There’s nothing to it: Yadaad baikh yu baisan yum

By Mishell Hernandez

 “Through others, we become ourselves.” –Lev S. Vygotsky

Unless I make a grammatical mistake or don’t catch a cultural reference, Mongolian people usually assume I’m full Mongolian, born and raised. But when they ask me where in Mongolia I’m from, which school I attended, or who my parents are, I go through the awkward process of correcting their assumptions.

I have never really lived in Mongolia, I went to school in the United States, and my father is Mexican. It’s the truth, what else could I possibly say? I grew up in Washington, D.C. most of my life, and lived in Mexico before that. Before settling in Mexico, I ping ponged between Mexico, Russia and Mongolia. These constant moves left me feeling connected to each culture, but none of these sojourns were long enough to constitute citizenship in the traditional sense.

When Mongolians first learn about my mix, Mexican-Mongolian, most want to know how I feel about Mongolia; essentially, if I love Mongolia or not. For them, it’s probably to gauge whether I’m “still” one of them, to then measure how far our relationship will go based on what we have in common. I see them trying to figure me out, to size me up. Some from good spirited curiosity, and others with distrust. I’m grateful for this “quizzing” process, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t tire me. Sometimes I just want to feel normal, you know, but it’s the price for being a little different in a changing society.

Sometime in 2011, I began to yearn for Mongolia like never before. Through new Mongolian friendships formed in the suburbs of D.C., I quickly realized I didn’t know hip vocabulary words, or how to write properly, not to mention that my reading comprehension was terrible. I didn’t know good songs, or poetry, or customs. I also saw that I would never truly understand my mother and surpass the cultural divide in our relationship if I didn’t first understand where and what she came from. My ignorance nauseated me.

When I finally booked a plane ticket to Ulaanbaatar for the upcoming year, my friends and family could not understand where the sudden decision came from. Maybe they thought a half Mexican raised in the Western world could not possibly care about Mongolia enough to visit, but perhaps this was precisely why I sought it out. I was ready to face the things I’d turned away from.

Ironically, once there, the only time my mix didn’t really perplex any Mongolian person was when I was in the countryside, in the great khuduu. The country folk were simply happy to have me, for me to help out around the ger, and give them something to laugh about. They found anecdotes about my “broken Mongolian” particularly amusing. I noticed they didn’t have a hidden agenda to push me to be a more authentic “Mongolian” as I had experienced from others in the city.

I’d thought that, if anything, the country folk – the real traditional Mongolians still living in gers and herding animals – would be the first to want to influence my identity, but it was not so. Their interaction with me was genuine. They were kind, funny, and treated me like family. They couldn’t care less about my race, or where I’d grown up. With the country people, my biracialism was not a mistake to be corrected. With them, I could breathe easily.

In the quiet evenings in the khuduu, looking into the steppes with a piece of aaruul in my mouth, I could actually for the first time say I loved this Mongolia. My long established negative views of Mongolians were being challenged, and for lack of a better word, my brief stay in the country was precious because of it.

The negative views had developed since childhood, from what I’d seen firsthand in Mongolian society. As a little girl, I used to associate fights, the stench of vodka, piercing words, the burning sting of quick judgment, and intense arguments, with Mongolians. Seeing a Mongolian man wasted on alcohol still makes me uneasy. My heart begins to palpitate. My chest begins to feel heavy and constricted. My voice shakes, and I can’t speak. I find myself expecting aggressive behavior and verbal abuse while already planning my exit.

Even now, my first instinct is to flee if I find myself anywhere near such things. It’s just my phobia; don’t judge me for it, dear reader. My mother understands this about me, which is perhaps why she never forced me to embrace a culture that left me wounded, bitter, and scared. It would explain why, out of all people, my mother was the most surprised I chose to visit Mongolia.

I eventually learned to disassociate the vices of rage, alcoholism, and hateful speech from a Mongolian context. Perhaps the will to disassociate came from a personal decision to not live in bitterness, disliking half of who I was with the same closed mindedness I condemned in others. After all, these were human vices, not Mongolian vices. Plus, my new Mongolian-American friends had been nothing but kind to me. So now, anytime someone – Mongolian or not – gives me a reason to reciprocate hate and feel anguish, it’s less about fear and more about avoiding that kind of brute energy, which is surely present in all cultures in some form.

I understand now that I was merely introduced to unpleasant things through this cultural lens; the “Mongolian” lens. Maybe this is why I have a special place in my heart for this half of my heritage. Mongolia didn’t sugarcoat the ugly things for me. The scars left during my childhood taught me invaluable lessons I’m not sure I would have learned anywhere else.

With that said, I have pride for Mongolia, too. I can’t flaunt knowledge of every detail of Mongolian history, or recite poetry by Yavuuhuulan, Choinom, and Dashbalbar on demand, but my experience of what it means to be Mongolian is unique and I share it with you now.

“Mishell, what does it mean to be Mongolian?” someone asked me recently.

