deel video

February 7, 2014

Mentioning my M22 site-mate, Brittany, at the end of my Tsagaan Sar post was supposed to remind me to include a link to this video that she made last spring. It’s a collection of images of people in various stages of putting on the traditional Mongolian deel (totally G-rated!), set to the song The Hardest Button to Button. In the case of the deel, that likely refers to the button under the armpit but can also be those pesky buttons at the neck. It closes with an image of a water tank with some surprising graffiti: “Welcome to My Hood” written in English. The video is just under two minutes long, and, yes, you can catch a few glimpses of me, but I recommend you watch it because Britt put a lot of work into it and it deserves a wider audience.

And as long as I’m promoting videos, here‘s another one that was put together from some Mongolia PCVs the year before. This one is a straight up dance video (>3 min) showcasing Mongolians and Volunteers from the city of Erdenet. Such fun! I watched it multiple times before coming and each time I focused on something else: the clothes, the weather, the buildings, the snow, the cows, the people. Then, I met some of those people during PST… they were awesome.

Enjoy!


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.


Mongolian food

January 3, 2014

I read somewhere that “no one comes to Mongolia for the food.” That’s a really harsh and insensitive statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. Meaning, unfortunately, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have a craving for the cultural cuisine. Much of the Mongolian food is very labor intensive. It is not uncommon for a meal to take 1-2 hours to prepare. (Which, actually, now that I think of it, might be standard but remember I didn’t really cook before I came here.) For anything involving dough, that is made from scratch.

The main courses:

Buuz – (pronounced “boats”) round, meat-filled dumpling. These can be eaten as is or made mini (“bansh”) and added to soup, which also contains meat.

Giddis – literally translates to “stomach” but refers to any of the animal innards. I did it. Once. A bite of intestines. The taste is tolerable, but the texture… slimy… It took everything I had to swallow it, and then everything I had left to keep it down. Once was enough. Thankfully, I have seldom been offered it at site.

Goat head – (I guess the Mongolian is close to yamaanii tolgoi) now that’s exactly what you think it is. During PST we had a culture day where many traditional foods were awaiting us so that we could be prepared when we entered our communities. The goat head is boiled and there isn’t much flavor. And, yes, I did it. I ate a bite of goat face. It tasted like boiled meat and the texture was meat texture.

Horhokh – this is very popular on outings in the hudoo. The meat is cooked with big chunks of root vegetables (never enough for my liking) and because it is cooked in a sealed container, it is very juicy and tasty. Everyone eats with their hands (and maybe a knife) from a large communal bowl. And there’s a jar of pickles with it!

Horokh – not to be confused with horhokh above (I can’t spell with these non-Cyrillic letters!!) Horokh is a stir-fry. Another presentation of the same root vegetables…

dinner_26jun2012_small

Huushuur – flat, meat-filled pancake. Deep fried. Now, this I actually like because, rule number one, everything tastes better fried. If you can add soy sauce, or ketchup, it’s that much better. During PST, my Mongol mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I asked for “makh-gui huushuur” (literally “meat-without huushuur”). Turns out that is called “tomis-tai huushuur” (literally “potatoes-with huushuur), but they also added carrots and turnips. That was really yummy comfort food with surely no nutritional value. I didn’t care.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

Ohkh – fat. I’ve said it before, Mongolians eat the fat. It could be mixed in with the meat (like in sausage), but I’ve also seen it served, fried, as a side item on a plate. All of these dishes here include fat. Recently, I’ve started to see it as not so crazy. We eat bacon, which has a lot of fat. Don’t get me started on the pork rinds… so, still crazy, but not so crazy.

Shol – soup. With meat, vegetables, noodles, rice… It’s soup. Don’t be fooled though, even nogoo-tai shol (literally vegetables-with soup) has meat in it. And, fat, of course.

Can you see the fat?

Can you see the fat?

Tsuivan – home-made noodles, mixed into a stir-fry. This can be great with lots of root veggies mixed in and a packet of “tsuivan seasoning” or it can be noodles and meat and fat… It’s generally a large portion, either way.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

The various dairy products:

Ahruul– yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth so all the liquid runs out, and it becomes hard as a rock and is kind of fermented. The shelf-life of ahruul is infinite, which makes it ideal for nomadic people since the dairy product needs no refrigeration. Ahruul, the centerpiece of every holiday, takes many shapes and forms. I can, and sometimes do, eat the “chikher-tai ahruul” because it is a bit sweet, and usually bite-sized. The regular ahruul is too hard for my teeth.

Ahrtz – sour, kind of crumbly. There’s an ahrtz popsicle which I mistakenly bought one day. I ate it, but now that I know, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Tarag – yogurt. My Mongol mom and I once sat at the kitchen table and had a refreshing snack of yogurt; I added honey to mine. That evening, she turned the precious tarag into ahruul!!!

Uurim – the cream off the top off milk (maybe); this is thick. You can spread it on bread and add a bit ’o sugar.

