Tsagaan Sar

Tsagaan Sar (meaning both white month and white moon) is Mongolia’s most revered holiday. It coincides with what Americans might refer to as Chinese New Year, though the Mongolians I mentioned that to didn’t like it one bit, and rightfully so, I think. Since they are celebrated completely differently, Mongolians should get the recognition of their own holiday for the Lunar New Year, which is a big deal here. I am the Year of the Dragon, as are my host mom and dad (they are 12 years older), which is why I wanted my new deel to have dragons.  🙂

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

Whereas Naadam is all fun and games, Tsagaan Sar is full of tradition and custom. The American equivalent to Tsagaan Sar would be if you took the food of Thanksgiving (not the actual food, of course, but that food is the centerpiece), the gift giving of Christmas (according to the Mongolian rules of gift giving), the fanciness of a formal New Year’s Eve gala (not that I ever attended one), combined the expense of those three holidays, and threw in some serious spring cleaning.

During the week or two prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians spend hours upon hours cleaning their homes in preparation for visits from family and friends. They go shopping for gifts to give those who come to their home. They prepare bite-sized, meat-filled dumplings (bansh, buuz) by the thousands to feed those who come to their home. Little work-work happens during this time, especially that week prior to Tsagaan Sar.

This year, I was able to help two friends with their bansh making. In both instances, all the preparation (rolling out the dough, filling the dough with meat, pinching it closed) took place on the floor. Very curious to me, given that this is such a musical culture, was that there was no music. I think of painting parties or such back home and there’s often music to occupy our minds while we do the task at hand. But here, in each home, the tv was on as background noise but what was on didn’t seem to matter. For all intents and purposes, bansh making was a very quiet affair.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat's worth of bansh.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat’s worth of bansh.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

The first morning of Tsagaan Sar some families watch the sunrise and circle the ovoo 3 times and give a milk offering. I was invited by Oyuna, one of my medical college ladies, to join her and her husband, who is one of my students at the vocational school. This time of year, in this part of the country, sunrise is about 9am. Unfortunately, the morning of Tsagaan Sar was overcast and cloudy, but at around the time of the sunrise, people around me raised their hands toward the sun. (It was the closest thing to religion I’ve seen here, apart from visiting a monastery during PST.) During the wait for the sun to rise, I’d entertained fantasies of returning home and taking a nap, since the first day of Tsagaan Sar is family day. At this point, I didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Now, I’ve just explained that Tsagaan Sar is a time to visit families, but I’m going to spell this out for you because I didn’t fully understand what that meant until I was a part of it. I went with Oyuna and her husband to Oyuna’s oldest family member’s home, then to Oyuna’s home. I was starting to question whether I should stay, or rather, whether I was supposed to go (being very aware of my gadaad hun (outside person) status, I wasn’t sure if my still being there was appropriate). So I asked and Oyuna said that I should stay with them because otherwise I would be alone and I shouldn’t be alone. I didn’t have a problem with being alone, but neither did I have a problem with accompanying her and experiencing Tsagaan Sar to the fullest.

So, here was my revelation: IT WAS THE SAME PEOPLE. I visited 4 apartments and 5 or so gers before I lost count. Oyuna later told me it was 13 homes altogether. You know how, in America, individuals host the big holiday and everyone gathers in that home, probably relieved that they could skip hosting this year? Yeah, that is not Tsagaan Sar. At Oyuna’s, the second stop, I recognized some people, either the people themselves or their fancy deels or hats, and dismissed it thinking, “well, of course they’d be here, they’re family.” But at the 3rd, 4th, and 5th homes, I finally understood. Everyone hosts everyone. It’s a wacky idea that they each take very seriously.

That morning, at the first home wearing our deels and hats, getting in a line from oldest to youngest, we did the formal greeting (zolgokh). This was done only once, and later in the day as newcomers (who’d been visiting spouse’s families?) arrived. But everything else was repeated at each home: the milk-tea, the plate of ham and pickles, the host presenting the tower of bread and candy or aruul and saying “eat, eat” (well, the Mongolian equivalent which sounds exactly the same!), the formal presenting of the snuff bottles, the bansh, the vodka, the gifts (10 hours later, I had 20,000 worth of crisp tugs, an assortment of chocolates, and a shampoo/conditioner set). By my estimate, I ate between 30-40 bansh that first day—nowhere near the PCV record of 130—and I was super proud of myself at this assimilation even as I longed to go home and floss.

