IST – Cultural Q&A

During the first few days of IST there was a question box for PCVs and CPs to anonymously ask questions related to Mongolian or American culture, respectively. When we had the Cultural Q&A session, the groups were mixed but PCV and CP pairs were in separate simultaneous classes and we were reminded that what would be said in the class could be sensitive and to not use names if giving examples and to not gossip about who said what afterward.

I always feel a bit strange in the representing-America aspect of Peace Corps service (2nd Goal), since I often feel like an outsider, at least until I don’t anymore. That probably surprises some of you. If so, I’m sure you can appreciate that the inconsequential question of “How do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?”—the most American of holidays—has no one answer. Yet, how you go about your day-to-day life will be seen as America personified. This is true of all foreigners living abroad, of course, but Peace Corps regularly reminds us and asks us to let it guide our behavior.

Since answering questions about American culture is like holding a mirror up to the country—how do we see ourselves?—I was relieved to have other PCVs not only to help field the questions, but also to get their insight into the many facets of American culture. I realized almost immediately that the fact that certain questions were asked was incredibly insightful into the mindset of that group. I hope that gets conveyed here.

Okay, standard preamble out of the way, let’s get to more Mongolian (and American!) cultural insights. Woo-hoo!

Oops, one more thing. As I’m about to write this, I realize that there is the potential for readers to make judgments about the limited information I present and I take full responsibility for only giving an overview rather than a complete explanation, which isn’t possible. If negative opinions result, let this blog be an opportunity for discussion. Thank you.

Why don’t Mongolians enforce homework completion?
It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach. It’s their democratic right not to do homework.

Why do Americans put their things on the floor?
Excellent question… why do we do this? Among the things we PCVs were instructed in culture sessions during PST is that Mongolians do not put their personal items (back-pack, purse, etc.) on the floor. It was so far off my radar that, were it not pointed out, I probably wouldn’t have noticed at all. It seemed curious that it was worth mentioning so I paid attention in the real Mongolian world, and it’s true! Purses are usually on the chair (in the seat, not on the back) and women sit to accommodate them. I’ve noticed that on the playground, while children are playing basketball, the back-packs are all on a bench, not the ground.

Why do Mongolian women dress like they are going to a party when they are going to work?
I’ve already written about how Mongolians dress professionally, but is it too much? Here’s what they had to say: Teachers are seen as a role model—they take it seriously. In some schools, teachers are required to wear a uniform.

Why do Americans have beards?
Would you have thought this would be noteworthy or controversial? Kind of hard to answer, right? So, the Americans in my group turned the tables: Why do Mongolians dislike beards? Usually, Mongolian men do not grow beards until after 33 years old; not while their father is alive.

When my hashaa family checks on me at night, are there customs I should follow?
Unfortunately for the person who asked this, there wasn’t a suggestion in our group. However, there was consensus among the Mongolians that they are probably just worried about you. Aww.

What surprised you about Mongolian culture when you arrived?
Oh boy, so many things I never wrote about! Here’s what we came up with as a group, with my two-cents: personal space—that should be lack thereof. It is not uncommon for groups of friends, boys, girls, men and women, to walk arm-in-arm, to sit with their arm around another, or to touch an arm or knee intentionally, or to unavoidably have limbs continually pressed up against the limbs of someone you don’t know, like when we sit two-to-a-chair in my director’s office; shared rooms—while I lived in my host family’s small room, they slept together in the large room (what we’d call the living room). Of course, families in gers have only one room; teenagers are helpful and able, not in the “given chores” sense, but in the having responsibilities sense; eating hunks of fat—yup, not only is there no “lean meat” but the fat is a side dish, too; my Boston peeps will understand why my personal favorite cultural paradox is drivers who consistently use turn signals but have no patience for pedestrians.

Why do Mongolians eat so much more meat over vegetables and fruit?
 I was particularly interested in this because I would have chalked it up to “tradition” but the answer is much more insightful: there were fewer options in the old times. Ohh!

What are some American customs for receiving unexpected guests?
Before I get into how this went down, let me explain the Mongolian custom. When a guest arrives, expected or unexpected, immediately the candy dish is presented to them. If it happens to be mealtime, food and drink are given to them. The national election happened during PST; when the campaigners came to the door at suppertime, my host mom gave them a bowl of soup! From what I’ve read, a bed will be offered if needed. It is this hospitality that has allowed the Mongolian nomadic culture to survive. So, I can’t help but wonder the incident(s) that lead to this question. Now, how did we handle it? The ten of us looked from one to another, shaking our heads, utterly perplexed. Hmm, we don’t do that, we thought. It is more likely to call first, we said. Now, I know for a fact that some of you live in the ’burbs, where you received welcome-to-the-neighborhood casseroles. So, let’s see if you agree with this summary that one of our peers put his finger on, much to our collective relief: if it happens, the guest says “sorry for not calling,” and the host says “if I’d known you were coming…”

Given that it’s a collectivist society, when/how do Mongolians find time to be intimate?
Jeez… really, Americans? Shaking my head… I guess it is a legitimate curiosity, and the writer gets points for creatively phrasing “when/where do you have sex?” But, jeez… (By the way, there is no answer… sort of like “How do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?”)

One Response to IST – Cultural Q&A

  1. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    Once again I feel I have been enlightened culturally, both in regards to Mongolian and also to the American culture! The Q re: “Why do Americans put things on the floor?” I found interesting. At 1st I thought it was referring to “messy” Americans but as I read I realized it wasn’t talking about a messy bedroom or such, it was “personal” items, like a backpack, etc. I consider myself a neat person but I DO put my work backpack on the floor at home, in he kitchen, in the corner, underneath the hook on the wall where I hang my coat! Granted, it’s sitting on a little scrap piece of carpetting so it’s not on the linoleum, but I’m guessing Mongolians would still consider it “on the floor.” Why do I do this? Because there’s room there, I won’t trip on in (it’s in the corner), it frees up a hook for more coats and it’s easily accessible and ready to grab when I grab my coat to go to work. Look forward to others’ comments about these Q & As.

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