The drinks: even in the heat of summer, we would have hot drinks. During PST, on a sweltering day, as a site-mate neighbor and I were heading inside to have lunch, we talked about the reason for this. I had chalked it up to being a custom; he thought it was the way to make the water safe. So, maybe that is how the custom got started.

Suutai-tsai – milk-tea (more milk than tea), sometimes with butter and/or salt. The tea used for this comes in a large block (like a 5 pound chocolate bar I was once given).

Tsai – tea. This is usually regular old tea bags. At my host family’s, it wasn’t uncommon for several people to reuse the same tea bag. You can get Lipton, which costs more, or Akbar is another popular brand and that one comes in a variety of flavors (lemon, berry). Then there’s green tea from Korea. I’ve really developed a taste for green tea since coming here.

Booze – So, I guess here is where I talk about the prevalence of vodka in Mongolia. It’s pretty much a guarantee at most functions. And, there aren’t really mixed drinks here, so it’s all shots all the time. You can sip it and pass it back, that’s what I do. Be careful, though, because that shot glass keeps coming round til the bottle’s empty. Or, if you really want to abstain, you can dip your right ring finger in and flick three times in three different directions. I’ve tried that because some people can be a bit aggressive in their offering, but sometimes they don’t like me flicking… not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner or because they’re intolerant of teetotalers. There’s also beer, wine, and a bottled sangria that are often done in shots. Alcoholism is a concern in Mongolia (there is high unemployment and vodka is super cheap = bad combination); the last two years the president has toasted the New Year with traditional milk-tea.

I’ve saved the best for last…

Airag – the famous fermented mare’s milk: sour and thin like water, rather than thick like milk. I’ve seen them milking horses, but so far as I know, no one drinks the horse milk unless it’s been turned into airag.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

This is popular during each of the two biggest holidays, Naadam and Tsagaan Sar. Now, you can also get camel airag, which I had at last year’s Tsagaan sar and actually enjoyed. It’s a bit creamier than the original. And my hosts added a bit of sugar to it, which made it more palatable for me.

Tsagaan Sar is just a few weeks away! Fingers crossed for timeenii (camel) airag!


gifts

December 18, 2013

‘Tis the season for crowded shopping malls, wrapping paper, and stocking stuffers. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve long since given up on the traditional presents, giving instead the gift of me. That is, time spent with me. Or, as I think of it, time spent with you. In a family where the next generation of kids wanted not for another toy, I saw it as a win-win solution to the obligation and stress of the holidays. And though my sister borderline shamed me as a “Grinch,” I held steadfast to my convictions: a movie, dinner, or play sprinkled throughout the year, or a big weekend in NYC, was more meaningful than a present under the tree. (BTW, there was no shaming when she was the one in Times Square!)

Right now, I’m missing that stuff. I miss planning the next adventure with the special someone. I miss creating those memories that will be relived and shared for years to come. Can you say the same about standing in lines; express shipping; paying that extra money for yet another toy to trip over or gadget that will be used twice a year? Man, this stuff gets me haughty!

So, what is gift-giving like over here in Mongolia? Well, it’s different for sure.

My first gift was to my host family. I’d picked up some See’s Candies lollipops from the San Francisco airport. My preliminary research (the facebook group for new Mongolia volunteers) suggested that candy was always a welcomed gift. I didn’t look further. Rule #1: your gift doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Immediately prior to accepting her box of lollipops, my mom rolled down her sleeves. This was mentioned in our cultural trainings. Rule #2: do not accept (or give) gifts with sleeves pushed up.

Then, mom took the gift and put it aside. This apparent indifference is typical Mongolian behavior. Rule #3: the recipient doesn’t react excessively to having received a gift (or maybe even react at all). You could also say that the opposite, squealing while gushing “thank you,” is very un-Mongolian behavior.

When mom did look at her gift, maybe 5 minutes later, she was curious and appreciative. Rule #4: always be appreciative.

The rest of these examples can be summed up as Rule #5: it is always okay to give a gift, and Rule #6: it really is the thought that counts.

In Govi-Altai I’ve had a few more encounters with gift giving. During my first month, I went to a wedding celebration for one of the school teachers. The mom invited the entire Education Department to her ger. The department presented a monetary gift (wrapped in a khadag), which I wasn’t asked to contribute to. Upon leaving the ger, each of us was given a travel mug and a crisp, new 500 tugrik note (about 30 cents).

Over the year, I’ve occasionally had teachers, students, and community members come to my home for help with English. Since that’s why I’m here, the prospect of a gift is literally the last thing on my mind; I’m just grateful to be utilized. But I’ve enjoyed packs of cookies, a jar of strawberries, a bottle of juice, and even a silk rose.

Tsagaan Sar, when you visit the homes of friends and family and eat (the same food) at each one, is the biggest holiday in Mongolia. (Last year I did it on a small scale, visiting only 6 homes.) It officially lasts a few days; unofficially, a few weeks. Each guest received an unwrapped gift which appeared to be kind of a random match. Among the items gifted were: a wallet, photo album, dress shirt (does it fit? who knows!), lamp, notebook, and Khan Bank calendar/pen set. The giving of the gift seemed to signal that it is time for you to leave. Brilliant!

