Wednesday, May 14, 2008

U.S.A., North Dakota

I went by bus from Phoenix to North Dakota.

In Dickinson, in western North Dakota, the bus stopped for forty minutes. There was a little cafe next to the station, and I had breakfast there.

Getting back onto the bus, I found a woman sitting in my seat. I pointed this out, she reacted, and I said, "No, no, that's okay. I'll take this seat. It's no big deal. The bus is empty."

Of course the bus was empty; we were in North Dakota. Everything in North Dakota is empty.

When I had pointed at the seat and said my first words, her wide-eyed, bustling reaction, her movements, had made me think she was not American; I guessed she might be Japanese. As I sat down in the seat directly behind her, I asked, "Where are you from?"

She twisted in the seat to look at me. "Mongolia."

"What?" I said.

She spoke with effort, emphatically pronouncing the syllables: "I am from Mongolia."

I busted out laughing. I looked at her and opened my mouth and, as I tried to shift my mind into Mongolian, I couldn't say anything. Finally I managed, "Tiim uu?"

She looked at me with complete incomprehension.

"Ta mongol khun uu?"

"I am sor-ry."

"Ta mongol khel yaridag uu? Mongol khel?"

A bizarre expression seized her face.

"I live in Ulaanbaatar," I said, still in Mongolian.

And we fell to talking excitedly. Her name was Oyunaa.

She had come to visit her daughter, who was studying at Dickinson State University. I had come from (of all places) Mongolia to (of all places) North Dakota, to find (of all things) a Mongolian in my seat on the bus, and I couldn't stop laughing.

Before the bus got underway, her daughter got on and sat next to her. They were on their way to Chicago to visit more family.

"There's lots of Mongolians in Chicago," I offered.

"And in Denver."

"Yes, in Denver." Colorado resembles Mongolia geographically.

Western North Dakota does as well; the daughter said that twelve Mongolians were studying in Dickinson.

"North Dakota is a strange place."

"Yes. It's all white people."

Oyunaa had flown into L.A., and had already been through the Bay Area and Denver on the way to North Dakota.

"Well, there are the Sioux, and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikawa. But they and the white people live apart from each other, and they don't like each other."

I thought then of the flak I have caught in Mongolia for daring to be a white guy in Mongolia.

But how many thousand Mongolians are living in the United States? Not counting the Peace Corps volunteers and international aid workers and missionaries, who are all temporary, the other Americans I know living in Mongolia I can count on the fingers of one hand.

I got off the bus in Bismarck, which is only an hour and a half or so from Dickinson. Oyunaa got off the bus with me and helped me with my bags. She bore an enormous, face-breaking smile as we said good-bye in the terminal.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

U.S.A., Arizona, Goodyear

The suburbs of Phoenix look like they were built yesterday.

National Geographic magazine recently featured an article about the drying out of the western United States. The 20th Century was a wet century, with unusually high rainfall. Phoenix is built in a desert. And it has golf courses. And urinals that use 3.8 liters of water per flush.