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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Thanksgiving in UB

Well, this weekend has certainly been… eventful, in both good ways and bad. Good things first: Thanksgiving was wonderful. Lots of people, tons of food, and a good deal of fun. You can’t really get your hands on turkey here, but we had chicken – and lots of it. We also had mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – all the essentials. The Fulbrighters had all been invited, so I got to hang out with most of them; in a couple of cases, this was the first time I had seen them since I moved to UB at the end of August. It was loud and noisy enough that there was only so much catching up we could do, but it was still nice to be able to hug and say hello.

This weekend also gave me a chance to meet Peace Corps Volunteers stationed all over the country. I doubt I’ll see most of them again, or even get a chance to talk to them – I didn’t get their phone numbers, and most soumers don’t have particularly regular internet access. But new faces and friendly conversations were great, whether they took place at the dinner table, in the comfortable chairs at the Thanksgiving, or over a beer (or two, or three).

After Thanksgiving dinner, we went salsa dancing – not just me and my gallant host,  but almost all of the PCVs, and a few of the Fulbrighters as well. I didn’t get to do much actual salsa dancing; there were few people who really knew what they were doing, and they all had other people to dance with. I’m terribly out of practice in any case, so I  wasn’t following particularly well. But the dancing was very fun anyway.

My other dancing experience didn’t go nearly so well. Most of the PCVs, plus a number of other expats, went to Aer Club on Friday evening, resulting in a very packed dance floor and the first grinding I’ve seen since I left the states. Putting so many expats together in a city like UB is like piling dryer lint on top of birchbark; when sparks started flying between Mongolian men and American women, the whole place was ablaze in moments. Someone threw a punch, someone else threw one back, people waded in to pull them apart and got hit themselves – it got ugly very fast. The fighting had broken apart and restarted twice by the time the police arrived.

All the Americans who hadn’t already fled were busy looking for their things and their friends so that they could do so, but I was unable to join them. My host had jumped right into the thick of it and was throwing both punches and words, so I was stuck waiting. In the end, the police grabbed three foreigners (two Americans and my host’s British friend) and three Mongolians to haul them off to the police station. And since none of the foreigners really spoke Mongolian and my Mongolian host speaks fluent English, he accompanied them to translate. So I accompanied them as well, since I couldn’t exactly go home without them.

This was my second Mongolian police station in less than a week, and it was not an enjoyable experience. At 1 am, all we really wanted to do was go home, but instead we were stuck waiting while both sides wrote out depositions and filed complaints.

I also missed my train back to Erdenet on Sunday night, having given myself about five too few minutes to walk to the station; I arrived just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform.  At some point during our mad rush to the station, we also made an unpleasant discovery. I had carried my stuff around the city all afternoon without major incident – which is to say that while two people had made an attempt at opening my backpack, neither was successful. I had been careful to put both zippers all the way at the bottom, where they’d be difficult to get to; the zipper to the computer compartment was more accessible, but with such a full backpack, I knew from experience that it would be difficult to extract my laptop. Those first two attempts on my backpack were obvious, and I whirled around and smacked the offending passersby.

It’s harder to guard your belongings at night, though; when the temperature drops well below zero, the extra layers you throw on muffle your hearing and obstruct your peripheral vision. I was in a hurry, and walking with a friend, and both of those things distracted me enough for someone to get my backpack open. Only the things at the very top were lost; I wasn’t too upset about losing  a packet of star anise or my fleece gloves, since they weren’t nearly warm enough anyway. But my bag full of chargers and  cords is now also gone as well: my camera battery charger, camera/computer cable, Kindle/computer cord, phone charger, my iPod cord, the handy iPod charger I wrote about here, and the European outlet adapter that goes with it. It was a terribly inconvenient loss, but all in all, I’d say I was lucky; all these things are replaceable and reasonably inexpensive. Between my US phone charger and my external hard drives, I still had the cords I need to connect to everything but my iPod. A new phone charger and iPod cord/charger ran me about $14 today, though sadly the charger is only compatible with European outlets. A new charger is only $12, but the world adapter kit is closer to 40, and I still have most of the inserts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to buy only the European one. Still need the camera battery charger, though.

