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.


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Please note: I have no doubt that this adaptation flouts all kinds of Mongolian storytelling conventions and adds, changes, or leaves out many details. The bare bones of this story were translated to me over lunch this past weekend, and I have retold them in the fairytale style familiar to me. Mongolian friends, if you have names or commentary to share, please feel free to do so.

Long ago, the world was not the cold and snowy place it is today. Instead of one sun in the sky, there were seven, and they scorched the earth with their harsh rays. The rivers held barely a trickle of water, the ground was dry and sandy, and the sheep and goats were always hungry because the grass was brown and dead. The people were hungry too; a starving sheep will not feed many people, even if you eat his lungs and his eyes and make soup from his intestines. The people were dying of hunger and thirst in that land baked dry by seven suns, but no one knew what they could do to make things better.

Finally, a young man stepped forward. He was the best archer in the land, but he was also very proud and arrogant. “I can solve this problem,” he bragged. “I will shoot the suns out of the sky, and then we will no longer live in a desert.”

The others laughed at his ridiculous boast. “You’re crazy,” they told him. “Shoot the suns out of the sky? That’s impossible.”

“I can,” he insisted. “In fact, I’ll bet that I can shoot every one out of the sky using only seven arrows. If I can’t, I will eat grass for the rest of my life. And I will cut off my thumbs, so that I can never draw another bow.”

Everyone laughed and said that they hoped he liked grass, but they all gathered to watch as the young man gathered his seven straightest arrows and strung his bow. The crowd fell silent as he knocked his first arrow. Even the earth held its breath, for there was no wind to send his arrows astray.

He let the first arrow fly, and it whistled high into the air and out of sight. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a great burst of light, and the first sun exploded into nothingness. The crowd erupted with a great roar as the explosion faded, and the world got a little darker and a little colder.

Again and again the young man took aim, and he time he loosed an arrow, another sun exploded and disappeared from the sky. The people cheered louder and louder, but the animals grew quiet, for they were watching too. They were glad to feel the world air cooler, but now there was only one sun left, and the world had gone quite cold. What would they do if there was no sun, and no light, and no heat?

But the young hunter had knocked his seventh arrow; he was aiming at the last sun, and he hadn’t missed yet.

As he drew back the string to fire, a bird shot into the air and flew in front of the sun. The arrow struck the bird’s long, lovely tail and split it in two. The arrow kept flying, but the bird had knocked it off course, and though it came very close, it did not hit the last sun.

The man cried out in anger, but the animals sighed with relief as they examined the wise bird’s split tail, which he would pass on to all nestlings, and they to theirs. The last sun was safe.

The crowd jeered, and the young man ran away to cut off his thumbs and eat grass, as he had promised. The people never saw him again, but several of them did notice a new creature running through the grass on the nearby hills, with long teeth and only four toes on each paw.

And to this day, the world grows cold with the light of only one sun, and the flesh of the marmot is still called хүүн мах, or “person meat.”

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Greetings and Annou- er, Messages

I still think twice about saying that word. Even on Wednesdays.

Anyway, hello from my new blog location! Trying to work with tumblr was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; I think WordPress should be much more suited to my needs. Anywho, I did promise I had things to announce.

Message the first: I will now be posting content on a regular schedule. This month, you can expect new posts on Mondays and Wednesdays – barring issues like internet unavailability, of course. That’s always a possibility here.

Message the second: I’m not promising long blog entries because I’ll have other things to work on. I’m going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month, and I’m posting that here so that I have to follow through with it. Ideally, of course, NaNoWriMo would have taken place in October, when I had tons of free time, instead of November, when I’ll actually be teaching, but oh well. This will still be the least busy November I’ve had for a long time, so that story that’s been bouncing around in my head for four years needs to make it onto paper, even if it’s virtual.

Message the third: I’ve got a few blog entries on Mongolian culture drafted for future posting, but be prepared for some filler from Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been reading (and loving) a lot of what she has to say about writing – and it’s good, so I’ll be sharing.

This week, as our warm-up activity, I taught the kids a song and then asked them to underline the verbs in the past simple tense. The song in question? “Би Уржигдар Баавгай Харсан” – “The Other Day I Saw a Bear.” I think that explains the dining hall nature of this post.


