From Durham to Ulaanbaatar: Connecting Cultures Through Books

August 25, 2022 | By Gabby Angeles, Community Engagement Coordinator at Book Harvest

I first met Zulaa and her daughter Namun in spring of 2021, while they were looking for books at Book Harvest’s outdoor cart. Namun, a bubbly and energetic preschooler, was looking for books about unicorns, while Zulaa picked out chapter books for her 10 year old son. They returned the following week to select even more. Namun was unflinching in her book request: anything unicorn related. I happily went inside to dig around our inventory for anything that might suffice. Both mother and daughter were always delighted and grateful at the end of their book selection process. And that is how our routine continued, through the end of June 2022.

From left: Tserennadmid, Bumtsend, Namun, Zulaa, Chinguun

Zulaa, short for Naranzul, and Namun made up part of a family (other members being son Chinguun, 11, father Bumtsend, and grandmother Tserennadmid) that moved to the USA from Mongolia. They were set to return to their home country once mom and dad finished their studies. Ever since I first met them at the outdoor book cart, Zulaa was always curious as to when they would be able to come inside Book Harvest. “Soon, maybe in a couple months!” was my typical answer – until our progress of creating our Family Space was halted by the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid-19.

Book Harvest’s Family Space finally opened its doors to the public on July 19, 2022, only weeks after Zulaa and her family returned to Mongolia. Prior to their departure, I invited them into our Family Space in late June to get the full experience. CEO and founder, Ginger Young, and I took the time to chat with them about what Book Harvest has meant to their family during their time in Durham.

Discovering Book Harvest

The family of four moved to the USA from Mongolia three years ago. They first lived in New York, where Zulaa completed a Masters at Cornell, and then it was down to North Carolina for both parents to continue their studies at Duke. Zulaa, now getting her OPT, was also selected as a Fulbright scholar, while Bumtsend pursued his MPP at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Ginger asked them how they ended up learning about Book Harvest. Zulaa explained, “As part of the Fulbright scholarship, I have to implement one social project back in Mongolia. And based on my experiences, I wanted to start something about reading… I expressed that interest [to my professor] and he said Durham has a big example, which is Book Harvest.” 

It was a place their family had seen before – Chinguun noted that anytime they passed the Rockwood Shopping center on University Drive, they would always note the glowing Book Harvest sign. “We just always drove around too much, and she (Zulaa) always saw the word ‘book’,” he explained. It was shortly afterwards that Zulaa and Namuun started visiting Book Harvest regularly, occasionally accompanied by Chinguun.

A Culture Difference

Tserennadmid reads in the Family Space

Zulaa, Bumtsend and Chinguun all emphasized how different education and the culture of reading was in the USA versus in Mongolia. “There’s not a lot to read in our country,” Chinguun told me. “There’s not much to read in schools.” Mongolian primary education, Bumtsend recalled, was “too dependent. Whatever the teacher told us, we would just do it. Read this, do this. But here, there is more collaboration between teachers and students. [Teachers] can create the environment for the kids, and [the kids] can choose what they want to read, learn, or know. I think Book Harvest is a great example of that.” The differences were so stark to the family that after 6 months in the USA, Zulaa was surprised to come home one day and find her son reading by himself. “I thought, oh my God!” she laughed, “Who did this to you?” 

Impact 

Namun reads with Gabby

Besides stressing the importance of reading and collaborative learning, both parents gushed about the importance of accessibility to books, especially at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “During Covid, we couldn’t visit the library because it was closed,” Zulaa recalled. “To get books was too expensive. We had Epic, but we wanted to have physical books too. That’s when we found this organization.” Bumtsend selected three words to describe his experience with Book Harvest: “Impactful, resourceful and accessible,” he said, thoughtfully. “Impactful- especially for us coming from a different country- because you have a nicely designed website with all your information – your values, your mission, your strategy. Through this you can demonstrate the huge impact you have on families. Resourceful because you have a wide variety of books: for family, for children, for education, for caring… It was very helpful for us to improve our culture, improve our mindset, skills, thinking, and how we should communicate with our kids, And last, accessible because you figured out how to provide your books non-stop amid Covid. You put everything outside, so it is very safe and also very accessible.”

“You have a wide variety of books: for family, for children, for education, for caring… It was very helpful for us to improve our culture, improve our mindset, skills, thinking, and how we should communicate with our kids.”

-Bumtsend (Dad)

Future

Zulaa and Bumtsend explained their hope and plan to implement a program inspired by Book Harvest in Ulaanbaatar. Zulaa already had the idea to do so through her Fulbright scholarship, but when the two applied to the Clinton Foundation and were selected to implement their own program, they were given additional mentorship to develop their own literacy project.

Chinguun looks at his bag of new books

When asked how they were feeling about returning to Mongolia, Chinguun immediately answered, “sad,” to several sympathetic ‘aww’s from the adults. But he brightly added that he would be keeping in touch with friends through his parent’s social media (“if they let me.”). Namun, though still too young to grasp the full impact of moving back to a country she doesn’t remember, was nevertheless excited when she and her brother were each presented with a bagful of books to take home. For Chinguun, chapter books and graphic novels, including the first three Wimpy Kid books. For Namun? Books about her favorite subjects – fairies, mermaids… and of course, unicorns.

Family Space Now Open!