(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)



[This article was originally published in The Ellensburg Daily Record.]

Mongolia is a landlocked country in northern Asia, about the size of Alaska, surrounded by Russia to the north and China on the other three points of the compass.  The terrain is rugged, mostly steppes and desert, and the majority of the country's two to three million citizens are pastoral nomads, living in yurts or their modern equivalent, living on horseback and moving herds of everything from cattle to reindeer to camels over a vast grazing landscape.  These people are descendants of the Huns, whose leader Ghengis Khan and his swift cavalry, back in the 12th and 13th centuries, terrorized and conquered a good part of the known world.

After the decline of the Khan dynasty, the Chinese had their way with Mongolia for a good number of centuries, but in 1921 the country broke free from Chinese control and became a Soviet satellite.  There was coal and ore and minerals to be mined, and modest industrial centers sprang up around the country's major cities such as Darxan and Ulaanbaatar, the capital. 

A gap had already existed between nomadic Mongolians and those living in the cities, but with the introduction of modern industry, the gap widened, exacerbated in no small part by a transportation problem--to this day what roads exist are primitive, and unless you've got a rig with four-wheel drive, you travel cross-country on horseback.

* * *

Inhee (pronounced Inca) Mijiddorj was born in Ulaanbaatar in 1969, and from the get-go he was out of synch with both ends of his polarized country—his father was an artist, his mother a librarian.  Inhee spent the first six years of his life in the care of his grandmother while his parents completed their university studies, and by the time he went to live with his parents, he had already become self-sufficient beyond his years.

In school, along with his younger brother and two younger sisters, he was exposed to

There was something missing in Inhee's life, but he did not know what it was

political indoctrination, but with Inhee it was water off  a duck's back--his exterior and interior life were as polarized as his country.  He fostered perceptions that did not jibe with the world he'd been born into.  Things he thought were funny, no one else thought was funny, and things that were presented to him as ultimate truths seemed shallow and lacking.

There was something missing in his life, but he did not know what it was.  The closest his inner and outer worlds came to coinciding was when his father would have a group of free-spirited artists over and they would drink and carry on far into the night, expressing their serious dissatisfaction with the state of the nation and wondering how life truly was in such far away places as America.

Inhee followed in his father's footsteps--he began to paint.  But even here there was no full escape from a world saturated with political correctness.  His father was ranked among the top artists in the country, but what he was required to paint were murals and posters and portraits glorifying the personalities and achievements of the State.  He could do landscapes on the side if he chose, but there was no place to sell them. Anything remotely abstract was taboo.

After eight years of schooling, Inhee was competitively selected to go into a university curriculum.  He did two more years of regular schooling, and then, at the age of 18, did two years compulsory military service.  Upon getting out of the army he entered a Fine Arts College, and two years after that, in 1991, he was graduated.  He got accepted to do advanced study at the prestigious Repin School of Art in Leningrad, and off he went to Russia.

Inhee  was about a half year into his studies in Leningrad when the Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan so blithely dubbed it, came tumbling down. Communism gave way to capitalism, subsidized education went out the window, and Inhee was forced to returned to Ulaanbaatar.

The entire confederation of East Block countries had been plunged into economic and political chaos with the capitulation of communism. Governments were declared democracies with the wave of a wand and the issuance of a decree, but it was not such a simple matter to change living patterns and mindsets that had become deeply ingrained over a period of more than half a century.

As Inhee describes it, government in Mongolia became paralyzed as it struggled to come to grips with such alien concepts as banks, free trade and the stock exchange.  Borders were opened, businesses and corporations sprang up overnight, and while the masses went from austerity to deprivation in one fell swoop, a handful of people became instantly wealthy via speculation and trade.  The nomads, of course, kept right on herding as if nothing had happened.  It was a hard transition, and it is a long way from over.

Inhee did his best to stay out of the fray.  He painted with his father, landscapes now, political pomp was out of vogue.  They were essentially street vendors, selling paintings depicting Mongolian life to the influx of mostly East-Block tourists.  But within a few years his father began landing commissions, and they painted to order for the offices and lobbies of various businesses and  foreign corporations.  They'd landed on their feet financially, but for Inhee, the new life did not seem much better than the old.  Something was still missing.

* * *

Inhee spent seven years in Mongolia under the new way of life.  His brother, who had also studied art, stopped painting and became a wholesale art dealer.  One of his sisters, a nurse, went to Korea.  His other sister became a journalist for a Ulaanbaatar newspaper.

The structure of life in urban Mongolia was being warped into an ever-changing configuration, and there was a substantial migration into East Block and even western countries.  When in 1999 Inhee's aunt, who had moved to the United States with her husband as part of an agricultural exchange venture, invited him to visit, suggesting he bring some of his art along, Inhee immediately accepted.  America!  Now he would see  first-hand what his father and his artist friends only dreamed about.

Inhee landed in Kansas, which is like Dorothy landing in Oz.  He and his brother-in-law packed up a van with Inhee's art, and off they went in search of markets.  They crisscrossed through a number of states, including Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico, but Mongolian art proved to be ahead of its time in central  and southwestern America.  Within a few short weeks they were back in Kansas, Dorothy's Kansas this time, and reality began to set in.

Inhee was dismayed but not disheartened.   He asked a Bulgarian friend of his brother-in-law where he could go where the countryside was beautiful and the people were friendly and his art might get a better reception.  Go west, said the Bulgarian.  Go Northwest.

Inhee wound up in Ellensburg, Washington and Inhee took to the town like a fish takes to water.  At long last he'd found a physical place and a way of life that corresponded to his inner reality.  He found he understood American humor, and he felt easy with the way people conducted their lives, the way they went about their work, how they interacted.  And he discovered a generosity like he had never known before through the help and the love shown him by the congregation of Ellensburg's First Christian Church.

Perhaps the most important thing that came alive in Inhee in Ellensburg is his new-found spiritual awareness.  Spiritual awareness is not looked upon kindly in a totalitarian state--in the early Seventies in Mongolia, a state-orchestrated pogrom razed the Buddhist temples and slaughtered over 40,000 monks and laypersons.  Inhee has a hard time pinpointing the nature of this awareness.  It's intangible, but he says it came about through his exposure to the way Americans live.  For the first time, his life is imbued with a meaning that goes beyond politics and ideologies and lends quality to everything that he does.

He's not sure what the future holds.  Recently his country elected an all-communist government, and he does not want to go back to that.  His dream is to remain in America, in Ellensburg, to work here and to create his art--For the first time in his life, he feels like he's home.

The paper work is in, and I for one hope Inhee's dream comes true. Ellensburg would be the richer for it.  ##



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