Mongolia 2018 Reflection: The Greatest Gift of All (Gary Christian)

We pulled up to what looked like a huge county fair thirty miles south of Ulaanbaatar.  After traveling all night on the train and having worked a solid seven days straight, most of the medical team volunteers and our film crew were feeling a bit out of gas. The medical volunteers quickly left the bus and went off to experience the day.  We hauled out our gear cases and prepared to capture the events and people here to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the Mongolian Railway. Mike fired up the drone and started flying the site while Frank put his camera on sticks and rolled off shots of the area.  I waited by the gear with my boom pole in hand and several cases at my feet. Then a young Mongolian woman approached me. She was holding a bowl of soup and offered it to me. I had to decline because of my need to be on gear alert, but I nodded thanks and gestured hands together to signal my appreciation.  She smiled and walked back to her group under one of the tents on the perimeter of the grounds. This brief encounter represented for me our two-week journey among the amazing culture of the Mongolians. They were a giving and gracious people who welcomed us in every way.

My expectations for this trip were high.  I had never traveled outside the United States and never filmed a surgical mission.  This made me anxious in the weeks leading up. I wondered if I would foul up out of nervousness or sheer awe of being on the other side of the planet.  It never happened. And one of the main reasons was the people of Mongolia. From the ladies who served us on the train to the clinicians and patients in each town, and especially from families we met out on the steppe or near town, I felt welcomed and at ease.  We come from a culture that likes to see itself as more advanced in technology, in creativity, and in culture, and we often pride ourselves on being generous. But I have found in my travels around the States that people can be quite suspicious and despite their speaking words of welcome to strangers, they are fearful and especially of late not willing to accept those of other races, cultures, or beliefs.   The Mongolians, as Tina said, “seem content.” They have a rich history but do not seem compelled to hold it over others like a badge of honor. Mongolians – in the richest tradition of Judeo Christian culture – welcome the stranger. It is a gift they give which my faith teaches as sacred.

Dr. G. said many volunteers who go on these missions are at a crossroads in their lives, perhaps in the middle of a crisis or having just moved through one.  I am one of those. My children have graduated college and are on their own, the work of my business has changed so dramatically that it seems my forty years of experience means little, and my wife of thirty years is succumbing to the disease of alcoholism.  Experiencing Mongolia and filming the work of medical volunteers looked like a wonderful way to re-energize my worldview and my work. Much of what we saw and filmed is dramatic and will make a good story. But on reflection, the greatest gift I received from the Mongolia mission was the simple generosity and welcoming smile of the Mongolians.  Through the challenges of current life events, I have been trying to learn how to live in the present, to not regret or hold to the past or fear an uncertain future. Now I have vivid pictures of faces and memories of moments to show me just how that is done. And these are all gifts of the Mongolians – like a small bowl of soup offered up to a weary stranger.