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Taboos and Tiger Time: Addendum

A few facts gathered from discussing the previous post with the Russian friends:

  • Some gers are fitted with curtains to provide at least a minimal amount of privacy
  • A red rag somewhere on the outside of the ger is the equivalent of hanging a tie (or a shoe, or a sock… while the tie is traditional, I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of variations) on your door. Only useful during the day, though, given the lack of lighted hallways.
  • Irina confirms that children who grew up in gers have a lot more sexual knowledge than those who did not – which manifests in Mongolian children engaging in or imitating sexual behaviors at a very young age. The Russians find this disturbing and discourage it, but they say that their Mongolian counterparts think of it as normal.

I think this last point is the most interesting. Obviously, we have differing ideas of “normal” competing here, and this intersection is a good place to point out that not all cultures think of children as “innocents” from whom sex should be hidden. I’ve never lived in such a culture before – to the contrary, both of the countries I’ve previously lived in were mostly Catholic – so this is an interesting contrast for me. Anyone know what Buddhism has to say about sex?


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Taboos and Tiger Time

October 18, 2012

Dear younger cousins (and for that matter, anyone else not yet in high school), if you’re reading this, please stop. I’m sure you’ve all had Sex Ed by now, and nothing in this post is especially racy or at all personal, but all you’re going to do is make yourselves uncomfortable. And me, thinking about you reading this. Go on, shoo.

Anyway.

Last night, I was intrigued to see some familiar taboos about sex in operation here. By this, I mean that I was sitting in the living room playing cards with my roommate and her brother, who was flipping through the channels until he landed on Game of Thrones. It was dubbed and I’ve never seen more than a few minutes of the show, but it’s kind of hard to mistake for anything else. The brother obviously wanted to watch it but didn’t seem to think its content suitable for the audience at hand; he changed the channel every time something sexual happened, only to flip back after a few minutes. I’m not sure whether he was intrigued by the outlandish costumes or the dialogue or what, but he clearly wasn’t familiar with the thoroughly NSFW nature of the show. We’d watch for a few minutes, and then he’d hurriedly change the channel, wait a minute or two, and then change it back. But because it’s Game of Thrones, it was never very long before he had to change it yet again.

My assumption was that he judged the sexual content to be inappropriate for his eight-year-old daughter, who was doing her homework next to us (albeit facing away from the television). But I suppose he could also have been uncomfortable watching it with his younger sister and her roommate. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, I was surprised to see this particular taboo in operation, because a lot of America’s puritanical expectations don’t exist here. Women have absolutely no qualms about breastfeeding in public, for instance. If the baby’s crying, then they feed him – on the train, in the park, at dinner with their coworkers. They don’t cover themselves while they’re doing it, either, much to the discomfort of any American men present. The fidgeting and carefully averted eyes are pretty funny to watch.

Obviously, there’s a distinction between maternal and sexual nudity here. But to me, prudishness still feels like a privilege restricted to those with large houses. Don’t get me wrong, here; it’s not like I’ve seen Mongolians having sex in public. I’ll bet that’s pretty taboo in most cultures. But there’s only so much privacy when your entire house consists of one round room you could cross in about ten steps.

I think that’s one of the questions that occurred to all of us after visiting a ger – perhaps not the first one, but probably among the first few. Most families have multiple children, and once you’ve had the first, your privacy is pretty much shot. And unlike in college dorms, it’s not like the residents have the option of sexiling their roommates (or in this case, children). So, how do you…?

Most of us probably keep this question to ourselves, but one of the Peace Corps Volunteers actually posed it to a counterpart. She replied with the scenario dreaded by every dorm resident whose roommate has had overnight guests: you wait until the kids are asleep. “And when it gets really good,” she said, raising her hands to demonstrate, “you cover your mouth.”

She also introduced him, and by association, us, to a term too good not to share: “tiger time.” Gers are all traditionally set up the same way: the door faces south, the stove is in the middle, the shrine is in the north. But you can also section them off by signs of the zodiac, as well as directions. Which, according to Adam’s CP, puts the parents’ bed squarely in the “tiger” section.

But no matter how quiet the parents try to be during Tiger Time, sleeping children are far from a perfect solution. The logistics of the thing remain: they are, at most, ten to fifteen feet away. So I’ll bet that the percentage of kids who have witnessed their parents in the act is a lot larger here than in the US. One third of the population still lives in gers, after all, even well-employed city dwellers like Namuunaa’s parents. And even most apartments probably aren’t large enough to give the kids their own rooms.

