Today's post is by Patrick Hunt, who is without internet access these days while on assignment teaching at a remote camp. He sent his post in early, along with a few photos that you will find here. -- sdh
Two months after I bragged to friends back home about what had been "without a doubt, the single most heroic moment of my entire life," two men broke into my home in the middle of the night and threw me out. They scared the living shit out of me, obviously, and also, pretty much, in that single short moment when the door broke open against all the strength I had – and the mental pyschokinesis it turns out I don't have – and I scrambled away to the back of my place, made me realize who I actually am. Which is very different from the person I thought I was and not anything at all similar to the person I was hoping I was. And that finding-who-you-really-are thing? That self-discovery? Well, 1) Not only does it make you feel pretty dumb when it happens at, say, twenty-six, because, you know, just like those other things that are suppose to happen in college – meeting people from other states, losing your virginity, coke, learning the word "hegemony" – it's suppose to happen in college; but also 2) For those of us born in the most affluent country during the safest period in the history of the universe, when the greatest threat to our safety is rush hour and E.coli in our spinach, we can probably expect to encounter those situations that show us What We're Made Of a few times during our entire lives, a handful more if you've chosen a loft in a gentrified neighborhood, more still if you've been to war, and still more if you rollerblade. And so when those situations do happen, and the resulting epiphany reveals that the person you were one hundred percent certain you were isn't actually there, you walk around all emo and insecure for a week, with a giant question mark over your head, uncomfortable and confused like you've taken your pants off to see you're suddenly wearing someone else's underwear.
But first, you need to know this: I live in Mongolia, in a small town called Uliastai, which is about 1000 km west of the capital[i], in the countryside, which is kind of the countryside, but kind of not, but is called "the countryside" because it turns out that even urbanites in Mongolia like to make sweeping and dismissive generalizations about everything outside the city limits[ii].
It's isolated, yes, and more often than not I'm reminded I live in the middle of the middle of nowhere, but at the same time, it's probably not how you imagine it, if you can imagine it at all. To wit:
●Maybe I come home from work and my neighbor is outside slaughtering a sheep while his wife and her sisters clean out the entrails into a bowl of blood so bright it looks electric, but inside . . . Transformers is on TV. Optimus Prime is speaking Mongolian. And the grandma is watching it, fingering her prayer beads, crouched on a stool.
●I can buy fresh, non-pasteurized yogurt and milk from a herder in the market and a kilo of meat that only hours ago was alive (as a camel, goat, horse, cow or sheep, take your pick), but at the same time . . . not only do they have Pringles where I am, they've got bootleg Pringles. Two different kinds.
●Common responses from my students in English class to the question "What do you like to do?" include "I like to milk cows," "I like to watch sheep and goats," and "I like to ride a horse," . . . but then there's a Seventh Day Adventist Church here with it's very own charismatic leader who plays the guitar, and an enthusiastic congregation of almost exclusively cute students who are super excited about Jesus and that I gather on a whole is pretty much indistinguishable from an American youth group only in that 1) They don't have their own hoodies 2) They've never had a pizza party and 3) None of the girls have blond ponytails.
●Yahoo! email addresses abound, as do social networking sites, "chatting" and "PC gaming" are popular pastimes . . . but more than a few times I've been called to someone's office, been told, "Patrick, I am now a rich person" and shown a computer screen where a pink, spastic YOU ARE THE ONE MILLIONTH VISITOR!!! CLICK HERE TO CLAIM YOUR $1,000,000 CASH PRIZE!!! pop-up is flashing on the corner screen and I have to go, "Listen, they can't make your penis bigger either."
●Pretty much every single Mongolian woman between the ages of seventeen and sixty who's not a herder, cleaning lady, shop clerk or cook wear these high heel boots and huge sunglasses that make them look like Eastern Bloc superheroes. They work hard and spend a lot of money to look professional and fashionable and feminine, their hair and nails fixed, lots of makeup, same with the men . . . but then it's also true that most of us still have to poop and pee in the ground and showering every day is a luxury.
