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.


Enough About Me – What About You?

Through some form of unknown witchery, Internet connectivity here seems to be directly dependent on the weather; when the weather is bad, it’s all I can do to get WordPress to load, much less to upload complex content. Since Mongolia has chosen to overlook the minor detail that it is almost June and serve up this weather, today’s post will be rather brief.


So instead of harping on about the snow again, I’d like to ask some questions of you, dear readers. In the past week, my blog has gotten about twice as many hits as it previously averaged, and I have no idea what caused that spike. WordPress continues to list Facebook as my top referrer, so I know that most of my readership is composed of friends and family following my blog from home. And a glance through the search terms reveals that to a certain extent, my blog has begun to fill a small part of the void in the Internet’s knowledge of Mongolia. Search terms like “mongol airag drink made,” “how to pleat mongolian buuz” and “khorgoo volcano” bring people here because there just isn’t that much out there on the subject (in English, anyway).

But in the past week alone, I’ve gotten hits from places like Morocco, Moldova, Japan, and Trinidad and Tobago, and I doubt people on tropical islands are that interested in the way people in the Land of Always Winter prepare steamed mutton dumplings.

So please, indulge my curiosity. If you’re reading this and I’ve never met you in real life, what brought you to my blog? How did this little project come to be read (or at least visited) by people on five continents?


Semper Gumby

My brother, as readers may or may not know, is in the Marines. The official motto of that brotherhood is Semper Fidelus, or “always loyal,” but a number of alternatives persist as in-jokes among the Corps members and their families. Given the hurry-up-and-wait nature of dealing with the military, the most common is probably Semper Gumby. (For non-US readers: Gumby wikipedia page, further explanation). We were recently provided with a perfect example of the phrase when my brother’s return to the States for Jump School was postponed due to paperwork problems.

“When are you coming now?” asked my mother, who had been looking forward to the visit she and my father had scheduled.

My brother just shrugged. “Mom, it’s not official until I’m on the plane. And even then, they could still change their minds.”

Life in Mongolia is a lot like that. I’ve already written about Mongolian time and how everything here typically runs ten minutes to three hours behind its scheduled time. But that’s only part of the story. Often, you’re lucky if there is a schedule at all.

Mongolians really aren’t much for planning ahead. Tsagaan Sar and Naadam, the two major holidays, are at approximately the same time every year, but no one seemed able to give me an exact date for this year’s Tsagaan Sar celebration until about two weeks before it happened, even though it’s a national holiday. I suspect the same will be true for Naadam. It’s certainly true of the SOP at my workplace.

“Can you do [xyz]?” my counterparts will request. I’ll ask when, expecting a time in the next few days, or at least a few hours from now, as would be customary in the States. But here, more often than not, the answer is, “now.” Can you come to school for a meeting in five minutes? (It takes me twenty to walk to school.) Can you find a song for this tense I am teaching in an hour, even though the Internet is down? Can you teach my class for me so I can go to the bank during my scheduled work hours, even though you have no idea what these students are learning and can’t actually explain an activity without a co-teacher to interpret for you? I don’t have a lesson plan to give you, but you can just teach out of the book, right?

I put my foot down on that last one.

By this standard, I suppose that learning of yesterday’s end-of-year festivities a whole twelve hours in advance ought to have been ample warning. My director mentioned the event in passing, the way you’d reference something that was common knowledge – summer vacation, perhaps. I asked her to elaborate, saying that I knew nothing about it.

“Why?” she said, her voice soaring in surprise. “All teachers know!”

This is, by now, a familiar exchange. It would take both hands, and maybe even a few toes, to number the times teachers have neglected to inform me of a scheduled event and then been surprised when I don’t know about it. Why don’t I know? Because you didn’t tell me, and I can’t read the bulletin boards in this country, much less the minds of my fellow teachers. I am completely dependent on word of mouth to learn of such things, and the amount advance notice Mongolians seem to think I require in order to show up at a fancy party for which the women are having their hair done at salons and breaking out their dress clothes is apparently about an hour and a half. (Still not as bad as Adam’s experience of being told about his school’s New Years party an hour after it started, though.)

As frustrating as this, I know the teachers aren’t leaving me out of the loop on purpose. They have their own lives to attend to without constantly updating the American teacher they can’t really talk to anyway. And so much here is decided at the last minute: no one knows what the class schedule for the semester will be until 15 minutes before the first class starts, and rooms and times change so frequently that students are perpetually crowded around the schedule posted in the hallway to check where they’re supposed to be at that moment (or, more likely, five minutes previously).

