The Paris Review blog has a regular feature called “Windows on the World”: “A series on what writers from around the world see from their windows.” The last few entries include perspectives on Albania, Pakistan, and Ireland. Each installment is accompanied by an inked line drawing of the view, done by Matteo Pericoli. Typically, the featured writers are not household names, even if your household is literary, so it’s a great way to get a taste for contemporary international writers while also getting a fix for somewhere different.
The most recent view comes from Mongolian poet G. Mend-Ooyo, who grew up as a nomad and now lives in Ulaanbaatar where from his work desk he can see the National University of Mongolia. Before reading this “Windows on the World,” I’d never heard of Mend-Ooyo, but I have done some serious thinking about Ulaanbaatar. After spending my final semester of college in Japan, I took advantage of a friend’s offer of a cheap room in Berkeley, California. After a few months I got anxious and wanted to get out of the country again, quickly. I’d been working in a bookstore, a now defunct Half Price Books on Telegraph Avenue. I was reading plenty but not making much money, so as I started to explore potential destinations, teaching English seemed like the most logical opportunity.
I first thought of going back to Japan, but I didn’t like the idea of being assigned to a location. One day, I applied for a position in Ulaanbaatar. About two weeks later, I was sitting at home one night doing a phone interview with a school’s administrator. I’d done my research and knew this would be a rugged experience, which only furthered my nervous excitement about this potential adventure. Speaking to this random American who had fallen in love with Mongolia, and a Mongolian woman, I realized this wasn’t so much an interview as an invitation. Today, I can’t remember the salary, though rent was covered. The guy specifically asked me if I liked to drink, making it clear that the winters were brutal.
In the end, I declined the job because I imagined myself in a city of concrete Soviet brutalist structures, with little to do on a heinously cold night other than drink and watch television shows aired in a language I’d probably never learn. Of course, this was just my imagination but I let it get the better of me and it kept me from going. Since then, I’ve traveled plenty, and I’m lucky in that I have no major complaints about life. One day I hope to visit Mongolia as the steppe interests me, probably in great part because I turned down the chance to live there thirteen years ago. But there are a handful of episodes in my life that get me thinking about what would have happened had I made a different choice. This is one of them.