●We've got the internet and cell phones . . . but no wall clock or doorknob works anywhere, most especially in the schools, true fact.
So, basically, it's that funny juxtaposition of old vs. new, modern vs. traditional, and consumerism vs. agrarianism that I think you would probably find in any developing country transitioning into the twenty-first century but still struggling to maintain its national character and that someone a lot smarter than me could put more eloquently. More specifically, it's that thing you read about in every single article that's ever been written about Mongolia in the past few years where these contrasts are "illuminated" with some pithy cliché about "Playstations and nomads," "horses and Hummers," and always always always some bullshit about a ger with a satellite dish.
Anyway. I've lived here for one year and will for one more. I live in a ger, which my dad knows as a "yurt," (still) and which is a round felt tent with a wood lattice framework and a hole in the top for my stove pipe. I'm a volunteer, I teach English along with a few other things, I mostly cook over a fire, hand wash my clothes, chop my own wood, have no running water, and, up until recently, electricity more than sometimes but never more than mostly. It's unfairly cold in the winters, so cold that when I wake up in the morning and accidentally spill water on my table, it freezes instantly, no joke, and for no less than six months out of the year I wear long johns so thick they feel like an adult diaper. There's too much vodka, lots of mutton, slabs of fat on every plate, and a tradition of ceremonies, medals and chess left over from the Soviet period. No one smiles in photographs. Everyone is crazy good at volleyball. ABBA's New Year's song and Wham's "Last Christmas" receive round-the-clock rotation in the entire country during the holiday season and, somehow, because of all the kitschy decorations they get from God knows where, Ulaanbaatar has more Christmas cheer than anywhere else I've ever been in my entire life. There's indiscreet breastfeeding everywhere you look and, interestingly enough, for the most sparsely populated country on the planet, more pregnant women than a county fair. I eat horsemeat. I miss home not as much as I think I should but not so little that I feel bad about it; I miss NPR the most. I'm alone a lot, get stared at a lot, read a lot, can never get anyone to understand me when I point to something and say "What is this?" I become frustrated and confused and sad a lot, misdirect my anger and sometimes say "Konichiwa!" to the children yelling "HI!" at me, but generally enjoy where I am and happy with what I'm doing and look forward to one more year, if not without a little bit of dread.
Right. So what happened was, for a variety of reasons, I was temporarily living in a borrowed ger outside of my school, after having, for a variety of reasons, moved from the ger I'd lived in for ten months. In the middle of the night on a Sunday, two men started banging on my door, which even before this I testified was the absolute worst sound to wake up to. I crept over and told them to please go away. Which enraged them. They began cursing and yelling and pulling on the door as hard as they could. I grabbed the handle on my side and dug my heels in, but the ger was old and poorly maintained and so the wood was soft and the lock was shit and with each of their violent tugs, I was jerked forward and the door gave a little more. Their shouting transformed into the deep grunting and hoarse barking that's special to drunk Mongolian men and ubiquitous in the night; you hear this more than you hear babies crying, I swear. I had managed only a few breathy iterations of "Oh fuck oh fuck this is it this is how it happens OH MY GOD" before the door flew open. The men stormed in, I scurried to the back of my ger and crouched behind my desk before I remembered that it was pitch black and I couldn't see where the fuck they were and so I ran to flip the light on and then also remembered "Oh yeah . . . I'm naked." (It was hot and I live alone and I wasn't expecting visitors.) The men were livid and manic, with that blank look in their eyes that comes only from downing a bottle of cheap vodka and which, I'm afraid, everyone knows here all too well. One was in regular clothes and maybe forty-five, the other was in his mid-twenties, in a ball cap, and a traditional del , which basically looks like a Jedi robe, but much thicker, and without the hood. (Herders and old people wear them, and sometimes kids, which of course looks amazing.) They got in my face and forced me on the bed, demanded to know who I was and why was I here. I snuck my undies on. I tried to offer them money, which they angrily refused, but then they asked for vodka. They told me that this was not my ger – me: "I know" – that it was their older brother's ger – me: "I know, he loaned it to me" – that he worked at the school – me: "I know, I work with him" – and that I had to leave – me: "what?" – and right now, foreigner, don’t come back. So, with no choice, I left. They threw my dirty laundry outside after me.
