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.


Happy New Year!

If you read don’t already read Anna‘s blog and have any interest in worldwide Christmas traditions, I’d suggest you check out her great recent posts on Russian holiday celebrations. I’ve been following them with fascination because it gave me a glimpse into many of the origins of Mongolian Шинэ Жил (shine jil, literally new year) traditions. When I told her that Mongolians had lifted many of the holiday trappings directly from the Soviets, she said she’d like to hear about them. I will write a post on the subject, but it’s going to have to wait until Russian Christmas or so, since my own New Year’s plans have gotten in the way.

Around noon yesterday, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop and considering my NYE prospects. As I grew up in the WASP-y (well, mostly Jewish, so WASJ-y?) upper middle class sort of suburb that offers twenty-somethings neither opportunities to socialize nor affordable housing, most of my high school friends have vacated the premises. Most of those who do reside either in the surrounding suburbs or down in the city itself all have significant others, and I was less than thrilled at the prospect of being the only one at the party with no one to kiss when the ball drops at midnight. I have dance friends in Chicago, but most of them are in South Carolina for Lindy Focus, a dance extravaganza I lack the income to attend.

So, completely on a whim, I decided to join the college friends convening near Akron, Ohio for the holiday. I hoped on the internet, bought myself a bus ticket, and called the appropriate friends to arrange pickups. Less than 24 hours later, I was on the train, and an hour after that, I was on the bus.
I do regret missing my brother’s last day before he returns to his post in Okinawa, but let’s face it – there are other people with whom he’d rather spend this holiday.

It’s an eight-hour bus ride, but the roads are paved and the bus has a bathroom and electrical outlets and even wifi. Public transit in the US has got nothing on Europe, I know, but it’s a far sight nicer than Mongolia. I’m visiting a city 400 miles away, hanging out with friends I haven’t seen in a year and a half, for half the cost of gas. Sounds like a good deal to me!

But I didn’t bring my computer and don’t much fancy trying to format posts with pictures from my phone, so the Шинэ Жил post shall be postponed.

In the meantime, here’s me wishing you a safe and happy new year! Шинэ жилийн мэнд хургэе!


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Today I had an argument with myself over how to wear my hair to church for Christmas Eve.

I got a keratin treatment yesterday because it helps to strengthen and detangle my otherwise brittle and knot-prone hair. It’s something they have to flatiron in, and so yesterday (and today, because I haven’t washed it yet), my hair is straight for the fourth time in my life. That makes it very much a novelty, so on the one hand, I might as well leave it that way for church tonight. Plus it’s better to let the keratin set for two days before you wash it.

On the other, it’s a novelty; it’ll probably be the first time most of the people there have seen me with straight hair, so I’ll be sure to get lots of comments on it. “It looks good straight!” “Why don’t you straighten it more often?”

I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve explaining to people that I don’t straighten it more often because I don’t own a flatiron, and that I don’t own one because I actually like my hair curly. Is that so unheard of, that I like having curly hair? I know they won’t mean it that way, but when people compliment my hair, what I’ll be hearing is, “You look better when you change your appearance. You should do that more often.”

The comment I got most often at my school’s New Year’s party last year was, “Why aren’t you wearing makeup?” It wasn’t enough that I had taken my director up on her gracious offer to let me borrow a dress, and to get my hair curled; without full-out face paint, I merited only comments on the insufficiencies of my appearance. Needless to say, I did not have much fun at that party.

I don’t want to spend Christmas Eve being made to feel (even unintentionally) like I owe it to the world to change what I look like in order to make other people happy, or that it’s absurd for me to actually like how I look. Frustration and resentment are not conducive to the Christmas spirit.

/rant. Maybe now that it’s out there, I can actually get on with the business of cleaning the house and preparing for the holiday.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas from my family, including me in my natural curly-haired state.


Christmas Music

Like many Americans I know, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. I have a number of reasons for this: I want to give Thanksgiving its due as a holiday. I think 24 days is plenty of time to get sick music you’re likely subjected to on an endless and inescapable loop; adding November to the length of that loop is a nauseating thought. I’m a compartmentalist who subdivides files, makes lists to sort out her Facebook friends, and listens to the same children’s books the night of every major holiday, as she has every year since she was a child.

It probably doesn’t help that I hate a lot of the most commonly-played songs.