Having my stuff stolen wasn’t much fun, but all in all, it was still a good trip to UB. I went to see a movie with a new friend during my extra night (Hotel Transylvania, not the new James Bond) and spent some more time getting to know PCVs. Not quite what I expected out of this trip, but still plenty of fun.

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Thanksgiving

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.


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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

Duly noted: chicken tacos do not sit well when ingested immediately after working out. I knew they weren’t going to after the first few bites, but I finished my plate anyway; they were delicious, and I was hungry, and I was going to get my money’s worth. Besides, chicken tacos. An everyday thing stateside, but definitely a treat here.

And I can deal with some gastric grousing, so long as it’s not actual food poisoning. I leave UB in two days, and a train is not a good place to be when your stomach declares war. Not as bad as, say, a bus or an airplane (or worse yet, a meeker – see below), but still not good.

I've been packed into one of these with 22 of my closest friends; I think it legally seats about 14. Thank god it was only for an hour.

The cheapest form of transportation hereabouts, but you get what you pay for.

Besides, I’ve got stuff to do tomorrow: laundry, packing for my trip to UB, making cranberry sauce for Peace Corps Thanksgiving, baking cookies for the friends hosting me, acquiring the ingredients necessary to make said goodies, planning out my lessons for Thursday. Ironically, Thanksgiving is the only day I’m working this week; I don’t have classes Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday is election day (which is a national holiday, unlike in the US), and I’m taking Friday off to travel. Tough life, eh?

I used the first day of this non-work week to have the Americans over for dinner. The high school teachers among us midway through a two-week break, so we’ve been taking turns having everyone over for dinner. I made chili and cornbread, which were very well received by all but the Mongolians, who thought the chili too spicy. It’s the first time I had people over, and I think it went pretty well. I probably won’t play host to such a large group very often, though; there was barely enough space for us all to sit in my room, and nowhere near enough seating. And I think everyone now knows that I mean it when I ask them to bring their own cups/bowls/spoons if they don’t want to eat in shifts. I don’t even have enough bowls for us all to make one do double duty, as the Mongolians do (they don’t have separate words for “cup” and “bowl;” both are an аяга). Besides, that would have meant being unable to enjoy the chili and Nathan’s fantastic horchata simultaneously, and clearly, such things are meant to go together.

It could have been the body heat of so many people in such a small space, or it could have been a variety of other things: the extra layer of tape now gumming up the leaky seals in my windows, the fact that it’s actually stayed above 0*F for the past few nights, someone somewhere cranking up the radiators. But whatever the cause, it is now significantly warmer in my apartment. By “significantly warmer” I mean that my room now averages 75*F, otherwise known as “too dang hot!” It’s at least ten degrees warmer than I’d like it to be, seeing as a comfortable sleeping temperature for me is about 60.

And that’s before my body kicks into cold-weather mode, which it has apparently done. Today’s forecast high was only about 27, but it was a sunny 27, so I dressed appropriately when leaving the apartment: no gloves, hat, or coat, just a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. A short-sleeved T-shirt. I think my little brother would be proud. And no, as I repeatedly told Mongolians, I wasn’t cold.

This week’s teacher lesson is on weather, and for “snow,” I plan on showing them the picture of LSD (Lake Shore Drive, for the non-Chicagoans) during the Snowpocalypse. You know the one:

I really wish I'd been here to see this.

Never mind that this is not a typical Chicago winter, and that I was in a different state at the time. I just want some cold-weather street cred so people will stop telling me to put on a coat. I’ll put on coat when I’m cold, and I ain’t cold yet.

Nor, I’ll bet, are Mongolian babies. We have officially entered what Nathan likes to call “starfish baby season” – the time of year when Mongolian toddlers are so bundled up they can’t move. And I don’t mean they can barely move; they’re legitimately immobile, spread-eagled like a little starfish. Their parents sometimes carry them sideways under their arms, as you might a package. It’s an adorable and hilarious sight, and unfortunately it appears not to have made it onto Google Images. I’ll sneak some surreptitious pictures and post them when I get a chance.


