Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


8 Comments

Songs of My Land and Yours

Teachers have their own holiday in Mongolia, and the vocational schools of Erdenet traditionally celebrate it by giving a joint concert. “Concert” being a more loosely-applied term in Mongolian than English, these programs often bear more resemblance to what we might term a “variety show.” The show the schools put on during my stint in Mongolia included a fashion show and several dance acts in addition to the expected assortment of songs. Nearly every teacher participated, even if it was only as part of a large chorus.

I was not exempt.

As you may gather from the costume, I was not singing in English.

The song I performed is called Аяны Шувууд (Ayanii Shuvuud), and it is apparently THE song to teach foreigners; if you’ve learned a Mongolian song, it was probably this one.

I learned it from my school’s director during our language exchange – and by “learned,” of course, I mean “memorized.” I know it’s a love song about migrating birds, and I can pick out a number of the individual words, but I’m far from being able to provide a translation. Happily, an English version of the song already exists.

I was made to perform this song over and over again: the Teacher’s Day concert, the staff Shine Jil party, my friend Nathan’s wedding, the students’ graduation party. The first three, at least, were planned, but the last one was a cold call; I was as surprised as anyone else to hear that I was about to sing for the entire school, especially since my memory of the second and third verses had grown a little fuzzy! After that experience, I kept the notecard on which I’d written out the lyrics in my wallet, just in case. If Mongolians know you can sing, they will ask you to do so on a regular basis – especially if they know you can sing in Mongolian. This wasn’t a case of me singled out as a foreigner, though; I was just being treated like everyone else.

Mongolia is a land of singers. That’s not to say that they’re all gifted with perfect pitch and mellifluous voices; far from it. Believe me, there are plenty of tone deaf, raspy-voiced Mongolians out there. But vocally gifted or not, Mongolians sing all the time. Having or attending a party? You can bet that someone will lift a shot of vodka and croon the opening lines to song. The rest of the group will then join in, and not just for the chorus or the first verse: they’ll sing the whole thing through, after which someone else will likely start the process again. Walking the streets at night? You’re bound to  pass a number of karaoke establishments with music spilling out doors and windows. Even on weeknights, you’re likely to hear voices raised in song from the windows of brightly-lit apartments.

And Mongolians have songs for everything. Songs about love and loss, of course, but also about horses, and teachers, and mothers. Lots of song about mothers. And a song or two for every holiday, at least. When I taught Mongolians about an American holiday, they’d always ask for a song about it. “Sing a Thanksgiving song! An Easter song! A Fourth of July song!” It was hard for me to explain to them that we might have a couple of songs that are likely to be sung on Еaster or the Fourth of July, we don’t really have songs about them. The idea that we don’t have songs for every occasion just didn’t compute.

It wasn’t just in classes that I, and the Americans around me, felt stymied when asked to sing, either; it happened all the time during social outings. A typical scenario ran as follows:

  1. Mongolian person begins a (Mongolian) song.
  2. Other Mongolians in group join in, singing the entire song from memory.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times, with different songs and song-starters each time.
  4. Well-meaning Mongolian, seeing that the foreigners have been left out, turns to the Americans and asks them to sing “an American song.”
  5. Americans look at each other, perplexed and dismayed.

Things usually came to a screeching halt at step five, as all the Americans in the group racked our brains for a song we would all know (a difficult enough task in itself!) that was also in some way evocative of America. What were we supposed to sing, the “Star-Spangled Banner?”

We could have, I suppose, but I don’t know that any of us thought of the national anthem as a song, per se. I never considered it, or any other patriotic song, for a number of reasons. To begin with, they’d sound awfully short to the Mongolians, because we certainly wouldn’t be able to sing them in full. Everyone knows the words to the first verse, but how many people know that the second, third, and fourth even exist? Moreover, patriotic songs are not embedded in the popular psyche of the American people in the way they seemed to be in Mongolia. You don’t hear “America the Beautiful” or “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” to a lot of people) on mainstream radio in America; for that matter, Americans, when’s the last time you even remembered the existence of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or sang any patriotic song outside of a sports event? These are songs most Americans sing only in very specific contexts, and because “sitting and drinking with friends” is not one of them, neither I nor any of my American friends ever thought to suggest them to the group.

