Amid darkness, a man in traditional Mongolian boots and jacket, with a hairstyle fit for a 13th-century warrior, clears his throat and emits the unmistakable, unearthly drone-chant that defines Tuvan throat singing.
My translator, Emily Norovsambuu, leans over and explains that the singer, Zolbayar “Amai” Jambalsuren, wants the 20 or so people in the room, ranging in age from toddler to elder, to imagine they’re back among the wide open plains and endless blue skies of Mongolia, their homeland.
The lights are switched on and the warm vibration that filled the room gives way to the rude glare of fluorescent lights. We’re in the back room of Koko Group, an inconspicuous shipping company on Western Avenue in Koreatown and the makeshift center of the elusive Mongolian community in Los Angeles.
While living for a few months in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia and one of the most far-flung places on Earth, I had a strange recurring experience: I kept encountering Mongolians who either lived in L.A. or were related to someone who did.
Enkhtuya “Enkhee” Sonompel, who is active in the Los Angeles Mongolian Association, believes there are 3,000 to 5,000 Mongolians living in L.A., making it one of the biggest Mongolian-American communities in the United States. While the number might sound like a blip in our megalopolis’ ethnic smorgasbord, it’s significant relative to the scant total of 3 million people who occupy the entirety of Mongolia.
According to Selengemurun Selene Tuvshin, one of the leaders of the L.A. chapter of the Mongolian Youth Union of California (MYUC), Mongolians initially gravitated to the Korean community in Mid-Wilshire because of the two cultures’ geographic and linguistic proximity, and have remained concentrated there ever since. The relatively low rent was also alluring, she says.
“They relied on Koreans from the beginning,” Tuvshin says. “Then the next people came to them, and it became a snowball effect.”
Otgonbaatar “Mickey” Shagdarsuren, the founder of Koko Group, moved to L.A. in 2003 from Ulaanbaatar to study English and business administration. His home country had opened up to the world only a little more than a decade earlier, when a democratic revolution supplanted the communist government that had reigned since 1921. America, long derided via propaganda, suddenly sparkled with the promise of better education and economic opportunities. But when Shagdarsuren got here, “It was so hard. I didn’t know anyone,” he says. He spent the first three nights sleeping on the street.
Shagdarsuren founded Koko Group in 2004 specifically for Mongol transplants, who he believes numbered in the low hundreds in the early aughts. “Now, it’s too busy,” he says of the company, which has flourished as the number of Mongolians has continued to rise.
About a year and a half ago, he started letting groups such as the Los Angeles Mongolian Association and MYUC hold cultural events at his Koreatown storefront after business hours. (The latter had invited the Mongolian writer Jambalsuren to give a lecture on a recent Friday night; the throat singing was an unexpected bonus.)
“They’re providing something we’re missing,” explains Norovsambuu, who has been organizing Mongolian children’s music and dance concerts since she was 12. Echoing Shagdarsuren, she says there wasn’t much of a community to ease her assimilation when she arrived in L.A. from the second-largest Mongolian city of Darkhan with her family about 13 years ago.
Tuvshin and Norovsambuu tell me the majority of their friends are Mongolian and have a vested interest in preserving their native tongue and culture. Tuvshin speaks Mongolian at home with her mom and visits Mongolia every two to three years.
“I find it easier to be friends with Mongolians because I’m not really Americanized in my mental state,” Tuvshin explains. “I came here when I was 14, so I have a better understanding of immigrant stories.”
Koko Group fills a literal structural void: Unable to afford rent, the L.A. Mongolian Association gave up its Koreatown headquarters about three years ago. Another cultural locus, the Mongolian School of Los Angeles, shuttered a few years before that.
The (reportedly) only authentic Mongolian restaurant in town, Golden Mongolian, also hosts community events after hours, Norovsambuu notes.
“Mostly businesses help us. We don’t have a community center where we can go,” Norovsambuu tells me. “When we practice our dance, it’s so sad. The family that owns the Koko Group lives in an apartment where they have a studio. So we literally stay quiet and practice in there — because we have no budget or money. “
While Sonompel is thankful for Koko Group’s spatial donation, she insists, “Physical space is not the only thing that ties people. People think that because there’s no center, we’re not always meeting. That’s not always true.”
Tuvshin agrees. “We don’t have a big, established center, but the people have strong contact with each other. I feel like [I’m] home, with my people.”
Sonompel and her daughter Shinetsetseg “Jessica” Erdenebileg continue to work with the Mongolian Association — despite the loss of the center’s headquarters — to organize important holidays and events like Tsaagan Tsar, which literally means “white moon” and is Mongolia’s New Year, and Naadam, an Olympics-style festival of “three manly sports” that dates back to Genghis Khan’s heyday.
In 2015, they co-opened the first iteration of Blue Sky, a childcare and after-school program with an emphasis on Mongolian culture and language. Less than a year later, Erdenebileg launched the second Blue Sky for infants and younger children. Though California state law requires that Erdenebileg speak in English, her teaching assistant speaks only in Mongolian. The house out of which the day care is run is filled with quintessential Mongolian cultural artifacts: paintings and statues of horses and camels, a felt ger (Mongolian nomadic dwelling) and detailed maps of Mongolia’s 21 provinces.
While whipping up a pot of salty Mongolian milk tea, Erdenbileg explains that she decided to open Blue Sky when she realized half of the children enrolled in her youngest daughter’s Korean daycare were Mongolian. “It was not what I wanted,” she says. “They were not speaking good English, good Mongolian or good Korean.”
Sonompel says that first-generation immigrants, as is often the case, wanted their children to “hurry up and learn English,” in lieu of passing down their difficult native tongue and cultural practices.
At 6 months old, Blue Sky No. 2 already has a waiting list. On the wall of one of its rooms is a framed certificate from Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell declaring Erdenebileg an “angel” for nurturing the Mongolian community. “I got clients faster than I expected,” she says.
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While the community is expanding, many of the more active members envision a more visible, delineated “Little Ulaanbaatar,” of sorts.
Erdenebileg’s goal is to open a larger, dual-language early childhood education center.
Shagdarsuren wants to see better collaboration and communication between Mongolian businesses both in L.A. and abroad.
Tuvshin dreams of a bona fide Mongoltown “where we can teach the culture and the background of our history,” like the centers run by the much older Korean- and Japanese-American communities. “Just because we are here, we cannot forget our roots.”