This past summer a journalism foundation called, asking me to lead a two-week newspaper workshop for high school students. The job was in Mongolia, the country my inner cartographer has demarcated as the last exit before the End of the Earth.
Mongolia first fascinated me in my early teens, especially its capital city, Ulaanbaatar. My affinity began aurally; responding to music in words is something my father taught me. One Sunday afternoon during the halftime of an NFL game, Dad opened his atlas and pointed to Mongolia, a landlocked country that resembled a crumpled piece of paper tossed between Russia and China. We laughed at the clumsy melody of Ulaanbaatar: The voiced tunnel beginning the name. The recurring phonetic plains. All of those A's.
Through a later diet of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, I knew Mongolia as the land of yurts and nomads and flat, green pans of land called steppes. With residual adolescent longing, I fashioned Mongolia into the poster child of all locales beguiling and mysterious. It was, I believed, so far in the uncharted distance there could be little possibility of familiar signposts.
It is late June when I arrive. At the Ulaanbaatar airport I flag a taxi. The driver wears his Yankees baseball cap backward. Five minutes into the ride his cell phone chirps. At the edge of the city we pass a Buddhist temple. Its rooflines silhouette the sky like a flock of large birds alighting. I spy graffiti spray-painted onto the temple wall: Puff Daddy Rules.
As I digest the incongruities, the driver makes small talk. "You are second American girl journalist I take on taxi," he says. He tells me the name of his other passenger; she is an acquaintance.
What is the sound of one world shrinking?
Polite applause greets me as I walk into the workshop classroom; 14 students and 14 teachers sit in a semicircle banked by tables. Dutifully, they open their notebooks and raise their pens. Out the windows are mountains that look caped in Astroturf. Hot summer air billows the curtains.
I shake hands with Tulgaa, my translator, and two Mongolian women, my co-teachers. It is precisely then that my circuitry registers what has been true for hours: I am in Mongolia. I am somewhere I have long wanted to be.
The realization has the unfortunate effect of a generous dose of amphetamines. I turn to the students and launch into my first lecture, pacing and gesturing wildly. I laugh horsey, forceful laughs at my lame jokes. I am a runaway train of scary behavior. I am Jim Carrey in a skirt.
During a break, everyone clusters at tables in a small dining room, drinking salted, milky tea. Tulgaa and I sit alone, and I review the list of students. It seems I'm in a country with Cher Syndrome, as everyone goes by only one name. Most, however, are multisyllabic tongue twisters: Bayanjargal, Battugsukh, Erdenechimeca, Sarantsetseg. They sit nearby, eyeballing me. When I wave and smile, they glance furtively at one another like animals who smell danger.
The rest of Day 1 is a blur. I outline the basics of writing stories, interviewing, reporting. I'm vaguely aware that I'm moving at Warp Factor 10, but I can't slow down. Later, in my hotel room, I sit in the bathtub, weeping. In my addled state I deduce that I have terrified them. Have I made a connection? I fear not. As I collapse into bed, the music begins. Across the street from my hotel is an open-air disco with a deejay fixated on the Backstreet Boys, the globally palatable quintet. Over and over the group's latest song blares loudly enough for sonic damage. You are my fire, my one desire. Believe when I say: I want it that way. By midnight I have memorized the lyrics, and the song sticks to my brain like a crusty wad of gum. The next few days the workshop flurries by. They've warmed a bit and I've cooled a lot. Students come and go, interviewing people, bending over notes, tapping stories into the half-dozen computers in the adjacent room. Zorigt, the editor, struts around with a clipboard, clucking and admonishing. My co-teachers proofread. Tulgaa shadows me, translating as I approach the students to coach them--and coax them--through the writing process.
The disco has been silent for several nights, but as I walk the city each evening, the gooey song plays in shops and restaurants. It drifts from car windows, oozing sincerity and saccharin in formulaic pop music cadence. Tell me why. Ain't nothing but a heartache./ Tell me why. Ain't nothing but a mistake./ Tell me why. I never want to hear you say: I want it that way.
The workshop nears conclusion, and the newspaper nears completion. A story falls through on the entertainment page, which means some last-minute unfilled space.
"We make good decision to other story," one of my co-teachers says. Unbeknown to me, that decision is to print the lyrics of the Backstreet Boys song. What I read when I later scan the page is such mangled English, it dawns on me they don't understand the fundamental architecture of Top 40 ditties.
In the computer room I ask, "How many of you like the Backstreet Boys?" All hands dart up, even my co-teachers'. I sing the first few lines of the song. They giggle shyly.
"Do you want to know what the song means?" They shake their heads enthusiastically and scurry behind me into the classroom.
I write the verses on the board and sing each. I decode the figurative language, unveil the nuance, deconstruct the theme: Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy loses girl. Boys sing song about it.
They scribble notes excitedly, whispering and singing snatches of the song to one another. Tulgaa scratches his goatee and ponders the blackboard as if it were a quantum physics equation. Their eyes spark as the pilot light of understanding illuminates with the universally recognizable aha. Believe when I say: I want it that way. They appear satisfied, as if I've shown them how to unlock a secret. As if I've given them something of value. And perhaps I have.