Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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A Land of Milk and Snow

“What’s your favorite color?” I used to ask my students in English and my acquaintances in Mongolian, and more often than not, I was surprised by the answer: white.

I think it’s probably safe to say that most Americans, unless they’ve studied or worked with lighting design, think of white not as a color, but as the absence thereof. It’s ceilings and doors and moldings that frame brighter-colored walls without calling attention to themselves; it’s a canvas not yet painted, a page not yet filled. It is, metaphorically and literally, a blank slate, a color whose only cultural connotations are of purity – which is to say, absence.

Mongolians feel very differently. Not only is white a color, it’s one of immense significance; after blue, it’s probably the second-most ceremonially important color.

That fact is particularly evident at this time of year. This Friday marks the beginning of one of the biggest holidays of the Mongolian calendar: Tsagaan Sar, which literally translates to white moon/month. That’s some cultural heft right there; while we westerners affiliate certain colors with particular holidays, we don’t call Christmas “red and green day.”

But what makes this month “white?” The moon itself? That would be my first guess, especially if the holiday fell on a full moon. But it doesn’t; it marks the beginning of the lunar cycle, starting the day after a night devoid of any moon at all. During Tsagaan Sar, even a clear night is frightfully dark out in the countryside, since the moon’s only presence is the tiniest of slivers.

The snow? That might be your next guess, and it wouldn’t be a bad one. Snow blankets the Mongolian landscape unmelted from the beginning of November to the end of February and can continue to color it as early as August, or as late as June. For countryside-dwelling herders, it is the color of half their world for up to half of the year, a ceaseless sheet of brilliance that turns many of their eyes blue with cataracts by the time their grandchildren are born. Snow is a source of beauty, but also of danger; too much of it will keep their herds from being able to graze on the dead remnants of last summer’s grass. It is also more likely to fall after Tsagaan Sar than in the two months previous, during which the weather is often too cold for snow.

But while snow is a fact of life in Mongolia, it’s not a sustainer of life, and so white is most strongly and importantly associated not with snow, but with milk.

When I’ve stayed with nomadic families, I’ve noticed that the first thing they do in the morning is to light a fire in the stove; the second, to heat a big bowl of water over that fire and draw off what they need for other uses; the third, to add the tea leaves, milk, and salt needed to make suutei tsai, or milk tea, which they’ll pour into a thermos to be drunk throughout the day. It’s what they give to a visitor the moment he crosses the threshold, what they socialize over and warm their hands with, and what they drink with meals, since they largely believe that drinking cold water with hot food will make you sick.

But the fourth thing nomadic families do, before anyone gets to drink the prepared milk tea, is take a ladle-full outside and fling it skyward in an offering to Tenger, the shamanist sky god. Even apartment-dwelling city folks lean out their windows with full spoons to participate in this ritual. The Mongolian gods must like milk, because their religious sites are soaked in it: splashed across ovoos and shrines, neatly collected in cups around their bases, and even illuminating temples in the form of milkfat-based candles. Seeing these religious applications was what helped me to understand that milk, and the mind-boggling array of things made with it, are much more than a mainstay of the Mongolian diet. You don’t make a point of sacrificing cheap gruel to a household god, no matter how much of it you eat; you give the gods the best of what you have.

You welcome important guests and occasions with it, too. When I visited the Mongolian countryside on an outreach trip with the other Fulbrighters and some higher-ups from the Embassy, the mayor of Tosontsengel greeted us with a copper cup of milk, which we passed between us peace-pipe style. On my last day at the school where I’d taught for a year, I was presented with a similar cup, also filled with milk. And when an American friend married a Mongolian woman, his father-in-law handed him a silver cup of milk as part of the ceremony, from which he and his new bride then drank.

After witnessing these and many other ceremonial uses of milk, I eventually learned not to be surprised when my students told me their favorite color was white. To me, it’s the color of the stuff I put on my cereal or in my coffee – but to them, it’s life.

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In Which I Make A Splash

“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second,” my mother sighed, reaching to turn up the heat in the car. “Are you sure we don’t need to stop at Sears on the way home?” she added teasingly, referring to the time I’d fallen into the fountain at the mall.

I grinned. “Nope, I think I’m good with just going home. Believe it or not, I’m not three years old anymore.”

The afternoon had started innocently enough. We’d driven down to Evanston for her to give a presentation on Lightroom, and after lunch, she’d asked if I wanted to drive over to the lake to take pictures. I agreed, since even on cloudy sixteen-degree (F) days, the snowdrifty ice sculptures are usually worth seeing. We parked the car and trudged across the oddly porous surface of the beach, whose sand-like color and texture belied the fact that it gave underfoot like week-old snow. We paused briefly to admire the marbling of colors that occurred where the wind had mixed snow and sand, and then she headed for the erosion wall while I made for the shoreline.

