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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Songs of My Land and Yours

Teachers have their own holiday in Mongolia, and the vocational schools of Erdenet traditionally celebrate it by giving a joint concert. “Concert” being a more loosely-applied term in Mongolian than English, these programs often bear more resemblance to what we might term a “variety show.” The show the schools put on during my stint in Mongolia included a fashion show and several dance acts in addition to the expected assortment of songs. Nearly every teacher participated, even if it was only as part of a large chorus.

I was not exempt.

As you may gather from the costume, I was not singing in English.

The song I performed is called Аяны Шувууд (Ayanii Shuvuud), and it is apparently THE song to teach foreigners; if you’ve learned a Mongolian song, it was probably this one.

I learned it from my school’s director during our language exchange – and by “learned,” of course, I mean “memorized.” I know it’s a love song about migrating birds, and I can pick out a number of the individual words, but I’m far from being able to provide a translation. Happily, an English version of the song already exists.

I was made to perform this song over and over again: the Teacher’s Day concert, the staff Shine Jil party, my friend Nathan’s wedding, the students’ graduation party. The first three, at least, were planned, but the last one was a cold call; I was as surprised as anyone else to hear that I was about to sing for the entire school, especially since my memory of the second and third verses had grown a little fuzzy! After that experience, I kept the notecard on which I’d written out the lyrics in my wallet, just in case. If Mongolians know you can sing, they will ask you to do so on a regular basis – especially if they know you can sing in Mongolian. This wasn’t a case of me singled out as a foreigner, though; I was just being treated like everyone else.

Mongolia is a land of singers. That’s not to say that they’re all gifted with perfect pitch and mellifluous voices; far from it. Believe me, there are plenty of tone deaf, raspy-voiced Mongolians out there. But vocally gifted or not, Mongolians sing all the time. Having or attending a party? You can bet that someone will lift a shot of vodka and croon the opening lines to song. The rest of the group will then join in, and not just for the chorus or the first verse: they’ll sing the whole thing through, after which someone else will likely start the process again. Walking the streets at night? You’re bound to  pass a number of karaoke establishments with music spilling out doors and windows. Even on weeknights, you’re likely to hear voices raised in song from the windows of brightly-lit apartments.

And Mongolians have songs for everything. Songs about love and loss, of course, but also about horses, and teachers, and mothers. Lots of song about mothers. And a song or two for every holiday, at least. When I taught Mongolians about an American holiday, they’d always ask for a song about it. “Sing a Thanksgiving song! An Easter song! A Fourth of July song!” It was hard for me to explain to them that we might have a couple of songs that are likely to be sung on Еaster or the Fourth of July, we don’t really have songs about them. The idea that we don’t have songs for every occasion just didn’t compute.

It wasn’t just in classes that I, and the Americans around me, felt stymied when asked to sing, either; it happened all the time during social outings. A typical scenario ran as follows:

  1. Mongolian person begins a (Mongolian) song.
  2. Other Mongolians in group join in, singing the entire song from memory.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times, with different songs and song-starters each time.
  4. Well-meaning Mongolian, seeing that the foreigners have been left out, turns to the Americans and asks them to sing “an American song.”
  5. Americans look at each other, perplexed and dismayed.

Things usually came to a screeching halt at step five, as all the Americans in the group racked our brains for a song we would all know (a difficult enough task in itself!) that was also in some way evocative of America. What were we supposed to sing, the “Star-Spangled Banner?”

We could have, I suppose, but I don’t know that any of us thought of the national anthem as a song, per se. I never considered it, or any other patriotic song, for a number of reasons. To begin with, they’d sound awfully short to the Mongolians, because we certainly wouldn’t be able to sing them in full. Everyone knows the words to the first verse, but how many people know that the second, third, and fourth even exist? Moreover, patriotic songs are not embedded in the popular psyche of the American people in the way they seemed to be in Mongolia. You don’t hear “America the Beautiful” or “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” to a lot of people) on mainstream radio in America; for that matter, Americans, when’s the last time you even remembered the existence of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or sang any patriotic song outside of a sports event? These are songs most Americans sing only in very specific contexts, and because “sitting and drinking with friends” is not one of them, neither I nor any of my American friends ever thought to suggest them to the group.

So if patriotic anthems are out, what’s left? My next instinct would be to reach for folk and campfire classics like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “When I First Came to this Land,” or even “Yankee Doodle,” but those never felt right either, because they’re associated with childhood. These are songs most of us learned in school or at scouts and sang around campfires before proceeding to forget their existence entirely. I, personally, have quite a few of them at my disposal from my years of working at a scout camp, but in those years I also witnessed firsthand just how few people remember these songs more than a few years after elementary school. And if your average teenage scout camp counselor can’t remember the words to one of these songs, your average adult certainly won’t. So these were out of the running too; a song recognized by everyone but known by no one, however great its historical importance, is probably not that representative of the country’s current people and culture–and is impossible to sing as a group.

By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had settled on a suggestion for these scenarios: “This Land is Your Land.” It’s still a campfire song, and few people know more than the chorus and possibly the first verse, but it’s widely-recognized, explicitly about America, and more recent than most of our patriotic repertoire. It wasn’t being put on the spot and asked to sing that brought this song to mind, however; it didn’t become my go-to until after I did a presentation on American folk music on our outreach trip.

I think it says a lot that it took me until March to come up with an answer to the question of the “American song.” Partially, of course, it’s that the American music industry is much larger than its Mongolian counterpart; sheer diversity makes it difficult to find a song we all know and love. But even so, it’s safe to say that music holds a very different place in the culture of Mongolia than America.

Readers, what songs or genres would you consider quintessentially representative of your country, and why?

 

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