So if patriotic anthems are out, what’s left? My next instinct would be to reach for folk and campfire classics like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “When I First Came to this Land,” or even “Yankee Doodle,” but those never felt right either, because they’re associated with childhood. These are songs most of us learned in school or at scouts and sang around campfires before proceeding to forget their existence entirely. I, personally, have quite a few of them at my disposal from my years of working at a scout camp, but in those years I also witnessed firsthand just how few people remember these songs more than a few years after elementary school. And if your average teenage scout camp counselor can’t remember the words to one of these songs, your average adult certainly won’t. So these were out of the running too; a song recognized by everyone but known by no one, however great its historical importance, is probably not that representative of the country’s current people and culture–and is impossible to sing as a group.

By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had settled on a suggestion for these scenarios: “This Land is Your Land.” It’s still a campfire song, and few people know more than the chorus and possibly the first verse, but it’s widely-recognized, explicitly about America, and more recent than most of our patriotic repertoire. It wasn’t being put on the spot and asked to sing that brought this song to mind, however; it didn’t become my go-to until after I did a presentation on American folk music on our outreach trip.

I think it says a lot that it took me until March to come up with an answer to the question of the “American song.” Partially, of course, it’s that the American music industry is much larger than its Mongolian counterpart; sheer diversity makes it difficult to find a song we all know and love. But even so, it’s safe to say that music holds a very different place in the culture of Mongolia than America.

Readers, what songs or genres would you consider quintessentially representative of your country, and why?

 


3 Comments

Side Trip into Flower Land

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to sing. She liked singing so much that she did it everywhere she went – at home, at church, in the grocery store. She liked to stop by the flower shop on her way home from school or the weekend farmer’s market, and because she was an audacious child, she somehow managed to talk her way into an arrangement whereby she sang for the florists, and they gave her flowers. Nothing too expensive–mostly the flowers that had broken or been cut too short to fit into arrangements–but to her thinking, a good deal nonetheless.

Many years later, she graduated college and needed a part-time job to fill the summer before she left for Mongolia. Unsurprisingly, “I’m only here for the next three months, and also I want to volunteer at camp for a week in July,” was a bit of a hard sell, and most of the local places didn’t bother to call me back. And then, one fine day, I walked back into the flower shop and asked if they were hiring.

“Not really,” said the manager, “but I can take your name and number and call you if anything comes up.”

And then he took a closer look at me, and I watched a grin break across his face as he asked, “Are you the girl who used to come in and sing for us?”

Blushing deeply, I nodded.

“Mother’s Day is next week,” he said. “Want to start tomorrow?”

I spent that summer doing a lot of grunt work: processing and preparing flowers, schlepping stuff from point A to point B, making deliveries. And helping to set up weddings, which doesn’t really count as “grunt” work but almost always happens at odd weekend hours when the regular employees have absolutely no desire to come in. It wasn’t the most consistent or best-paying job out there, but it was fun and allowed me to work on my own terms, which was really all I could ask for at the time.

So when I had yet to find a degree-related job 2.5 months after returning to the US, I decided it was time to visit the flower shop again. Naturally, this decision coincided with the imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day; timing is everything when looking for a job, they say, and while I have no idea what factors might make me more less likely to land this internship or that full-time position, the busy season for flowers is pretty predictable.

Yes, I was told, they did need an extra pair of hand for Valentine’s Day, and how long had I been back in the country? Why hadn’t I come in earlier?

I made these things! I’ve taken a few steps up the ladder, from driver to rose stripper to underling designer. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months instead of writing. Or rather, this is:

February 24: Valentine’s Day
March 31-April 4: Supposedly a slow week because of spring break, but in fact, parties and birthdays and mitzvahs up the wazoo and a phone that never stopped ringing.
April 14: Passover
April 20: Easter and Orthodox Easter
April 23: Administrative Professionals’ (*couch* Secretaries’ *cough*) Day
May 11: Mother’s Day
May 17: Prom

April was a busy month – we had at least one holiday or massive party every week, on top of our day-to-day business. And while May’s been much calmer so far, we’ve yet to get through prom.

So I should have a nice, Mongolia-related post out for your reading pleasure in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve got boutonnieres to make.

20140514-232512.jpg


2 Comments

All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.


6 Comments

Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.


4 Comments

Mongol-Fabulous

On a lovely day late last April, I sat down for lunch with one of the Greater Erdenet Area Soumers – a Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in a soum a few hours’ drive of Erdenet. The weather had been unseasonably hot this month, with temperatures reaching the 80s (high 20s, for you non-Americans), and since the fur-lined boots she’d worn for the past six months had suddenly become unbearable, she’d come into town to peruse our зах - zakh, or market.

“I found these flats for eight thousand tugs!” she said excitedly, pulling them out of her bag to show me. “They’re a little Mongol-Fabulous, but for that price, they’ll do.” (8,000 MNT, at that time, was worth about 6 USD.)