Khongorzul, the children’s palace director, attributes this general lack of communication and coordination to Mongolia’s nomadic history – and, to a lesser extent, present. Mongolia has old temples but no ancient cities, because living in cities is a recent development for this culture. For most of their history, Mongolians have lived in small nomadic groups that convened primarily at the aforementioned holidays. The rest of the year, families were pretty autonomous, doing things when and where they wanted without needing to consult with other people’s schedules.

Thus, while Mongolia is an ancient civilization, many of the trappings of what we Westerners call “civility” – courtesies like knocking on doors, scheduling meetings in advance, calling ahead if you know you’ll be late or won’t be coming at all – are absent here. In Western culture, these expectations help large groups of people to live together by minimizing the need to impinge upon each other’s space and time. Maybe Mongolians will develop some of these expectations after they’ve lived in large cities for a few more generations.

But then again, maybe they won’t. Mongolian culture is different, but it’s not primitive. Mongolians have their own system of etiquette every bit as intricate as the Western one to which I am accustomed. You can cause offense here by giving something with your left hand, or failing to show respect by supporting your right elbow with your left hand when taking something offered in that manner. It’s rude to take candy from a dish without tapping the side first, and ruder still to point your feet at someone.

Mongolian culture is what it is, and since I can’t claim an emic perspective here, I hesitate to posit any explanation that implies that it is developmentally delayed – which the “Mongolians are new to city life” trope does. There are already enough schoolyards where “Mongol” is synonymous with “retard” without me adding to that particular stereotype. Had I come to the conclusions above on my own, I probably would have discarded them as ethnocentric dismissals of what I found to be irritating aspects of this culture.

But I didn’t come to them on my own; they were proposed to me by a Mongolian woman. I love talking about Mongolian culture with Mongolians who are willing and able to look critically at it; they are invariably fascinating, and they offer insights I would not have grasped on my own. And often, as in this case, they help me to accept aspects of life that I would otherwise find frustrating.

Is it patronizing, when I walk to school and discover (yet again) that no one bothered to tell me that class was canceled that day, to close my eyes and think of isolated herder families without the need or means to coordinate their schedule with another family’s? Probably. But if it helps me to smile at my coworkers and get on with my day instead of gritting my teeth and bemoaning my wasted time, I’m willing to live with that.


Posh Corps Problems

Well, hello, tumpin! We haven’t seen this much of each other in a while. Frankly, I’d hoped to keep it that way.

(We all remember what a tumpin is, right?)

One of the joys of Soviet-built cities is that beyond opening, closing, and duct-taping shut your windows, you have absolutely no control over the temperature of your apartment. The city turns on the heat on September 15th and turns it off again on May 15th, regardless of the actual weather conditions. There’s no tapering in or out, either; the same amount of heat blasts from those radiators in 50˚ April as in −30˚ December (10 and −35, for you metric folks). It was nearly 80 outside before they turned the heat off, and even hotter in here, leaving me to fling wide every window and wander the apartment in skirt and sports bra in lieu of actual clothes. I rejoiced when my radiators went cold; finally, a temperature at which I could actually sleep!

Three days later, we had a blizzard.

Not a real blizzard, I suppose; the ground was too warm for anything to accumulate. But comically fluffy flakes fell from the sky for the better part of the day, driven by swirling winds that seemed determined to sweep them into your eyes no matter which way you turned. As much as I love snow, by late May, we’re all ready for a change.

Following that day, the temperature in my apartment has dropped to about 60˚ (16). Usually I am a fan of the sixties; for anything that requires me to be up and moving, 60-65 is actually my preferred temperature range; if I’m to be less active, 68 is ideal. But those eight degrees apparently make a world of difference; if you’re sitting around in the sunless damp, 60 will drain the warmth from your bones right quick. Adam, for all those times in the winter when you complained that your apartment was only 60 degrees, and I said, “Oh, that’s not that bad,” I apologize. It is.

