After preparing dinner with Tunga last night for her family, she and I had a chance to sit down alone with her father. There have been a lot of questions I've wanted to ask him, but I started with this one: what has it been like in your lifetime to see all of the changes that have come to pass in Mongolia?
Two hours later I understood almost everything he said, though I didn't stop Tunga when she wanted to translate a part or two. He spoke of his time as a soldier and the huge factories in our city which employed hundreds and thousands of workers. Everyone having a job, everyone having a home, everyone being the same as everyone else. There were no rich people and there were no poor people. The grass was greener, the snow was whiter, the friendships were more genuine and people were good, they didn't do bad. For the first 31 years of his life, these were the socialist times in which he and his family lived. When things changed, everything changed. The Russians left. The free market came. Factories closed. No one had jobs. For the first time in a long time, people were poor. Democracy came. Without directors, people could choose to be bad. They did. Alcoholism increased. Crime increased. Growth was slow. Decades slow. As I asked about jobs, it became clear that both he and his wife went for years without steady jobs like they used to have. When I used to think about unemployment I thought of months, not years.
We pause for a long time after finishing our bowls of food. Holding the hot bowl of milk tea feels wonderful in my hands during winter. Toggling the volume down on the television to the lowest level he decides to continue the conversation. "We needed this," he says, "Democracy." I ask why. I grew up in America and always took it for granted. I grew up seeing the red flag of communism as the enemy flag of every combat video game I ever played and in fact, somehow I even pictured the hammer and sickle as weapons. But in the last two years I have changed my view almost completely, seeing the motivation behind wanting everyone to have food on their plates and roofs over their heads, the possibility of having responsible and caring people leading a group of people to do good work and build a strong nation. Just like the picture he painted in front of me for two hours, I saw how beautiful socialism can be. "Freedom," he responded. He never liked the Socialist Party that was in charge years ago, he says. He really didn't like them. And there was nothing he could do about it. The directors of the factories, the people who went to universities, the people making all the decisions were all chosen from within. Everyone was treated equally and these people saw to it. It has been hard to change, but he is glad his country is now a democracy with a free market. After almost three hours of sharing his thoughts and telling Tunga and I about his life, he looks at me directly and asks, "What do you think we should do?"
I think to myself about everything I know, everything I've seen, and everything I hope for this country. More importantly, to answer his question, I think about their family. As he so beautifully illustrated, in a democracy people have the freedom to do good or do bad. And those individual decisions eventually drive the country from the bottom up. I tell him I think the best thing we can do is do good ourselves, starting in our community with our projects including the small neighborhood grocery store we are hoping to build for he and his wife to run. The beautiful thing about the free market, especially driven by socially conscious enterprises, is that you can be your own boss. I tell him that I think he and his wife would make great bosses and they could really improve the lives of their employees. Tunga asks if they ever had private enterprises in the socialist period. Never, he said. He smiles to me and says he's ready to get started. I tell him I am too.