Given all that, I hadn’t expected kids seeing sex on TV to be as big a deal. But apparently it’s something Khaliun’s father, at least, doesn’t want her seeing. Then again, one of the offending scenes was pretty much an orgy of painted people. So I suppose that could be it too.


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October 13

October 13, 2012

If you follow my blog to hear about my life in Mongolia, I apologize for the continued interruptions; your scheduled programming should resume on a more regular basis next month. Bear with me, and you will understand why this month in general, and today in particular, have made that difficult.

Fall has always been my favorite season. It’s the season of sweaters and mulled cider, of apple picking and pumpkin pie, of crisp, sunny days and cold, clear nights. It’s when the trees dress up in their best and brightest in preparation for Halloween, my favorite holiday. It’s the season of my birthday, and also those of an aunt and three cousins – all within the space of a week! Every romantic relationship I’ve ever had has begun in the fall, and a great many friendships have started then too, as I meet new people with the start of each school year.

But it’s also a season of loss and death, and not just the metaphorical everything-dies-down-for-the-winter kind. October in particular is littered with dates of loss and unhappy memories, though they just barely stretch back into September as well. My paternal grandfather died on October 24, 2008; my maternal grandmother, on September 22, 2009; and this year, my paternal grandmother, on October 1. That’s a lot of loss in only a few years, and it makes each October more bittersweet than the last.

October 13 epitomizes that feeling for me. I’ve celebrated it one anniversary, and October 12 as another. But before it ever marked a beginning, it marked an ending. October 13, 2006 was the Friday before homecoming my junior year. That particular Friday the 13th delivered on its promised misfortune when two teenagers from my home town – one a high school senior, the other a graduate of the year before – got drunk and wrapped their car around a tree. The other passengers survived, but Ross Trace and Danny Bell did not.

We lost other current and former students in the next year, an alarming number of them, but none of those dates are imprinted on my psyche in quite the same this way. I know without consulting a calendar that October 13th fell on a Friday in 2006, a Monday in 2008, and a Thursday in 2011. I didn’t know Ross or Danny, had never even met them, but their loss affected me all the same. It was a wake-up call for all of us, the first time many of us had experienced the death, not of an elderly grandparent with a long life full of stories, but of someone just entering adulthood.

It was the reason that the following Monday was the quietest school day I’ve ever experienced, as we all stumbled in shock from one class to the next, too solemn and shaken to make the halls ring with the usual talk and laughter. It was why we had no homecoming parade that year, out of respect for the dead. And it was when the orchestra director’s usual pre-dance pep talk – “the most important thing is that you come back on Monday, and that you remember what happened” – stopped being funny. Two students didn’t come back that year, but the rest of us will always remember.


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Stepperiders and a Visit to UB

October 9, 2012

To all who expressed sympathy or concern in response to last week’s post – thank you. Your messages of support have been immensely helpful, even when they come all the way from the other side of the world. The past week has been difficult, but I think this one will be better. I had an expensive but fun and productive weekend in Ulaanbaatar, which seems like a promising way to kick things off.

I arrived in UB by train around 8 am. The train station is about a 40-minute walk from the apartment where I was staying – if you know where you’re going, which at the time, I did not. But I met up with Alex and Matt eventually, as well as the French couch surfer who had stayed with them the night before. The four of us went out to breakfast before meeting the rest of the group for the drive out to Stepperiders.

The drive wasn’t as long as I had feared it might be, nor as nauseating. The setup, out in the hills south of UB, was quite simple: about five or six gers on concrete platforms, an outdoor eating area, a corral full of horses, a shed full of helmets, and an outhouse. (A really nice one – it even had toilet seats and toilet paper!) The place was clearly catered to tourists: the saddles were Russian (and therefore padded); the guides spoke reasonably good English; we were offered coffee with breakfast, as well as milk tea; they had Sriracha and Tabasco. I usually dislike such tourist-type operations, but in this case, I was glad of the pandering. Since my Mongolian is limited, and I dislike Mongolian-style saddles and milk tea, the tourist experience was both easier and more enjoyable.

They even let me ride bareback, though not without several assurances that yes, I was sure I didn’t want to use a saddle, and no, I didn’t mind that the horses were bony. In retrospect, I should have minded – though they put me on the fattest little pony they had, I could still feel his spine digging into me the entire time. I quickly decided that it was easier and more comfortable to walk downhill than to spend the whole time trying not to slide onto his withers. Luckily, my little pony was so short that I could hop onto him without difficulty, even when he was uphill of me. He was a grumpy thing too, keeping his ears perpetually at half-mast and trying to bite me when I asked him to go faster than he deemed reasonable, even though I smacked him around each time he did it. But he never tried to buck or kick. I liked him.