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Really, I Swear I’m Not Cold (Yet)

Mongolian people have thus far proven to be very protective of me where cold is concerned; in fact, “overbearing” might be a more accurate word for it. I’m forever being told that I should put on slippers if I’m indoors, or a hat or a coat if we’re so much as passing through the courtyard on my way to class. More than a few of them have looked at my current cold weather apparel (a raincoat layered over a sweatshirt) and told me that it isn’t warm enough and I need to switch to my winter coat.

I beg to differ. I know they’re just trying to look out for me, and in January, I will doubtless heed their wisdom gladly. I’m sure that the dead of a Mongolian winter will teach me the real meaning of the word “cold.” But for now, I wish they’d lay off. I don’t think they quite grasp that America is a pretty big place, and parts of it, Chicago among them, get pretty darn cold. A Chicago winter has nothing on a Mongolian one, certainly, but it’s no picnic at the beach either. While I haven’t seen a temperature north of freezing for at least a week and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t again until spring, the weather here hasn’t been exactly frigid – daily highs in the high teens to mid-twenties, nightly lows around 0. (All temperatures in Fahrenheit; if you’re a Celsius-user, convert accordingly.) To me, it still feels like an average December week in Chicago, except a month early. This is nowhere near the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced. We’ve yet to equal the coldest week I remember from college in southern Ohio, much less Chicago (or for that matter, Minneapolis or Colorado at New Years’, both of which I’ve experienced on multiple occasions). Thanks for the advice, friends, but I know how to manage this level of cold. It’s the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina residents you should be worried about.

Moreover, I know my own body and how it handles changes in temperature. My body is excellent at heating itself up and terrible at cooling itself off, which means that I overheat quickly and easily. My ideal weather for any sort of outdoor activity (with the exception of beachgoing, since sunbathing does not qualify as an “activity,” and Lake Michigan never gets “warm,” only “less cold”) is 65 and sunny. Most of my friends would prefer it a good ten degrees warmer, but not me. It was 40 degrees when we hiked up Maol Réidh, and so foggy that the mist was condensing in our hair; I started the hike in a rain coat over long sleeves over short sleeves, but by the time we’d been walking half an hour, I’d stripped down to a T-shirt. That’s why I prefer cold to heat: you can always put on more layers, but there are only so many you can take off.

I’ve even found myself too warm here, outdoors, in the past week. When I walked to the gym on Monday morning, the temperature was probably around 0 (the Internet said -1 when I left and -7 when I returned, so who knows), and the walk to the gym was a good 15 minutes, so I’d layered up: tights under my pants, raincoat over sweatshirt over long sleeves, and my bank robber hat instead of the usual Russian grandmother way I wear my scarf. (A million thanks for that, Corry – it’s the warmest scarf I own, and I wear it nearly every day here!) And man, was I tempted to remove a few of those layers by the time I’d been walking for five minutes.

So please, coworkers, do note: my current “coat” is perfectly sufficient for the moment; it’s what I wear all winter in Chicago. It’s my fingers, toes, and nose that are more problematic, and no coat is going to keep them warm.

I think a big part of the reason the cold seems minimal so far is the weather that accompanies it. I lived through 13 full Chicago winters, plus a few weeks in the middle of another four – and let me tell you, they are a drab and dreary affair. The cold is so much colder when it’s accompanied by clouds and that vicious wind.

But the sun and the wind most come from different directions here, so it’s usually possible to walk on the lee side of a building without having to stay in the shadows. And there almost always are shadows, because there is almost always sun. Mongolia is known for its blue skies. The last few days were completely cloudless, with only a few to be seen today or yesterday – no uniform skies of grey stratus here! It means colder nights, without clouds to trap the days heat, but it also means the days here are infinitely more cheerful. And being in the sun makes a huge difference in the apparent temperature. We’ve only had one miserable day so far, and it wasn’t the temperature (probably around 15) that made it so, but the sharp wind and blowing snow. It felt more like 0; in fact, I’ve felt warmer in 0* weather.

