gifts

December 18, 2013

‘Tis the season for crowded shopping malls, wrapping paper, and stocking stuffers. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve long since given up on the traditional presents, giving instead the gift of me. That is, time spent with me. Or, as I think of it, time spent with you. In a family where the next generation of kids wanted not for another toy, I saw it as a win-win solution to the obligation and stress of the holidays. And though my sister borderline shamed me as a “Grinch,” I held steadfast to my convictions: a movie, dinner, or play sprinkled throughout the year, or a big weekend in NYC, was more meaningful than a present under the tree. (BTW, there was no shaming when she was the one in Times Square!)

Right now, I’m missing that stuff. I miss planning the next adventure with the special someone. I miss creating those memories that will be relived and shared for years to come. Can you say the same about standing in lines; express shipping; paying that extra money for yet another toy to trip over or gadget that will be used twice a year? Man, this stuff gets me haughty!

So, what is gift-giving like over here in Mongolia? Well, it’s different for sure.

My first gift was to my host family. I’d picked up some See’s Candies lollipops from the San Francisco airport. My preliminary research (the facebook group for new Mongolia volunteers) suggested that candy was always a welcomed gift. I didn’t look further. Rule #1: your gift doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Immediately prior to accepting her box of lollipops, my mom rolled down her sleeves. This was mentioned in our cultural trainings. Rule #2: do not accept (or give) gifts with sleeves pushed up.

Then, mom took the gift and put it aside. This apparent indifference is typical Mongolian behavior. Rule #3: the recipient doesn’t react excessively to having received a gift (or maybe even react at all). You could also say that the opposite, squealing while gushing “thank you,” is very un-Mongolian behavior.

When mom did look at her gift, maybe 5 minutes later, she was curious and appreciative. Rule #4: always be appreciative.

The rest of these examples can be summed up as Rule #5: it is always okay to give a gift, and Rule #6: it really is the thought that counts.

In Govi-Altai I’ve had a few more encounters with gift giving. During my first month, I went to a wedding celebration for one of the school teachers. The mom invited the entire Education Department to her ger. The department presented a monetary gift (wrapped in a khadag), which I wasn’t asked to contribute to. Upon leaving the ger, each of us was given a travel mug and a crisp, new 500 tugrik note (about 30 cents).

Over the year, I’ve occasionally had teachers, students, and community members come to my home for help with English. Since that’s why I’m here, the prospect of a gift is literally the last thing on my mind; I’m just grateful to be utilized. But I’ve enjoyed packs of cookies, a jar of strawberries, a bottle of juice, and even a silk rose.

Tsagaan Sar, when you visit the homes of friends and family and eat (the same food) at each one, is the biggest holiday in Mongolia. (Last year I did it on a small scale, visiting only 6 homes.) It officially lasts a few days; unofficially, a few weeks. Each guest received an unwrapped gift which appeared to be kind of a random match. Among the items gifted were: a wallet, photo album, dress shirt (does it fit? who knows!), lamp, notebook, and Khan Bank calendar/pen set. The giving of the gift seemed to signal that it is time for you to leave. Brilliant!

To prove I’m no Scrooge, here’s some holiday cheer.


Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.