One of the further joys of living in a second-world country is that many of the creature comforts we take for granted in the States are available only on a limited and unpredictable basis. My refrigerator has hummed steadily since the last power outage in November, but it would seem that the availability of water is dictated by some capricious little sprite. At times, my hot water has come out so steamy that I had to be careful not to scald myself; at others, it’s barely more than tepid. Sometimes someone somewhere has clearly switched it off for reasons unknown to me, and the pipes gurgle emptily upon the turning of the hot-water tap. For at least one day every month, there is no water at all, hot or cold. Inevitably, this will be the day when my Nalgene is empty, my hair greasy, and my dishes unwashed, leaving me with little to do but throw my hands in the air and buy a bottle of water after eating at a restaurant, hoping that I will be able to wash my hair before school the next day.

The hot water registered at “kinda warm” when I washed the breakfast dishes this morning; when I returned around 12:30, then pipes were still flowing, but the water issuing from the faucet no longer maintained any pretensions at warmth. Having just returned from the gym, and desperately in need of a shower, I was left with three options.

  1. Be sweaty and gross.
  2. Suck it up and take a cold shower.
  3. Break out the tumpin.

Normally, I’d go for option 2. I’ve bathed in Lake Superior before; surely I can stand a little cold water, right? But given my apartment’s recent descent into cooler-than-comfortable temperatures, I knew I’d already be spending most of my afternoon cuddling with a Nalgene full of hot water; I didn’t want to start by lowering my body temperature. Besides, that morning’s trip to the gym had included my introduction to deadlifting, and Kevin had started me at 60 kg, which is only slightly less than my own body weight. He’d kept a careful eye on my technique to make sure I didn’t hurt myself, but I could already feel the muscles of my lower back constricting into a tight little ball. Years of gymnastics have taught me that if I’m already starting to get sore the same day, I’m going to stay that way for several more; were I to shock those muscles with cold water, I’d probably be hobbling about like an old crone by days’ end.

So I dragged out the tumpin and set the kettle to boil, wishing that I at least had a dry towel (it was still damp from being washed last night).

Even as I grumbled, I knew I’d get no sympathy from most of my Peace Corps friends. My water might not be hot at the moment, but at least I could still get it straight from the tap, instead of having to fetch it from a well, river, or delivery truck. My apartment might be a little chilly now, but at least I didn’t have to spend winter nights wrapped in a bundle of clothes and blankets because the temperature in my home dropped below freezing after the fire went out each night.

I may not be Peace Corps, but the phrase my PC friends use for these sorts of complaints is too good to pass up: Posh Corps Problems. Inconvenienced by your temporary lack of hot or cold water? Broke at the end of the month because you live in a town that actually has restaurants and bars at which to spend money? Bummed because your Internet isn’t fast enough to stream sports games from home? Unwilling to use your washing machine because it doesn’t drain properly and smells like mold? Posh Corps Problems, the lot of them.

I like the term for its punniness, true, but also because of how well it conveys the idea of relative privilege. I might not have all the things I would take for granted back home, but I still have a lot more at my disposal than my friends in the soums. While Posh Corps Problems are a few steps down from First World Problems, they’re still far more trivial than needing to cut wood every day so you don’t freeze to death or using an outhouse for the entirety of the −40˚winter. As much as I might want to complain when back is aching and my pipes are cold, I’ve still got it pretty good.

And so it is to you, readers, that I address my current longing for a nice, hot bath. After all, my words fly to you on the wings of the Internet, which the soumers (bless them) can’t reach.


The Internet Knows Nothing About Mongolia

Mongolia is a country large in land but small in population, and as a result, it’s not exactly on the world’s radar. The most common question I received when I told people I was coming here was, “What are you doing there?” The second most common questions were, “Why Mongolia?” and “Where is that, exactly?” The Chinese people I spoke to asked if I meant Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province; when I informed them that I meant the actual country, they referred to it as Outer Mongolia. But there is no “Outer” in the country’s name; it seems to me that only the Chinese, or those with a China-centric point of view, call it Outer Mongolia.

The only things that people are likely to associate with this country are Genghis Khan and Mongolian barbecue, both of which are varying degrees of inaccurate. The Mongolians do not call him Genghis, but Chinggis. The name passed through Persia on its way west, and the Persians, lacking the /ch/ sound, replaced it with a hard /g/, the closest approximate in their language. And so the one Mongolian of world-renown is known to the world by a different name than that used by his own people.*

As for Mongolian barbecue, well, it has even less relation to Mongolian food than Taco Bell does to Mexican. Mongolian food traditionally features meat (usually mutton), flour, milk, and little else; in more recent years, they’ve added cabbage and root vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, beets) to their repertoire. It’s plain, unadorned fare that has nothing to do with the fancy array of meats and vegetables and sauces you’ll find at a “Mongolian barbecue” restaurant.