The ride was long and fun, and we got to do plenty of running. My pony and I had some disagreements about whether or not trotting was permissible, and these were primarily responsible for my ongoing soreness and my first-ever saddle sores – or more aptly in this case, should-have-used-a-saddle sores. Spines, tailbones, and bouncing are a painful combination.

We had tsuivan (stir-fry with noodles) for lunch and curry for dinner, both of which were excellent. I built a fire in Lisa and Chris’s ger, but only with Joe’s help: those stoves offer very little room to maneuver, and there isn’t much in the way of kindling to bridge the gap between paper and split logs. Mongolians usually solve this issue by lighting their fires with a blowtorch, but ours was nowhere to be found.

We also hung out with the other people at the camp. there were three other “tourists,” though the term doesn’t exactly fit, since they all lived and worked in UB. One was British, another Indian by birth, though he’d spent most of his life in Britain; the third was Mongolian but American-educated. We had a good time hanging out with all of them, and also with a member of the Stepperiders staff – a French college student who’d hired on for the summer to teach the rest of the staff English. I was glad of the chance to practice my French with the two native speakers, since I’ve let it go rusty recently.

We came back around 1 pm on Sunday, tired and hungry but happy. I spent the afternoon lazily: napping, getting food, and eventually wandering down to the train station to purchase my return ticket to Erdenet the next day. I made two more stops on my way home – one for food, and one because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check out a place called the Edinburgh Scottish Pub. It was nice and had a reasonable selection of whiskey (by Mongolian standards, at least), though nothing else about the place was particularly Scottish. They did give me ice with my whiskey, though, which isn’t a very common occurrence here. And I had a nice conversation with the bartender, who had lived in Norway for two years and spoke very good English.

On Monday, I got in contact with an Australian expat who’s scheduled to leave in a couple of weeks and was looking to sell her coat. It was a little tight in the shoulders but otherwise seemed great, and I’d rather buy from an expat than Narantuul. More quality guarantee, for one thing, and a chance to keep goods recirculating. Why buy new coats when other people are looking to get rid of their still-good-but-no-longer-needed ones?

Catherine’s apartment turned out to be in the same block as Alex’s, so the whole process took very little time. I then set off on the familiar bus ride to Zaisan to visit Lisa and Chris for lunch. There are a lot more people in the area now that school has started, and the buses are much more crowded, but the area still feels like home. Even if the women at the reception desk didn’t want to let me into the dorm. And I enjoyed the chance to catch up with my hosts, of course.

Eventually, I headed back to the city to meet up with Lisa and Baagii so we could go to Narantuul together. I got a coffee at the Grand Khan Irish Pub while I waited for them and struck up a conversation with some oddly-accented English speakers. They turned out to be from South Africa; the Germanic-sounding language I’d been straining to catch was Afrikaans. They were very nice, and one of them insisted on giving me his email address. He runs a farm and a guesthouse along the coast, where he said I was welcome to stay “when I come to South Africa.” While that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I still took his name and email address. No sense in burning any bridges.

Finally Lisa and Baagii and I made our way to Narantuul to do some shopping. Since neither Lisa and I can manage more than a few mangled sentences in Mongolian, Baagii proved invaluable. It was he who negotiated things like trying on shoes and finding out which ones were available in larger sizes. Lisa and I each found a pear of lined felt boots (mine are embroidered reindeer and stars) and a pair or two of woolen socks (since you can never have too many. I now own two of camel wool and one of yak, as well as many of the standard US sheep). I also bought a dress, also made of wool, though I’m not sure which kind. Baagii swears it’s long enough for me to wear to work but also says I will probably attract a lot of attention in it. Exactly what I need with classes full of sixteen-year-old boys, right?

All of those purchases added up, of course, but I knew going into this weekend that it would be an expensive one. The coat and boots and socks, at least, were necessary, and preparing for winter ain’t cheap. But I got what I needed, and I had fun with old friends and made new ones along the way, so I would call the weekend a complete success.

