About

People, when they find out I work in Mongolia, almost inevitably ask “Why Mongolia?” The tone of the question ranges from interest, to bewilderment to something bordering on faint horror. There is, like with most things, a story. The version here is more or less the same as the one in the Preface to Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia.

One Tuesday in April of 1990, when I was in graduate school, a group of cultural anthropologists were meeting for a discussion over lunch. A friend of mine reached into her backpack and pulled out a photocopy of a human interest piece she had found in that day’s New York Times. “Here,” she said. “Mongolia falls between the Himalayas and Siberia. I thought you might be interested in this.” She knew I couldn’t stand hot weather, and that I had been thinking of working in the Himalayas, or possibly Siberia. I read the article, which is still in my files. It was a short piece about life in Ulaanbaatar. It hinted at some interesting things going on in terms of identity and history, topics that I was interested in. I had become intrigued by how knowledge is transmitted and transformed between people, the power relations implied, and how this applied to vaguer concepts such as identity. The Mongols, the article mentioned, were coming out from under seventy years of essentially colonial Soviet rule. Thinking about history and identity in a new way was part of this, and to my mind immediately offered a chance to explore the questions I was interested in. “Well,” I thought to myself, “it couldn’t hurt to read a bit more about Mongolia.”