay at home.
It’s difficult for them to comprehend. It’s changing now. It’s changing, but still people aren’t sure.
It’s like—I was reading Gone with the Wind just now, and you know how in the north, after the Civil War, the northern people wanted to free the slaves, but they wouldn’t trust a black person with their children. They respected them as equal, but they didn’t know what to do with them when they were nearby. It’s like that, in Mongolia, when you have a disability. People want people with disabilities to be equal, but they don’t know how to act around them.
For example, we live in this apartment complex, and when I come home Gladys brings me to the door, and I have to find the handle and pull the door open. Sometimes, we get there, and I can’t find the handle, can’t find the door. It turns out that someone is holding the door open, but they don’t say anything. They just stand there quietly.
Or I walk into an elevator, and someone’s standing there, and they don’t say anything, so I don’t know they’re there. They startle me. They don’t mean harm or disrespect. They just aren’t comfortable with people with disabilities, or with blind people. Or, I don’t know, maybe I just scare them.
Of course, America is different. For one thing, it’s harder to find tea in America. In Louisiana in the summer, I asked for tea, and everyone brought me iced tea. I said: “No, hot tea. Hot tea.” They think I’m crazy. It’s summer in Louisiana, and this person wants hot tea.
People stick to a plan in America. Everybody has a plan, this bulleted list of things, like their entire life is one big list they’re crossing off. But people here are more open, quicker to appreciate your independence.
The whole idea, the concept of America is that everyone is equal. That’s what makes it, I think, an ideal country for many people. Of course, there are things to improve, but I think mostly America is too hard on itself. I’ve worked with Americans. Now, I’m living here, married to one. I’ve benefitted from American generosity.
I first came to America to study library science at Louisiana State University, and I remember going to Louisiana Rehabilitation Services. They talked to me, they asked me what I needed, and suddenly I was getting boxes. Huge boxes. All these boxes of things were being delivered to me—Braille printers, scanners, a Braille watch, oven mittens and timers for blind people. Things I needed and things I didn’t need.
They gave me mobility and independence training. My instructor was Glenn Gutrow from Baton Rouge. He got me walking with a cane. Before, I had only walked with someone. I thought walking with a cane was the final defeat. If I walk with a cane, that will mean I’m blind. I will look like a blind person. I didn’t want to look like a blind person. Stigma. Even I had it.
Glenn would ask me: “Are you blind?” (“Yes.”) “Do you want to be independent?” (“Yes.”)
The cane was too slow for me. If you hit something with a cane, you have to know—okay, that’s a trash can, that’s a tree. You have to be very familiar. I still wanted to be quicker than everyone. Glenn told me about guide dogs. Dogs are quick.
I remember the first time I met Gladys. I was so nervous, like meeting the president. She was nervous, even though she’s not an excitable dog. Gladys is an American. She’s a California girl. She left her home to go with me to Mongolia. Gladys knows all my weaknesses. Your guide dog is closer to you than any human will ever be. Closer than your husband. Closer than your child. She’s a part of you.
In Mongolia, people are afraid of dogs, and at first people weren’t sure about Gladys. People would pull their children away from me, refuse to ride with me in the elevator, scream if they met me on the stairwell. They’d pick up their children, cross the street to a different path. Like I was disgraceful. But once they got to know I was blind and Gladys was my guide dog, they became comfortable. Sometimes, I would even hear them saying to their children: “Don’t be afraid. That’s a good dog. That’s a working dog.”
The cleaning ladies, I heard, were most fond of Gladys, because other people wouldn’t pick up after their dogs. I always pick up after Gladys. The cleaning ladies thought I put a bag down on the floor for Gladys to poop in. They thought she was this very clean dog who pooped in a bag.
There’s no shelter for dogs in Ulaanbaatar, no building where you can take injured or lost dogs. And you know our winters, so we see a lot of tragedies. Frozen puppies at the trash dump and worse than that. I considered many times going into this headlong, quitting my job, making dogs my career. People say it would be irresponsible, that I have a role as a spokeswoman—helping people see that people with disabilities can work and do things.
I’ve had people yell at me for speaking up for dogs, for collecting money for dogs when there are people who are hungry and cold and homeless. That’s missing the point. If we’re going to be humane, we have to be humane all around. It’s how we treat things that are dependent on us. That’s the mark of our humanity. But I’m a mother now, and I care a lot more about the world now that my child is in it. I’m not raising my child in a world where we kick aside a starving puppy because someone else is starving.
I didn’t think I wanted to be a mother. I thought I wanted to go to Georgetown. I wanted to save the world. When people said, “children are a gift from god,” I used to think, that’s silly, that’s sentimental, we all know where babies come from. I was all sharp edges, a business person. “I don’t need a baby.” I took pleasure in being free, and I did everything I could to show people I wasn’t lonely. I was strong. I was a strong and independent woman.
Then I got married, and I thought: well. I’ll just be married and be a strong and independent woman. Then I got pregnant, and Henry came, and I was nothing but a strong and independent woman. I was at home, wearing sweatpants and tee shirts, sleep deprived, heavier by fourteen kilos. I have fewer edges now. I’m fiercer. If wars were fought with mothers, we would have longer, bloodier wars.
But Henry? Henry is a charmer. We flew from Mongolia to the U.S., and you know what a travel that is. My husband and I were both terrified. We’ve heard of people’s kids screaming the entire 14 hours, but we got on the airplane, and Henry flirted with the Korean Air attendants the entire time. He was hopping and clapping and smiling at them. My husband said: “We’re going to leave this plane with all of their numbers.”
It would be my mother, but you couldn’t interview her. The four of us—myself and my siblings—we became who we are because of my mother. She had integrity. Others might steal or cheat. She never did. People underestimated her. I admire the woman with integrity.
Editor’s Note: After Uyanga’s interview, I spoke with several Mongolian women who either wished not to be interviewed or declined to have their interviews published. One young woman, however, offered this statement about her role model: “The cinema, the internet—these are gifts for the lonely person. My role model is Yuna Oyun, who wrote online about being Mongolia’s first transgender woman. Her words are like a friend for me.” Our series continues next week with a translated excerpt from the blog she describes.