I despise “Santa Baby.” I can’t tolerate the whiny childish voice of whoever sings “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and that song by Alvin and the Chipmunks gives me a headache – in fact, I would happily canonize anyone who gets chipmunked music banned. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was funny the first time I heard it but has since lost its charm; I can handle “Dominic the Donkey” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” perhaps three times a year.

Lest I spend this entire post Bah Humbug-ing pop-y commercial rubbish, let me hasten to list a few songs I love: “What Child is This?,” “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells.” Carols, in other words – the old religious songs that aren’t about elves or Santa or reindeer. I do love “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” mostly for the line, “you’ve got garlic in your soul,” and that song about fruitcake that the choir at my high school always sang will forever hold a special place in my heart – but aside from that, I’m very much a traditionalist. (Trans-Siberian Orchestra remixes of carols totally count.)

This year, I’m grateful to be able to cleave to my traditions and preferences – in Mongolia, that often wasn’t the case. Mongolia as a whole has very interesting taste in Western music, which is to say that you hear an awful lot of the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and ABBA. They really like their ABBA. And since a lot of Mongolians don’t actually understand the English words in the songs they listen to, Christmas songs are regularly decontextualized. No one bats an eyelash at “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as a July ringtone.

Alas, the songs they do recognize as pertaining to this season – by which I mean they are played more regularly, but not exclusively, in December – are among my least favorite of all. I’d never heard ABBA’s “Happy New Year” before I lived in Mongolia, and I rather with it had stayed that way. And if I never hear “Last Christmas” again, it will be too soon.

What are your most- and least-favorite Christmas songs? Other languages count – I’d love to hear some traditional Christmas music from other cultures.


So What Do I Call You Now?

Adulthood is a pesky thing. It keeps rearing up when I least expect it, reminding me that the rules by which I have always abided (why do we say “abided” here, and not “abode?”) have changed; I cannot do things as I have always done them. Responsibility, which I have never feared, suddenly carries real-world repercussions that affect more than just me, and suddenly I occupy a different place in the world.

A lot of this was true in Mongolia, of course, but some of it hits me afresh now that I’ve returned to America, specifically the issue of names. There are an awful lot of people I originally knew as Mr./Ms./Dr. [last name] because I was a child, or a student. But now I’m neither, and that muddies the waters a bit. How does one address a former teacher/professor? A former scout leader? A former boss who also attends my church? My parents’ friends, who I’ve always sort-of-but-not-really known?

Some of these folks make it easy for me. The scout leader addresses me by last name unless I address her by first name; several of my teachers/professors always asked me to call them by their first names, or have told me since graduating that I can do so.

But then there’s the former-boss-who-attends-my church. I knew him first as an adult at church, so I called him Mr. B. But then I started working for him, and I couldn’t call everyone else at the office by their first names and not him. But then, it didn’t seem right to call him by his first name at church, either. So I referred to him by his first name at work and his last name at church and just tried to avoid addressing him by name altogether. For that matter, I still do, even though I no longer work for him.

And what are you supposed to do about professors with doctorates who sign their emails with their first names, or their initials, but never actually address the issue of address? My general policy is to call those with doctorates by their titles unless and until I’m specifically asked to do otherwise, but those signatures add just enough ambiguity to the situation to make me antsy. If you don’t want me to call you by name, why are you signing your emails to me with it? But if you want me to call you by name, why haven’t you asked me to?

Mongolia brought a welcome reprieve from the business of titles. No one there calls anyone Mr. or Mrs. anything, probably because there is no single system of last names. Mongolians don’t usually have single surnames that are passed along the generations; instead, most of them have adopted the Russian patronymic system. Thus, each child bears the name of his or her father – sometimes with the genitive suffix appended, and sometimes not. That’s already a lot of mosts and sometimeses: a Mongolian’s “surname” could be 1) a Russian-style patronymic, with the genitive suffix; 2) a patronymic without the suffix; 3) a Western-style family name.

To further confuse matters, they also reverse the familiar Western order of the names so that the patronymic (or surname) comes first, much like the Chinese family name. Mongolian names in intra-national contexts are always listed this way. But throw a Western country with a different name order into the mix, and it’s a bit of a toss-up as to which will be used. Just writing your name on an official form becomes a headache, lest you accidentally switch the boxes for your “first” and “last” names. Even finding people on Facebook is tricky, since some list their names in Western order, and some in Eastern.