And . . . that's basically it. Kind of not that big of a deal, right? They didn't punch me or stab me or kill me. Didn't steal anything, didn't even break anything besides a cheap laundry tub that cracks in pieces when it's too cold anyway. When I came back a half-hour later, they were gone and had locked the door. What? What was happening? I went inside, expecting everything to be destroyed, or gone, but nope, same as I left. Great . . . but wait, what? My fright gave way to bewilderment gave way to relief gave way to anger gave way to foolishness because already I was thinking, "Well, I've been irrevocably changed by this, somehow, but . . . but . . . but nothing actually happened," and I could already imagine myself struggling to convey the significance of the incident to anyone.
And I don't know if that says more about me or the world we live in that the most terrifying and epiphanous (it's a word now, deal with it) moment of my adult life was a moment where nothing actually happened, where two burglars did little more than act like two older brothers, but the point of this whole thing isn't really that nothing actually happened, it's that in spite of nothing happening, I did nothing. Nothing. In no way tried to stick up for myself. Even after it became apparent they weren't going to jump me and steal my stuffs. I cowered and let them boss me around. Volunteered my money. Almost cried.
And I have no illusions about myself being a tough guy, never have been, perfectly fine with that. Never punched another human being, never been in a fight. I scowl when I jog but that's the extent of it. And that "without a doubt, the single most heroic moment of my entire life?" Well, let's qualify that really quick: I was with a friend who's big and tall and did the talking; the husband who was pulling his wife's hair on the side of the road was old; all I did was grab his arm and pull him back. There was no more of a struggle than you'd find in a geriatric ward.
But, like, when push comes to shove, so to speak, when my personal safety is threatened? When my home is entered? I do nothing? Really? Not even a stern word, not even a "Gentlemen . . . gentlemen. This is highly unacceptable behavior I think we can all agree, now let's reason here . . . "? Shouldn't there be some instinct within me that just clicks? Like, not some socialized, macho reaction that I've learned from movies and NRA bumper stickers, but something genetic?
Or is it the female lion who's the more aggressive gender?
It's times like this that I honestly lament the very real prospect that I won't even have the instinct or wherewithal to protect my future hypothetical family. Like, what if I have a family, and someone breaks into our home (or space pod, by that time) in the middle of the night and my wife – who will have a really cool job like "famous photographer" or "being Rihanna" and walks around our home/space pod in tiny terry cloth shorts and thread-bare t-shirts, barefoot of course, and says sweet things like "Honey, I put the kids on a teleport . . . let's just order in tonight, listen to your Fresh Air interview again and look at all the National Book Awards you've won" – rolls over and whispers "Baby, I think there's someone downstairs" how I'll be all like "Well, maybe if we stay under the covers they won't see us."
And so this is what was going through my head a week or so after those guys bust in. That, while I guess I had known I wasn't going to really throw any intruders out of my ger like I had imagined I would so many times – so swift, so smooth, so effortless – I thought I would have at least raised a protest. Or something. Or, I don't know, maybe there was a part of me that would draw the line and go berserkers. But no. Couldn't even stand up for myself. Not in the slightest. It's who I am, apparently. And so what was troubling wasn't that I was more Clark Kent then Superman: I was more Jimmy Olsen then Clark Kent.