A while back, someone posted a picture of a bottle labeled “spicy Mongolian barbecue sauce” to the Expats in Mongolian Facebook page, and I wanted to put that here. Alas, I can no longer find it, so y’all will just have to use your imaginations. We all about split our sides laughing at the absurdity of such a thing; Mongolians don’t really do barbecue or sauce, and they really don’t do spicy.

The world, in short, knows very little of Mongolia. And no wonder; in this world where you can find everything online, from pictures of breaded cats to instructions on how to strip a car’s paint job using lunchmeat, Mongolia has next to no Internet presence. That sounds like a gross exaggeration, I know – but it’s not.

Let’s start with the obvious giant. There is a Google.mn, but I have yet to find a discernible advantage to using it. Google Translate, alas, does not support Mongolian, and Google Chrome doesn’t even recognize it as a language. Any time I visit a site with Mongolian text (even those clearly marked as Mongolian – like Bolor-Toli, the only online dictionary I know of), Google Chrome subjects me to a banner as annoying as it is futile.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.51.15 AM

I mean, you could try to translate this “Russian” webpage, but it wouldn’t work…

If I wanted, I could take the time to help Google improve its language recognition by reporting the error. And I do… sometimes. But since Chrome doesn’t actually recognize it as a language, it’s not on the list of reportable languages. I have to write it in each and every time I report the error. If I went through that process every time I needed to look up a word (or cross-reference the definitions to make sure I’ve picked the right translation), I’d never get anything done.

Mongolian: not on this list.

Mongolian: not on this list. Also note the character viewer I keep in the bottom right of my screen, since Russian Cyrillic lacks those letters and my computer doesn’t have Mongolian Cyrillic.

There is a Mongolian Wikipedia (all 9745 pages of it), though no Mongolian I’ve spoken to knows of its existence . And while some information about Mongolia is available on English Wikipedia, its accuracy and cultural relativity leave much to be desired. Take this page on the capital city, for instance.


Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.58.04 AM

See that vertical stack of scribblings? That’s the way Wikipedia renders all in-text instances of the Mongolian classical script. I’m not sure if they do it that way to show all of the individual components or because no one’s bothered to code the page in such a way that it will be rendered properly. But either way, that’s not what the name looks like when written out in Mongolian script. It looks like this:

Granted, this image was also taken from Wikipedia – but the image is significantly further down than I could capture with a screenshot. Why is the actual appearance of the name in Classical Script so diminished in visual importance, and why can’t Wikipedia show what the script actually looks like in-text?

No one’s bothered to update this page in a while, either. The population statistics cited in the text are from 2008 and place the population around 1 million. The sidebar (not pictured; too far down to catch in the screenshot) lists the population as 1,721,000 as of 2012. That’s a pretty enormous disparity; an extra 700,000 people might go unnoticed in Beijing, but in UB, their presence is constantly heard (extra horns honking at all hours), felt (in the crush of people on the main buses, where they pack you in like sardines), and even breathed (nearly all of those additional 700,000 would have taken up residence in the ger district, adding that much more smoke from their coal-burning fires).

But most problematic is the name under which the city is listed. The city, contrary to what Wikipedia and any number of international listings will tell you, is not called Ulan Bator. Mongolians have been fighting for a long time to get their city recognized by its rightful name in international newspapers and websites, but Wikipedia has yet to take notice.

Ulaanbaatar is a direct transliteration of the city’s name in Mongolian, Улаанбаатар. I can understand splitting the word into its two parts, ulaan (red) and baatar (hero). I can even understand simplifying it to Ulan Batar, since the double vowels will just confuse most Westerners. But changing the final a into an o implies an entirely different pronunciation. Аа and a differ only in the length of the vowel; o is a different sound. Think of the difference between cot and caught, Don and Dawn. It’s subtle, but it’s there (unless you’re from Boston). Батор is not a word in Mongolian. Nor are батар, баатор, or any of the other variations implied by this spelling. Ulan Bator makes no sense as a transliteration.

