By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006; A01
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."
Families often come in waves, with parents working in the United States before sending for their children.
Urtnasan Jigjidsuren, 38, sat recently with her husband and two sons at their home in the River Place apartment complex, where several hundred Mongolians live. On one wall of their living room hangs a portrait of Ghengis Khan, the 13-century ruler who is Mongolia's national hero; another wall has a window framing the Potomac River and Jefferson Memorial.
Jigjidsuren, who owned a salon in Mongolia, and her husband, Tsogtsaikhan Gendenpel, who owned a construction company, arrived 2 1/2 years ago, leaving behind their son Bat-Amgalan Tsogtsaikhan, who goes by Bati and is now 12. Arriving nine months ago, Bati met his new brother, born in the United States.
"I was, like, nervous," Bati recalled with a smile.
Jigjidsuren, who works at a Korean deli, said Mongolian neighbors help the family stay connected to home. When anyone in the complex gets a Mongolian CD, everyone listens to it. Students take piano lessons from a Mongolian teacher. "We are inside Mongolian culture in River Place," Jigjidsuren said.
Arlington Public Schools' 219 Mongolians make up 1.2 percent of students, but they are the majority in some ESOL-HILT (English for speakers of other languages and high-intensity language training) classes -- in some schools revitalizing a program that had dwindled as the flow of immigrants slowed.
"The HILT program all around the county is shrinking," said Jack Lane, a HILT teacher at Williamsburg, where more than half of HILT students are Mongolian. "But the Mongolians were growing. They basically kept the program alive here."
They tend to excel, their teachers say, often moving into mainstream classes a year or two earlier than average.
Theories abound as to why. "Mongolian people are nomadic people," explained Consul General Gonchig Seseer over tea in the Mongolian Embassy. "That's why they very quickly adapted to a different lifestyle."
"We have the yurt tent," added Second Secretary Sukhbaatar Altantsetseg. "Just take your yurt and move to another place and just live there."
Other theories include the complexity of their language (one Mongolian described it as containing every possible phonetic sound); parents' emphasis on education; the fact that many children have learned foreign languages in Mongolian schools -- traditionally Russian and Chinese, more recently German and English; and the country's literacy rate of 98 percent.
"They have to learn another language, but they have the cognitive foundation that allows them to move faster through the system, rather than some of our students who come from countries that had civil war or didn't attend school," said Laura McDermott, a Williamsburg teacher whose HILT B class is about two-thirds Mongolian.
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.
Toroo Manda Khanysh, 13, a seventh-grader at Williamsburg, said it was hard to get used to the more subdued physicality of Americans. "Some students, I'd just touch them, I'd get in trouble," he said.
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.
Until then, there is the children's festival. At the event last month, spectators watched a video of men dressed in Speedo-like shorts and knee-high animal hide boots, performing traditional Mongolian wrestling as the American folk song "Hop Up, My Ladies" played.
When their turn came, the three girls dancing to the Black Eyed Peas gyrated to flashing green and orange lights, then ran offstage and hugged each other.
"I messed up, didn't I?" said Enkhuush, her face flushed.
"At first I was nervous, and I was kind of shaking," said Enkhjin, grinning. "But then I felt really good up there."
The judges thought they were good, too. The girls' "Shut Up" routine was 800 years and 6,000 miles from Ghengis's empire, but, after a decision was made to split the contestants into two categories, it won first place.