I’ve given several examples of the Peace Corps cultural training that was brought to life by the Mongolians I have encountered: the students on the playground who put their backpacks on the bench, not on the ground; my host mom rolling down her sleeves before accepting a gift. I’ve often wondered if I would have picked up on these subtle cultural cues if they weren’t pointed out to me beforehand. But I’m starting to think I would have, eventually, because of the sheer number of other observations I’ve made.
Many years ago, I went to Italy with my mom. It was her first time abroad and she was shocked that there would be graffiti juxtaposed with the breathtaking architecture. Well, the buildings aren’t as nice to begin with but Mongolia has graffiti, too. What I’ve noticed, though, is that it isn’t where you’d expect it to be. In schools, there are great big murals in high traffic corridors and in secluded stairwells. There are no mustaches drawn on the people, no defacing of the landscapes, no initials carved into the paint. Is it Mongolian national pride that prevents these kids from leaving their mark? Is it respect for creativity? Is it just because I’m in a small town? I don’t know. But it continually impresses me.
I have mentioned more than once that Mongolians delight in eating fat. What I haven’t mentioned is that, though Mongolians are on the short side, they otherwise come in all shapes and sizes.
So far as I know, I don’t know any Americans with kidney disease. Americans tend to be more private about chronic health problems, so it’s possible that I just don’t know this information about the Americans I know and have met. But I’ve had at least 6 Mongolians tell me they were receiving treatment for kidney disease. Honestly, I don’t know anything about it. Is it genetic? Environmental? A more broad diagnosis encompassing many ailments? I don’t know.
I’ve mentioned that personal space isn’t a thing here: people regularly hold hands or link arms while walking, rest their hand on your knee or thigh while sitting next to you, or reach across you to plug in or unplug their phone (rather than ask you to do it). In the workplace, I’ve mentioned how patients poke their heads in the doctor’s office to see what’s happening. And on a regular basis, I’ve had coworkers enter my office and come around to look at my computer screen while asking “what are you doing?” It’s less of an issue here since they likely can’t read English, but it’s a behavior that would never fly in my previous hospital jobs.
In America, there are all kinds of native accents; I lost my Boston accent after moving to San Diego at 13. Additionally, speakers of certain foreign languages (Russian, Italian, etc.) give us an accented English that is readily identifiable with their native language. Here’s something that I find very curious: I can’t hear a Mongolian accent. When Mongolians speak to me in English, it is clear that it isn’t their native language but that’s all I know. My M22 site-mate said that it was probably because we are in Mongolia and that when we meet Mongolians living abroad, we’ll be able to parse out their Mongolian accent, at least better than folks who’ve never lived in Mongolia. I’ll have to report back on that.
One observation that was particularly striking (haha!) is how Mongolians strike a match. Of course, we need candles for when the power goes out, which has happened 3 times last week. I should also explain that Mongolians often light incense and light candles when someone dies. (Just a few weeks after arriving at my site, there was a memorial to someone who had passed away. When I saw the dozens of tea-light candles on a table, unattended, in the Education Department corridor, I instinctively thought “Fire! Danger!” As far as I know, there is no fire department in Govi-Altai.) On such an occasion, Mongolians might give to their friends/co-workers a gift bag, including milk, incense, and a box of matches. The practice seems to be that when you receive matches, you promptly light one (be it in the office or the teacher’s lounge) and let it burn down as far as you can.
Now, it never occurred to me that there would be cultural variation in how one strikes a match so if I don’t explain it, you’d likely imagine it’s done the way you do it. First, it’s important that these are wooden matches, because this wouldn’t work with a match from a matchbook. Okay, so you have your wooden match, hold it from the end and hold the box in the other hand so that there is about a 30 degree angle between them, each 15 degrees from the vertical line, then strike down. Then you let it burn out, often rotating it to ensure the flame doesn’t extinguish prematurely.
I mentioned this observation to my CP and she asked how I strike a match. So, I demonstrated holding the box parallel to the floor so that I can strike away from me, and then I put my forefinger over the tip of the match and placed it on the strike surface. It was at that moment that she gasped. And it was at that moment when I realized my fingertip is where the flame would be in a fraction of a second and I totally and completely understood her fear on behalf of my finger. So, I’d never given it thought before, but now I realize that using a matchbook match requires the pressure of the fingertip on the match tip to create the friction necessary to ignite the match. This isn’t true with a wooden match and those are the only kind I’ve seen here, but since that’s how I learned to strike a match, that’s what I continue to do.
Finally, a shoutout to my Greek friends. Why? Because Yanni is HUGE in Mongolia. His 20-year-old inspirational instrumental ballads are a staple at awards ceremonies and celebrations. Weird, yet comforting.