Lake Michigan is too wide to see across, deep enough for tallships to sail through, and located in area where winter temperatures hover close to freezing, so the ever-present wind has plenty of chances to toss up large waves before the surface alongshore glazes over with a thin coating of ice. The twenty feet of beach nearest the waterline had disappeared beneath irregularly-shaped hills of ice. Have you ever let wet sand dribble between your fingers to form coral-like castles? Beneath their patchy coating of new-fallen snow, these ten-foot hills had the same knobbly texture.

I made my careful way to the top, climbing at an oblique angle to avoid losing my footing and wishing I hadn’t left my new phone in the car; to my right, the wind and water had created an overhung cavern bedecked with icicles, and I wanted to take pictures of it. But I wasn’t going to go back and get it, so I turned my back to the wind and contemplated the surface of the lake before me as I waited for mother – who is, after all, the photographer – to catch up. The steely grey water near the horizon was in motion, but everything I could see clearly had frozen over. Twenty feet out, I could see faint inklings of the tide in the in-and-out swirling of the bubble just below the ice, but the ten feet closest to shore were opaque and lighter in color; clearly the ice there was thicker.

Photo credit: Jan Burke

When Mom reached me, I pointed out the cavern, and as she lay across the crest of the icy hill to get a few pictures of it, I picked my way down to the waterline. There was a reasonably flat spot that looked like a good seat, so I eased into it and swung my feet over the edge so that they dangled a few inches above the ice. I found good handholds to either side of my hips, settled my weight into my hands, and scooted my right foot down.

The ice held firm upon light contact, and so I made to tap it to test its strength. It gave almost immediately, shifting my weight beyond the point where I could support my weight with my arms, and then sh!tsh!tsh!t I was going down.

My left hand lost its grip as my left foot foot broke the ice, but I hung on with my right and found myself turning as I went in, so that I ended up dangling one-handed facing the wall of ice, waist deep in the half-frozen lake. My frantically-kicking feet did not touch the bottom, so I’d gone in somewhere more than waist-deep.

I was not inclined to test how much more. Yanking my left arm out of the water, I seized a likely-looking knob of ice, to which my wet glove clung helpfully, and hauled.

You know the moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack, catapulted into the rafters of Will’s forge, hangs from both arms for only an instant before flying fluidly to his feet? (At 3:18 in the clip below; the link is cued, the embed isn’t.)

That doesn’t happen in real life; they had to use wires to make it happen on-screen. In real life, that maneuver involves pulling yourself up to chin-up height, awkwardly repositioning one elbow at a time until both are above the surface in question, and then pushing down with all your might until you can swing a leg up and over, all the while flailing your feet in a frantic and unconscious manner that leaves you with scrapes and multi-colored bruises you don’t remember getting.

The water was probably cold, but I didn’t notice the temperature any more than the beating my knees were taking; I was too focused on getting out of it. I didn’t make it up on the first try, or the second, but I didn’t fall in either. And so eventually I clambered out of Lake Michigan and made my soggy way up to my mother, who was still taking pictures.

“Mom, I did something stupid,” I said. “So it’s time to go back to the car.”

I hadn’t said anything during the mishap, nor fallen quickly enough to make an audible splash, so I had to explain to her that I was now soaked from the waist down. “Well, sh!t!” she said, tossing me the keys. “What’d you do that for? I haven’t hardly gotten any pictures!”

“Sorry,” I said, and began sloshing my way back to the car, abandoning the circuitous route I’d taken to the shoreline in favor of something more direct. But high school geometry, I remembered when  the snowdrift through which I’d been wading suddenly topped my kneecaps, tells but half the story. A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but rarely is it the easiest. So by the time I made it back to the car, my left hand was no longer cooperating enough to unlock it, and creases on my pants and left sleeve had frozen stiff.

I turned on the heat and leaned out the window to wring the water out of my yak-wool socks while I waited for Mom to join me. “I guess it’s a good thing I left my phone in the car!” I said as she buckled up. She just shook her head.

“You want to go to Homer’s?” she asked on the way home, referring to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor we’d pass en route.

“Sure!” I said.

Alas, it was not to be. Apparently she felt I’d had enough ice today already.

Photo credit to Jan Burke for both pictures.