But then, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Wikipedia is inconsistent in its transliteration of Mongolian Cyrillic. An attempt to learn a particular grammatical construction recently had me puzzling over hard and soft signs (ъ and ь, respectively) and the way they affect the pronunciation of the preceding sounds. A Google search turned up no definitive answers, but it did send me to the Wikipedia Talk page on which the editors were discussing the issues of transliteration. What I found was a great deal of debate as to whether the transliteration system should be designed with native or nonnative speakers in mind, since native and nonnative speakers will assign different values to some letters.

The conclusion, unsurprisingly, seemed to be to that they ought to spell things in ways that would approximate the pronunciation for nonnative speakers. But how they proposed to find an English spelling for words they don’t know how to pronounce, I’m not sure; while several of the editors on the page reported themselves to be linguists, none of them reported themselves as Mongolian speakers.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 10.06.44 AM

The “Mongolian contributors” listed here, so far as I’ve found, are all the students of the actual editors, and their contributions are along the lines of “this is how we spell x when typing/texting” rather than “this is how this is pronounced.” At least the editors acknowledge their ignorance.

Clearly, there’s a vacuum here – an informational gap that needs filling.** There are no online resources to learn more than a few basic phrases in Mongolian or verify your translation; Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer Mongolian. While the rest of the world’s demand for Mongolian language learning resources pales (nay, bleaches) in comparison to the demand for, say, Chinese, I’m sure Mongolians would like to see more content in their own language, and more accurate content in others. I have no idea if there’s a job market for the field of educating the Internet, but it would seem that the subject bears looking into.

*At least, this is the commonly-cited explanation. I have not attempted to verify it, for the reasons expounded upon in the rest of this post.

** Sorry, Ohio friends, but even after four years in your state, I cannot bring myself to say “needs filled.”



I started to go on a hike the other day. I did this quite often in the fall; Erdenet is nestled between several mountains, and since my home is on the northern edge of town, I can be out the door and at the top of the nearest one in under half an hour. Since I had scads of free time on my hands, I spent many an afternoon wandering the slopes with camera in hand, meandering amongst  larch and aspen and searching diligently for a good walking stick.

And then the snows started.

I’m no stranger to hiking in the snow; I joined the mountaineering club during the semester I spent in Ireland, and a number of the mountains we traversed in November and December had at least a thin coating of the stuff (even if it was only at the top, as was the case when we hiked Ben Nevis). But a wintry Irish day could be mistaken for summer here, and hiking is a lot less fun when every breath pierces your lungs like a knife. Besides, I’d had other people to hike with in Ireland. It’s one thing to go it alone on a sunny day in September (though even that worried my roommate), but quite another to do so in December. The chance of slipping on ice, breaking an ankle, and then freezing to death was not one I was willing to court.

But it’s spring now, though the snow is still fighting to maintain its title as predominant form of precipitation. They turned the heat off yesterday, after all; that must mean it’s almost summer.

Spring, like this statue, is of divided mind here.

Spring, like this statue, is of a divided mind here.

So a few days after the thick, stinging snow of the most recent spring storm had dissipated, I picked a sunny afternoon to head back up into the hills.

Earlier that day, my mother had asked whether leaves and flowers had begun to make an appearance here yet. I said no; the slow greening of the grass was the only reappearance of color I’d yet witnessed. But almost as soon as I left the town limits, I found that I was wrong. A few brave flowers had indeed begun to bloom – tiny, groundhugging blossoms of yellow and pink, as well as larger purple blooms.

There were a few reminders of death scattered amongst the stirrings of new life, of course. In a country where herd animals run free, dogs run wild, and even city-dwellers slaughter sheep in their yards or on their balconies, you can’t walk far without tripping over bones. Usually its the dogs who move the bones about, but people will as well, to adorn this or that ovoo with the skull of a horse, sheep, or cow.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse's skull up here deliberately.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse’s skull up here deliberately.

Even the mine seemed decked out to celebrate the changing seasons. It had never seemed anything but ugly to me before; the great grey hills with their unnaturally flat tops might be the reason this town exists, but they do little to improve the scenery and less to improve the local water quality. You can always find southeast in this town, even on a cloudy day. That scar on the land is unmistakeable.