Here is my answer: To have shar is a trait I’ve always found distinctly Mongolian. I could best describe it as a fiery unwillingness to lose, a determination to conquer anything and anyone to get the grand prize. Shar is a double-edged sword, however. While having a healthy amount of shar can propel us forward, too much of it can mark our demise. A life lived with too much shar would be a miserable competition with everything and everyone, ultimately robbing us of joy. This is not the kind of shar I am referring to. I mean shar as the fire that helps challenge your worst enemy: yourself.

When I’m kicked down, it’s shar that wills me to get back up. When I do wrong, it’s shar that wills me to right it. When my losses challenge my self-esteem, it’s shar that asks me to stay positive and thrive. I believe all people are completely powerless against at least one thing, and we are already done for if we do not possess the fire to roar back. This concept of shar, this fiery determination for victory, is very Mongolian to me.

Fearlessness is another quality I find quite Mongolian, stemming from the belief that the determined Mongolian can handle any challenge. Maybe I got this understanding from watching my mother jump into situations that did not grant her, or me, any guarantees. Going to Mexico by herself was inarguably brave. She made a life of her own, learned Spanish with a pocket dictionary, and made friends who still care about her today. We lived in a cozy apartment in Mexico City, she worked a nine to five job, and I attended a private school. She made an unknown territory her friend. Her long-term fearlessness outdid her short-term doubts and fears, and if that’s not Mongolian, then I don’t know what is.

Lastly, I’ve also observed the expression “yadaad baikh yu baisan yum” to be distinctly Mongolian. I could roughly interpret this phrase to mean “there’s nothing to it”, in a can-do attitude. It can be said nicely, and it can also be said in a tone that belittles a person, but the way I know the phrase is to encourage and to challenge someone or one’s self. Its Spanish equivalent is “si se puede”, it’s possible, yet the two phrases are vastly different in their approach – at least to me. The former challenges unapologetically, the latter reassures with kindness. One is hard, one is soft. I say both “si se puede” and “yadaad baikh yu baisan yum” to motivate myself to get something done.

When my mom went to Mexico by herself, without any knowledge of Spanish, or knowing what she was getting herself into, I can only imagine she thought to herself, “yadaad baikh yu baisan yum.” When she felt alienated in a country not her own and went door to door looking for a job, I imagine she whispered to herself, “yadaad baikh yu baisan yum.”

Having finally made a comfortable life for us in Mexico, my mother’s ambitions caused her to embark on yet another strenuous journey of re-acclimating and learning a new language, this time to the United States. I imagine her looking at the lengthy immigration process, and saying once again, with quiet conviction, “yadaad baikh yu baisan yum.” And like so, I’ve heard this somewhat arrogant little phrase over and over again, getting us through hoops and hurdles big and small.

“Eej neekh ongiroo shdee,” (Mom, you’re so arrogant) I tease her from time to time, and she’ll laugh boisterously, freely.

“Gekhdee zugeer ee, bi eejteigee adilkhan neg ongiroo yum baigaa” (But it’s okay, I’m arrogant like you) I say. She knows I don’t mean it in a bad way. I like the word “ongiroo”, because I believe that not being ongiroo enough can weaken us, while being too ongiroo can help others bury us. Being the right amount of ongiroo is healthy; helping us to overcome obstacles with confidence.

You see, my mother was never Mongolian to me because of her blood, or her language. My upbringing did not allow me to measure her Mongolian-ness by whether she knew all her yos zanshil (cultural customs), or if she owned a deel, or if she was well versed in Mongolian history. While I admit those are important, her Mongolian-ness, in my eyes, was more to do with her drive and how it affected our life path.

I see these traits within myself now. Here in Australia. I am far away from everything I grew up around. I think about how little my hands have done for anyone and I am overwhelmed by how much more I have to do. Looking within, I also have my own demons to fight. During these fits, I suddenly remember to ask myself: Yadaad baikh yu baisan yum? Nothing. Yadaad baikh yum alga.

Then my shar begins to seethe. I do not want the world to defeat me because it knows my weaknesses. I will not succumb to my own insecurities, much less anyone else’s. It’s when this ongiroo fearlessness ignites that I get through the days with enough confidence that life will be okay – great, even. Amusingly, it seems to me that these kinds of empowering realizations can only be known through the same blunt and brute forces that fueled them in the first place.

I confess, my relationship with Mongolia is not perfect, and neither is it a peaceful one in my mind, but it is raw, personal, and real, and I respect it as such. There’s a million ways I could answer the question, “Mishell, what does it mean to be Mongolian?” My answer today is that to be Mongolian means to be headstrong, determined, and able. And though I realize these are human virtues and not Mongolian virtues, it’s enough for me to know I was taught them the Mongolian way.



Mishell Hernandez is a writer born in Moscow, raised in Mexico, Mongolia, and the United States, and currently living in Australia. She writes about her life, travels and self-discovery on her blog, Mishell’s WordPress. 


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