And yet, I said this was simpler to navigate? If you were actually talking to the person, it was indeed.

If you look at a Mongolian business card, you’ll find it very easy to tell which name to use when addressing the person to whom it belongs: it’s in all caps. Thus, my name (transcribed phonetically) would read Бурк КЭЙТЛИН; my coworker’s, Доржсүрэн ҮҮРЦАЙХ. The given name has precedence, and it’s what everyone calls you. Indeed, sometimes they don’t even bother to list the family name/surname/patronymic – just the initial. I have no idea what my coworkers’ last names were because on every roster I ever saw, their names were just listed as Ц. Лхагва or Г. Эрдэнэсувд.

“What?” you ask, “students call their teachers by first name?” Well, sort of. Often they add the word teacher (багш/bagsh, plus a vocative aa) to the end of the teacher’s name – or they just call the teacher teacher. Thus, my students called me Katya-bagshaa or just bagshaa. I called my students,  coworkers, and superiors alike by their first names, and my coworkers called me Katya unless I was actively teaching them (in which case they too called me Katya-bagshaa). It was all wonderfully simple and uniform.

Now, alas, I’m back to wondering  what I’m supposed to call people, especially the ones I now know in different contexts. I just wrote an entire post about how much I dislike being called by unsanctioned nicknames, which is all part of the same topic. I wouldn’t want to cause the same distress to someone else through a similar instance of over-familiarity.

Just tell me what you want to be called, alright? Less ambiguity, less stress all around.


Hiking Fiasco, Part III: Ikh Tenger

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.

(New to this story? Click back to read Part I and Part II of our rather disastrous hiking trip.)

Unfortunately, getting home was not going to be easy. Though we set off chilled and aching, we hadn’t been walking long before we started stripping off our extra layers as we clambered through field after field of boulders. Dehydrated as we were, and without enough water to remedy the problem, we overheated quickly and stayed that way. The exhaustion of the previous day’s hike and general lack of sleep had taken its toll as well, and our progress toward the distant city we caught in tantalizing glimpses was slow. But we were making progress, at least, and so we trudged onward, making our careful way downhill.

As usual, I’d fallen behind the others during this downhill stretch, and so at first I didn’t see anything different about their having stopped ahead of me; it just looked like  another break. But as I approached, the depressing truth appeared: though compass and city lights told us to keep marching forward, we’d have to disregard their beckoning and turn aside. We’d trudged straight into a barbed-wire fence.

RESTRICTED AREA – DO NOT ENTER, declared the signs posted at regular intervals. Moreover, they said so in English as well as Mongolian, which I found entertaining; very few signs in this country boasted translations. Why bother here, when the barbed wire shouted stay out in a universal language?

Having made extensive use of our guidebooks, we knew where we were now, and it was not where we wanted to be.

Be careful not to drop too soon or you’ll end up at Ikh Tenger, one valley short of Zaisan. Ikh Tenger is where the president lives with machine gun-wielding guards, who will be none to pleased if you drop by unannounced. If you see a barbed-wire fence you are in Ikh Tenger; to get out, just continue west along the fence and over the next ridge.

So we did as the book advised: we turned left and tried our best to follow the fence west. Alas, it mostly didn’t go west – we were forced to backtrack as it turned ever more south, leading us up a ridge and through brambles tore at our hands and arms. We paused as we trudged through to strip them of raspberries and rose hips, exacting our small revenge. Up and back, up and back we climbed single file, warning the others as we encountered bad footing. Despite our care, Krysta and I both slipped and fell into rosebushes, while Valerie went sliding into a brush-filled hole. We took the setbacks as best we could, giggling at the falls and grateful that none of us sustained injury.

At last, we were able to continue northward along the side of the ridge the fence has led us to. Abruptly, we found ourselves out of the woods and in the merciless sun. This ridge was desert-like, covered in gravel and larger stones – the kind of surface that sends you sliding back a step and a half for every two you try to take uphill, or jerks your feet out from under you altogether when you’re waking your way down. We considered our options: up, down, or across? I left the others to make my slow way uphill, but when the long journey up a hundred feet left me far from the top, we decided to try our luck amongst the forested base of the ridge. We could make our way between ridge and woods, we figured, at the border where the brush wasn’t too thick.