Today, though… today I was seeing the mine through new eyes. The weather of the past few months had gone to work on it, streaking its sides with rust red and pale blue-green patina. Erdenet’s mine is not the largest or the most famous in the country, with a name as uninspiredly utilitarian as the Soviet bloc architecture of this town – GOK. (It’s a Russian acronym, though what the GO stand for, I can’t say; the K is kompani.) Looking at it from the mountains on a sunny spring day, however, I could see why the great copper mine in the Gobi had been called Оюу Толгой – Turquoise Hill.


My hike never made it past the foothills. Sunny it may have been, but the wind that day was vicious once I left the shelter of valley and apartment buildings. In my halfhearted ascent of the first hill, I also noticed a Mongolian man making for the ovoo atop Bayan-Öndör – my destination as well. I decided I didn’t want to disturb his praying, or drinking, or both. Besides, Dances with Dragons was calling my name. Another day, I thought, and headed back.


Just so long as that day doesn’t look like this.

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Scotch all the things!

Kleenex. Xerox. Band-aid. While I’m sure you could all add to the list, these are probably the most famous examples of brand names that have become genericized – a process known as synecdoche or or eponymy, depending on whose terminology you’re using (literary or legal; I swear there’s another linguistic term for it, but my notes are all on the other side of the world). On its own, the process is well know, probably of interest only to the companies in danger of losing their trademark protection. But here, I’ve seen another layer or two of added manipulation: translation.

The dictionary, paper or online, translates tape as тууз. But then again, my dictionary also gave be банзал for skirt. That may once have been its primary meaning, but no longer; now, it’s a vulgar term for a woman who, were she wearing skirts, would have them up around her waist more often than not. When they mean the garment rather than a wanton woman, the Mongolians use the Russian юбка (metathesized, after the Mongolian pattern, to sound like “yoo-pick,” though I’m guessing the Russians say “yoob-ka”). The dictionaries do not reflect this usage, refusing to acknowledge that the Russian word is used at all, much less in preference to the Mongolian term.

Likewise, I have never heard anyone call tape тууз. Packing, duct, or otherwise, it makes no matter, they call it all скоч. If ever there was any recognition that the word is simply a transliteration of the brand name Scotch, it has long since vanished. They’ve even slapped on the regular -axstem to make it a verb: скочдох.

The expats use it as a verb too, albeit in a more limited context. To scotch is to cover something, usually paper, with packing tape as a cheap form of lamination. Laura promised to scotch the drawings we used as speaking prompts for the English Olympics, to make sure they would survive being handled by children all day; Jonathan scotched his Mongolian driver’s license  to keep the ink from wearing off.

I’ve learned the hard way to scotch any papers I’ll be using for multiple classes; if I don’t, they won’t last the day, much less the week. My students, on the whole, are rather lacking in the area of fine motor skills. For today, I had planned to pass out slips of paper with questions and answers and have the students trade around until they had a matching set (Where do your friends play soccer? My friends play soccer at the park.), then put out four pictures that corresponded to the pictures and have the groups find each other. This plan was somewhat hindered, however, by the fact that my students had managed to lose three of the slips and tear a fourth within the span of about five minutes. I hadn’t thought it unreasonable to give a few pieces of paper to a group of sixteen-year-old boys and get them back intact, but it took only those few minutes to make it clear that I had misjudged my students.

Truly, I ought not to have been so surprised. The myriad construction paper aids I’ve used in my teacher’s classes have fared little better. The teachers have at least managed not to lose any of my little cards, but they’ve certainly given them a beating. I’ve played a memory/matching game as a vocabulary exercise on multiple occasions, and I’m frankly surprised the cards have survived at all. Most of the teachers seem not to know any way of picking them up besides a whole-handed pinching motion that usually bends the cards in half, even the women with fingernails long enough to slip beneath a piece of paper.

I don’t mean to conclude, or even imply, that all Mongolians are ham-handed; the popularity of cross-stitch kits and the intricacy of their traditional crafts and clothing give the lie to that. But the fact remains that this is a rugged country ill-suited to delicate things – be they shoes, appetites, or teaching materials. That goes double for anything to be handled by a pack of sixteen-year-old boys. So the next hour will find me at my desk, rewriting questions on larger, harder-to-lose pieces of paper.

And scotching them.