About a year before I left for Mongolia, my best friend Mike was accosted in his car behind his apartment. It was the middle of the night. They punched him, tried to pull him from his front seat, steal his car. He held tight to the steering wheel, screamed bloody murder and then whoever it was jumped into a white truck and took off. I thought it was a joke when I listened to the message he left me in the early morning, but then I saw his bruised face and listened to it again. The rattle and despair in his voice – that he was ultimately helpless against something like that – was what I recognized in mine last month when I called the police here and feebly tried to explain what happened. After work, late, we had sat on his couch in his messy apartment, drinking Dr. Pepper, eating tacos for that 24-hour place, and he talked out loud about how it worried him that he wasn't able to protect himself, or his girlfriend, god forbid; how our friends seemed all bigger, could handle something, god forbid, like Joe, this would have never happened to him, or Tim, him neither, or even Nate, and he lives in Old North St. Louis, no, of course not; that it was humiliating to think about how recently a friend of his, who is female and tiny, and living in New York City, chased after her purse-snatcher, and in the middle of the night no less, didn't catch him but still; that maybe he should just get a membership to the Y or something, lift weights. I said, "But Mike, you won. You still have your car. And you did better than I would have – my first instinct would have been to just hop out and hand over the keys."
A few weeks after my incident, post-Parliamentary election riots disrupted UB for a few days. A friend and I inadvertently wandered into the heart of these riots as they reached a fever pitch; walking to a friend's, he tasted tear-gas; coming back from the airport, I was nearly pulled from my cab. Days later, at a Fourth of July BBQ, we were talking about it and I said, "That was frightening. I never ever want to be in that situation again. Those guys had masks." He said: "I want to go to a war zone."
And that's when I realized. When that question mark turned into a light bulb.
I don't like confrontation. Don't want danger. Of any kind. Want no part of it, ever. Call Dr. Phil and he'll tell you it's a defense mechanism I've created as a result of my parents' divorce. Talk to my parents and they'll say it's "growing up." Talk to Jonathan Franzen and he'll say it's "post-9/11 malaise." A Newsweek item may say that recent research by media studies professors reveals that overexposure to our over-saturated, 24/7 media environment is sowing the seeds of lethargy and total social disengagement among the average American. But ask me and I'll say it's just no fun, never worth it. Not when it's my nature to think in worst case scenarios.
I don't particularly like this about myself, though. Wish I had that devil-may-care within me, an inner Norman Mailer, a part of me that takes confrontation and danger head-on, can disagree and fight and argue with people, stand by my convictions, take a bloody nose in the process and ultimately not give a shit. Hell, I wish I was the me that I imagine I am – the one who, besides having babies with Rihanna and talking with Terry Gross, wins all the arguments and says the funniest things, is rational and humble always, helpful and always prepared, puts his foot down when need be and coolly overpowers any drunk man busting his way into his ger or abusing his wife. But I know I'm truer to myself not when I say "You only live once!" but when I say "You only live once."
I've noticed as of late that I won't even pursue friendly debates and arguments with my friends and semi-friends, even if they'd just said something that was stupidly ridiculous or just plain fucking wrong. I'm to the point where I'm willing to accept a modicum of inconvenience to maintain the peace on all fronts. And what does that make me? Sane? Boring? A cop out? What? Is that normal?
What's more, as I discovered after the break-in, apparently, when there is a confrontation, a real one, I will do everything in my power to normalize it. And perhaps here is where I become truly self-delusional. The next day, when the men were caught and my co-workers and the police reassured me they were taking care of the problem, I just wanted it all to go away. I was embarrassed. Didn't want to go down to the police station, didn't want to write a statement, didn't want to see any of the other teachers and their consoling smiles, because if I could have just ignored it, I could have convinced myself that nothing had happened. Not like I had any bruises to show for it, you know? Just damaged pride, a confused sense of self and a spot of self-loathing. And – follow me here – if I could have convinced myself that nothing happened, then nothing had happened . . . and then I hadn't done "nothing" about it. Because you can't do "nothing" about nothing. And if you can't do "nothing" about nothing – which you can't – then you can't exactly dislike yourself for doing nothing.
