Urtnasan Enkhbat says that Mongolians are undercounted in the Bay Area. (Courtesy Jaya Padmanabhan)

Mongolians in the Bay Area are optimistic about the future

Despite challenges, recent immigrants have high aspirations

According to the last census and the American Community Survey, there were 21,000 Mongolians living in the country in 2015 and about 5,000 in California. But 26-year-old San Francisco resident Urtnasan Enkhbat, originally from Mongolia, says that the community was greatly undercounted, and that about 8,000-10,000 Mongolians live in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.

Indeed, the Bay Area Mongolian Community Center’s Facebook page has 8,723 members, which supports Enkhbat’s assertion.

The Mongolian migration to America is a recent phenomenon. According to analysis done by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), in California, “75 percent of Mongolian American immigrants arrived in 2000 or later.”

It was only after the Soviet Union withdrew its military presence and financial support from Mongolia between 1987 and 1992 that the pathway between Mongolia and the U.S. opened up.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mongolia were first established in 1987. In 2005, George W. Bush became the first sitting American president to visit Mongolia. Since then other senior White House officials have followed suit, including Vice President Joe Biden in 2011 and more recently, in August 2019, defense secretary Mark T. Esper sat down with Mongolian leaders to affirm America’s commitment to its Asia-Pacific allies.

Enkhbat said that most Mongolians she knows came as students. A statement on the website of the Consulate General of Mongolia in San Francisco mentions that programs like the Fulbright and Study in the U.S. started in Mongolia in 1994 have “given students from Mongolia the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research in U.S. educational institutes.”

Enkhbat, too, came as a student seven years ago and enrolled at City College of San Francisco before transferring to UC Berkeley and then subsequently to San Francisco State University. She recently graduated with a degree in urban planning and studies.

As part of her thesis, Enkhbat undertook an ethnographic research project on the Mongolian community in the San Francisco Bay Area, which she said was tough since “there’s literally no information about Mongolians in the Bay Area.” The upside, however, was that she got to know the Mongolian community in The City very well.

Participants in her study said that San Francisco was picked as a destination because of connections, like relatives or friends. Davaa, who is now 26, moved to the U.S. when he was 9 years old. “Friends of my parents lived here, so my family moved here with their help,” he is quoted as saying.

The first few months of moving to a new place are challenging for most immigrants. New immigrants grapple with a brand new cultural and physical landscape. For Mongolians there are some unique challenges.

Eighteen-year-old Tuul, who arrived in the U.S. when he was 6 years old, told Enkhbat: “People usually think I’m Chinese or Korean. Even when I tell them I’m from Mongolia, they think it is part of China.” Enkhbat is careful to say that people who make these mistakes are not to be blamed, since little is known about Mongolians and the tendency then is to assume Mongolians belong to the more prevalent Asian ethnicities: Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Mislabeling one’s ethnic origins can cause a feeling of loneliness and make Mongolians “feel inferior about their standing in America,” wrote Enkhbat.

Added to these errors in pegging Mongolians accurately, many Mongolian immigrants arrive in the country without knowledge of English. AAAJ reports that 44 percent of Mongolians are limited English proficient (LEP). Because of the lack of similarity between the Mongolian language and English, the former being part of the Altaic language family and the latter having Indo-European roots, Enkhbat stressed how tough it was for Mongolians to learn the English language.

When he first arrived, Tuul said that he was teased by kids at school because of his poor language skills.

And Taivan, a 23-year-old participant in Enkhbat’s study, who came 12 years ago, said that not knowing English had a profound emotional effect on him. “Being a young boy who was already going through puberty and many insecurities, I faced difficulties because I didn’t know English. It makes you feel stupid,” he said.

Enkhbat herself grew up in Mongolia, but unlike other Mongolians, moved at age 12 to Singapore, where she learned to speak English fluently. She credits that ability to being able to access resources that most Mongolians aren’t able to.

I asked Enkhbat to name the most interesting revelation to come out of her research. “It’s about how optimistic Mongolians are. Despite the challenges that we face as immigrants we have really high aspirations,” she responded. The participants in her San Francisco study told Enkhbat that they aspired to start a business, or be a Hollywood actress and many of them wanted to give back to the community. “That’s inspiring to me” she said.

For the 2020 census, Enkhbat expressed worry that Mongolians will hesitate to come forward to fill out the census. Many don’t even know about the census and others “don’t know how to fill out the forms,” she said. “In Mongolia, someone comes into your house and they ask simple questions. Who lives here and how many people live here,” but here the forms have more questions and many Mongolians are afraid to answer accurately for fear of deportation or getting in trouble with the law,” she said.

The #2020Census message for Mongolians (and other ethnicities) is to find a San Francisco census help center in your neighborhood at SFCounts.org. Being counted in the census will help build awareness about the diverse customs, language, food and way of life of people from a country that was once known as the largest empire in the world.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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