Please Don’t Ask Why I’m Not Married

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I’ve lost track of how many times this question has been asked of me since I came to Mongolia. Americans typically dance around the topic; maybe we’ll drop a statement based on one presumption or the other and wait for the other party to confirm or refute the assumption; maybe we’ll approach a friend, and ask him or her instead. Most likely, we’ll do a bit of Facebook stalking. But no matter what approach we take, it’s likely to be a cautious one, because the question is presumed to be a pointed one. Why would you ask unless you had a vested interest in the answer?

Here, I’ve had to let all those assumptions go. The question is simply one of many to be levied at me by any Mongolian I’ve just met for the first time. Typically, they start simple (Where do you work? When did you come to Mongolia?), but it’s not long before they veer into territory Americans would consider personal (What is your dream? How many children do you want?).

It’s like junior year of high school all over again, when all anyone would ask me what college I was going to and I longed to erase that question from the English language. When I know, I’ll tell you! I seethed internally, and There is more to me than my college decision. Ask me about something else for a change!

And so I begin to squirm after the first three or four questions, knowing that the children-and-future questions are on the way and reminding myself that these people aren’t trying to put me through my own personal hell. They don’t know that I don’t know I’ll be doing with my life after I finish my time here, or that my lack of direction is a source of personal stress. They don’t know that I was still recovering from a breakup when I arrived here, or that one of my exes hooked up with a close friend while I was here, and that any mention of boyfriends at that time brought the whole mess of emotions roiling to the surface. And so I smile, and I answer politely, and I reroute the train as best I can when I don’t actually now the words for directions, reminding myself of the many reasons not to red-light the conductor.

But there are times when I long to do so. If you follow the boyfriend question with Where do you live? and Do you live alone?, I’m going assure you that I have a Mongolian roommate with lots of brothers and get out of your cab as fast as possible. If you proceed to ask me why I don’t have a boyfriend, I will contemplate spilling whatever beverages we have at hand in order avoid answering the question, and to forestall your offer to set me up with your coworker/brother/son/neighbor/husband’s cousin’s neighbor’s teacher. I’m sure they’re lovely men, all of them, but I have no desire to be set up with some guy I’ve never met and probably can’t actually talk to.

They don’t always start with boyfriend, either, these well-meaning but uncomfortably nosy Mongolians. As often as not, they’ll start with Are you married? or Do you have children? And to be fair, I’m guilty of asking these questions myself. Та гэр бүлтэй юү? is one of the few introductory-type questions actually covered by my minimal vocabulary, and if the silence begins to stretch awkwardly once my new Mongolian acquaintances and I have shared our names and professions, I’ll begin to ask them about the number and age of their children.

These questions are, in fact, much easier to answer. No, I’m not married, and no, I don’t have children; yes, I want them someday, but not for a very long time. Three words (no, no, later), and we’re usually out of the woods and on to safer territory. Except, of course, for that one conversation with a school administrator whose name position I can’t recall. Why?, she asked, throwing a new wrench into the works. When I was your age, I was already married with two children!

Please excuse me while I run screaming from the thought.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the topic; three of my friends have gotten married within the past two weeks, joining the ranks of what seems like half the girls from my freshman dorm. It’s rather frightening how many Facebook friends’ names I no longer recognize because they’ve gone off and gotten married while I wasn’t looking. 

If, at the age of 22, you are confident that you have found the love of your life, and you’re ready to get married and start having kids, then more power to you. I wish you every happiness. But I am far from ready to start down that path, and I’m a little sick of questions implying that something must be wrong with me.

Not that my Mongolian acquaintances are trying to imply that; I know they’re not. They’re just curious about yet another characteristic that makes me different from most of the people they know. Mongolians tend to start their families young; most of my female coworkers in their early to mid-twenties are married with a kid or two. I imagine early marriage and childbearing are especially common for countryside dwellers not pursuing higher education, but they aren’t limited to this group. It’s very common for a couple to have a child while they’re still in university; the child is typically raised by one set of grandparents while the parents finish school. The parents may or may not be married by that point; often they wait until at least one of them has a job before tying the knot.

That I am without husband, children, or even a boyfriend at the age of twenty-three doesn’t make me a complete anomaly here, but it is somewhat unusual. It’s natural that the Mongolians should ask about it, especially when doing so is in their line of introductory questioning anyway. I’m getting used to it and learning not to twitch. At least I haven’t been asked when/why I got fat, as some of the other American women have. 

Tact: one of the most culturally variable concepts I have ever encountered.

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Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.


Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.


Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.

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It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.

