By Anoushka Chandarana, Anthony Coompson, Jemimah Ogundele, and Narayanan (Hari) GL
Currently, there are around 34,000 Mongolian-origin people living in Canada and the U.S., around half of whom have lived there for over five years. Issues faced by this small, scattered community remain woefully under-documented.
In 1992, as Mongolia drafted a new Constitution to shift from state-socialism to a democracy, one of the fundamental rights it provided to its citizens was freedom of movement. Through Article 16, the country gave its citizens the freedom to travel or reside abroad, and to return to their homeland. This marked the birth of the post-Cold War-era Mongolian diaspora – Mongolians who traveled to and settled in different countries. As diaspora numbers increased, documentation in their homeland improved, and the Mongolian census started counting the population abroad separately.
This piece introduces the Mongolian diaspora in North America. First, it looks at the number of Mongolians living in North America (Canada and the U.S.) and the likely duration of their stay. Examining the city-wise split of the diaspora, the article also talks about Denver, which became an unlikely launchpad for Mongolian expatriates moving to the U.S. in the 1990s.
The North American Dream
Mongolians living abroad
Mongolians in Canada and the U.S.
Mongolians in Chicago and LA
The overall numbers for the Mongolian diaspora are likely to be in the range of 120,000-200,000. According to Mongolia’s census (2020), roughly 122,301 Mongolians live abroad, which is a 14.2% increase from 2010. This once-in-a-decade survey considers only those with Mongolian citizenship living outside the country for at least six months; hence excluding those who have taken up different citizenships. The International Organization of Migration (2016), on the other hand, states that there are around 130,000 Mongolians and Mongolian-origin people living abroad. Meanwhile, the World Bank (2020) estimates more than 200,000 Mongolians living abroad.
While South Korea (39,982, or 32.69% of the diaspora) hosts the highest number of Mongolian migrants, those in North America are likely to stay for longer periods of time. According to the Mongolian census (2020), there were 19,170 and 1,283 Mongolians in the U.S. and Canada respectively. However, a Pew fact-sheet (2016) reports at least 27,000 Mongolians in the U.S., half of whom have been living there for at least 10 years. The Canadian census (2016) has around 7,480 Mongolians living in the country. The discrepancies between these numbers could be because the Mongolian census counts only Mongolian citizens, while the other surveys look at those with American and Canadian passports; and also those from China’s Inner Mongolia province.
When we look at the time Mongolian expatriates spend abroad, numbers indicate that Mongolians in North America are likely to live there for longer periods of time. According to the Mongolian census, while 28.4% of the diaspora lives outside for one year or less, the numbers are higher for neighbouring countries like South Korea (33.7%), China (42.1%), and Russia (41.3%) as opposed to North America (17%). When it comes to living abroad for 2-5 years, the numbers are roughly the same in South Korea (44.9%), the U.S. (40.9%), and Canada (37.6%). As the duration of stay increases beyond 5 years, Mongolians prefer the U.S. (42.1%) and Canada (45.3%) over South Korea (21%). Around 20.6% of those in the U.S. are said to have lived there for more than 11 years, while the figure for Canada is 17.4%.
In terms of the state-wise/province-wise split of diaspora members in Canada and the U.S., there is some data available. A Pew fact-sheet suggests that the highest number of Mongolians in the U.S. live in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles(3,000 each); San Francisco and Washington (2,000 each); and Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, and Denver (1000 each). In the case of Canada, the highest numbers are in Ontario (2,940); British Columbia (1,495); Alberta (1,565); and Quebec (960).
Familiar terrain, different continent
In the 1990s, Denver, Colorado, a city of 700,000 located in the southwestern part of the U.S., became an unlikely hub for the newly emerging Mongolian diaspora in North America. Exchange programs with educational institutions like the University of Colorado Denver and the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning led to increased engagement between the Central Asian country and Colorado. “Those from the Rocky Mountain West just became captivated by the land and the people of Mongolia and vice versa,” Denver-based lawyer James Wagenlander, who later became an Honorary Consul for Mongolia, was quoted in the 5,280 magazine. Interestingly, those who spent their formative years in Denver included politicians and administrators, the most famous among them being former Prime Minister and President Ts Elbegdorj.
“Post-Cold War, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. had various efforts to work with countries like Mongolia both on economic and educational initiatives through knowledge-exchange programs and efforts to carry out political reform,” says Denver-based journalist Vignesh Ramachandran, who writes on issues concerning Asian diaspora in the U.S. He adds that Denver was also a good choice for migrants due to its geography. “The community must have felt like home here due to the proximity to the Rocky Mountains and the city’s weather,” he said. “The population peaked in the late 90s and early 2000s as the population matured and pushed for upward mobility. They then shifted to the traditional population centres in the U.S. like Bay Area, Chicago and Washington DC,” he added.
Editor @stmonaghan posed an interesting fact a couple months ago: Denver used to have the largest Mongolian population of any city in the country.
— Vignesh Ramachandran (@VigneshR) July 15, 2021
These deeper connections have led to the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar becoming one of Denver’s Sister Cities, with multiple joint projects planned between the two. “But, beyond that, there is not much documentation on the community either in Denver or in the U.S.,” said Vignesh.
Documentation is something that is indeed in short supply when it comes to Mongolians living abroad. For example, search terms like “Mongolian diaspora;” “Mongolian expatriates;” and “Mongolians abroad” lead to only a handful of results. The above-mentioned article on 5280 was the only news media article we found on Mongolians living in the U.S. Overcoming this gap requires us to have dedicated media spaces that deal with diaspora issues.
“There are so many stories, in general, that go untold simply because there aren’t enough resources and reporting covering smaller diaspora communities. To better highlight these issues, I believe partnerships with ethnic media or community information groups (like a Facebook community group or a community leader who manages a WhatsApp group) could help surface stories,” says Vignesh, chiming in on the lack of writing focussed on smaller expatriate communities.
About the Authors:
Anoushka Chandarana, Anthony Coompson, Jemimah Ogundele, and Narayanan (Hari) GL are graduate students pursuing their Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs program at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. As a part of their capstone project, they have been studying the Mongolian diaspora in Canada and the U.S.