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Siamese

After Thailand’s initial temperature shock had worn off, and I’d sighed in gratitude at both iced beverages and spicy food, I began to notice them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were everywhere – lurking in corners, watching from the shadows, draped across doorsteps and sidewalks and curled lazily in the sun. Some fled at my approach; others welcomed me, coming out to greet me with tails held high. Most took in my presence through half-lidded eyes, twitched the the tips of their tails, and continued their repose.

In the preceding year, I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing cats with any regularity. There were a few to be found in the streets of Erdenet, mostly in the Russian districts, but the sight of approaching humans sent most of them running for the crevices that led below the apartment buildings, the warm dark spaces too small for most pursuers. Some Mongolians hudoo-dwelling Mongolians keep them for pest prevention, but few in the cities have such a use for them. And the vast majority would never keep them as pets.

Most Mongolians, when I tell them that cats were my favorite animal, shudder or grimace in surprise and disgust. They’re not afraid of cats, per se, but they definitely don’t like them. Their eyes are scary, they tell me; their eyes will put curses on you. My protests that cats were smart and independent and graceful, and their hard-won affection heartwarming, fell on deaf ears. “Муур муухай,” they answered; “муур муу.” Cats are ugly; cats are bad.

Most Mongolians are definitely team “cats will kill you in your sleep.”

The Thai people, by contrast, love their cats. I’d see them at fruit and vegetable markets, napping on boxes behind counters and in stores; I’d see them walking the city streets like they owned them. I especially saw them at temples, where they lurked in droves. All, owned or stray, seemed sleek and well-fed – nothing like the scrawny, mangy moggies cowering in Mongolian courtyards. And most, I noticed, watched me with bright blue eyes.

I was, after all, in the country that brought us the Siamese.

The presence of cats made feel both at home and homesick. I’d missed cats during my year in Mongolia, stopping far more often than was wise to pet the strays who didn’t bolt the moment I took a step in their direction. It was nice to be among people who loved these animals as I did, but each new pair of blue eyes sent a pang through my heart as I remembered my own Siamese.

Bailey was an irritable little old lady for most of her life. Her meow was nasal and unpleasant, and she wasn’t particularly playful, though she grudgingly tolerated the dog’s tendency to lick her ears until they were sopping wet. She liked to crawl beneath the covers and bite my parents’ toes at night. We’d had her since before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and she grew too old and senile to remember how I’d put a hairclip on her tail when I was three that she began to warm up to me.

I loved her anyway. She was a fixture, not only of my childhood, but of my adolescence as well; it wasn’t until I turned twenty-one, nearly three years after we’d had to put Bailey down, that I was finally the older of the two of us.

I hadn’t thought about her in a while when I arrived in Thailand, but I had plenty of time to do so while I was there. I sat down in a temple and counted the number of cats within sight – sixteen, at least – and petted the ones who let me for a while, remembering my cranky old cat. I’m told she used to play with my grandparents’ long-dead golden retriever as a kitten, running behind the couch and then coming out the other side and smacking him on the butt when he stuck his head behind it to look for her. I hope they’re playing now, reunited at long last.


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A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.

Phags-pa

Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

  Soyombo

Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.

Cyrillic

Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!

Latin

Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur

Tibetan

Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.

20140113-132434.jpg

A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.

IMG_1499


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Sorry We Stole Your Winter, Moscow! Most Americans Would Happily Return It.

So apparently it’s been unseasonable warm in Moscow of late – and presumably elsewhere as well. Well, as my international readers may not know, there’s a reason for this, and it’s one my American readers have been hearing about for the past week: America stole Moscow’s winter. Sorry, Moscow.

Winter storms Hercules and Ion hit the Chicago are with nearly two feet of snow, as well as  a phenomenon that the media called a “Polar Vortex” – an area of low pressure that pulled a wide swath of arctic air over most of the country for several days. While places like Moscow and Alaska experienced unusually warm weather, Chicago and other mainland American cities were hit with the coldest temperatures they’d experienced in twenty years.

You’d have thought the world was going to end.

Weather emergencies were declared, people told not to go out unnecessarily. The commuter trains in Chicago were severely delayed, or in some cases, canceled altogether, because the rails were freezing, shrinking, and even breaking. The Chicago Public Schools canceled two days of classes, as did my own school district – a truly unprecedented event. (By contrast, in my twelve years in that system, I never once got a snow day because the snow removal systems are so efficient.) Three Amtrak trains en route to Chicago were stuck in twelve-foot snow drifts for over twelve hours; the passengers, including my friend Sarah, were eventually bussed to Chicago when six locomotives failed to dislodge the stuck trains.