Earlier this week, a friend asked if I fear the coming winter. A little, I said. I’m nervous about January. But for now, I’m doing just fine.


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In Praise of Universality

Lest I get myself unintentionally embroiled in the Mac/PC war, let me preface this by saying that I am an Apple user, not a worshipper. I freely acknowledge that Apple has its fair share of issues with universality, especially when it comes to things like proprietary software and file formats. But when it comes to charging the devices it makes, Apple’s got its act together. I love that all Macs use the same chargers; that they can borrow someone else’s, regardless of what year or model they’ve got, makes it so much easier when someone forgets to bring theirs.

And then there’s this little thing, which is one of the most useful electrical devices I own:

Yes, it’s an iPod charger. But because so many other devices can be charged with a USB connection these days, I can use it to charge all manner of other things: my camera, my Kindle, my cell phone (my US phone, at least). My friend Lauren could use it to charge her awesome self-sterilizing water bottle. So as long as I’ve got these three cords on hand, I can plug in almost anything I have that requires charging – and probably anything a friend needs charged, too. Remember the days of junk drawers filled with almost-identical phone chargers that only worked for one specific model? Yeah, I don’t miss them either.

Now, most of the aforementioned devices come with their own USB-to-wall pieces. The reason I like the iPod one is that the wall outlet part is detachable – a fact which holds little importance within the US but becomes highly significant once you leave it.

I have the adapters for Australia as well, but I didn't bring them with me. Only the ones I knew might be useful.

Clockwise from the bottom right: UK/Ireland/Hong Kong, Europe, China, US, Korea

This little adapter kit is kind of pricey, but it was well worth the expense. I bought it before studying in France so that I could plug my computer in without having to worry about bringing my cord and an adapter with me anywhere I went, since you can swap these in for the extender part of the cord and just plug the transformer straight into the wall. But you can also use them for an iPod charger. With a couple pieces of white plastic that fit easily into a plastic sandwich bag, I can charge anything anywhere.

The one exception is my Mongolian phone, which is a Nokia brick that hails from the pre-standardization days.

It’s also dual-voltage, which means I don’t have to worry about a voltage converter, another plus. (Though happily, most electrical devices smarter than a hair dryer are usually dual-voltage. Things like hair dryers, curling irons, and flatirons still tend to overheat and melt even if you convert the voltage – but since I own exactly none of these things, that’s happily a non-issue for me.)

Having an array of charging options is especially important here in Mongolia. Given its location, what kind of plugs do you think you would need here? Chinese? Korean?

European, it turns out. Which makes a lot of sense, given the strong Russian influences here, but it’s still not what you’d expect of a country that is patently in Asia.

Unfortunately, the wall outlets aren’t always the European sort. Sometimes, you find yourself on a train and discover that it was apparently made in China – or at least, the wall outlets were. Or the extension cord in your office wants British plugs. Or you’re being med-evacced to Korea, which uses yet another type of wall outlet. (Thankfully, only the first has actually happened to me.) Whatever the reason, chances are you’ll find yourself in at least one situation that calls for a plug that isn’t European.

Another gadget, one that is both more and less useful:

A universal power strip. Brilliant.

I’ve never seen these before, but they are brilliant, and I am definitely taking this one with me in case I find myself residing in Europe some day. The lesser part of its usefulness is that it can only be plugged into a European-style wall outlet. But so long as you have one of those, you can plug pretty much anything into these. And that’s really a necessity in a country where nothing is standardized. During my orientation, for example, my dorm room had three pieces of electrical equipment: a tea kettle, a television, and a refrigerator. And a universal power strip, without which I could not have used any of these thing; the kettle was British, the television Korean, and the refrigerator Chinese, and each was thus incapable of being plugged directly into the wall outlet.