We seemed to be in luck. Upon reaching the base of the ridge, we found ourselves upon a path – a path! – that followed a little stream. The barbed wire appeared to have receded back into the woods; there was none in sight, but visibility into the thick tangle was limited. As we followed the path, a ger appeared before us, bringing smiles to our tired faces. At long last, we were nearing civilization.

But as we approached, Ginny noted that it was an awfully nice-looking ger – nicer than you’d expect from a family squatting near the presidential compound. As the ground before us cleared, we found that it had been erected, not on grass, but on astroturf, which I’d seen only once or twice in this country. Sensing that, despite our best intentions, we had found ourselves somewhere we were not supposed to be, we made to turn back to the ridge.

And that was when we saw the man with machine gun.

He’d been walking at an angle to us originally, following a path we couldn’t see, but he stopped when the five of us caught his eye. He looked at us, and we looked at him, and when he started in our direction, the five of us walked to meet him without a word. What else could we do? You don’t run from men with machine guns.

In our limited Mongolian, we apologized. “Passport?” he demanded, though of course none of us had them. I handed over my photocopy, and the others driver’s license or student IDs. He radioed a partner and led us away – where, we didn’t know. He asked if we spoke Mongolian, and I answered, “a little.” But that was the end of the conversation. No questions, no explanations. But at least we weren’t made to enter any of the buildings we past, some of which had no windows.

As we walked, I tried to prepare an explanation despite not knowing any of the key words – hike, trail, lost. The best I could come up with was something like, Yesterday we went to Zun Mod. We saw monastery and then wanted to walk to UB. We saw road and walked and then didn’t see road. So we slept outside. Today we walked to here. We want to go to UB.

We stopped along a road as the guard escorting us waited for another to join us. Despite our exhaustion, we were not allowed to sit, nor did we have the nerve to press the issue. The next guard again asked for our passports, which we once more explained were at home. V produced a business card the new Fulbrighters had been given in case of emergencies, one that said in Mongolian, “Take me to the US Embassy.”

The second guard considered the card and held onto it, leading us to building alongside the main gate. He entered and told us to wait outside, so we took seats along the curb. There was the road to the city – just a few feet away, but separated from us by a tall, spiked fence. Unlike the pack of stray dogs that raced by, we could not simply slip between the black bars that stood between us and our destination.

Finally, they led us into a room with a single couch and told us to sit. It was a tight squeeze for the five of us, but we sank into it gratefully. More waiting ensued. It had been at least an hour since we’d stumbled into the compound, and who knew how many more would pass before we’d be allowed to leave it.

My ringtone broke the silence.

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”

Another phone rang shortly thereafter. We all exchanged nervous glances when the name came up – it was the Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy.

Finally, Alisa volunteered to take the call. More explanations of where we were and how we’d gotten there, peppered with frequent apologies. We’d received a call from the Duty Officer night before and had been dismayed that our friends in UB had thought it necessary to call the Embassy; it seemed like overkill. Now, however, we were glad that our friends there had been apprise of our trip and surprise overnight, as it helped them to explain our current predicament to the guards detaining us.

We sat quietly for awhile more after Alisa had finished apologizing to the Embassy folks for the inconvenience we were causing them, but eventually, a guard came in to see us. He demanded our cameras and looked through them to make sure we hadn’t taken pictures of anything we weren’t supposed to. He also examined our bags, confiscating  my pocket knife when he came across it at the bottom of mine.

After another hour of waiting, the Duty Officer finally arrived to pick us up; we weren’t allowed to leave on our own. I asked if I could have my knife back, but was denied – apparently they’re not allowed in restricted areas. I was bitter at the loss; it was a good knife that had served me several years, and it wasn’t like I’d brought in a machete. But I tried to keep it in perspective as we climbed into the Duty Officer’s car and exited those dreadful gates, our adventure coming to a close at long last. No one had been killed or injured; though our hike had taken more than twice as long as the guidebook had indicated, we’d never gotten truly lost; despite wandering into truly forbidden ground, we hadn’t been arrested.

“Well?” I had asked the others over an hour earlier, before we knew when – or if – we’d be allowed to leave. “Would you do it again? Was it worth it?”

“Absolutely,” said Krysta with a smile, while the others nodded in agreement. “But next time, we’ll bring a tent.”


How-To: Laundry Day

When my friend Corry studied in India, she had to ask her her host sister how to do laundry. “You don’t know how to wash your clothes?” the sister asked, bewildered. When Corry explained that in America we have machines that do the washing for us, her host sister was even more amazed. After doing my laundry by hand for over a year, I began to comprehend that feeling. Just think of all the things you can do while a machine washes your clothes for you!

