The following is an email interview with Hunt, who was kind enough to be the first featured author in a series of interviews from North Dakota Quarterly. WARNING: Some coarse language and minor drug references ahead.
Were your two years in Mongolia part of a contract as a teacher, or did you stay that long by choice? What was your experience in the second year? Did your time with Hoika make things any better or worse for the second half of your stay?
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’d been working at Whole Foods for a year or so with the idea that I could write during the day and work at night to support myself when, after a year or so, I realized, “Oh, fuck this; this is going nowhere” and realized I needed to buy myself more time (to write) and so applied to the Peace Corps and, nine months later, got a letter in the mail that said: “Congratulations! You’re invited to serve in MONGOLIA.” I was like what the fuck, especially since I had specifically told my recruiter that the only thing I was not looking for in a Peace Corps post was “cold.” I hate cold. Hate it. The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, is the coldest capital in the world and I was posted farther west, where it’s even colder. I had to literally defrost my toothpaste every morning before I could brush my teeth. This is all true. Now, Peace Corps service is for two years, but the dirty little secret of the PC is that you can leave whenever the fuck you want and it doesn’t matter. However, out of a sense of virtue, guilt, lack of other options and just good old American can-do-ism, I stayed for the whole two years. Most of my cohort did.
My experience the second year of my service was largely the same as my first year, but with one crucial difference: Mongolia was now home. I had spent the first year being amazed at how different everything about the culture and the country was, but by my second year I had gotten used to eating horse meat, pooping in a hole in the ground, drinking enormous amounts of warm vodka in the middle of the afternoon, surviving long uncomfortable bus trips that your average American would rather kill their first born child than experience, having nothing to do but visit the neighbor’s yurt, having people barging in my own yurt because knocking was apparently antithetical to Mongolians, hauling water from the well and etc. and etc. All the interesting-ness and newness and glitter and luster was gone. It was home. It was where I lived. And I was an outsider. And I was still confused and I still had the communication skills of a fucking 7-year-old (on my best days) and it became incredibly frustrating and what with the incredibly long winters I think I became very very close to actual depression. That I didn’t start drinking copious amounts of alcohol is a cosmic mystery. I did manage, though, late in my second year, to get my hands on some rank-ass pot (from the one place in Mongolia where marijuana grew, well, like a weed), which sustained me mostly through the latter half of my second year.
But, um, yeah, as you were asking, the only impact Hoika had on my second year was that, after he promptly booted me out of my/his yurt, I was forced to move into another yurt, owned by the school’s custodian and because of some Shakespearean misunderstanding and hilarious/dangerous bad timing, led to said latter yurt being broken into by said custodian’s brothers (in from the countryside) as my girlfriend and I were sleeping in bed. They threatened to kill me, called her all sorts of degrading names, then kicked us both out and trashed the place. We stumbled out al fresco and I somehow had managed to grab my phone but realized there was no such thing as 911 and so she slinked off into the shadows and I stowed away into the school until the coast was clear. The rest of my second year was kind of rough.
In your essay you share a candid view of living in a foreign land. Why did you feel it was important not to romanticize your experience?
Because there’s nothing romantic about living in a foreign country. Of course, when I look back on it now and when I look at my pictures and reminisce with my friends, it’s all sunshine and roses and glory. But anyone who has ever spent more than 12 hours in an unfamiliar place (whether it’s Dowes, Iowa or Burma) knows that being in a place where you know nobody, and are not known, and don’t know the culture, the food, the norms, the roads, the currency, the language, etc., etc., can kind of be, well, you know, really stressful. And you are forced to confront a lot of things about yourself, namely your own limitations and your patience and all that. I don’t know; my experience in Mongolia is by far, as of now, one of the most significant periods of my life. Only an asshole would suggest otherwise. And fuck me and paint me a liar if I don’t admit that a large percentage of that experience straight up sucked. I suppose this is by way of saying that I think the best writing and the best writers are those who are deadly honest. Don’t try to honey-coat shit. If you are writing and you are trying to make yourself look good, you should be taking Instagram selfies, not writing.
I laugh to myself every time I read your essay and picture Hoika cruising by in his truck. He is quite the character. What do you imagine he’s doing right now?
I hope he’s being a good husband to his wife and a better father to his daughter. Hoika was a tragic character to me. While I was living in his backyard he had a very nice wife — I forget her name — who worked for one of the NGOs in town — those were generally the best and most prestigious jobs — who would often ask me to teach her English. I never did. It was partly a scheduling thing and partly misplaced anger on my part. (I would be mad at Hoika for some slight and would take it out on her by not showing up for one of our pre-scheduled lessons.) I felt bad for her. She was this intelligent professional and her husband was this roughneck drunk who, while clearly a funny, charismatic entrepreneur (don’t forget the truck!), was also clearly a drunk and wife-beater; once a month his wife sported a black eye. It made me so mad. But I wish absolutely no harm on him whatsoever and hope he and his entire family are happy and successful and satisfied. As I tried to make clear in my essay, my difference with Hoika had as much to do with my own character flaws as his.