When it comes to living things, diversity is something wondrous, to be cherished and protected. In my electronics, however, I am a huge fan of universality. If your digital camera requires me to buy proprietary cords in order for me to charge it or upload its pictures, then I’m sorry, but I ain’t buying it. I’ll stick with something that works with all the other equipment I already own, thanks all the same.


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The Obligatory Post-Election Political Musings That Ramble Far from the Election

If America suffers from low voter turnout, that fact was certainly not reflected in my Facebook feed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many posts on the same topic; on election day, I think I saw at most five posts that didn’t urge people to go out and vote – and that includes posts by friends overseas. Great job making your voices heard.

I’m especially proud of the country for the steps that it has made towards equality in states like Maine and Maryland. Equality is something we promised to everyone, not just the straight people.

I also believe that you don’t have to approve of gay marriage to allow it. You can respect an opinion, a lifestyle, an identity without agreeing with it. I certainly don’t believe that the world was created in seven days or that Adam rode dinosaurs, but if that’s what you think, I won’t argue with you. All we would do is get angry at and frustrated with each other; I doubt either of us would change our minds.

About a month ago, a friend made the following post on Facebook:

I believe God made two genders, man and woman, to be partners in this life. Don’t tell me I’m naive or uninformed when I respect the difference between them. I will not judge you, but I expect not to be judged either.

I don’t agree with her that there are only two valid genders, or that one of each is the only valid form of partnership. But I respect her right to that belief, and her right not to be made less of because of it. To me, a promise not to judge someone means more than grudging tolerance or an I-won’t-condemn-you-outright-but-I-don’t-have-to-be-nice-to-you attitude. It means treating that person as you would any other, allowing them the right to make their own choices and live their own lives, even if you consider them to be mistakes. If her promise not to judge others is that sincere, then I respect her highly for that.

I have always taken offense to the notion that America is, or should be, a Christian nation. America is a nation full of Christians; that is certainly true. But it is also a nation full of Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews, and Buddhists, and atheists. That there are more Christians does not it itself make their beliefs any more intrinsically valid. Yes, our laws are based on many of the principles that Christianity espouses, but the fact is that most major religions teach those same principles: Treating others as you’d like to be treated. Not killing other people just because you can. Respect for your fellow man. Love. Religion doesn’t make you a good person, or a good citizen. I know plenty of atheists who live more strongly by their own moral codes than lots of Christians. Thus, the idea that religiosity qualifies a person to be present holds no weight with me. You can be a born-again Christian and a hypocrite; you can run for office with the intent to impose your interpretation of an ancient book on millions, even though you have no idea how the legal system works.

As author K.A. Thompson pointed out on her blog, freedom of religion means there is also freedom from religion. It means that you are free to practice as you choose, but not that you are free to impose those practices or beliefs upon others. So if you believe that abortions are a sin, don’t get one. Don’t tell some poor young woman who can’t afford another mouth to feed, and whose circumstances you don’t know, that she can’t get one. And especially don’t deny her access to contraception, either. If you believe that her choices violate God’s laws, I’m pretty sure you also believe that He will punish her for it. Let that be His prerogative, not yours.

I should point out that you can be religious without believing that all people should be bound by the laws of your religion. I know plenty of people who do – this girl from my high school, for instance:

I’ve heard Christian stress over the future of our country because of the passing of laws that go against Christianity. What kind of message does that send to other when we freak about these things? It perpetuates the impression that people have to fit a certain mold in order to fall in love with Jesus. Christ was about love, not restriction. What good is a follower if they only follow because they have no other choice?

Her point differs slightly from mine, but they’re two sides of the same coin, really. Banning abortions, gay marriage, and contraception doesn’t reduce the practice of abortion, homosexuality, or sex that you consider unKosher. It doesn’t win your religion any converts, either. All it does is spread discrimination.

Way to go, Maine and Maryland. Good for you.

This is, without a doubt, the most controversial post I’ve written on here, but it was something I thought needed to be said. If you want to voice your own opinion, please do so, but play nice. You’ve the right to your own opinion, remember, but not to abuse others for theirs.