Mongolia is a little more advanced when it comes to time-saving gadgets. Washing machines are common in the big cities, and even out in the soums, they’re not unheard of. Most of them are manual: you’re the one who does the filling and the draining and the rinsing. All the machine really does is agitate your clothes. The attached dryer, if there is one, is little more than a centrifuge that spins most of the water out of your clothes.

While we had such a machine in my apartment, I would classify it as mostly nonfunctional. It didn’t drain properly  and always smells like mold, and my clothes often came out of it more worn and wet but no less dirty. The dryer didn’t spin at all unless you leaned most of your weight on the (broken) lid, and even then, it was too weak to handle a single wet sheet or towel. Even with lighter items, all it usually did was clunk about half-heartedly (and without appreciable results).

So I didn’t use it. Bulky items like sheets, towels, and sweatshirts I schlepped to the homes of friends with functional machines, who were kind enough to let me use them. But everything else I did the old-fashioned way. Mostly, I didn’t mind, as long as I was good about doing the laundry regularly. I’m not saying I would have wanted to be a laundress (in the days when such people existed), but there’s something peaceful about staring into a bucket of suds.

I would venture a guess that most Americans, excepting those who have gone on long camping trips, have never done laundry by hand. The process isn’t especially difficult, but it’s certainly time-consuming. Here are some tips on how best to accomplish it.

1. Make sure you’ve got everything on hand before you start and that the box of soap you plan on using isn’t actually empty. Mongolians typically use two types of soap when hand-washing: the powdered detergent (to create suds) and the ordinary bar kind (for scrubbing). You can do the wash in the bathtub, but that requires a lot of water, so I usually just use the tumpin. I acquired a small plastic washboard from the Korean home supply store shortly after I moved into my apartment (thank heavens for the Koreans!)


Laundry materials: assembled.

Laundry materials: assembled.

2. Use hot water. Hand-washing is not super-efficient, and it’s unlikely you’ll actually scrub most of whatever garment you’re washing. This means that you need hot water if you’re going to do any serious odor removal. Cold water doesn’t remove grease, either. So either pick a day when the hot water’s working or get that kettle going.

3. Everything your mother told you about sorting according to colors? I’m sure you all forgot it as soon as you got to college, relying on cold water and dye-absorbent sheets to keep everything from turning the same color as everything else. Well, dredge that knowledge up again, because it counts double here. Your clothes will leach out a truly amazing amount of dye, and the dirt… let’s not think about the dirt.

4. Reuse the wash water. Chances are, you can clean more clothes with it than you can manage at one time in a little tumpin. Just remember to wash your lightest clothes first, and your dirtiest clothes last.

5. WASH YOUR SOCKS LAST. You will be disgusted at how much dirt they pick up. Unless  you wear slippers, like the Mongolians; then they might not be quite so bad.

6. Handkerchiefs are unimaginably gross to hand-wash. Do not attempt without a washboard. Do not reuse the wash-water.

7. Baking soda is a surprisingly effective stain remover.

8. Wring out the soapy water before rinsing. You probably had to use a lot of soap to get the suds going, and it’ll take more water than you think to get it all out.

9. Wring as much water as possible out of cotton before hanging it to dry. Wet cotton stretches like you wouldn’t believe.

Efficient use of radiator drying space.

Lotsa socks!

10. Stuff socks in the spaces of your radiator to make more efficient use of your precious drying space.

11. Wash right-side out; dry inside-out. The dirt’s on the outside, so that’s what you want to scrub, but if you’re drying clothes on old metal radiators, you want any rust stains incurred to be on the inside.

12. Do not forget your clothes on the laundry line, or it will rain and they will get wet and you will have to leave them out even longer. If you’re really unlucky, the wind will blow them off the line onto the filthy porch, and you’ll have to wash them all over again.

13. Laundry mountain is not fun to scale. By the time I’ve gotten one tumpin’s worth of laundry washed, rinsed, and hung to dry, my laundry zen is pretty much exhausted – as is the available space to hang my clothes to dry. So for most of my time in Mongolia, I did one “load” a day, 2-3 days per week.

