July 10, 2014

This week is Naadam, Mongolia’s big summer holiday. The winter holiday, Tsagaan Sar, has all the tradition; Naadam simply has fun. I experienced two Naadams while I was in Mongolia. The first was in my training site, Orkhon, during PST. The second was at my permanent site, Govi-Altai. For the most part, the only difference was in scale, Orkhon’s being much smaller, Govi-Altai’s being a bit larger, and neither coming close to the size of the UB Naadam. It seems all soums celebrate their own Naadam and the dates are staggered a bit from the national Naadam and one another.

It’s an official 2-3 day holiday devoted entirely to sport, specifically wrestling, horse-racing, and archery. So, businesses are closed but stores would be open (unlike during Tsagaan Sar). There is music, dance and singing, too, so even if you don’t think you’re interested in the competitions, you could still have a good time. And those are just the events in the stadium. Outside the stadium there were pop-up carnival-type activities like a bean-bag toss and a throw-the-dart-pop-a-balloon game (that one without any safety precautions whatsoever for passersby!). It was the first time that I saw whole families out enjoying the day together, little kids flying kites. Mind you, we had only been in the country for 5 or 6 weeks by the time of that first Naadam, and my soum had only ~2000 people.

As it turns out, my favorite of the three “manly” sports was the wrestling. Tradition oozes out of every aspect of the sport, from the moment the men (only men wrestle) come onto the field wearing their summer deels and Mongol malgai (malgai = hat), it really is captivating to watch. Once the match is over, the winner does a sort of dance inspired by eagles in flight. And after, the two competitors come together and the winner raises his arms over the other. It’s really hard to explain with words without it sounding clunky because you know they’re not thinking “now I have to do the eagle dance… now I have to honor my competitor.” It’s just what they do.

Naadam is also the time you’re likely to be offered airag, the traditional fermented mare’s milk. I had it at the first Naadam in Orkhon, where there was an entire ger devoted only to airag. They also set up gers to sell huushuur, the official food of Naadam. My first year it was made with geddis (the stomach, etc), not my favorite, and those gers get mighty hot because of the non-stop deep frying inside.

My second year, in Govi-Altai, my Counterpart said that I should wear my Mongolian summer deel (dress) to the stadium at 9am. What she didn’t say was that the entire Education Department would march around the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies. There isn’t actually a lot of status with that, many groups in the aimag did it, but it is just one of those examples where I was given the least amount of information possible 🙂 Oh, Mongolia…

I wish I could post pictures for you here but it is difficult since I am on the move. Eventually, it will happen. Happy Naadam, everyone!

Tsagaan Sar

February 5, 2014

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.


January 7, 2014

New Year’s Celebration #1 was the office party. We had a week-long kick off with the “monito” (like a secret Santa) who left small gifts on your desk every day. This was great: a pack of cookies, some gummy snacks, a juice box. The party was at a restaurant that was decked out as if for Christmas. A musician brought his murin huur, but played only one song live; the rest of the evening he was the DJ. I tell you, the dancing was nonstop and everyone got up there at some point. No wallflowers allowed! In between the songs, there were games and end-of-the-year staff awards. There was also a raffle of home items from the department: rice cooker, iron, even a washing machine! Finally, there was the gift to your “monito” (which in my office was not the same person you’d been giving gifts to all week, but the person you’d been receiving from). Our limit was 20,000 togrogs (about $12) and I got my guy (I was told it was a young guy) a nice sweater for exactly that much. The evening lasted over 5 hours and I’m sure I can say a good time was had by all.

Mongolian(s) waltzing.

Mongolian(s) waltzing.

The two-people-eat-one-apple game.

The two-people-eat-one-apple game.

The pass-a-card-in-a-circle-without-using-your-hands game.

The pass-a-card-in-a-circle-without-using-your-hands game.

The monito gift exchange.

The monito gift exchange.

The raffle winner of the new washing machine.

The raffle winner of the new washing machine.

The champagne toast.

The champagne toast.