They were, indeed, Mongol-Fabulous: black and shiny, with bows on the toes and an obnoxiously large rhinestone design on the heels. Neither she nor I would ever have dreamed of purchasing them in America, much less wearing them to work. But here they would blend in nicely.

Mongolian fashion sense, to the American eye, is… a little out there. I don’t like my clothing to sparkle at all, but even if I liked the look in moderation, I’d still find the Mongolian passion for all things bedazzled a little overwhelming. Shirts, shoes, dresses, jeans, hair clips, sunglasses – if it can hold rhinestones, it will usually be covered in them.

Even the wallpaper in your average Mongolian home glitters. It is also likely patterned with enormous flowers, as in the examples below.

Mongolians like prints on their clothes, too. Specifically leopard print. In my fifteen months in the country, the only leopard-printed piece of clothing was the scarf I used as a tail for my Halloween costume, but a number of the female Peace Corps Volunteers adopted the leopard-print leggings trend so popular among the locals.

Speaking of leggings: do they spark debate in other countries, or is that specific to the American twenty-something demographic? Among college-age American girls, there’s a pronounced split between those who do and do not consider leggings to be pants. Personally, I treat them as I would tights: leg coverings that provide decent covering when paired a long shirt or short dress but are, on their own, insufficient. Most of the girls at my alma mater, where North Face jacket + black leggings + Ugg boots was practically a uniform, disagreed.

So, for that matter, do Mongolians. Most of them dress up for work but dress down as soon as they get home, and this often means swapping a dress or nice pair of slacks for leggings. A very particular sort of leggings: the kind lined with fake fur and printed with high-contrast patterns of snowflakes and reindeer.

Yes, you read that correctly. Reindeer.

These leggings are extremely warm; I owned some myself and wore them around the house and when I went camping. I would never have worn them around town, but an awful lot of people – men and women alike – did so regularly.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics. Team Leggings-Are-Pants does not translate readily into Mongolian because there is no separate word for leggings, or for tights: all are called өмд. I wish I had thought to cut out pictures of pants, leggings, and tights in various shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple, and asked Mongolians to sort them according to each designation. I suspect the test would result in a lot of confused, frustrated Mongolians and a random scattering of answers. The Mongolian word for orange is улбар шар, or reddish yellow, while purple is usually called хөх ягаан, or dark pink. Conceptually, the colors don’t seem to exist for most Mongolians, and so they have a hard time applying what seems to be an arbitrary distinction. The same might very well be true of pants and leggings.

Or it might just be another case of Mongolian fashion sense differing wildly from its American counterpart. Some Americans are fans of glitzy wardrobes, to be sure, but Mongolians bring the preoccupation to a scale I’d never seen before.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I've ever seen.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how walk through ice and snow in stilettos without breaking an ankle, but my coworkers treated it as a matter of course. Expats readers, how does the local fashion sense compare with your own tastes?

 


2 Comments

So, Where Can I Learn Mongolian?

… is a question probably asked by very few people, since the language is useful in all of two countries. It’s not an easy question to answer, either, since it’s asked by so few. But if you found your way to this blog by asking it, then you’re in luck, as I will endeavor here to answer it.

To begin with, let me clarify: most of the resources I know of teach Standard Khalkha, the  main language spoken in Mongolia proper, but there are a number of other dialects. The dialects spoken in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, are phonologically and morphologically similar but written in Mongol bichig rather than Cyrillic; whether they are mutually intelligible, I’m not certain.

Peace Corps Materials

The Peace Corps has had a presence in Mongolia for 25 years, and most of its volunteers are placed in the countryside, among people who speak little to no English. Three of the PCVs who left Mongolia in 2013 tested at an “advanced high” language level. Obviously, you’re not going to get the same results without the two years of immersion, but I still have great respect for their teaching materials and methods.

Textbooks

If you want to go the teaching-yourself-with a textbook route, the good news is that there are quite a few out there. The bad news is that most of the ones I have encountered are, quite frankly, terrible. UCLA’s Language Materials Project has a handy, if slightly out-of-date, list of available textbooks, many of which I’ve attempted to use, with mixed results. Some of them are (theoretically) available on Amazon, but I suspect you’ll have much better luck ordering from the Language Resource Center at the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulaanbaatar.