And to a certain extent, I understand the hubbub. An 8˚F/-13˚C day in Atlanta is in many ways more dangerous than a -30˚F/-34˚C day in Mongolia because Atlanta and its people are not prepared for such weather; my friend Charlotte had never owned a real winter coat before she went to college in Ohio because she’d never needed to, and I’m sure she’s far from alone. -17˚F is ten to fifteen degrees colder than Chicago is used to enduring (and that for only a few days a year), and its extensive mass transit systems don’t handle it well. The large homeless population, even with a concerted effort to shelter all of its members during the polar blast, is also at obvious risk.

But I still think it was all blown way out of proportion.

Yes, cold is dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger; it won’t kill you if you’re properly prepared. But you wouldn’t know that from the reactions of the media or the general public. Slideshows of weird and beautiful weather phenomena are cool; public service announcements about frostbite prevention and proper layering are necessary; updates on the innumerable and inevitable airport, traffic, and rail delays are useful. But it’s one thing to provide useful and relevant information  on a current and far-reaching event, and another to treat it like the end of the world.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 4.32.57 PM

The image at left, for instance, is from a Weather Channel listicle entitled, “10 Photos That Show How Insanely Cold Chicago It Is in Chicago.” The story was also carried on other news networks – CNN, WGN, and whatever radio station we were listening to at the time. When decontextualized, as at left, it’s a shocking, even frightening statement. But the oversimplification misses an important point: it’s too cold for a Chicago polar bear, one who doesn’t have the fat reserves put on by her cousins up north. Some news carriers included this detail, but others went for shock value and omitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was the simplified version that made it into social media.

Another example of public overreaction, this time a Facebook post by a friend of a friend: “Please say a prayer for all those who are working out in this horrid freezing weather, including my brother, those working to restore power, working on water lines, delivering mail, picking up garbage, etc. etc. It’s too dangerous out there for any human.”

She had me up until that last sentence. I don’t want to minimize the suffering or sacrifice of the people impacted by this winter; I know it was, and is, real. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how to protect themselves properly from this kind of weather, and for these people, Hercules and Ion were truly disastrous. And I certainly agree that the good people braving the cold to allow American life to continue as normally as possible do deserve our prayers, thanks, and recognition. But while the sentiment is well-intentioned, its conclusion is alarmist and just plain wrong. No, people shouldn’t be sent to work outside if they aren’t properly protected; no, they probably won’t be comfortable, even if they’re not in actual danger. But from the average American’s reaction to unexpected inconvenience, you’d think that uncomfortable and unbearable were synonyms.

Discomfort and cold are a way of life for a lot people. Trains and buses might have been running behind schedule, but at least we have them. My car was reluctant to start during the cold snap, and its windows froze shut, but I still had a car – as do most Americans. Waiting for a delayed train in the bitter cold is not fun, but it still beats walking that distance along unpaved roads in even more frigid temperatures. And no matter how cold it was outside, the vast majority of us were not dependent on wood- or coal-burning stoves to keep us from freezing to death.

If my time in Mongolia has changed me in any single, lasting way, it’s by changing my perspective. That’s a big part of why I picked Mongolia in the first place: I wanted to experience life outside the first world. I returned with a new appreciation of just how easy things are here: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the floor, traveling across the city, the state, or even the country. When I’m stuck in traffic now, I’m more likely to be frustrated by the people around me who are frustrated at the traffic than by the traffic itself.

And when it’s not just a little traffic – when it’s a near-total log jam of transportation in which flights are grounded, highways closed, and trains stuck in snow drifts or canceled for fear of derailment? A lot of people turn downright ugly. Sarah told me, and the reporters who swarmed the passengers when they finally arrived in Chicago, that while arriving nearly a full day behind schedule was certainly less than ideal, the conditions on the train were reasonably comfortable: they had heat and light and were at least fed dinner, though there were no snacks and only limited water. The conductor made the rounds of the train and kept the passengers up to date on what Amtrak was doing to try to get them out.

The conductor’s attempts to maintain communication and keep things light were not reciprocated by all of the passengers, however. The conductor learned many new things from angry passengers, including “who she was, where she should go, and what she should do with herself,” including a number of word she hadn’t heard during her time in the Marines. In her shoes, I probably would have told the passengers in question that if they thought they could do a better job of getting the train unstuck, they were welcome to go out and push. There were also rumors of a fistfight, though Sarah did not witness it. The news was rife with interviews of similarly bilious grounded airline passengers.