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“Roommate(s)”

Most of us think of “roommate” as a fairly simple concept. You pick a friend (or are sometimes assigned a stranger) to live with, and then the two of you split the living space and the rent. If you get along well, maybe you agree to share food and set up a cooking rotation.

That’s what you’d expect of an American roommate. But upon arriving in Erdenet, it quickly became apparent to me that having a Mongolian roommate is an entirely different experience – it’s more like having a part-time host family.

I’d estimate that some relative or other stays the night at least once a week. Sometimes, it’s her mother or father, who live in the ger district. Often, its her two nieces (the duu of last week’s post). Last night, it was their parents, Namuunaa’s sister and brother-in-law, who I think live in the same hashaa as her parents. I think. They’ve told me their names enough times that I feel embarrassed asking again; maybe I’ll just get Namuunaa to write them down for me, so that I can actually remember.

These frequent visits leave me with a couple of obvious choices. I can shut myself in my room, and sometimes I do – usually when Inguun’s been getting into everything, or I have lesson plans to write or other work to do. This week, it’s lesson plans and NaNoWriMo (I still have half of today’s wordcount to get through, plus all of Saturday’s to make up).

But in addition to being antisocial, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to shut myself away while the relatives are here. I do try to talk to them at least a little, though there’s still not a whole lot I can say. Mostly I’m limited to simple questions like “what kind of food are you cooking?” And answering questions posed by the adult relatives is complicated; they don’t speak as slowly as Khaliun does, so I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves. And even when I do understand what they’re saying, I don’t always know how to answer.

Last time he was here, for instance, the brother asked me how long I’ve been in Mongolia. Or maybe it was how long I’ll be here. The only words I caught were чи, хэдэн сар, and монгол – you, how many months, Mongolia. To cover all the bases, I told him that I came in August and I’ll leave in June (or rather, “I go June,” since I don’t know how to form the future tense, and I couldn’t remember the ending for the dative/locative case). I got the message across eventually, but it took awhile.

In some ways, it’s really nice to have them over. Khaliun is wonderfully patient with my laughably bad Mongolian, and as long as she’s not throwing a tantrum or spilling milk on everything, Inguun can be pretty darn cute. She recently added two phrases to her vocabulary that even I can understand: сайн уу and баяртай. She spent most of yesterday afternoon practicing these, which is to say that every five minutes, she’d peek around my doorframe, say ‘hi,’ and then disappear again.

I eat more when the relatives are here too Namuunaa and I gave up on cooking for each other a while ago, since, our schedules and meal times are pretty incompatible. But the brother-in-law always feeds me if I’m around while he’s cooking. It’s a nice gesture, and pretty typical of the everything-is-everyone’s attitude that most families seem to have. I just wish I liked his cooking more. LIke most Mongolians I’ve met, he uses a lot of oil and salt, and he usually cooks with mutton. I don’t mind mutton in a lot of foods – I like it in хуушуур/бууз (dumplings), бутаатай хургаа (rice with stir-fry), and цуиван (stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever met an American who doesn’t like it). But in noodle soup, (made with mutton, noodles, water, maybe some salt and garlic, and enough fat to create a nice layer of grease at the top), the flavor’s just too overpowering for me. Even after I threw some spices and lemon juice into my bowl, I still couldn’t manage much of it. I’ll put the bowl back in the kitchen – I’m sure someone will eat it. Mongolians aren’t picky about sharing food.

I had meant to do laundry today, but since the sister had the same idea, I may have to wait until tomorrow There’s a mountain of clothes in our hallway, which she’s slowly working her way through. I guess they don’t have a washing machine, so Namuunaa lets them use ours. It meant I was without internet for most of the day, since you have to unplug the router in order to plug in the washing machine. Also that I haven’t showered yet today, since she was also using the tub to do laundry by hand. But the lack of internet, at least, was probably a good thing. I’ve a lot of writing left to do today, and if there’s no internet to distract me, so much the better.