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Capital Contentions

Mongolia is very much an “all roads lead to Rome” sort of country, and it isn’t the roads that bring you to its capital city. Ulaanbaatar is the seat of pretty much everything: the government, the postal service, the Embassies to various other countries, and the primary manufacturing facilities are located here, as well as over half the population of the country. And so it was that I found myself on the road to the capital yesterday morning, since its immigration office is the only one that gives residence permits.

The capital city and I have, shall we say, a contentious relationship. I would call it love-hate, except that to do so would imply an equality between the two sentiments that simply isn’t so. Love-hate-hate would perhaps be closer to the truth.

Now, there are certainly some good things to be said of UB. I have a number of friends here, and I am always excited by the opportunity to see them again. Ulaanbaatar also boasts a number of dining an entertainment options that are not available in Erdenet: a movie theater! Indian and Thai food! Beer with actual flavor! A duty-free shop where you can buy whiskey at halfway-reasonable prices! There is also a national opera house, though I have never had the fortune to attend a performance there.

Disconnected as I am from the world of pop culture, the movie theater is not usually at the top of my priorities. I have seen exactly two movies during my time here: a repeat viewing of Dark Knight Rises, when we first arrived in August, and Hotel Transylvania, during my Thanksgiving visit. No, food and friends are definitely much higher on priority list. A trip to the city is incomplete without a visit to one of the nicer bars (Ikh Mongol or MB), the Duty-Free Store, and a restaurant serving cuisine of a persuasion unavailable in Erdenet. (There are many; our line-up features one American bakery, one Italian pizzeria, one Korean restaurant, and two Russian, along with three other restaurants that serve Western food. There are exactly four locations in town that serve non-instant coffee, all of them on the previous list, and for those, we are the envy of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country).

When I have time, I also try to visit the miraculous Mercury Market, home to all manner of generally inaccessible foodstuffs. You can’t buy rosemary, cumin, or maple syrup in Erdenet, but they have them at Mercury.

I try hard to remind myself of these advantages anytime life necessitates a trip here. But even so, the truth of the matter is that I avoid the capital city whenever possible.

Erdenet is quiet and welcoming. People say hello to me on the street, and the owners of the delguurs I frequent ask me how I am and how my work is going. Foreigners are seen as rare subjects of interest, rather than rich, exploitative carpetbaggers. And while it’s certainly overstating matters to say that all Ulaanbaatarians resent and hate foreign people, the Nationalist movement is certainly good at getting its message heard. I have gone out with a group of around ten Americans in Erdenet a number of times and never been disturbed; the one time I found myself at a club with a large number of Americans in UB (albeit a much larger one, this group closer to 50), a fight broke out between the Mongolians and the foreigners.

Moreover, I feel safe in Erdenet. A flat 1000 tugriks will get you a taxi ride to anywhere within the city limits, and I have never felt threatened when walking the streets at night. In UB, I have had taxi drivers try to charge me 20,000 tugriks for a ride worth maybe 2000, and it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether walking or taking a taxi alone after dark is more dangerous. I have witnessed exactly one instance of theft in Erdenet, whereas at least three people have attempted to pickpocket me in UB, including one who succeeded. I didn’t lose anything of particular value on that occasion, but several friends have had their phones stolen during trips to UB, including expensive smartphones.

At least the city’s least favorable aspect has mostly abated with the return of warmer weather. I’ve read estimates that as much as 80% of the city’s population lives in its many ger districts, since a pattern of emigration has brought far more people to this city than its limited housing and infrastructure can support. Most of these people burn coal during the winter, as well as rubber tires, trash, and anything else they can find. The city’s heat and electricity are also provided by coal plants. Unsurprisingly, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world during the winter months, so much so that multiple current and former residents of the city have had doctors interpret the lung damage as the result of lifelong smoking. I roamed the city without wearing a face mask for one day in late December and spent most of that night awake coughing, as my lungs tried to rid themselves of all the pollutants they had acquired over the course of a few hours out of doors; my friend Adam, after a similar level of exposure in November, awoke to find his tongue had turned black.

That’s how bad the air in this city is. Image Credit: UB Air Quality Info Facebook Group

Thankfully, the ger-dwellers only need to light fires for cooking purposes now, so the amount of particulate matter in the air has dropped precipitously. I can breathe easily during my time here – at least literally, if not figuratively.