pet peeves

April 14, 2013

Alright, so I do a lot of gushing on this blog about how I’ve adapted so well, how the people are so encouraging and supportive, how charming the culture is, etc., that you may be wondering if I ever have a bad day. How can you trust what I have to say if it isn’t balanced reporting? Surely there must be things that bug me, right? Well, I generally do describe myself as “more happy than not happy” but, yes, even I can get disgruntled. So, what does it? What causes me to regard something as annoying in Mongolia? Here goes:

The date

By usual American standards, we would write today’s date as April 14, 2013. We know, however, that other parts of the world would write 14 April 2013, and we can accept this. In one of our language classes during PST, our teacher wrote the date on the board and received the ultimate, most sincere objection ever from fellow trainee Steven, “Absolutely not, you can’t do that! Why would you ever do that?” So, what could she have done to bring about such resistance from this otherwise gentle California dude? She mixed Roman numerals with regular old numbers. To write 14/IV 2013 is unfathomable.  

Watch Your Step

When I wrote about the streetlights going off exacerbating the danger of the coverless manholes and the uneven streets, you may have been led to believe that the walking hazards were limited to outside. But that is hardly the case. It may even be the norm that staircases are uneven in Mongolia. When climbing up, every time I go to put my weight down, only to end up slamming my foot on a step that is an inch or two lower than expected, I think “Why?” Sometimes, because the whole staircase was off, that last step up is only an inch high. And they aren’t just differing heights, but they slant in every possible direction. And we all know I have large feet by American standards, so in Mongolia they are especially large. But, still, I think the depth of the stairs is far too shallow. Either I walk on tip toes, or else I walk diagonally. Going down is particularly challenging.

I can’t read this!

So, ten months later, I still have trouble with differentiating between the “O sounds” as previously written, but what’s worse is that I can’t read anything in Mongolian that isn’t written in block Cyrillic. There are a few people in my life whose penmanship is so unique (first prize to Krin!) but, being written in English and me having a vested interest in understanding them and already knowing the context, such notes are decipherable. There are so many acceptable ways to write letters here that even words that I know look foreign (ha!) to me. I will post a picture of this, I promise. Then, of course, there is the whole issue of spelling Mongolian words with the Roman alphabet (a.k.a. English) but to accommodate sounds that don’t exist in English, there are multiple acceptable spellings for single common words. Sigh…

That’s not a word!

 “За” (Za) is probably comparable to “um” in terms of how often it is used. But, whereas “um” is a space filler, “za” apparently has actual information. I’m just not confident enough to try it out. Depending on the situation, it could mean, “yes, I hear you” (not that I necessarily agree with you), it could indicate a transition to another topic, or that the discussion has come to an end.

That’s a brand.

There are certain brand names that we (Americans) use in place of the generic. I was once so aware of this that I wrote them down, but all I can remember offhand is Xerox and Chapstick. And maybe White-Out, some version of which is still in use here. In Mongolia, it’s Scotch, as in packing tape. I don’t know the word for tape because I’ve only ever heard “do you have any Scotch?” The funny thing is I’ve never even seen the Scotch brand here! 

Are you having difficulty breathing?

What’s really weird to me is that I missed this for the first 2 months… I suppose it’s similar to our “mm-hmm” or “uh-uh,” instead of actually saying “yes” or “no.” What the Mongolians do, and I don’t see myself adopting this, is a breathy exhale or inhale. The word for “no” is “үгүй,” phonetically that is “oo-gwee” but it’s generally shortened to “oh-go”—in fact, my host family seemed to tease my need to say it as it is spelled (all in fun and no hard feelings). Now, the shortened “oh-go” is further shortened to just the “go” part, but it is said as if you were Darth Vader. And, I’m going to have to assume that from there, the breathy inhale for “yes” evolved (since it’s the opposite of an exhale) because I can’t otherwise explain it. But, everyone does this. It doesn’t have the same formal vs. casual connotations that our shortened versions seem to have. And once I became aware of it, I hear it all the time.


And now for a few things that aren’t pet peeves exactly, but they are noteworthy and I can’t think of another place to put them.


