The Boy Who Didn’t Cry Wolf

 

“…young peoples, without tradition or language of our own. We shall have to age somewhat before we are able to write the folksongs of a new epoch.” Antoine de Saint Exupery (Wind, Sand and Stars)

Foreigner.

Outsider.

Spy.

These are some of the names that mixed children in Mongolia grew up hearing about themselves in the 90s and even early 00s.

Edgar Bettencourt is one of many children who were born in the late 80s and 90s to, usually, a Mongolian mother and a non-Mongolian father. While mixed race children are common in many of today’s societies (especially melting pot countries such as US, UK and Australia), things were very different for other emerging economies even thirty years ago.

Erliiz and Mongolian Identity

The erliiz (er-LEEZ) is the hybrid child who has one Mongolian parent. Mongolians in the 90s, and even some today, understand the erliiz almost as the ‘denigration and devaluation’ of their pure Mongolian roots, of a former glory that may just be once again if it wasn’t for foreign meddling. The landlocked country of Mongolia has these misconceptions of purity stemming from a vulnerable geo-political stance.

Edgar with his mother in Cape Verde

Edgar moved to Mongolia as a kid after spending the first ten years of his childhood in his father’s country, Cape Verde. Born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1989, he had strikingly different features from Mongolian features so he was almost immediately treated as an ‘other’ by those whose prerogative was to protect their culture and identity in the face of the recent economic and sociopolitical change that shook the country.

“The first winter in Mongolia was brutal,” Edgar shares of his arrival in 2000. “It was mentally, emotionally, and physically difficult to adapt,” he adds. To ten-year-old Edgar, the harsh guttural sounds of Mongolian was nothing like the sultry Portuguese he’d grown up speaking or the rhythmic Creole of his first home. It took him about five years to even begin thinking and feeling in Mongolian.

 

With friends in Cape Verde

Perhaps mixed race children are confronting to those with nationalist sensibilities because they are evidence of the intimate relationship between the threat and the threatened. Mixed race strikes a collective nerve that fears the disappearance of a fragile population that reached three million only four years ago, hence why it may still be disconcerting to see an erliiz. Twenty, thirty years ago? It was an outrage.

“Why are we so passionate about our identity in Mongolia?” I asked a Mongolian friend who majored in psychology.

“Because it’s all we really have,” he replied.

Prejudice and Racism

As a society we often forget that prejudice starts at home for mixed children. We assume family is our first ally and while they often are, some family members are far from it.

“It was hell,” Edgar says of being called aggressive names like ‘wolf’ and even being villainized as ‘Hitler’. “I was always the foreigner to everybody, even to my close friends. Even when they are joking they’re like ‘oh you foreigner’!”

In his most recent visit home in 2012, Edgar was attacked in front of the downtown State Department Store by a group of men while walking home his friend, a girl, at around nine pm. He was punched in the private parts, outnumbered and all because he was with a lady, which to the racist is an incendiary sight. He, too, is Mongolian though. Edgar hasn’t been back home since.

Edgar doubts he ever really adapted when asked if he eventually figured it all out. He did however get comfortable. “I got comfortable with the environment, language, the way things work and people work after fourteen years.”

Being comfortable doesn’t mean that one ever becomes comfortable with the idea of being othered, however, and standing up for yourself from the margins of identity remains complicated.

The Complexity of Multiracialism

Hidden in the margins of our history books is the untold story of the in-betweeners of every migration in human history. The mestizos who later became Mexicans, for example, at the expense of the loss of endemic culture. A collective anxiety arises from knowing world history, perhaps, and what better scapegoat than women and children for the perceived dissolution of your beloved tradition and culture?

For parents of erliiz, moving away from Mongolia meant breaking out of their comfort zone of prescribed do’s and don’ts of their communist education to a world where suddenly they could meet international students from all over the world. Only eighteen to twenty-five years old during the breaking apart of the USSR, young Mongols were just that – young – with the world as their oyster. Wide eyed adventurers; far from traitors.

Euro-africans, mixed descent Northern Rhodesians, faced similar issues in African history. African and British sides were both unnerved with half-white, half-black children in their midst. Needless to say, it created bureaucratic headaches to decide who qualified for citizenship and social status in both European and African societies. As in Mongolia in the 90s, Black mothers were shamed as prostitutes.

The politics of multiracialism are complicated. Even in US history, Martin Luther King Jr’s legendary ‘I have a dream speech’ is argued to have inadvertently set the stage for even further entrenchment of white supremacy, creating the mistaken belief that ‘color blindness’ will lead to a more progressive society. As current events in American history show, this is not the case. Mixed race issues are a conundrum.

Mixed Race, Mixed Attitudes

Edgar with his father

When asked about how he coped, Edgar says, “For me humor and fun was always a good way to forget them, you know, to enjoy life a little better.” Despite the bitter memories, he recounts golden summers in the Mongolian countryside with his band of cousins and great-grandparents. There was a lot of family, animals, playing out in the open, playing cards and doing chores.

“You learn to adapt, you adapt to survive,” he says. “But you cannot feel a true sense of belonging if people always treat you as an outsider.”

Edgar is not someone to feel sorry for himself, either. Fourteen years in a country where he looks very different has taught him a thing or two about resilience and being able to laugh it off. “Nobody wants to sit there and talk about their problems,” he confesses, admitting he was always the class clown and channeled his private frustrations toward amateur kickboxing and excelling in the business world.

In Mongolia today, opinions about attitudes toward mixed race differ. Some say that racist attitudes are completely gone, while mixed children (now adults) beg to differ. And ‘what is erliiz anyway?’ is not a question people are ready to discuss. Is it just about mixed race or about the linguistically and culturally mixed, too? The issue of ‘race’ was virtually absent from Soviet discourse and is still uncommon in post-communist countries.

Mongolia shot through to the world platform with a free market economy and the country was, for lack of a better word, stumped, lost, confused like a teenager with an identity crisis. The national priority became to reclaim national identity after countless years of Russian, Chinese and most recently the mega powers of South Korean and American media influence.

On the other hand, attitudes have been gradually changing with Mongolian millennials leading the scene in education and cultural competence and an African Mongolian is not as confronting as it was even a decade earlier. Young Mongolian platforms like Mongolia Live on Facebook find new ways to introduce Mongolian culture and identity to the world while openly discussing issues of race and society.

All Photos Courtesy of Edgar Bettencourt

A true citizen of the world, Edgar is a keen observer of word choice and frame of mind. When asked what is home to him, Edgar says that the idea of ‘home’ and ‘stability’ are not terms that apply to him the way they do to the rest of the world. Now living in the US, Edgar is fluent in Portuguese, Creole, Spanish and Mongolian – and of course, proud to be a very unique Cape-Verdean-Mongolian man.

 

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