New Year’s Celebration #2 was the school party. I’d imagined a small-scale, classroom-based affair, but no. This was school-wide and so it had to be in the gym. It also included awards (for the outstanding seniors), dancing (choreographed), students playing morin huur, Winter Grandpa, kids in animal costumes, and two kids in clown costumes who were really obnoxious, but I think that was their job. I wish I could have stayed longer but not knowing it was such a big event, I’d only allowed myself two hours.

Principal recognizing the graduating class.

Principal recognizing the graduating class.

One of the many dance performances.

One of the many dance performances. The clowns are trying to pick up the dance in the back corners.

Winter Grandpa, appreciating the kids' show.

Winter Grandpa, appreciating the kids’ show.

Kids playing that gorgeous morin huur.

Kids playing that gorgeous morin huur. A shot where the clowns aren’t misbehaving.

New Year’s Celebration #3 was with my CP’s family on New Year’s Eve. It was a quiet evening at their home, which seems to be the norm, at least in Govi-Altai. The TV was on, but the channel was changed quite a bit. I arrived at 10pm but was still given food to eat. At midnight, we toasted with champagne and ate cake. This was the same routine we’d followed last year, just the 5 of us. And it occurred to me that I won’t be there next New Year’s Eve. The Mongolian president came on TV, in a ger surrounded by people I am to assume are his family, and he toasted the New Year with milk tea. Also, my CP said that he thanked the foreigners living in Mongolia, helping to move the country forward. Boo-yah.

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.


February 7, 2013

The invitation was so casual; I had no idea what I was getting myself into a few weeks ago when my CP asked if I would sing my Mongolian song for Teachers’ Day. Without asking any questions (other than “When?”), I agreed. This would be my third official time singing Аяны Шувууд (Ay-nee Show-whoa), not counting the two wedding parties I never wrote about where, as tradition goes, at one point someone decides it is time to sing and each guest takes turns leading a song.

Not working in a classroom, I wouldn’t be experiencing the Teachers’ Day I’d heard about during PST. How an older student takes over teaching the lesson to her peers and a teacher might wear a student uniform to class. I wanted to be involved in some capacity, so I didn’t hesitate to agree.

The Wednesday before the Sunday performance, I rehearsed the song for the first time. The keyboardist took the song I knew as a ballad and made it double-time with a backing track that had none of the melody I would recognize. We also tried at the speed I was accustomed to, but they were all agreed it should be peppy. So, I went with it.

On Friday morning, I showed up at work as usual when my CP announced we were going to the theater for rehearsals. She and I had just wrapped up a 2-week stretch of working daily with the Govi-Altai Music Ensemble—about 30 singers, dancers and musicians—teaching them an English song for one hour, followed by an English lesson for the second hour. They were such a friendly, eager group to work with; they made my busiest two weeks, my best two weeks. Since they all sang when they were with me, I didn’t realize until that morning that I didn’t know how each of them actually fit into the ensemble. From my seat in the front row, the first dance performance made that clear. Three men, one of whom was the choreographer, took to the stage with moves resembling horse riding, squats-turned-kicks reminiscent of Russian dances, and lots of knee-to-stage impact that made me cringe in awe. It was riveting, and watching the men dance reminded me of my best guy friend in high school who channeled his energy and creativity to become an esteemed choreographer and dancer.

The scale of this performance was becoming clear, and the singers (not just the professionals, but the other laypeople like me) were so vocally gifted that I put my thoughts on being visually interesting to make up for my vocal shortcomings. Always one to move with the music anyway, and this song being made up tempo, I tried to incorporate movements consistent with the lyrics. Since the song is about love across a great distance, I used some from-me-to-you and from-you-to-me hand gestures, including a hug to myself. When I would sing about the traveling bird, I would flutter my left hand across the stage. I tried to keep it simple, partly so that I would be consistent from rehearsal to performance, and partly so that I didn’t too sharply contrast with the Mongolian singers who stood stoically throughout their songs, the better to showcase their voices.

Saturday was the dress rehearsal. With the costumes added to the performances of the day before, I had no doubt I was out of my league. At no point did I reconsider, however, because I could feel that everyone was supportive of my being involved and encouraging me to do my best. Maybe it helped that I had worked with them the past two weeks, but I think it was more their nature that allowed them to welcome this amateur into their folds.

