Whenever someone asks me, “What are Mongolian people like?” I always give them the same answer:
Life in Mongolia is like living with an entire country of grandmothers. Everyone is always trying to feed you and telling you to put on more clothes.
Some of you have probably heard this from me a few times now, and I’m sure the answer’s gotten a little tired in the telling. But cliché or not, I stick to it because it’s no less true than it was eleven months ago. I know I complained about it in the winter months, when the inherent condescension of not being trusted to dress myself properly began to grate on my nerves. But even then, I knew I preferred the endless chorus of, “Don’t you have a real winter coat?” and “Your shoes not warm enough” to being left to fend for myself in the coldest weather I’d ever experienced. Parents and grandparents can be overbearing, certainly, but we all know that they do it because they care about us. And that concern is itself a potent charm against the cold of winter.
The arrival of warmer weather brought an end to my being made to feel like my brother (who makes a habit of running around in Chicago winters in shorts and a sweatshirt), but other forms of hospitality persist. Yesterday, for instance, I stopped by a seamstress’s home to pick up the new deel I’d commissioned from her (a short “fashion” deel, not the traditional kind I purchased in January). She was in the midst of cooking some sort of large, thick, fried pancakes, and she ushered me into the kitchen to wait until she’d finished cooking.
“Суу, суу,” she said, pointing at a chair. “Цай уух уу?”
Upon being informed that it was black tea she had on hand, rather than the ubiquitous milk tea I want but fail to enjoy, I said I would indeed like some. She poured me a cup from the standard pink plastic thermos and placed a large bowl containing the first completed cake in front of me. “Ид, ид.” This is a command I’ve heard countless times; it’s the endless refrain of Mongolian hosts, and it sounds exactly the same in both English and Mongolian: “eat, eat.”
I’d never had this sort of food before, and I didn’t catch what it was called, but it was delightful: about half an inch thick and slightly sweet, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. I asked what was in it, besides the obvious flour and sugar; just butter, she said. Utterly lacking in nutritional value, I’m sure, but deliciously so.
I’d eaten my fill and finished my tea by the time she finished cooking the remaining cakes, but had that not been the case, she would have waited for me before proceeding to the purpose of my visit. Mind you, I wasn’t a friend she’d invited over for a meal, or even a short social visit; I was just there to try on the deel she was sewing for me. But Mongolian manners dictated that as a guest who’d be staying any significant length of time, I be offered a cup of tea. And she certainly wasn’t going to cook in front of me without offering me some, especially since she sat down to break off part of the last crispy cake after it came out of the oil.
The custom holds no matter where I go; when I step into the offices of my school’s director or the Children’s Palace Director, even when I’m there to tutor them, the first question I’m asked is, “Coffee or tea?” The owner of whatever ger you’ve just entered, to my undying chagrin, will often hand you a steaming bowl of salty milk tea and the tray of aaruul completely unprompted, leaving me scrambling to stutter out my standard lie (“Sorry, I can’t drink milk”). I really do appreciate the gesture; I just wish it wasn’t made with milk. I can drink it, technically; it’s just that the whole milk they use, to which they often add more fat, makes me queasy.
I have yet to see a Mongolian pass up a chance to feed me, either. If you visit a friend’s home, the second thing she will most likely do is to bustle into the kitchen and begin cooking for you – the first, of course, is to offer you tea. And they’ll go out of their way to do this for you. My roommate’s oldest sister has a house in UB, and Namuunaa called to let her know I was in the city when I went in May. Amarjargal, in turn, called to ask when I was coming over for dinner. Her disappointment at my “Thanks, but I’m not sure I have time” crackled more loudly than the phone; I was afraid I’d offended her!
When I did find time to visit their home, she and her husband picked me up from the State Department Store; after a dinner of tsuivan with beets and beef cheeks, they tried to keep me for the night. When I insisted that I really did need to get back, they took a taxi in with me from their home in Sansar and walked me to my friend’s apartment building. I hadn’t even remembered their names at the outset of the evening, but they, like almost everyone else I’ve met in this country, wanted to keep me safe and make me feel welcome.
So when I sipped at my tea and tried my best to make polite conversation with my seamstress yesterday, it was with thanks but without surprise. Her name is Oyuntuya, I learned, though the Mongolian friend who up until now had acted as translator had simply called her эгч ээ (“ig-chay”). It means older sister, and it’s the standard term of address for an older but not old woman in this country. Still, it wasn’t what came to mind as I watched this cheerful, hospitable woman bustling about her little kitchen. What I wanted to call her, in the best possible sense of the word, was эмээ: grandmother.