‘Bad luck to cry when you say goodbye’

Mongol [mong-gohl], noun, 1. a member of a pastoral people now living chiefly in Mongolia. 2. (offensive) a person affected with Down’s Syndrome. Uuganaa is a Mongol living in Britain, far from the world she grew up in: as a nomadic herder she lived in a yurt, eating marmot meat, distilling vodka from goat’s yoghurt and learning about Comrade Lenin. When her new-born son Billy is diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, she finds herself facing bigotry and taboo as well as heartbreak. In this powerful memoir, Uuganaa skilfully interweaves the extraordinary story of her own childhood in Mongolia with the sadly short life of Billy, who becomes a symbol of union and disunion, cultures and complexity, stigma and superstition – and inspires Uuganaa to challenge prejudice.

Extract from Mongol
By Uuganaa Ramsay
Published by Saraband Books

‘Kiss me again,’ I said to my father, who was about to go through the Departure gate at Glasgow Airport. ‘Why aren’t you kissing me on my forehead like you used to?’ I was looking for the comfort his kisses had been bringing me ever since I was a child. But he had thought the loose and awkward hug he’d given me earlier was ‘what you do here’.

It was only March and already it was the second time he’d left Scotland this year. The middle of March in Glasgow is still winter – dark, wet and windy. We were both desperately trying hard not to sob. It is considered bad luck to cry when you say goodbye in Mongolia. I can hold on to my emotions when I say my goodbyes, even if it is to my parents, my sister or my husband. This time it was different. I was fragile and feeling vulnerable, ready to shed tears in gallons. I knew my dad was feeling the same when he quickly kissed my forehead then turned away before our tears started rolling down. As he walked away I saw him drying his eyes before turning round for a final wave.


Three months earlier, after Billy had been born, I had said to Dad over the phone, ‘You have to come here. I will never forgive you if you don’t.’ So he had dropped everything and come from the other side of the world, from one of the remotest places on Earth – Outer Mongolia, the country where I had been raised and had lived for the first twenty-odd years of my life. My sister told me later that he had said, ‘My girl doesn’t cry that easily, but she sobbed on the phone. I need to go.’

At that point I’d been on my own in a room at the maternity hospital. I had asked for a single room while they were deciding where to move me from the Labour ward. I couldn’t bear to look at other happy mums with their newborns, showing off their ‘perfect’ babies.

When I had gone routinely to see the midwife on Friday 13th November, I had been checked by a student who suggested the baby was in a breech position. Lynne, the midwife, had looked surprised and had checked my bump herself. ‘Yes, it is a breech. As soon as you feel any contractions, phone the hospital immediately and go there.’ The baby was due two weeks later and I didn’t really think it was a big issue, knowing that I had been breech myself at birth, stuck with one leg out and giving my mum a hard time. That was in rural Mongolia in the 1970s. Now, here in Britain in 2009, I obviously had nothing to fear. They have all that they need – medical equipment and experts in this field. This should be routine, I thought.

Later that night, after having a Chinese takeaway, the contractions started to come. My husband Richard picked up the car key. ‘Come on, we’ll go to the hospital. You give them a call; I’ll get the car ready.’ We rushed to the maternity hospital leaving our other children Sara and Simon with my mum, who had arrived on her own from Mongolia just the week before. My mum was holding some milk in a bowl; she drizzled some of it on the car wheels and sprinkled some in the air after wishing us all the best, and hoping all would go well. That was her way, the Mongolian way, of wishing you the best for the future. My dear little mum in her green deel (the traditional Mongolian tunic, similar in length to a coat), looking worried, was trying not to offend anyone in a strange new culture, making an awful lot of effort to learn English, feeling vulnerable and powerless. Yet she is a smart, educated woman who works in a secondary school in Uliastai, a small rural town in the western part of Mongolia.

After waiting for eight hours, at about 2am the next morning it was my turn to have a C-section. I was excited; the operation was going to be nothing compared to seeing my baby. Oh, the sensation was so good when the spinal anaesthetic kicked in. Pain-free, I was ready to see my baby with my husband beside me holding my hand, both of us excited, although I could tell that he was worried, seeing me on an operating table surrounded by surgeons, nurses and an anaesthetist.

Soon after that, Billy was born, my tiny little boy, 2.5 kilos, a kilo smaller than his brother and sister had been at birth. The doctors started to check Billy immediately just like any other baby. Richard tried to look at him from where he was sitting and gasped, ‘He is blonde!’ with disbelief. ‘Does he have the Mongolian blue spots?’ I smiled. Mongolians are proud of this birthmark. Usually these blue spots appear on Asian babies when they are born and then disappear after a few months. They were still stitching me up. I then noticed a worried look on Richard’s face. They seemed to be just too busy checking if Billy was all right. Then they decided to take him to the Neonatal unit. I asked, ‘Please, can I see my baby before he goes?’ They showed him to me from a distance as if they were hiding something and rushed him out of the room.

Read the full extract

Share this


Where the River Parts click Where the River Parts

‘With a bit of luck, she would be happy’


The Scottish Suffragettes click The Scottish Suffragettes

‘Shock, anger…and publicity’