14. You don’t have to wash your clothes as often as you think. A good airing-out (hung up, and not in an enclosed space like a closet) will remove most of the odor from clothes that aren’t sweat-soaked or spilled-upon. I re-wore most garments several times before washing them, especially work clothes, which I swapped out and hung up as soon as I got home.

15. Wool is your friend. It’s warm, it’s durable, and it’s remarkably odor-resistant. I have one yak-wool dress that I’ve owned for over a year and never washed. It’s not sweat-stained, and it doesn’t smell; why would I wash it?

Makes you grateful for washing machines, don’t it?



If you ask me what Mongolia was like, my answer will likely be flippant and short: “Cold.” Fifteen months’ worth of experiences cannot be condensed into a brief but all-encompassing summary with any degree of ease or accuracy, much less at the drop of hat. Thoughtful, targeted answers will be given only to those who ask thoughtful, targeted questions; all others will be met with the simplest, broadest truth I can muster.

I’ve given this answer more times than I can count in the past few months, but now, as I find myself watching the swirling of our new-fallen snow, calling in to the local country station to share the craziest thing I’ve ever been stuck doing in the cold, and helping to move the drinks in from the screened porch to prevent a repeat of the Exploding Pop Incident of ’99, it occurs to me that I’ve never really addressed what “cold,” in the Mongolian context, means.

I could tell you that a Mongolian winter means three solid months below freezing, bracketed on each end by two months of flirtation with the freezing point (better known as spring and fall). It means that there will be weeks in the heart of the season where you never once see temperatures above 0˚F. That none of my winter clothing was waterproof because there’s no such thing as slush or sleet in the middle of winter, when liquid water is a dream that exists only indoors. That at -22˚F (-30˚C), a cup of boiling water thrown into the air will disappear into a mist of snow and vapor.

I could tell you that one of my friends in the hudoo made do without a refrigerator by storing milk on the windowsill and meat in a plastic bag dangled out the window, and that my ger-dwelling friends had to sleep with their computers inside their sleeping bags so they wouldn’t be damaged by the temperatures inside their homes. That on multiple occasions, I underestimated how long it would take me to run a few errands and wore only one pair of yak-wool socks inside my fur-lined boots, a mistake that meant a twenty-minute soak in warm water to return the circulation to my frozen feet. A painful twenty-minute soak.

Moreover, I could tell you that all of this was true in an unusually warm winter, most of it in one of the warmest cities in the country. To my great disappointment, I never once saw -40, the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius collide. Multi-day stretches in the negatives were not unusual though, and -35 was a familiar nighttime companion.

That is what winter, what cold, in Mongolia means:  the awareness that if you are not careful, the very air outside will kill you.

But what does it feel like?

Imagine that you are heading to work, a trip that takes 15 minutes on foot in the summer. But today the roads are icy, as they have been for the past two months, and you have no desire to find yourself sprawled on the frozen, unforgiving ground, so you give yourself 25 to make the journey. The stars have not yet faded from the still-dark sky, and the nearly-full moon reflects off the snow to illuminate the streets in an absurd contrast with the sky. The effect is one of high visibility within the impression of darkness, of a world that appears to have split itself in two, with only the stars and the moon-cast shadows defying the separation of dark and light.

The sun will not rise until nearly 9 am for most of December and early January, with actual daylight holding out until almost 10.

You step outside, and before you can gasp at the cold, your nostrils are assaulted by a curious prickling sensation as all your nose hairs freeze. The sudden exhalation, when it does come, condenses in the frigid air before you face to form a comically large and opaque cloud, and you wonder when you learned to breathe smoke and whether your new dragon-like abilities include heat. Your eyes begin to water, and you blink to clear them – but quickly, lest your eyelashes freeze together. You understand why the women at work wait to apply their mascara until after they’ve arrived at school.

Within a few minutes, the exposed skin on your face begins to hurt, and the slightest breath of wind sends icy needles shooting into your flesh. Every inhalation sears the insides of your nose, your throat, your lungs. You can’t cover your nose without being blinded by the condensation that will freeze on your glasses, and your mouth goes dry after a minute of breathing through your mouth.

Time slows down in this kind of cold; the space before you expands as your destination recedes before your watering eyes, and an eternity passes between each ragged breath. The ethereal landscape that so enthralled you blurs from focus. The fish-eye lens of extreme cold allows you to see only the path before you, to hear only the muffled crunch of your own footsteps in the hard-packed snow.


