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.

Why Avoiding Food Poisoning Here is a Crapshoot

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Sorry for this week’s delayed posting! My home internet now takes approximately 5 minutes just to load my email inbox and won’t load WordPress at all. The internet here at work is a little better, but my time at work has mostly been spent on things like lesson planning and teaching. So now I bring you, a few days late, my thoughts for the week.

December 10

When asked how I feel about having a Mongolian roommate, I usually answer that I like it just fine. Namuunaa and I aren’t exactly close friends, as my previous roommates and I have been, but she’s nice, and I think we get along pretty well. We’ve gotten better at talking to each other as our vocabularies have increased; a few nights ago, I managed to explain to her that my hands are always cold because I have bad circulation. And her presence has plenty of advantages: she acts as a translator and cultural mediator, she drives me to or from school on days when our schedules align, and she has almost unbearably adorable nieces who give me an excellent opportunity to practice my Mongolian.

But if there is one thing about living with a Mongolian, any Mongolian, that will drive you crazy, it’s their total ignorance of food safety. It’s a completely foreign concept here. At parties, it’s common for the host to pour the alcohol into one cup and hand it to each guest in turn, topping it off after every one. When the alcohol in question is vodka, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem – but when it’s wine, or beer, or airag, that seems like a lot of potential germ-sharing. A single case of mono could take out my school’s entire faculty if someone contracted it during a holiday.

I think the situation is even more alarming when there’s no alcohol involved. A ‘clean’ dish or utensil is one that no longer has food on it, even if the food was removed with someone’s tongue. That’s not an exaggeration; I have watched Namuunaa lick the jelly from a spoon and put in the jar with the rest of the “clean” utensils. (As soon as she left the room, I took it right back out and put it in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes.) If they do wash the dishes, it’s often just with water, and not always hot water. We didn’t even have dish soap until I went out and bought some after I’d lived here in the while.

Similarly, the same towel might be used to clean dishes, the table, and the floor. I keep one in my room specifically so that I can control what it gets used for; if I need to wring moisture from potatoes and zucchini, or wipe my desk so that I can roll out dough on it, I certainly don’t want to do so with a cloth that, unbeknownst to me, was last used to wipe the bathroom floor.

But I think what scares me most is the total lack of understanding of the potential health problems posed by meat. While we have separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat, Namuunaa and her family will cut bread on the meat board if the vegetable one is in use, or take the knife that was just used on raw meat and slice bread with it without cleaning it first. They’ll also cut meat and then put the board back without cleaning it; last time, it was hung up face to face with the vegetable cutting board, so that both now had blood and bits of fat on them.

Namuunaa has also unplugged the refrigerator before in order to defrost and clean the freezer. It needed to be done, but I would have appreciated it if she put my half-kilo of horse meat out on the porch to keep it frozen while she did so. That’s not the first extensive period that meat had gone unrefrigerated, either. The meat market at the ax is heated, and very little of the meat is kept frozen (by which I mean only the chicken and fish). The smell in there is something, let me tell you. Everything else is right out on the counter, sold by women who don’t wear gloves – or if they do, they also handle money with them. And then they weight the meat directly on scales that are cleaned who knows how often and hand it to you in a plastic shopping bag.

Then you take it home and put it directly into the freezer; when you need it, you take the entire chunk out and let it sit at room temperature until it’s softened enough for you to shave off what you need so you can put the rest back in the freezer. The meat is usually added to whatever you’re making while still mostly frozen – but then it is cooked to well done. You can’t order meat done ‘medium rare’ here, and you wouldn’t want to; it’s just not safe.

Even so, a lot of Mongolians add yet another risk factor. If you don’t eat all of the food you’ve prepared, it’s not uncommon to let it sit out overnight, meat and all, and eat it (often cold) for breakfast.

Had we a language in common, I might be able to talk to Namuunaa about some of these things instead of doing the passive-aggressive complain-about-it-on-the-internet thing. But germs and sanitation are, alas, topics beyond the scope of my language skills. Moreover, it’s not just a language barrier – it’s a cultural one. When I asked Namuunaa why she wasn’t refrigerating her tsuivan, she said that Mongolians often leave it out and eat it the next day. When you live in a ger, you probably won’t get food poisoning from doing so, as the food will likely freeze overnight. In an (overly warm) apartment, you still might not get food poisoning most of the time, but I’d prefer not to take the risk.

Now, most of you know I was a linguistics major, and you don’t major in linguistics without taking at least a few anthropology classes. The part of me that really enjoyed those three classes (or at least, two of the three) is severely displeased with the ethnocentrism running rampant throughout this entire post. But I know what food poisoning feels like, and I’d really rather not feel it again. So, anthropologists (especially those of you who studied in India!), I’d love to know – how do you balance cultural sensitivity with self-preservation?

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Author: everywherebuthome

Linguist. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Expat in Mongolia. Writer. Scout, dancer, gymnast, equestrienne.

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