The big conflict in “A Half Kilo of Dragons” is the result of the Mongolian word for “carrot” being so similar to the word for “dragon.” As a teacher in the U.S., can you think of any instances in which non-native speakers have had trouble discerning two English words?
I can’t, off the top of my head, but I will say that most of my students often say “arthur” instead of “author.” But that’s a dialect thing; I teach at a public high school in Brooklyn where 99.9% of the students are Caribbean. They all grew up speaking English, yes, but it’s not quote unquote mainstream English; Standard English, so to speak. They mix up subject-verb agreement, sometimes call me “Mr. Ahnt” instead of “Mr. Hunt,” and often confuse pronouns (e.g. “Me went to the store” instead of “I.”) It’s not wrong, it’s just a different way of speaking English, which is an important distinction to make and which I don’t think most Americans recognize. But, I don’t know, don’t all learners of English have trouble with articles? And our weird, inconsistent grammar? Americans, I think, are much, much, much more forgiving of linguistic “errors” than Mongolians were. When you have more diversity, you have more tolerance.
Have you taught in any countries other than Mongolia? If so, have you experienced any difficulties similar to the one in your essay?
After Mongolia, I taught in South Korea, in a little miserable industrial town called Ulsan, which was a peninsula of a peninsula. Aside from Washington, D.C., it was the strangest place I’ve ever lived in my life. Because a few of the huge Hyundai factories were there, most of the men were employed by Hyundai and so it often felt like what I imagined Flint, Michigan was like in 1963: the men woke up, put their uniforms on, there was this mass migration to the plant, then the moms, after packing the children off to school, found their way to the market. They cooked, they cleaned, then the men came home. It was so strange and, as a cram school teacher who taught in the evening, I had the privilege of watching this all play out. My learning and studying Mongolian totally prepared me for learning and studying Korean, but the translation difficulties and confusions I experienced in Korea would require another essay and couldn’t be justifiably recounted here. (Though, just a tidbit: I had this amazingly weird/endearing boss, Adam, who, when we (lovingly) told him to shut up, would often respond: Hey . . . hey, you cancel that shut up.)
I can imagine you’ve had many interesting experiences teaching abroad. Why did you choose to write about Hoika and the carrots?
It was a writing assignment for a grad-school class about a time when you’ve been misunderstood. I wish that weren’t true, as producing something from a prompt feels like you’re surrendering a little bit of your agency, but it is what it is. But Hoika was also an important part of my experience in Mongolia, and I think I would have gotten around to writing about him one way or another.
Can you describe your writing process? What steps do you take when writing something like “A Half Kilo of Dragons”?
I write (when I write) mostly in the morning, though I will admit that when I write in the morning, my prose gets all lapidary and pretentious and poetic. I lose the narrative thread. Which, you know, it’s great if you can write beautifully; I can’t. But when I wake myself up at 6 a.m. and sit down and start writing, I don’t know, I feel like I’m doing something Important (capitalization there intentional) and Worth It and Artistic and my writing becomes all larded with detail and “beautiful descriptions” and shit and whatever story I’m telling fucking falls apart. Which is why I’m so happy with this piece since I wrote it mostly at night, after school, in little spurts, sometimes intoxicated. I wrote this motherfucking thing a YEAR ago and I’ve been trying to reproduce the process for it that whole time and it’s hard. So.
Do you have any new writing projects in the works?
I try to write as much as I can but two things prevent this from happening more: 1) I’m a high school English teacher and the demands of the job are as various as they are excruciating at times. They’re even greater, I would argue, given the school I teach at (the population of students characterized, euphemistically, as “urban” and “high needs”). That should be prefaced, however, with an admission of genuine love for my job. And 2) I’m a pretty mediocre writer and given how much goddamn time it takes me to write something, I am finding it harder and harder to justify spending vast amounts of my free time writing something that, in the end, no one will read and that I will ultimately be disappointed with because it falls short of my own expectations and how I imagined the story was in my head. That’s a terribly cynical way of looking at it — and in the end, the only reason I ever put pen to paper is because I actually enjoy it — and perhaps I’m just making excuses for not putting more of the hard work in, but oh well. In any case, I always have a few ideas percolating and would love to dedicate more time to them. I’d like to write more about Mongolia; I’m sure I’ve got a few more essays in me about it.