Zolgokh. Elder's arms above, younger's below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Zolgokh. Elder’s arms above, younger’s below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true... someone was watching).

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true… someone was watching).

As Tsagaan Sar lasts 3 days officially, this scene played out a handful more times over the next two days, with me visiting a few friend’s and a few student’s homes. I’ve written 1000 words already, and included pictures, yet I feel I can’t really capture “what it was like” for you. During this time, and having little to do with how the Mongolians treated me, my emotions ran an intense gamut, including: being in awe (faced with the deep-seated tradition that I always found lacking in America), impatient (when will she call to invite me?), annoyed (at the short notice, “please come now”), overconfident (look at my shiny new deel!, as if that’s all it takes to fit in), shy (the only way I can reason not having taken advantage of this opportunity to speak Mongolian), frustrated (that I couldn’t be in control of my own food, especially the intake, “eat!”), incredulous (the snuff bottles, again? You just did that!), jaded (another sheep carcass on the table), exhausted. Was I a guest? An intruder? Is it possible to be at once ignored and the center of attention? Did I just sum up life as a PCV?

Last year, my M22 site-mate, Brittany, observed that, with a 27-month commitment, Peace Corps service gives you “a first time and a last time” to experience most of the holidays. As overwhelmed as I was, it is a bittersweet thought that I will not be here for the next Tsagaan Sar. Happy Year of the Horse!

Because I can't have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.

Because I can’t have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.

8 Responses to Tsagaan Sar

  1. susanne woyciechowicz says:

    Thanks again for writing detailed descriptions. It really is special to read about the customs, ceremonies and life there through your eyes. I guess I should rad a book written by a MOngolian too. Is there one you would recommend translated to English?

    • eelevol says:

      Susanne, I’m afraid I cannot recommend a book written by a Mongolian, translated into English. When I found out my Peace Corps placement was to Mongolia, I guess I searched for Peace Corps experiences. Since I can’t recommend a book, I can at least recommend two films as a starting point: The Weeping Camel and Genghis Blues.

      • Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

        @Love, I read your reply here to Susanne and looked up both films that you recommended to her. The 1st one, “The Weeping Camel,” can be seen for free online at: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-story-of-the-weeping-camel/ but the 2nd one, “Genghis Blues,” I haven’t been able to locate yet; I checked Netflix, Red Box and my channels w/DirecTv. Hopefully Susanne has better luck finding that one.

  2. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    I love Susanne’s question: IS there a book you’d recommend Love, written by a Mongolian, translated into English? Thank you again for such an informative blog entry! I especially like your paragraph towards the end, listing all of the feelings/emotions that were going through you. Why? Because sometimes when I’m reading your entries, I think, “Boy, I could never do that, she’s so brave, so adventurous, so outgoing,” etc., but that 2nd to last paragraph reminds me that you ARE human, that you’re thinking and feeling what I would have in that situation, that we humans are complicated creatures and can feel very different and mixed emotions all at the same time about the same experience. BUT, the difference w/you is, although you recognize all of your different observations and feelings, I think you end up concentrating on the positive ones, “looking on the bright side,” and I just love that about you.

  3. Kathy P. Willis says:

    Well my sweet niece, I think you’re very brave… not just for going to a foreign country; learning their language; integrating yourself into the families; but the biggest feat of all… tasting the food! That for me would be a turn off. Normally I’m not a fussy eater, there are just a few things I’m not crazy about, but kudos to you for trying & enjoying so much of it.” (Even though the dental floss is close by – lol!)

    I know that our “traditions” here aren’t like theirs, however I must say that Thanksgiving & Christmas are pretty close. I think though, that the sad part is many family members are scattered & that makes it more difficult to come together now-a-days.

    If you ask any mom here in America what she’d like most for those two holidays, I bet she’d say, “to be with family”.

    Totally agree w/Priscilla, love your positive outlook & also the pictures which make everything come alive for us.

    Keep smiling, love, Auntie ❤

    • eelevol says:

      Thanks for your comment, Auntie.

