Holt adoptive mom Karen Myers shares about Holt’s first Mongolia Heritage Tour and her 15-year-old son Zack’s experience visiting his birth country for the first time since he came home to his family.
In July 2017, my son and I had the opportunity to join five other families from across the U.S. on Holt International’s inaugural Mongolia Heritage Tour. I adopted Zack in September 2003 when he was a year and a half, and this trip would be our first time back in Ulaanbaatar — UB. So many questions flooded my brain as I packed for the trip. How would my Mongolia-born, all-American-boy respond to the unanswerable and confusing questions that the trip would inevitably bring up? And most of all, would he want me to come with him?
Zack of course had no hesitation about this trip, or about me joining him. And thus began a two-week adventure that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
This was Zack’s journey, and I was thrilled to be along for the ride. The first night in UB, I brought out the notebook that I’d bought for Zack to write down his impressions. He never opened it once. “I just want to experience being here,” he told me.
He had a point. Capturing something in writing requires distancing yourself from what you’re actually seeing or feeling. Zack wanted to immerse himself in the sights and sounds of his birth land, and in the profound and unique sense of kinship and belonging that surrounded him.
This trip provided Zack with a recognition of the complexity of identity, as well as a deep understanding of his early history in a way in which books and pictures alone could never equal. In a word, the trip was transformational. I saw my son, total teenager that he is, so totally at ease in a foreign environment — handling potentially challenging situations with composure and openness.
It might have started on the ride back from the UB airport, when Holt staff member Tsembel asked Zack if she could call him by his Mongolian name. Or during the visit to the National Children’s Sanatorium — the “Baby Home” — when Zack was suddenly hugged and kissed by a nanny who remembered him from more than a decade before. The Baby Home hadn’t forgotten them. The director and her staff prepared posters for each child, with pictures from their infancy and more recent ones from our annual progress reports. It must have been inspiring for the staff to see how our kids — who were once waiting for adoption like many little ones now being cared for — have grown into such beautiful, smart, self-assured individuals.
Yet another celebration was in store at the Mongolia Immigration Office. The kids were welcomed with the traditional aaruul (dried cheese curd) and morin khuur concert, and seated around a large table that was decked out in sweets and a special bread display in honor of the approaching Naadam holiday. Each child sat at a seat indicated by their Mongolian name, and while enjoying the treats, were presented by Minister Murun with a very special gift: a specially prepared binder with their adoption paperwork, along with a personalized book. Towards the end of the reception, we watched our teens transform into adoption ambassadors as they shared information about their life in the U.S. and their feelings about Mongolia on Mongolian TV.
We rode camels in the “mini-Gobi” desert outside UB, where we were treated to a concert of traditional Mongolian music along with a performance by a 10-year-old contortionist. (How does she do that???) We slept in a ger and rode ponies at the Ger Camp at Orkhon River. We had the thrill of watching the opening ceremonies and other festivities for the three-day national holiday, Naadam. Zack developed a taste for khuushur and buuz. We learned about Mongolia’s early history at the Karakorum Museum, which marks the area where Chinghis Khan first established his headquarters. At the neighboring Erdene Zuu Monastery, the boys spun every single one of the prayer wheels for good fortune. They learned how to hold an eagle on their arm, while some of us scoured the shops for souvenirs. The U.S. Embassy also welcomed the kids with a special picnic and meeting with Ambassador Galt.
But amid all the fun and festivities on this trip, our most cherished memories are the times when we were able to “give back” to others in need. With generous support from the Clark Family, we helped a destitute family build their own ger. The kids also shared a soccer game and taught frisbee to kids at the Red Stone School, a Holt-funded school serving the poorest district in UB. A helping hand, sports and candy — truly international languages.
From start to finish, Holt International created an unforgettable and meaningful journey for each of us. In-country Holt hosts May, Tsembel, Gantuul and Tungalag answered our many questions and took care of our needs with a smile and understanding. And Holt tour leaders Paul and Beth Kim provided expert guidance, especially for those of us on our first trip back to our children’s birth land. We are grateful for the experience, and ready to go back.
Karen Myers (mother to Zachary Nathan Sukhbaatar Myers, age 15) | Acton, MA