I understand that the travel delays impeded people’s ability to go on carefully-planned vacations, or visit sick or dying loved ones, or to attend important career events. In their shoes, I’d be frustrated and angry too. But there’s only so much anyone can do when the puts a twelve-foot snowdrift in the way of your train, and taking your anger out on the conductor does nothing to fix it. It is not the railroad’s fault that the train does not have the supplies to feed its passengers several unscheduled meals; did no one think even to bring snacks with them?

These things happen. Winter happens. And while it doesn’t usually happen this badly in Chicago, it happens a lot. Winter inconveniences are just one of the hazards of living here, and I think if more Americans knew just how soft we have it and reacted accordingly, they’d be a lot more pleasant.


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The Almost-Russian Almost-New Year

The Thursday before my Mongolian Christmas, my teacher class and I played Christmas bingo. Rather than attempt to tell the biblical tale to members of a thoroughly non-Christian culture, I opted to stick with with the holiday’s secular trappings: bells, holly, candles, Santa. I went over the vocabulary before we started, and that went pretty well until I held up a picture of a decorated evergreen and asked what it was.

The teachers conferred with each other, double-checking the words in question. Then Setgel, the star pupil, confidently called out their answer: “New Year’s tree!”

New Year‘s tree? No, I told them firmly, shaking my head. In English, we call it a Christmas tree. They repeated the words dubiously, and we moved on to the next picture. But the vocabulary didn’t stick; every time a winning row included a tree, it was called back to me as a “New Year’s tree.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Russia to thank for the confusion. During its 68 years as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia (then called the Mongolian People’s Republic) adopted a number of Russian traditions. I don’t know whether Russian yolki were originally associated with Christmas in the days before the Soviet kibosh on religion, but now, as Anna explains, they’re definitely a New Year’s thing.

And as Russi has yolki, Mongolia has шинэ жилийн мод (shine jiliin mod). Christmas isn’t really a thing in a country with so few Christians, but similar-looking traditions, stripped of their religious connotations, have made their way in anyway. I can’t blame the Mongolians for adopting any tradition that incorporates light and sparkly things into their long winters. They celebrate the new year twice – on December 31st with the rest of the world, with champagne and fireworks and drunken parties, and again at Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year and traditional beginning of spring.

My roommate's duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

My roommate’s duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

The trees themselves vary widely in appearance. My roommate’s extended family had a small one covered in ornaments that closely resembled Western Christmas trees, though the Mongolian love of glitz was also evident in its multicolored fiberoptic inserts. The tree in front of one Erdenet’s shopping centers, by contrast, was not a tree at all, but a cone formed of tinsel garlands and brightly-colored, constantly flashing lights stretched taught between a tall pole at the center and the broken slabs of ice heaped around its base. I’ve seen some lovely specimens of the tradition, but this was not one of them.

I was in for more surprises at my school’s New Year’s celebration. I went home for New Year’s last year, and so I missed the fireworks and ice sculptures and other festivities held in Erdenet’s main square, but not my school’s parties. There aren’t many restaurants in Erdenet, and since they were all booked for the weekend closer to the end of the year, our parties were held on December 23rd.

Yes, parties, plural. We had one in the afternoon for the students, and then a teachers-only party later in the evening. The afternoon party was dry, save for one bottle of champagne (or shampanski, as they call it, in what I assume is the Russian fashion); the evening one was another story altogether, of which I remember about half.

But the afternoon party was memorable primarily for its entertainment. The students put on two dance numbers: one to a wordless, very pop-y version of “Jingle Bells,” another to a slow waltz. Waltzes, while not traditionally Mongolian, are nonetheless a dance party staple, interspersed unpredictably amongst the more expected pop and house music. The Mongolians I’ve asked say they learned waltzes from the Russians, who evidently did not teach them that three-beat dances do not work very well with four-beat music, nor four-beat dances with three-beat music.

We also had an appearance from a familiar character – or rather, an almost-familiar one. American traditions are quite firm on the fact that the jolly man with a big white beard wears red, though I’ve seen Father Christmas wear green in a few English depictions. But blue? I’d never seen Santa wear blue.

Then again, this wasn’t Santa Claus. He was Өвлийн Өвөө (övliin övöö) – Grandfather Winter, who I’d wager is the Mongolian incarnation of Russia’s Ded Moroz.

The white beard looked more than a little out of place in a country where I’ve never seen the elderly go white and very few are capable of growing even straggly little beards. But the fat, jolly grandfather image is plenty Mongolian. And whatever his origin, he was a welcome sight to a girl for whom Christmas would be an ordinary work day.

Even if he didn’t give us presents.