A Mongol in Lisbon

by alrou on August 21, 2011

Unurjargal Tsegmid left the cold highlands of Asia seven years ago and came to the sunny lands in the Western tip of Europe. Although perfectly integrated in Portugal, she doesn’t forget her roots and created an association to promote closer ties between Mongolia and Portugal.

Photo Courtesy: Tempo Livre Magazine

She has slanted eyes, oriental features, speaks a language that is little-known and arrived in Portugal seven years ago. This is not a story of another Chinese immigrant that came to Portuguese soil to set up still another one of those shops that sell everything, from silk to electronic doodads at rock-bottom prices. Unurjargal Tsegmid, 24 years old, left her country to give continuity to her studies and is today a student for a Masters in Management at the Universidade Católica of Lisbon. She was born in a country of nomads, nested in the mountains of Asia, which, according to her, has affinities with Portugal. 

I’m from Mongolia. I chose Portugal because I found that there were similarities with my country. Historically, Portugal was the great conqueror of the seas and we were conquerors on the terrain. This made me think:”Why can’t I also be a pioneer?” I wanted to discover another place where no one from my country had been”, says Unurjargal to Tempo Livre Magazine. Today, the Mongol community accounts for approximately 30 people in the whole country, only having support from the Honorary Consul, José Serrão. “We are nomads in Portugal”, she states, emphasizing that they gather regularly for events where they talk their language, sing traditional music and recall the good things of their country. 

The adjustment to the language of the epic bard Camões was not easy since Mongolia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, consequence of a Soviet influence for decades. “Without a language, there is no communication, reason why I had to do a language course”, she reveals, in a fluent Portuguese, practically flawless. But more than the language, there was a new reality to absorb upon her arrival to Portugal, which occurred in 2004, during the euphoria of the European Soccer Championship, to which she showed no interest. “We prefer fighting sports, like sumo or box”, she explains. From Mongolian Buddhism to Portuguese Catholicism, from the Urtiin Duu traditional folk long song and the inhospitable landscape back home to the Portuguese beaches which have already captivated her attention, it was in the contact with the Portuguese that she felt the greatest differences. 

“You are more open people, more outgoing and likeable. This makes a contrast with us because we are more reserved. But after breaking the ice, we are equally friendly”, she guarantees by adding: “What I most admire in you Portuguese is that you value the quality of life above everything”. 

Further delighted with the favorable climate and the good food, Unurjagal doesn’t conceal her positive view of a country given to melancholy and moaning. “Vis-à-vis Mongolia, Portugal is a considerable world power and a great country where I can learn many things”, she affirms, proud of her cultural mix. “I like to maintain both cultures in me.  I’m very proud of my country  and of my origins and I would never want to lose my identity as Mongol, but I like Portugal very much and of course, I’m very fond of the Portuguese way of life”. 

In seven years of Portugal, Unurjargal has only revisited her home country once, in 2009. The hefty travel costs didn’t help either. “I almost felt like a stranger in Mongolia. I stayed there for one month and in the first two weeks, I felt somewhat lost”, she concedes. 

But not everything has changed in the life of this young adult that continues with her studies, and goes out at night with her friends…just as she did in Mongolia. And because tradition still has an important role in society, Unurjargal continues to practice some of the Mongolian rituals over here.  “We have our major celebrations and in February we celebrate the arrival of the new year, according to the Chinese calendar”, she explains.

Certain that Mongolia is little known to the Portuguese, in which the conqueror Genghis Khan continues to be the most famous Mongol since the XIII century, this young woman feels that she is on a mission of promoting her country, culture and traditions. 

With this in mind, she created the Portuguese-Mongolian Friendship Association  which was officially launched on July 2nd, 2011. 

“There are many Portuguese that have shown interest in visiting my country, so I had to do something about it. I wanted to establish business relationships with the export of typical portuguese products like wine and cork”, says the future author of a Portuguese-Mongolian conversation guide. “It will be for the tourists that wish to discover Mongolia. I hope to have it ready soon”, she announces, clarifying that during summer, the capital Ulaanbaatar is crowded with western tourists. 

There’s a Mongolian proverb that says that “a man falls seven times and stands up eight”.  Once a grand nation, Mongolia today tries to emerge from obscurity. Unurjargal doesn’t know yet if one day she will return to live in her country, but she has the certainty of wanting to help rebuild the nation. “Waiting for the country to improve in order to move back is a selfish thought. I must be an active part of this growth. Now I’m promoting my country and I believe that this already helps a little”.

Article written by HMC from the Tempo Livre Magazine of the July/August 2011 edition and translated under permission by BestInPortugal. Photo credits: Tempo Livre.

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