Story by Cameron Clark, Co-op | Photo by Kirthi Padmanabhan
Since leaving home for Mongolia in December 2018, I’ve barely spent a month in the United States. My studies at Northeastern have led me to Greece for a Dialogue, Mongolia for a global co-op, Australia for a study abroad, and Ecuador, where I’m currently completing my second global co-op. The places that I’ve lived and the people whom I’ve met have broadened my perspective by several orders of magnitude, and I know that the Cameron who returns will be a fundamentally different person from the Cameron who began studying at Northeastern in 2017.
Coming to Northeastern at 17 years old, I was tired of having lived in the same small village in New Hampshire for my entire life. I wanted to explore, and I wanted a challenge. My first experience living abroad in 2019 became the biggest challenge I have faced. While searching for my first co-op in my sophomore year, I noticed a position as an English teacher in the city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I had never taught before and as a linguistics major, I never thought I would. but the idea of living in such a wildly different place pulled me in. I applied for the job, and less than a week later, I had already accepted an offer. Was it an impulsive decision? Definitely. Should I have waited longer and considered the effects of uprooting my life to a foreign country? Probably. Do I regret it? Not even a little.
Despite not speaking a lick of Mongolian, not knowing how to teach English, never having lived on my own before and knowing absolutely nobody in the country, I somehow made it through the six months that I spent there. The January night that I arrived, it was 40 degrees below zero; it rarely got above -10 until the end of March. On my daily 15-minute walk to work, I wore long johns, suit pants, snow pants, an undershirt, a button-down, a suit jacket, a thin down jacket, a full parka, two pairs of socks, winter boots, a beanie (usually covered by two hoods from my jackets) and thick gloves, sometimes with another pair of gloves underneath. Oh, and also a face mask, because not only is Ulaanbaatar the coldest capital city in the world, it’s also one of the most polluted, especially during the winter as people burn coal to heat their homes. Most days I couldn’t see more than 40 feet in front of me due to the smog as I walked to work in -25 degree weather while the sun finally rose at 9 a.m. Does that sound miserable to you? At times, it was. There were so many moments where I regretted my decision and longed for the comfort of my New Hampshire log cabin and for all of my friends and family with whom I could actually communicate. But I had committed to a six-month contract and I intended to see it through.
Slowly, although hardly anyone spoke English, I managed to make a few friends, and life became a bit easier. Around the end of March, the temperature finally started to go up a bit, and by late April it was warm enough to sometimes enjoy being outside. As I taught more and more, I improved rapidly and the stress that I felt during my first-ever day as a teacher began to lessen. I often still missed the familiar comforts of home and the smog-less skies of New Hampshire, but I was making it through. I was doing it. I had — in complete naivete — set out to live abroad and I was succeeding. I had learned about Mongolian culture, wandered the Mongolian countryside and gained an unexpected appreciation for the warlord Genghis Khan (for whom the Ulaanbaatar airport is named). I had Mongolian friends, and although I still couldn’t speak the language at all, had learned how to get around using mostly gestures.
As much as I struggled to find my way and put down roots in Ulaanbaatar, I now look back on the time I spent there with nostalgia and warmth. I miss my wonderful Mongolian friends, the hardiness of Mongolian cuisine and the absurdity of the casual worship of Genghis Khan. I miss horseback riding on frozen lakes and roving the dirt roads of the Gobi desert. At times, I even miss the extreme cold. If I had allowed the difficulties of a Mongolian life to weigh me down completely, I probably wouldn’t reflect on it now with such appreciation. Instead of giving in, I pushed through my experience, made the best of it and came out the other side a much stronger person, full of new insights and stories. So, for all of the readers who are on their own global journeys right now, if ever you feel like you’ve made a mistake in moving abroad, just think about how you want to feel when it’s over. Would you rather conquer the challenges of living in a new country or let them conquer you?