Backstage at the Rosslyn Spectrum, three girls in identical black tops and white miniskirts checked their makeup and tried to calm their jitters as they debated whether their shimmying dance to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Shut Up” could possibly win the traditional Mongolian dance competition.
The girls’ routine was unusual for the Classical and Traditional Mongolian Dance or Songs competition, which followed the more customary performance of a young man playing a morin huur, a stringed instrument with a carved horse’s head at the top.
The Mongolian Children’s Festival, in its third year, highlights a little-known fact about life in Arlington County—that the Mongolian community has become a force. After English and Spanish, the school system’s most common language is Mongolian.
Mongolians in Arlington are a new phenomenon, most arriving in the past five years, and they seem to have an innate talent for fitting in. Within months, most Mongolian children prattle comfortably in English and embrace U.S. fashions, music and dance moves.
Traditionally a nomadic culture of horsemen, Mongolians lived for years as a Soviet satellite with no access to the west. In 1990, after a democratic revolution, Mongolia opened up, and its 2.5 million citizens were allowed outside the Iron Curtain.
Many went abroad in search of better-paying work and opportunities for their children, although it often meant doing jobs beneath their training (doctors might work as orderlies or sandwich vendors). An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 Mongolians live in the United States, with large enclaves in California, Colorado, Illinois and Arlington, which the Mongolian Embassy says is home to about 2,600.
Families often come in waves, with parents working in the United States before sending for their children.
New arrivals find themselves seated beside classmates who share their passion for Ghengis Khan and basketball (boys and girls alike are mad about basketball, and many play it every day). But they do not tend to isolate themselves from other ethnic groups. During a conversation about his homeland, one recently arrived Mongolian student threw in some Spanish he’d picked up from Central American classmates.
Arlington has no Mongolian-owned restaurants that serve native food, but there is a Mongolian weekly newspaper. The National Geographic Society recently had an exhibition on Mongolian culture, and the Smithsonian Institution plans a three-day festival on Mongolia in October.
Mongolians speak lovingly of Ghengis (they pronounce it CHIN-gis) as a gifted promoter of “international trade between countries,” although outside Mongolia, his name has, fairly or unfairly, been synonymous with barbarism and ruthless conquest.
“Everybody has minus and plus in history,” Altantsetseg said, noting that in 1999, Time magazine named Ghengis its Man of the Century for the 13th century.
Embassy officials have inquired with the District about erecting a statue of Ghengis; they would like it in Georgetown, where the embassy is. If it is built, it will be a far cry from the communist era, when people in Mongolia were forbidden to mention Ghengis. Underground books circulated, however, as did tales from grandparents, and these days Arlington students’ presentations about their homeland place him prominently beside horsemanship and buuz (a meat dumpling).
Despite academic advantages, Mongolian students have had to adjust to cultural differences.
Mongolian kids bolster one another’s memories of home and instant message with friends in Mongolia. Still, some parents fear they are adapting to American culture too quickly.
The community leaders have been working with the school system to open a Saturday school, similar to Arlington’s Escuela Bolivia, that would teach Mongolian culture and language.