Starting just over two decades ago, tens of thousands of citizens started leaving Mongolia amid a wrenching economic transition from a planned-economy to a free market. Now, with the Mongolian economy poised to boom, many émigrés are wrestling with a dilemma – whether or not to abandon the new country for the old?
According to 2010 figures from the National Statistical Office in Ulaanbaatar, over 100,000 Mongolians live abroad. That number’s significance is magnified when considering the country’s overall population is estimated to be 3.17 million.
The most recent US Census figures place the number of Mongolians in the United States at around 15,000, a 300 percent increase from a decade ago. Los Angeles has perhaps the largest Mongolian community in the country, roughly 5,000.
Mongolians abroad can’t help but keep a close eye on what’s going on at home. The economic news of late has been eye-popping: some mining experts estimate that the country possesses as much as $1 trillion-worth of untapped precious metals and minerals. Gerelt Tserenjigmid came to Los Angeles one year ago to work on a doctorate at Cal Tech. He says that compatriots that he knows in the United States are both excited and conflicted by developments back home. It used to be that many Mongolians perceived a student visa as a one-way ticket to the United States or elsewhere. But such assumptions are changing. “Now that Mongolia has the second fastest growing economy, people are deciding whether they should go back home or not,” he said.
While the possibilities may be greater in America, many find the immigrant path to prosperity to be a difficult one. Gerelt said his preference was to secure a job in the Southern California after he completes his studies. At the same time, he has noticed that many Mongolians who arrived in the United States with advanced university degrees have had difficulties finding jobs. And when they did find employment, it was often in the service sector, leaving them unable to take advantage of their professional qualifications.
A 2005 study on the “Status and Consequences of Mongolian Citizens Working Abroad” that surveyed over 100 migrants from Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco found that although many had extensive educational backgrounds and professional qualifications, most were in “low-status occupations” due to a lack of legal documentation and other factors.
The economic pull of returning home is even working on Mongolians who are already relatively settled in the United States. One of those feeling the tug is Zula Damdin, an accountant who emigrated 12 years ago, and who is president of the Los Angeles Mongolian Association. “I think there are more opportunities in Mongolia than the United States,” said Damdin, who visited Mongolia earlier this summer to show non-Mongolian friends around. “A lot of people have gone back; you can have a better career in Mongolia.”
Rosie Erdenebileg who came to Los Angeles as a teenager six years ago and is now an undergraduate majoring in biology at the University of California, Riverside, expressed excitement over the chance to spend some time this summer back in Mongolia visiting relatives. Prior to her departure, she indicated that she would also use the trip as a fact-finding mission, weighing whether it would be worthwhile to move back to her homeland after graduating from college. “I'm excited to see how it has changed,” she said.
Although sizable by Mongolian standards, the émigré community in Los Angeles isn’t large enough to support an infrastructure, such as specialized food stores and restaurants, that can help bridge the gap between old world and new. Efforts to secure official recognition by the Los Angeles City Council of a “Little Mongolia” neighborhood in the city have not succeeded so far.
Those determined to build new lives in Los Angeles are attempting to bolster the sense of a Mongolian community anyway they can. In addition to the Mongolian Association, established in 2006 to help promote Mongolian culture and heritage, there's a Mongolian school, a Christian church founded by a former Korean missionary to Mongolia and a Buddhist temple.
Norovsambuu Dorjsuren, the director of the American-Mongolian Buddhist Association, estimates that 80 percent of the city's Mongolian population is Buddhist, adding that the temple has experienced steady growth in the number of worshipers in recent years.
This year, community leaders organized a Naadam festival, which is the biggest event on the Mongolian calendar. The celebration featured wrestling competitions, traditional music and Mongolian food, including Khuushuur, fried meat dumplings. Byambajav Ulambayar, a Mongolian sumo wrestler who now makes his home in Los Angeles, was a headliner at the festival.
No matter what community leaders are doing to make immigrants in Los Angeles feel closer to their homeland, though, Mongolia is looking more and more appealing. “People go to school, finish their degrees and just go back home,” says Maya Dovdon, a volunteer at the Mongolian School in Los Angeles. “They don't stay here for long.”
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.