  • While I have no experience with them, the three book Сайн Байна Уу? series is by far the best reviewed.
  • Colloquial Mongolian: The Complete Course for Beginners is perhaps overeager where other textbooks underachieve: in its grammatical explanations. If you are a language teacher or grammar enthusiast to whom terms like “temporal converb” and “perfective verbal noun” have meaning, I highly recommend this book; if not, you will likely find yourself staring blankly at the explanations and wondering if they’re really written in English. My copy did not come with a CD, but I was able to find the audio online.
  • Practical Mongolian-English Grammar uses side-by-side translations grouped via grammatical principle to demonstrate the workings of basic Mongolian grammar. In theory, this should allow the learner to induce the rules; in practice, I found that while I was able to observe a number of patterns, I understood very few of them and needed outside input to test my hypotheses. Which words take -d in the dative/locative, and which take -t? Is ажилчин (worker) pluralized ажилчид because it’s a people word, or because it ends in -н? I would recommend this book as a reference, but not a primarily learning tool.
  • Gateway to Mongolian, if you are able to track down a copy with a CD, can teach you a number of things but will likely leave you frustrated. New vocabulary terms are often introduced in lists without illustration or translation (and are absent from the glossary); grammatical explanations are spotty. Some are helpful, others nonexistent: the new pattern is presented, but its meaning is not discussed. And I found some of the explanations to be completely unintelligible. It’s clear that this book’s authors are not native English speakers.
  • Golden Key to Mongolian suffers from similar issues and is just as difficult to track down. I don’t recommend it.

Online Resources

  • Bolor-toli is probably the most comprehensive online dictionary I’ve found.
  • Byki is a notecard-style program that’s great for basic vocabulary. No grammar and a limited number of vocabulary lists, but it’s offered in Cyrillic or the Roman alphabet, and the basic model is free.
  • Glovico.org offers online, Skype-based lessons. It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but I’d be fascinated to hear a review!
  • LinguaMongolia has a detailed breakdown of the Uighur (Mongol bichig) script, as well as grammatical explanations particular to that writing system.
  • Mazaalai (Mongolian for Gobi Bear) is a Mongolian dictionary app available for iOS or Android. It’s not particularly comprehensive but still faster to use than the average paper dictionary, especially if you’re less than familiar with the order of the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • MongolHel is a YouTube channel with basic lessons for English speakers. There are only seven videos, but the one on vowels is a great supplement for those impossible-to-pronounce diphthongs!
  • MongolUls.net has a few basic tutorials, though the Cyrillic is illegible unless you download the font. More helpfully, it offers a number of short articles on elements of Mongolian culture which, although obviously written by a nonnative English speaker, are still entirely readable.
  • Omniglot has some basic information about the language, including a breakdown of the Mongol bichig alphabet in its initial, medial, and final forms. It also lists a number of language resources.

Colleges, Classes, & Libraries

There are, of course, other lists of resources: this one from “So You Want to Learn a Language” is particularly extensive. It is not, however, concise, and I’ve tried to focus on what will be most useful.  If you’ve got resources you particularly recommend, I’d love to include them here.

Hope this is helpful!


3 Comments

Potty Talk: Squatty No-Potty

As the title suggests, the “Potty Talk” series will discuss defecation, digestion issues, and related parts of everyday life not usually discussed in polite company. If the thought offends, I suggest you read no further. Please enjoy my review of Dijon in ice cream instead.

Why, you may well ask, do I want to talk about poop, on the Internet of all places, where my future children, if I have them, will be able to find it someday–or worse yet, my future in-laws? Because A) it’s a universal experience, B) different cultures approach it differently, and C) I have fun stories to tell. And a good story is a good story, regardless of how puritanical our culture feels about the subject. Frankly, I’ve wanted to do this series for months now, but other topics always seemed more pressing. With my Facebook feed one more abuzz regarding the virtues of squatting, however, it seems the time has come.

-

I have a friend who’s a radio DJ, and because he’s the new guy at the station and therefore works the crummy weekend shifts, I like to call in to his show with song requests, answers to his questions, and veiled references to the camp where we both worked. The first time the temperatures dipped below 0˚F this winter, he asked his listeners about the craziest thing they’d ever been stuck doing out in the cold, so of course I had to call in.

“Does using an outhouse for a week in -20˚ weather count?”

Shuddering audibly, he assured me that it did and asked where in the world I’d been to have to do such a thing. And then he made the comment I’ve heard so many times from people trying to contemplate using an outhouse in below-zero weather: “Did you have to hover above the seat? I bet it must have been awfully cold!”

Seat? What seat?

I suspect most Americans imagine outhouses to be like the one in Shrek: wooden buildings with raised seats, ideally with a lid to cover the the seat, and probably with a cute little moon-shaped cutout in the door. Those with more camping experience might picture latrines like the ones found in the boundaries, which are decidedly more… exposed in nature.

