As a university student, I knew I wanted to spend a few years abroad after graduation, although I had no specific idea where in the world I would go. I ended up in Hohhot, capital city of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, because a friend of a friend had studied at Inner Mongolia University and introduced me to the language study program there. I had this idea that being in China wasn't remote enough or cool enough to have the kinds of adventurous tales I wanted to have upon my return to the United States, but somehow "Inner Mongolia" seemed like it might offer those kinds of exploits. Little did I know that moving to Hohhot would also mean that the next 11 years would be spent thinking of increasingly clever ways to explain that I do, in fact, live in China and not in the country of Mongolia. My current explanation usually involves this analogy: Inner Mongolia is to China as New Mexico is to the United States.
This was the first city I lived in as a "grown-up." I came here in the fall of 2002 following my university graduation the spring before. Of course one learns a degree of responsibility and maturity while in college, but most of my becoming an adult and defining who I would be as an adult happened while I was living in Hohhot.
One big challenge I faced during my first semester in the Blue City was, as anyone who has ever studied Chinese can imagine, learning Chinese. I was one of only two Westerners at the university that semester, the other, a guy from Finland, was well ahead of me. My class was comprised of 20 or so Mongolians, a Russian Buryat girl and myself. Our teachers (rightly) used only Chinese in class, but when communication failed, one teacher in particular would offer some explanations in Mongolian. This situation left only one classmate clueless: me! For the first four months I cried most days after leaving class. But, I had determined that I wanted to be an adult who knew a second language well and I wanted to be able to communicate with the local Chinese well so I decided to persevere.
The next big challenge during this time was dealing with an escapade known as SARS. Inner Mongolia was the third hardest hit area, and our school went on lockdown to protect us. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but I made some of the best Chinese friends I have during that time and my Chinese ability increased exponentially.
After my studies were complete (at least that phase of it) I returned to the United States with plans to attend graduate school. Those plans changed and two years later I found myself back in Hohhot working as the Foreign Guest Relations Manager at a large, four-star hotel. At a gathering of other foreigners I was introduced to an American guy who became my husband a year later.
We were married in the United States, and a few years later our first daughter was born. Then we decided to make the move back to Hohhot. Just as we were making plans, selling our house and packing up our life, we found out we were expecting our second child.
This will be the city that my girls will know as home. We arrived in Hohhot with me 20-something weeks pregnant and a daughter just a few days away from her first birthday. While looking for the apartment we would call home, we stayed in a hotel: my food-poisoned husband, my not-over-jet-lag 1-year-old, our nine suitcases and my morning sick pregnant self. This article exists as proof of our survival.
Now, we have a bubbly, energetic 2-year-old and a sweet, giggling 10-month-old. They will know this home much more than their U.S. home. We hope they will speak Chinese and Mongolian as well. I care about this city because I am raising children here, too. I don't see us as just passing through. Some of my life's best and worst experiences have happened here. I've lived more of my adult life here than anywhere else. I hope that for most of the foreseeable future, whether I'm studying, working or staying at home to care for my girls, that I can call Inner Mongolia home.
The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region