Losing My Name

I’ve always been a bit of a brat about who is allowed to call me what. I hate it when people shorten my name, and not just because it feels overly familiar and disrespectful. I know many girls named Kate or Katie, and they’re lovely names. They’re just not mine.

There are exceptions, of course. My parents call me Kate at times, especially when annoyed – which doesn’t make me particularly eager to let other people call me that. They also call me Katie, as do my aunts and uncles and cousins; once your grandmother decides to call you something, you’re stuck with that moniker for life. I have precisely three friends who call me Katie-lyn, and my college friends and I address each other using a wide variety of endearments: dear, hon(ey), sug(ar), darlin(g), love. (Babe and baby are off-limits even to boyfriends; as my first roommate once so aptly put it, “unless someone is currently putting me in a corner, ain’t nobody calls me ‘Baby!'”

But aside from those very particular exceptions, I hold firm. Unless you are related to me, you may not call me Kate, nor Katie. I do not answer to Kat, nor Kay. I can handle [katlin] (“kaht-leen”) from the French and [Kætlɪn] (“cat-lin”) from the Irish, but unless your dialect gets in the way, my name is Katelin, thankyouverymuch.

Or at least it was, until I moved to a country where [ke:ʔlɪn] is apparently impossible to pronounce and everyone has both a long and short name. To keep from being called Kate or Katie, I told Mongolians my name is Katya – but with limited success. My roommate and her family called me Katie or Ketty; the Embassy staff and some of the school administrators, despite my repeated requests, routinely shortened my name to Kate. Factor in the mispronunciations and Mongolian terms of address, and I found myself answering to a wide selection of names:

  • Kate
  • Kat
  • Katya
  • Katie/Ketty
  • Ketty-sister
  • эгч ээ and анаа, (“ig-chay” and “anaa”), two terms of address for an older sister
  • Kata anaa (this one was exclusive to my roommate’s youngest niece, who couldn’t quite manage Katya, but usually paired her attempt with the affectionate term for a younger sister)
  • Kately, Ketlin, Kailey, Kailin, and other failed attempts to pronounce my name
  • Katyushka, in the fashion of Russian dimunitives

For that matter, I found myself reacting to nearly any word beginning with a /k/; the letter is not native to Mongolian, and while there is a similar sound natively present, it’s never found in the word-initial position. Which is to say that only names and (mostly-Russian) loanwords start with [k], and any such word uttered in my presence was usually an attempt at my name.

With my return to the US, I knew, would come a renewed fanatical insistence upon my full name. But in the meantime, I had to meet people halfway.


Now What?

Coming home is hard.

Certainly, there are days when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for washing machines and paved roads and reliable hot water and the thousand other conveniences I’ve mostly lived without for the past year. There are times when sink back into a known and longed-for activity with enthusiasm and delight, like the 20+ hours of dancing I did the weekend before Thanksgiving,  and times when I rediscover some simple pleasure I’d forgotten altogether in its absence, like cinnamon graham crackers.

But there are also days when I’m overwhelmed with the enormity of life in America and all the things I’m supposed to be able to navigate now that I’m an adult: Car insurance. Credit cards. Running into an ex-boyfriend and pretending it doesn’t still hurt to be around him. Actually flossing every day because I no longer have dental insurance. Watching friends get engaged and married and not even having a date to bring to their weddings. Resumés and networking and interviews and all those other things you’re supposed to do to get a job and that I haven’t really dealt with because aside from easily-obtained summer gigs, my job up until I left for Mongolia was to be a student.

And, of course, the big existential question: Now What? What do I want to do with my life?

I know that regardless of which way I go, I’ll have to start at the bottom of the career ladder and work my way up. I know it takes hard work to get yourself much of anywhere; that part doesn’t scare me. You don’t get yourself a full ride to college and then graduate .01 short of Summa Cum Laude without plenty of hard work.

But I had a goal in those days, and the good grades were their own reward. Now I’m floundering, searching for direction, afraid to spend the next ten years at the bottom of various career ladders as I put in the time and the effort required only to realize that I’ve started up the wrong ladder yet again and move to the bottom of yet another. It’s not work I fear, but wasted work that does nothing to help me figure out what I want to work towards.

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

It doesn’t help that my interests are of questionable practicality. Computational linguistics seems to be the biggest career field available to those with my degree, and unfortunately, it holds very little interest for me. My favorite (degree-related) classes when I was in college were the linguistic anthropology classes, in which we talked about meaning-making and analyzed language as an expression of cultural and personal identity. How do you get a job doing that?