I’ve noticed this since the beginning and somewhere I have a picture of what I mean, but I’ll try to explain it here. The wiring in this country, especially in the older buildings, is an afterthought. There are exposed wires that are tacked along the wall to get to the destination, or else an unsightly hole in the wall to let the wires out. Light switches and outlets are sometimes dangling from the wire, not attached to the wall. (It’s common enough that Peace Corps rules for host families specified that the Volunteer’s room had to have an outlet attached to the wall.) Despite this apparent apathy towards the aesthetics of electric pathways, there are often very flamboyant lighting fixtures. Certainly, there are just as many bare light bulbs, but when there is a light fixture of any kind it is sure to be eye-catching.

Hop in!

Motorcycles are very common here, as I’ve documented previously. What I haven’t said is that a significant portion of them (maybe 5-10%) have a side car attached. I recently saw an эмээ (Em-may, grandmother), wearing the traditional Mongolian deel, riding in a side-car. No pics yet, but surely it’s just a matter of time.

IST – Cultural Q&A

January 5, 2013

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?”)


October 7, 2012

One of my professors at San Diego City College, the brilliant and animated Bill Stewart, encouraged his students to ask questions because, as he said, a third of the class was probably wondering the same thing. I have always loved how he framed our inquiries as though they were for the benefit of the quieter students. It trampled on the “there are no dumb questions” approach to getting students to participate, and instead made it our duty to ask. Like I said, he was brilliant.

In that spirit, here I introduce the first Q&A blog entry. These questions are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Tricia.

Do you have any containers that you can fill with water for those days it is not flowing? 

Here, she is referring to my plumbing that, as I wrote to her, has repeatedly been shut off. In 6 weeks, it’s probably happened about 6 times but not in any scheduled way that would allow me to plan for it. (Might be due to the construction on my street.) It’s lasted for as little as 10 minutes to as long as 8 or 10 hours.

To answer the question, I have a Peace Corps-provided water filter (which deserves its own blog entry) so that I am able to drink, and cook somewhat depending on what I am making. It holds about a gallon of water, and the lesson learned is to promptly fill it so that I am never without drinking water. If the drought were to continue for an extended time, I could purchase bottled water from almost any of the delguurs, however, there is no recycling here so I hesitate to do that unless it was urgent.

Do you have refrigeration?  Freezer?  Oven? What about containers for leftovers?

I do have a refrigerator with a freezer inside. It’s about 3-feet high, though they have smaller and larger in Mongolia. The freezer, however, has no door so either the entire thing was a freezer or I turned down the setting, which is what I did. In the winter, I could use my entry room as a freezer, like the people who live in Mongolian gers use their ping (boxed-in area covering the door, to keep out the cold weather). But I don’t expect to freeze much, food-wise, since I don’t buy anything frozen, and have been making meals with only 2-3 extra portions, which I finish off in the next 3-5 meals.

I have a table-top electric burner for cooking. (There are two burners but I was told only one works so I never tried the other.) I also have a rice-cooker, which I always wanted in the States and never got. I do not have an oven. The PCVs with ovens are willing to share, though, and at our site-mate dinners I have benefited from their ovens in the form of pizza, garlic bread, home-made pretzels, and most recently a chocolate cupcake with coffee frosting and caramel drizzle. Thankfully for me, the ovens are not wasted on non-bakers or the stingy!

As for containers for leftovers, I’m all set there. Since there is no recycling, I have been reusing, mostly pickle jars. The longer I’m here, the more jars I will accumulate and use for all manner of storage—not just food. But, because I am so conscious of the absence of recycling, I hesitate over impulsive items (like single serve juices) since additional uses for the bottle is limited, relative to a jar.

Hey, how’d you like your toothpaste? I remembered that was included while I was brushing mine thinking I needed to replenish our stock.  And I smiled a little knowing Toms would be a nice treat.  Like you mention, it’s the basics we appreciate more when we go without them.

Ah, stream-of-consciousness writing… how it speaks to me. Here, she is referring to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste which she lovingly included in my care package. It was indeed a treat. In fact, I had stopped purchasing Tom’s at home because I was finding it a bit pricey and hard to find my favorite flavor: fennel. Trader Joe’s used to have it at $2.99 but then they introduced their own brand and the Tom’s went up, and I tried the TJs brand—I believe they even had fennel—and didn’t like it as much. Ho-hum. This is probably a luxury item that will remain off the care-package list, but would make me smile if it were to emerge from a box.