I just don't want anyone to force me to come to terms with the person I actually am instead and shatter the fantasy of thinking I'm the person I wish I was. Especially by breaking in or beating me up or almost pulling me from a cab or yelling "OY FOREIGNER!" at me or staring at me or whatever. Which, even if it ends up being "nothing" again, I don't think is too much to ask.
 And of course I don't even need to tell you there's Coke here. That company has wider distribution than a fart in a Smart car.
 It's difficult to describe Mongolian women's sense of style. It's this strange marriage of somewhat conservative and highly professional (black, pant suits, knee-length skirts) Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (wool, browns and grays, those boots), Soviet-era (bundled up, fur-lined, big scarves) but then also young and sexy (fish net stockings, dropping neck lines, patterns, tight fits). Imagine your mom's cool friend or your funky aunt or that one sort-of-maybe hip teacher you had in high school.
 Not the makeup, but they're dapper in a suit the way all Asian men are. You know what I'm talking about.
 By the way, one of my fourth graders stood up in the middle of class this year when her phone rang and hurried out with a finger plugged in her ear. Appalled, I was. I will say, however, that it's a strange comfort that poor cell phone etiquette apparently transcends every single demographic I can think of. Says something about how universal human nature is, maybe; like, if a nine-year-old in a little blue school uniform who lives in a ger in Mongolia acts no different than every single asshole you've ever met whose phone has rang during a meeting, baptism, graduation, ceremony, funeral, ball game, recital or whatever, then, in the end, I think we're going to be all right. Or not all right. But at least we're all on the same page.
 If you think Sundays don't have "that" feeling in a place that doesn't have the sound of 60 Minutes and the smell of a roast to remind you that the weekend is over and it's time to do your fucking homework, you are wrong.
 And I suppose I don't have to go into how flopping around being skinny and naked and an eight-month-winter shade of white, being chased by two grown men made the situation just that much more emasculating.
 Indeed, upon subsequent re-tellings, this is how it went:
Me: . . . Then they threw my dirty laundry out after me.
Me: Yeah. Crazy.
Them: [Looking at me expectantly.]
Me: . . .
Them: [Still looking.]
Me: And what?
Them: Well, then what happened?
Me: That's it.
Them: That's it?
Me: I mean, like, it was terrifying, you should have—.
 There's a rumor here about another volunteer who lived in a ger a few years ago. A man lowered himself through the top of her ger in the middle of the night and she stabbed him in the leg. Who knows what happened after that, I assume that took care of it, but my GOD. Sounds sort of white trash, but it's not unheard of – in fact, I gather it's sort of common – for volunteers living in gers to have some sort of weapon near their bed. When the only thing separating you from night terrors are a light frame of cross-hatched wood, a few layers of felt, and thin dress of canvas (gers are meant to be moved; they're the RVs of Asia) you take precautions. I had a bat. With a taped handle like a hockey stick. Of course I completely forgot about it. Not that I would have used it anyway. But still.
 Trembling Mongolian from a novice speaker is, as a matter of fact, completely unintelligible.
By the way, is this strange? Thinking about this sort of thing? About defending yourself? Ruminating about not being tough? And on a poetry blog, no less? Am I alone among all you in lamenting what lack of guts I have? Or is it true that everyone every once in a while thinks about What Would I Do If . . . and hopes that they possess inside them enough courage to put their foot down and say, "No, sir, not today"? Is it also true that even people who know The Wasteland's original title share the same base, primal desire of all living creatures to avoid suffering and protect their well-being? (Even if you think being semi-depressed will help you write that award-winning collection.) I think so. I do. May not be fashionable, appropriate over civil dinner conversation, but we all think about it and it comes from the same part of you that secretly thinks about furtive sex with strangers.
 In case you haven't been paying attention to Central Asian affairs (you haven't? Really?): five people died, a major party headquarters and art museum were burned out, hundreds were arrested, and everyone had to watch Russian TV for four days because the government shut down all the private television stations.
 How telling is it that when I think of someone tough, my go-to guy is a fucking literary figure? Barf.