To prove I’m no Scrooge, here’s some holiday cheer.


To trust or not to trust?

February 17, 2013

This blog is an example of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal, for Volunteers to give Americans a better understanding of the cultures we serve. This depends on me and I don’t update as regularly as I or some of you would like. But it’s the Second Goal—giving our host country a better understanding of Americans—that happens every day. Some of this is deliberate, as when a holiday coincides with an English club and provides the vocabulary of the lesson. But more often than not, the Second Goal is inferred from our reactions to some chance encounter. That is, our unintentional, unscripted, unfiltered, honest response to all that we take in.

There are certain aspects of what I think of as American culture that I don’t want to share with the Mongolians. This occurred to me this week following a knock on my window. When I pulled back the shade to see who it could be—it was 8pm and long since dark—there stood a family I didn’t know, the mom waving papers. So, I opened my door and led them in, without locking the door behind us, to see what it was they wanted from me from within the warmth of my apartment.

It didn’t take long to understand—the printed email promising lottery winnings scream “scam!” to anyone old enough to remember AOL or young enough to not remember a time before “google it” was a way of life. We weren’t always internet savvy, though—it’s a skill we learned through trial and error—so even if we don’t remember it, it’s easy to understand the vulnerability of people who have little reason to doubt combined with the desire of wanting to believe in a sudden windfall of fortune, wherever they happen to live.

While this was playing out, I was experiencing a sort of PCV-déjà vu. Soon after arriving at site, a fellow M23 experienced this exact scene and wrote about it in his own blog. (When I reread it, the parallels between our experiences in Mongolia are pretty striking.) What I remembered that night is that he found our Peace Corps-provided dictionary lacked the word “scam” so, without bothering to look, I attempted other ways to convey that message. The Mongolian word for “lie” seemed to get it across. My mind racing, I also said, in English, “not true” which the older daughter understood and translated. The mom’s hope vanishing, she looked for reason. “Яагаад (yaa-ghaad)” she asked, maybe rhetorically. I’d recently learned the word ашиглах (ah-shig-lakh), which means to exploit or take advantage of and is somewhat easy to remember, assuming you can remember that ашиг (ah-shig) means profit. But I didn’t think of it in English, so it remains one of many missed speaking opportunities.

The first thing I take from this encounter , and this goes back to what I wrote previously about how strange it is to me that I represent America 24/7—because people are always watching—is that I didn’t know them, but they knew me. At least, they knew that I am an American and that therefore I speak the English of the email, and they knew where I live. I don’t know where they live. Are they my neighbors from across the street who might have watched me putter around my room, unbeknownst to me? Or did they seek me out from across town? Will I see them again? Or will this be the one time our paths cross? I’d like to think I’ll see them again, that we can learn from each other. But as of now, they’ve had this one ten-minute period in which to form their opinion of me, and America, by extension.

That brings me to the second thing I take from this encounter, and the thing I don’t want to share with the Mongolians about American culture: that crime in America is so hyped that we are a nation ever en guard, suspicious of everyone’s ulterior motives, waiting for the proof that we were right not to trust people from the start. It has become a place where the idea of opening your door to a stranger is akin to a hen inviting a fox into her coop. Between our 24-hour media’s “if it bleeds it leads” mindset, and Hollywood’s sensationalized “inspired by true events” stories, we’ve been duped into thinking that shark attacks are likely and twelve-year old boys must follow mom into the women’s room, rather than use the men’s room by themselves.

This preemptive mistrust baffles me. It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet, many of those who wax nostalgic about their carefree youth will repost a negative story with lightning speed or perpetuate a rumor without fact-checking first, keeping everyone on edge indefinitely.

As much as I resisted this thinking at home, our stranger-danger mentality still followed me to Mongolia and I even asked my site-mates whether it was okay to tutor a student in my apartment without getting permission from the mom or even knowing who the mom is. “What are the rules,” I wanted to know. Apparently, as far as interpersonal relationships go, the rule here is trust and not in the you-have-to-earn-it sense.

Suffice it to say that I feel very safe here, in Mongolia in general, and in my aimag in particular, to the point that when this unknown mom and her two unknown daughters were standing around my table looking at this email and my unlocked external door was opened, followed by my unlocked internal door, and this unknown man who was the unknown woman’s husband entered my home, I am proud to say that my instinct was not fear. And as it was the end of Tsagaan Sar—the lunar new year, a major holiday here—the man and I went through the ritual, which involved me placing my outstretched arms beneath his outstretched arms (since he is my elder) and each of us leaning in, nearly touching, first the right cheek, then the left cheek, with a sniff and the traditional greeting. He then passed me his snuff bottle with his right hand, I accepted with my right hand, and raised it to my nose and sniffed each side of the closed bottle.

And I lived to tell about it. The line between naiveté and trust just shifted.