Mongolians Meld Old, New In Making Arlington Home

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

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.

"We're really nervous . . . " said Enkhjin Tuvshinzaya, 11.

" . . . because people usually dance the traditional dances, so they might win . . ." said Enkhuush Nyamsaikhan, 12.

" . . . but I think we're better than them," said Orgil Bayarsaikhan, 13.

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.

Why Arlington? Community leaders say it was simply where the first arrivals happened to settle. More followed, coming on student and tourist visas, and they helped each other find jobs and apartments.

But the county's schools also played a role. Bolormaa Jugdersuren, a Mongolian who is an instructional assistant at Williamsburg Middle School in North Arlington, originally moved to Baltimore and enrolled her children in schools there -- until she compared their progress to that of Mongolian children in Arlington.

"I felt like my children were missing something," she said. After moving here, their English improved quickly. "That's why most Mongolian people come here," she said. "Because they choose first the education for their offspring."

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