‘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.