Following the dress rehearsal, the Artistic Director gave feedback to the singers and I could tell it was related to everyone’s wardrobe by the way the man in the black suit looked down at his brown shoes. (Besides, members of the Ensemble wear their performance costumes so they weren’t there for this part.) The director actually called out my name and turned to my CP in the audience with a message, which she explained to me as “you need to wear tights and shoes” (instead of my black workout stretch pants and Mongolian boots). Well, we had already made plans to procure the items, accepting that my dress wasn’t nearly formal enough but it was the dressiest thing I’d brought, but the whole thing ended up being moot. When I arrived on Sunday at noon, I was met by eight Mongolian women and a large pink strapless dress. So, I went with it.

Perhaps it was my theater background that allowed me to undress in the middle of the auditorium with sixteen eyes upon me and the likelihood that more would arrive since they were expected. (Thankfully, that didn’t happen.) After a fair amount of adjusting by several of the women, sometimes me, sometimes the dress, it fit well enough but its length and the very high heels caused me to be unsteady on my feet. To my great surprise, my CP said that if it meant I couldn’t dance then I should wear my boots instead; no one would see them, and they liked my dancing that much! And that’s how Love happened to wear the most formal dress of her life with Mongolian winter boots underneath.


In the green room, one of the singers, whose English is better than my Mongolian, said to me “sometimes, makeup.” So, I went with it. I borrowed some foundation, lipstick and mascara. There were several attempts to teach me the proper way (i.e., the ladylike way) to lift my dress so that I could walk without stepping on it, but that was expecting too much of the girl with the boots on.

The show went off without a hitch. The dancing couple nailed the lift they’d had trouble with in rehearsal. There were no wardrobe malfunctions. No singers were accused of lip-synching. The lights didn’t go out, which would happen at the Super Bowl later that day.

Immediately following the show, the education department whisked the entire staff (about 16 of us) out for dinner in a private karaoke room. They had me sing the bird song again, and a few English songs, too. I tried to sing along to their slower songs by reading the lyrics on the TV. It was an exhausting, but very worthwhile day. There are so many more songs I want to learn, and though not yet at the halfway mark, I already feel that my remaining time is short.

You can see pictures of the Teachers’ Day performances here.

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?”)

IST Challenges

January 3, 2013

IST – In-Service Training

Before I get into this, I should preface it with a disclaimer of sorts and that is: I love this stuff. I love getting diverse people together and asking questions (leading or open-ended, it doesn’t matter to me). I love seeing concepts illustrated with images, brainstorming and team-building activities. I love sessions that present something of which I’ve had only an inkling and walking away feeling illuminated. I love hearing what others have to say and especially that moment when I think, “I had no idea. You just blew my mind.” I readily admit they don’t all go this way. But, I also love giving honest, constructive feedback… muah-ha-ha!

Normally, I go to these meetings that I enjoy and take notes that I feel are important and then never look at them again—just one of my idiosyncrasies that bugs me. But, this blog is the perfect excuse (why do I always need an excuse?) to revisit what I felt was worth writing down. If I am right, at the end of reading this, you’ll have some insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Mongolians.

In the “Expectations and Challenges” session, we were asked to recall our expectations when we got to site, then list our current challenges. Note, I’ve cherry-picked these responses to highlight the cultural aspects.

One of the Mongolians’ expectations was that we would become accustomed to living in the Mongolian winter. (One month after my exposure to the frigid UB temps and my big toes are only about 85% normal; strike one for Love.) They also expected that we would be an active member of our schools. Seems fair enough, right?

The PCVs’ expectations included a desire to use our skills other than English (we are more than just TEFL beings) but, at the same time, that our CPs be aware of our limitations (e.g., just because we can read English, does not mean we can fix your computer).