More than once, we touched on the Myaamia Project, a language reclamation effort headquartered at my home university by faculty and members of the Miami Tribe. I learned that language reclamation was a field that held great interest for me, and when I went to Ireland in 2010, I found myself drawn to the Irish language and the people who were passionate about returning it to everyday use. I also learned that Ireland was in economic turmoil had few jobs for its own young people, much less interloping foreigners. The dream of getting involved with the Irish language effort in some manner – be it as a teacher, a professor, or as some manner of government employee – shone only briefly before it was quashed by the cold voice of practicality.

What do you get when you Google "the nine nines of Mongolian winter," a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

What do you get when you Google “the nine nines of Mongolian winter,” a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

Then, as you all know, I went to Mongolia, where I enjoyed learning the language but was frustrated by the lack of good learning materials. There are a number of Mongolian textbooks available, but I had a great deal of trouble finding one that I liked, as their explanations of the grammatical structure were often insufficient or confusingly, even nonsensically, worded – if they were present at all. I was further frustrated by  Mongolia’s apparent absence from the English-speaking internet, which made it hard to source any observations or conclusions I wished to draw and all but impossible for me to blog about anything broader than my own experiences. There are books on Mongolia, to be sure, but they’re few and far between and largely inaccessible to the public. Most of what’s available is more of what I’m producing here: personal experiences unconnected to broader research, with most additional information coming from hearsay. Anecdotes, not data.

So there’s an information gap there, a niche to be filled, and I’m definitely interested in applying the knowledge and experiences I gained from what was undoubtedly an unusual experience. It would be a real waste for me to walk away from this year without putting those things to use, as though the whole year never happened. But it would take years for me to acquire enough Mongolian language skills to begin filling that gap in a scholarly way, and frankly, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them. Mongolia is a country of three million people, Mongolian a language of 5 million speakers, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into so narrow a niche. Because while I’m interested in Mongolia and the Mongolian language, I’m not passionate about it; it’s not part of me or my heritage the way Ireland is. “Interested but not passionate” is how I felt about architecture my freshman year of college, and I dropped that major within a year, too burned out to continue.

What I am passionate about is writing, which is why this blog is still chronicling my Mongolian adventures even now that I’m back on the other side of the world. The unexpected confluence of interesting and little-known things to write about, a place to write about them, and people who were actually interested in reading them was one of my favorite things about my time in Mongolia. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life writing about Mongolia, per se, but I do know that I want to spend my time writing about something. I’m particularly partial to essays that are part analysis and part personal experience – I’ve had a piece on my mental backburner about The Things They Carried and my fears for my military brother for some time, and another about the Gaelic Storm song “Raised on Black and Tans” and the superficiality of my understanding of my Irish heritage. I’m sure I could pull a number of such pieces out of my experiences in Mongolia, if only I knew where to look.

Or where to write for. I’ll be guest posting on A Girl and Her Travels later this month, and I mean to submit some entries for the Fulbright blog and, if I can come up with a creative approach to their not-very-inspiring prompt, Expats Blog, but I want to do more than just blog – I want be actually published. Unfortunately, I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to look for places to be published, and I could very much do with some suggestions as to where to try submitting pieces.

It feels stupid to expose this sort of vulnerability to the whole wide world, to complete strangers and even potential future employers who might happen to Google me and find that I haven’t always been passionate about whatever it is I’m applying/interviewing/auditioning for. It feels wrong to address my uncertainty in such a long-winded, rambling post, rather than boiling it down into a couple of simple, direct queries. But I’m willing to publicize my own version of what I’m sure is a very common crisis in hopes of crowdsourcing some suggestions from you, my dear readers. I don’t want to risk omitting the detail that will spark a useful suggestion simply to meet some self-imposed word limit. I know the people who read this blog come from many different walks of life, and I want to take advantage of that diversity. The choices and opportunities that seem obvious to you might be ones I’ve never heard of.

So if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this wandering account of my lack of direction, I thank you for listening. And if anything I’ve mentioned has sparked an idea of what applications my linguistics degree and international experience might have, or where I might try to submit my writing, I’ll be even more grateful. I’ve been wandering for a while now, and even if my next journey takes me someplace completely unexpected, it would be nice to start with a destination in mind.