the other blog

April 4, 2013

It’s been longer than I realized since you were last invited To Mongolia with Love, and yet, I’ve been writing lots… Through the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program, which matches Peace Corps Volunteers around the world with American classrooms,  I’ve been communicating with a school in Minnesota. It is a wonderful opportunity for American students to see the world through the eyes of another American, since we, presumably, have a similar foundation for cultural norms and expectations. That is, American Volunteers will be better able to identify the cultural similarities and differences, than if you were to ask someone from the host country.

Maybe you’ve had a curiosity, but hadn’t turned it into a question. Maybe you’ve been a loyal follower of this blog and something I’ve written has struck you, in a good or bad way. Maybe you just want to know everything, making any one question insufficient. Well, these kids have done the work for you. I’ve found their questions to allow me to revisit some of what I’ve written, to force me to think of things I hadn’t thought of, and to reflect on my experiences after time has passed.

The direct link to the current content is here . But as the other classes are added, you’ll want to go here and choose the group of questions from the dropdown menu (by hovering over 2013 Peace Corps Correspondent Match – Mongolia).


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 🙂