How far are you from where you work? Which bldg is it?  Is it one of the pics posted?  How far to post office (again)? Do you walk everywhere?

This reminds me that I never posted the link to the new Permanent Site photo album. It is here. Forgive me for redirecting you; I am still having trouble uploading to this site.

My apartment is about a 7-minute walk to work. The post office is about an 8-minute walk in the opposite direction, so that if I walk from work to the post office, it is about 15 minutes. Yes, I walk everywhere. Unless, as has happened 2 or 3 times now, a coworker driving by stops to take me the rest of the way. “Thank you for sparing me those 3 minutes of walking!” Really… maybe I will appreciate it when it is winter but now it seems silly, despite being a nice gesture.

I bet people think that Mongolians drive jalopies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the vehicles here are HUGE: Jeeps and Land Rovers and such (I had to write “and such” because I don’t speak car, but you get the idea that they are big SUVs). It makes sense because of the roads. Some of the paved roads have giant pits and some of the dirt roads washout in the rain so that people just blaze a new trail. However, and I find this particularly noteworthy, one of my coworkers has a hybrid 🙂

They also drive motorcycles, sometimes 4 deep: the dad driving with a kid in his lap and a kid sandwiched between him and the mom at the back. I saw the same thing in India and did my first triple-take. No worries for me though; Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from riding on or driving a motorcycle, not that I’d have been tempted.

Some of the kids here have bikes, but I have no intention of getting one. Why not? Bicycle maintenance, winter, and bad roads dissuade me.

There are also taxis, but having barely taken them across Boston, I can hardly rationalize taking one across Govi-Altai. Again, maybe when winter hits.

Beef stewing it tomorrow. Oooh…can you get yeast easily?  And flour?  Eggs?

Oh, yummy! (Even though I would pick around the beef, which is amazing given some of the things I have eaten here – food blog entry in the works.) I believe yeast is courtesy of care packages, or else found in the capital. But, since I do not have an oven, I’d be less likely to use it. Flour and eggs are readily available. In fact, I made my own tortillas from scratch! (Chris, are you reading this?! Who am I?!) Until then, I thought they were uniform circular disks that came in packs of 8-12. While mine were far from uniform, they tasted like bona-fide tortillas 🙂


July 1, 2012

I went for my first visit to the countryside last night. It was after 8 when my mom and sister appeared at my bedroom door and said we were going. When I realized they meant me, too, and I looked at my watch, my mom laughed and gave me the option to stay home, but I was too curious.

The trip started with the Jolooch (driver) inflating his front left tire with a bicycle pump. The driver was on the right side in this particular car, but Mongolia has both kinds depending on where they originate. My grandma got priority seating in the front passenger seat, with a young boy on her lap. My mom, sister and I got in the back seat with the little sister. The neighbor’s husband got in next to me and I said, “whoa, cozy!” So, when his wife got in to the 5-passenger vehicle and sat on his lap, I was speechless. I’d heard the stories, but this was my first experience.

The ride was nearly an hour, because only about 20 minutes of it is on the paved road when the Jolooch is able to get up to 60km/hr, the rest was between 20-40km/hr. I wonder if a Mongolian driver could tell you how much it is to fill up his tank… A curious thing we’ve noticed is that the drivers tend to run on empty, stopping once a trip to get as much gas as you can pump in 60 seconds or so. Oh, and the car was running the first time that happened so i guess you won’t blow up which I was somehow led to believe.

I’d assumed we were going to see my dad who lives in the countryside and whom I’ve only seen about once a week, but it was his brother’s place and he wasn’t there. The brother and wife live in a ger (rhymes with “care”), the traditional Mongolian one-room round house. I couldn’t tell if there was a special occassion, but there were about 20 adults—-gers are very spacious! They served me Sulte-tse (traditional Milk Tea) but otherwise, left me alone to observe. We stayed an hour or so and the ride home was just as cozy.