By Arielle Gordon
“Wear your mouthpiece tomorrow,” Google Translate said.
I turned to see my host mother sitting at the table with her phone out. She was trying to remind me to wear a clean mask when I left the apartment to go to school the next morning.
Putting on a medical mask to go outside, constantly washing our hands, and encountering numerous closed stores, restaurants, and museums were all regular parts of life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in February 2020.
Mongolia is a landlocked country bordered by China and Russia. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, Mongolia closed its border with China, and began to take precautions against the virus. Almost everyone wore medical masks when they went outside, and certain places, such as banks or government offices, would not let you in without one.
Our orientation was supposed to include trips to museums and Lunar New Year celebrations, but when museums were closed and all public gatherings banned, we spent the holiday weekend with our host families. I had planned to spend the entire semester in Mongolia, but I was forced to come home after two weeks because the country was approaching a shutdown in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, I had an incredible time in Mongolia. I started to learn to read and speak Mongolian. I learned about the geopolitical landscape of a country that emerged from Soviet rule in 1991 and now operates under a parliamentary system. We listened to speakers talking about the rich natural landscape we were scheduled to visit in the spring.
The program was based in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It’s the coldest capital on Earth and is home to about half of the country’s three million residents. One main street, Peace Avenue, runs through the length of the city. Along with seven other students, I learned how to navigate the bus system, order food, and cross the street in a place that does not afford pedestrians the right of way.
I learned even more in the short time that I lived with my host family. They graciously welcomed me into their home and introduced me to their extended family. We spent mealtimes with a notebook on the table so my host siblings could teach me the Mongolian words for the foods we were eating, and in turn, I shared the English names and attempted to describe what a typical American diet looked like. Mongolian diets are meat-based, so every meal consisted of some type of meat and either rice or potatoes.
When the first suspected cases of coronavirus entered Mongolia from a group of people who had recently traveled to South Korea, Mongolia began to shut down. We received notifications that the U.S. State Department was increasing travel advisories, and we all started calling airlines to rebook our return flights. In a matter of hours, I went from doing homework and preparing for a full week of class to throwing my belongings in a suitcase and grappling with the reality of spending the next 24 hours traveling home. After just two amazing weeks, I returned to the airport, still wearing a mask, and prepared to fly home.
The program was cancelled, but I have kept my language notes and will occasionally say “OK” in Mongolian instead of English at home. I still check alerts for Mongolia and communicate with my host family. As the U.S. faces coronavirus, I am fortunate to have connections and support from friends facing it on the other side of the world.