And now, the challenges
The Mongolians listed “pets” at the very top of their challenges in dealing with American PCVs. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but, as a rule, Mongolians do not have pets, though there are many dogs and some cats throughout the country. The dogs in their hashaa (yard) are guard dogs, and even those are feared. Dogs are the reason our host families wanted us home before dark. (In defense of this reasoning, dog bites are a very common reason for a PCV’s trip to the medical staff in UB.) Cats are seen as evil spirits, as I understand it. So, the PCVs who take in a stray dog or cat are effectively creating a wedge between themselves and their community. Makes it hard to host a dinner, for example.

Another hot-button issue for the Mongolians is the everyday appearance of their PCV. Mongolians, as a rule, are very professional looking. Remember that the average PCV age skews post-college, but even those of us who are outliers likely came from casual workplace environments. Yes, it’s true that we had to pack for 2 years (including all seasons of clothing) and were allowed only 100 pounds of baggage, but this complaint isn’t about the wardrobe, per se. For, even if the Mongolian women wear the same three dresses, they are always clean and presentable. A big sigh to the Americans hand-washing in a tumpun… or not, as it were.

Also on the list of challenges for the Mongolians is their PCV’s Mongolian language skills. Here, I hang my head in embarrassment (strike two for Love.) I had thought my motivation would translate into learning, all by itself. Not to say that I’m not putting in effort, just that by my own standard I am not doing nearly as much studying as I had thought I would and am therefore not nearly where I expected to be after 7 months in the country!!! Please hear me when I say this, it is a two-part message: 1. any foreigner who enters America and works with people who speak their native language (as my CP speaks to me in English) will have great difficulty learning English on their own just by merely living in the culture; 2. any American who ever uttered the words “if I were going to move to a country, I’d learn the language” as if it were the most effortless thing, and held the oft-accompanying belief that not learning the language was a choice made by the individual—is ignorant. Yes, I just said that. My built-in thesaurus gives me these alternatives: unaware, uninformed, rude, impolite, inconsiderate. Any of those will do, too. I’d also add xenophobic. Long before Peace Corps, I was preaching from the learning-a-foreign-language-is-hard soapbox. I’ve always admired those who are conversational in a second language, but only now can I really empathize with those who are struggling with English. Only now do I really champion those who try, especially when they are wrong.

Aaaaand, back to the list.  A few other things the Mongolians find challenging when dealing with American PCVs I will group as their concern for our wellbeing: what are they eating? are they eating enough? can they make a fire? are their clothes warm enough? are they missing home? did they remember to lock their door? Some of the PCVs, easily and understandably, misinterpret this as patronizing the helpless American and find it suffocating and even belittling. But not me! Not Love-of-the-frozen-toes! I’d tell you I’d embrace this kind of being cared for, except that I don’t live in a ger (which comes with a hashaa family) so I’m not experiencing the brunt of it. Maybe that’s also why I can see that it comes from a place of concern.

Now for the American challenges living in Mongolia and working with Mongolians: As casual as we Americans are, we love our clocks! We want the Mongolians to make a schedule and stick to it; give us as much notice as possible; not be late for meetings and especially NOT not show up at all. I find this fascinating.

We want the CPs to understand that we have responsibilities to Peace Corps in addition to those of the HCA and when they conflict, the PC expectations win out.

We pointed out that PCVs face the challenges of: “diminishing interest” in our roll over time (my very first Staff English class had about 8 people; since then it is usually 4, and not the same 4, despite their insistence that I am a good English teacher); “lack of specificity/details” in what they’ve asked us to do; differences in school and classroom norms from what we are used to.

Observation 1: I wrote above that the Mongolians expectation was that their PCV would be an active member of the school? Turns out the PCVs would counter with “don’t assume we know what’s going on” event-wise (and, of course, “give us as much notice as possible”).

Observation 2: Juxtaposed to that list of Mongolians concern for our wellbeing are a special set of PCV challenges summarized as “understand our stresses.” This was explained as being away from friends and family, struggling with the language, where to buy warm boots… not exactly parallel lists, but certainly overlapping ones.

It’s a fine line between understanding and assumption. IST was a valuable, eye-opening week for PCV-CP relations, Mongolian-American relations, and Love-PCV peers relations, since none of us is having the same experience in the Peace Corps, in our jobs, or in Mongolia.