Not Okay

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I think we’ve all seen this by now, be it on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. What we haven’t seen is an official communication–one sent directly from the University itself to the students who attend(ed) it–that explains the incident or what Miami’s response was. From the radio silence of the past week, I’ve had to assume there wasn’t one. As of today, I learned that there were; the details are here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2217259/Outrage-Miami-University-flier-advising-students-away-rape.html

UPDATE: Received an email from Dr. Barbara Jones regarding what actions Miami is taking. Copying that here, so we’re all working with full information:

 

After learning of the anonymously posted flier, Miami officials called a mandatory meeting of all males in the hall.

In addition, these actions were taken with respect to this incident:

• The flier was immediately taken down and reported to authorities.

• The Miami University police department (MUPD) and Miami’s Office of Equity and Equal Opportunity (OEEO) received a copy of the flier from Miami’s office of residence life

• A police report has been filed and Miami University continues to investigate.

• Miami’s Office of Ethics and Student Conflict Resolution (OESCR) is investigating. The OESCR can take action if a student is found to have violated Miami’s Student Code of Conduct. Potential code of conduct sections violated by the creation and posting of this flier and related damage in the corridor include section 103B – mental abuse or harm; section 104 – damage to property; and 113 – disorderly conduct.

Potential sanctions for a student found responsible for violating these sections include removal from the residence hall, mandatory educational programs and suspension.

• Miami communicated with residence hall staff to gather any relevant or additional information • Miami’s police chief, with agreement of the dean of students, has increased campus police presence in the hall

Communication with male students in the hall: Staff who spoke with students at the hall meeting represented the Miami University police department (MUPD), the office of residence life, Miami’s student counseling service and a student representative of MARS – Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault.

They spoke with students in the affected corridor about how the flier represents the residents as men in our society, their families and friends, their views on women, and Miami University. Further, they discussed with all male students in the hall how to stop such behavior, the effects of vandalism, creating and maintaining a healthy and safe environment for everyone, and the bystander effect of actions on a community. They also provided information on relevant programs and actions.

Ongoing resources: Miami University’s women’s center, MARS (Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault), and WAVES (Women Against Violence and Sexual Assault) offer programming, information and support. The goal of these resources is to educate, create awareness about and prevent sexual assault and violence.

The university is continually evaluating strategies and educating students about these issues.

 

Even so, I’m profoundly disturbed at having to wait a week for the details, and even more so at having to get them from an overseas newspaper, or having to ask a school official for them. Below, you’ll find the email that I am sending to President Hodge and to Barbara Jones, the vice president for student affairs. I encourage you all to write and send your own so that this message can’t be ignored. (Please don’t just copy and paste – it will be more effective if the letters are different, and since mine is alumni-specific, it would sound silly coming from a current student.)

 

Dear President Hodge,

I am writing to convey my dismay at Miami University’s response to the “Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape” flyer that was posted in the men’s room at McBride Hall. As of today, I have learned (from a UK-based online-newspaper) that Miami’s reaction included an investigation and a mandatory meeting for the male residents of the hall. I’m glad to hear that something is being done.

Unfortunately, that “something” isn’t nearly enough, and I am outraged by the way Miami mishandled the information regarding the incident. I learned of this flyer’s existence via Facebook, as did many others – current students, alumni, and even people with no relationship to the university. This flyer has gone out on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr; you name it, people have posted it, and most have included their feelings of shock and disgust. While I am heartened by the number of male students who find this attitude reprehensible, it is difficult to see this flyer posted with such captions as “F*ck you Miami, F*ck you and everyone who attends your school” and not be able to defend my school by explaining what Miami’s actions were. If we have no information about what consequences were enacted, how can we offer a believable argument that Miami did not stand idly by and let this happen? How can we fail to be disappointed in “our Miami” when a week of repeated searches turns up no evidence that this incident was even investigated?

We – students and alumni alike – deserved to hear about this from university officials themselves, and in a timely fashion. Reading the official accounts in an overseas newspaper a week later yields too little information, and far too late. While this flyer may not have posed an immediate physical threat to the students of the school, it still made students and alumni feel unsafe and unsettled. Miami’s refusal to notify the student population about the incident only made this worse. Such things cannot be swept under the rug in this era of social media, and attempting to do so only supports the rape culture that makes it possible for some students to consider this kind of thing “funny.”

Unfortunately, this is neither the first time, nor even the second or third, that I have been disappointed by Miami’s failure to notify students of security threats and recent crimes. I can only hope that the university will do a better job of fulfilling its duty to keep the students in future. In the meantime, I am glad that my safety no longer rests in Miami’s hands.

 

Katelin Burke

Class of 2012

 

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