      I don’t mean to dismiss American holidays. But, I’ve always been aware that they are celebrated differently family to family (and that’s true even if you don’t count the first- or second-generation Americans). Being here only emphasizes that.

      Using Thanksgiving as an example, some families watch the parade, some watch and/or play football, some cook the meal from scratch, while others have the whole meal catered. When my friends and I celebrated Thanksgiving in 11th grade, I was appalled that someone mashed the cranberry sauce instead of slicing it, which is the only way I’d ever seen it done. Some people stuff the bird and some don’t; and some don’t have a bird. When I worked at video stores and movie theaters, the actual holidays were always our busiest times.

      These might be small differences individually, but with 300 million Americans, the number of variations is huge. Mongolia has only 3 million people, by comparison, and it’s remoteness and Soviet control (until the 90s) kept it pretty insulated from outside influence allowing these traditions to be maintained and passed on. It will be interesting to see how the next generations are raised.

      You make a good point though, about families being scattered across America. And as Mongolia develops its infrastructure, that’s another thing that will influence how close families live to one another and how often they visit.

      I feel like my blog is part of a time capsule of these 2 years in Mongolia and I’m certain we won’t have to wait long to see major differences between Mongolia now and the Mongolia of the future.

  4. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    A coworker had a couple of questions: “1. I wonder if the teenage children are annoyed with “traditions” the way American teens can be?; 2. Do the families seem to use this time to compete with the cleaning and cooking (in the way Americans sometimes do for the holidays)? I imagine they are more humble and respectful than we are by nature; somehow, I bet we’d find a way to amp it up and be competitive and powered by consumerism, not that we have the same tradition of everyone making the rounds to everyone’s homes all on the same day.” Lastly Love, this coworker wants you to know that: “I really liked your blog and feel sad that the journey “we’ve” been on is coming to an end. I feel privileged that you have brought me along. Thank you for all of your blogs.”

    • eelevol says:

      First, a reply to you, Priscilla. Thank you for continually re-posting this blog and having these conversations with your coworkers. It’s extra special for me, knowing that this information about Mongolia and the Peace Corps extends beyond my network in a way that is more direct than just posting it to cyber space.

      Now, in response to your coworkers questions:
      1. Of the teenagers I spoke with (and I had a lot of Tsagaan Sar-related conversations prior to the current school vacation), all were very enthusiastic to talk about this holiday. They said it was “a lot of work” but it was in a matter-of-fact way, not in an I-wish-we-didn’t-have-to-do-it way. I’ve casually touched on the fact that teenagers here have real responsibility around the house and have a respect for their parents that is unquestioned. Meaning, if they are asked to do something, it will be done. And often, it is done before they are asked. I feel it is a topic worthy of its own blog entry, but I’m not sure how to “research” it. Meanwhile, I can point out that in both of the Tsagaan Sar bansh-pinching parties I attended, there were 2 or 3 teenagers helping who were not part of the family. Whether they volunteered or were asked, I don’t know, but the point is, they showed up for someone else’s bansh-pinching party even though they surely helped in their own family’s, too. So, that’s an additional 4 hours of work (minimum) that they could have, presumably, opted out of.

      2. I can’t be sure if there is competition in the way we think of it. Nothing was said to me, and I can’t understand enough conversational Mongolian (between Mongolians) to know whether these types of comments were said around me. I do know that there is cooperation. Just as the teenagers above helped non-family members pinch bansh, my teacher friend (from the first bansh photo above) made her family’s bansh at her brother’s ger, and he and his wife helped (along with 3 of her students). There may be elements of status that show in how a family celebrates Tsagaan Sar. Maybe how many bansh you make is an indication of how many people you know, and maybe that translates to how important you are. Or, maybe having horse-meat or beef bansh is more impressive than the usual mutton. But those are just guesses from an American perspective.

      Your co-workers last comment is most appreciated. I’ve been re-reading some of these entries lately and it’s amazing how much I’d already forgotten while I’m still here! (How I dread the day when I am home and someone asks “So, how was Mongolia?” because however I respond, my answer will be incomplete and I might just have to refer them to the blog before I suffer an aneurism trying to answer that question.) So, I want to say to your co-worker, and everyone else, Thank you for reading my blog! Because of your interest and questions, I’ve had the motivation to keep this updated and I know that it is something that I will refer to, and reminisce with, in the years to come.

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