Image credit: M. Byers

Image credit: Voyageur Canoe Outfitters(Left, a lovely cedar seated outhouse; right, a more minimal BWCA latrine. Image credits in the alt text.)

But even the bare-bones outdoor latrine has what I would consider the defining feature of a Western-style toilet: a seat.

This is not the case in Mongolia, where the setup is usually a wooden floor with a missing slat in the middle, through which you can see (and pee) down to the pit below. A nice outhouse is one with four walls, a door that can be latched closed, and a deep pit, but many lack doors and roofs; in the countryside, there may be little more than a shallow pit with two slats to stand on and three almost waist-high walls to provide a modicum of privacy.

Squatting over a hole in the floor instead of sitting on a porcelain chair isn’t a uniquely Mongolian thing, either. Even indoors, I’ve seen plenty of ceramic squat toilets in China and Thailand, some equipped with a flush mechanism and others simply with a bucket of water and a ladle. Generally speaking, I’d simply categorize this as a cultural difference between East and West.

20140207-135424.jpg

Storm door handle during the Vortex. No touchy!

In the case of the Mongolian outhouse, however, the design also serves a distinctly functional purpose. Imagine, if you dare, sitting bare-cheeked on a -20˚ seat–ow! At that temperature, just touching a door handle barehanded is painful enough, as I was reminded during the (overhyped) Polar Vortex. Worse yet, contemplate the possibility that the outhouse’s previous user was a little splashy, and that liquid hasn’t quite frozen yet. We all know what happens when you touch an ice cube with wet hands–it sticks. I suspect that the same thing could happen with a splashed-on outhouse seat, except that with that much skin involved, detaching oneself would be much more difficult. And if you can’t get unstuck yourself, and assistance is not forthcoming, you could literally freeze to death in the outhouse.

I can think of ways to die with less dignity… but not many.

So while using a Mongolian outhouse in the winter was a decidedly brisk experience, I was very glad not to risk freezing to the facilities every time I decided to use them. And a few months into my grant term, I learned that squat toilets had other benefits, too.

When this video first made the rounds, I was skeptical. As a long-time Girl and Venture Scout, I’d been using the outdoor “facilities” for years even before I traveled to Asia, and let me tell you: if you’re used to using a toilet, relieving yourself without one is NOT easy. Most Western women, when asked to pee in the woods, would probably do the same thing we do with dirty public toilet seats: hover in an approximately seated position–not because it makes much sense to do so when there’s no toilet to hover over, but because it’s what we’re used to. I did this at one point too.

The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It’s extremely difficult to tense the muscles needed to hold you upright while simultaneously loosening the ones that release your bladder.

Even if you know you’re supposed to do a full squat, and that it supposedly allows you to void your bowels with less effort, it’s easier said than done. Most of us Westerners are apparently doing it wrong, since we ceased squatting in childhood and have let the necessary muscles atrophy:

Our on-the-toes method of squatting is less stable and harder to sustain, and I suspect instability is the last thing any of us want when crouching over a pit full of feces, especially if the boards we’re crouching on are icy.

I got this lovely diagram from an article on the health benefits of squatting that’s currently making the rounds on Facebook, but if you haven’t seen it and can’t be bothered to click through, the  reasons it lists to squat are:

  • ankle mobility
  • back pain relief
  • hip strengthening
  • glute strengthening
  • posture correction
  • (possibly) decreased risk of arthritis

Whether I’ve seen any of these benefits from the time I spent squatting in this or that outhouse (and over the course of a year, it adds up!), I can’t say for sure, nor have I bothered to check out the medical studies cited for the Squatty Potty’s claims. But I can say that my ability to do a full squat has vastly improved in the past eighteen months, even if they only way I can sustain it for any length of time is by bracing my elbows against the insides of my knees à la malasana, the yoga prayer squat:

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that's not malasana.

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that’s not malasana.

And the Squatty Potty’s claims that a “sensation of satisfactory bowel emptying” is easier to achieve when squatting, once you’ve learned to squat properly? Totally true. Which is especially important when emptying your bladder and/or bowels means putting on several layers, trekking out to the outhouse, and then taking some of them off (at least partway) in below-zero temperatures. Believe me, you don’t want to have to do that any more often than necessary.

So while I strongly appreciate the ability to use indoor facilities once more, there are times when I actually miss squat toilets. Amazing what some time abroad will do to your perceptions and preferences–even the most alimentary ones.

(You know I had to crack at least one poop joke in there. Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 903 other followers