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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What’s the Spookiest Fear of All?

Today is Halloween, which means that I’ve been back in the US for just over a year. You wouldn’t know it from this blog, since I’m still mostly writing about my experiences overseas; I can hardly believe it myself! But the dates don’t lie: a year ago today, I was just beginning to deal with the unexpected difficulties of reverse culture shock, and two years ago today, I was teaching Mongolian students and teachers alike about Halloween.

By far the most popular activity of the day was an adaptation of a game I know as “The Winds Are Changing,” which I played with my teacher class. The players stand in a circle, with one in the center, and you mark the spaces in some way – with a playing card, or a pen, or something similar. When I played this at camp, we used it as a get-to-know-you game, and the person in the center had to say their name and something about themselves; on this day, I asked the person in the center to tell the rest of the class something they were scared of. Whether the information being shared is a fear, a fun fact, or an ice cream preference, all other players to whom the fact also applies must leave their spots and find another (one that isn’t adjacent to their own). Because there is one fewer space than there are people and the person in the center is trying to find one of them, there will be a great deal of hustle and bustle as everyone tries not to be left in the center.

Before we began, I provided them with a number of options to choose from: things I thought might be common fears, like heights, public speaking, spiders, snakes, dogs, and cats. I had expected that my students would get a lot of practice saying, “I’m scared of spiders,” and “I’m afraid of cats,” but not much else; up to this point, they’d shown little to no interest in acquiring vocabulary beyond what I provided.

Today was different. I had been asking them questions about themselves all along, but this must have struck a chord, because it wasn’t long before they were asking the more knowledgeable students for more fears to add to the list on the board. By the end of class, they’d appended a number of phrases I never would have thought to give them. Highlights included:

  • Yaks – apparently they’re mean
  • Thieves and pickpockets
  • Police
  • Rivers
  • Ghosts and evil spirits
  • Bad drivers – a legitimate fear in a country with such rudimentary roads and driving instruction!
  • The dark

Midway through the class, we got an unexpected and unorthodox addition. My roommate, finding herself in the hot seat without a prepared statement, shouted, “I’m scared of Bayasmaa!” The room erupted in laughter, and everyone but Bayasmaa – the school’s physical education teacher, to whom I had assigned the dragon icon in my phone contacts list – scurried to change places.

The best, though, came at the very end of the class period. One of the teachers clearly had something in mind, and when none of the others could translate it for her, she pulled out a dictionary and went hunting. At this point, only I was in the dark as to what she was trying to express, but I knew it had to be good from how anxiously all the other teachers were waiting.

Finally, she grinned in triumph, set the dictionary down, and returned to her space in the center of the circle.

“I’m scared of mother-in-law!” she crowed, and the room erupted in chaos as everyone, even the unmarried teachers, abandoned their spaces and caromed off each other in search of new ones.

Some fears, I guess, are universal.

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This is a Ferguson Omnibus

Readers,
This post is not about Mongolia, or my travels therein, or even my experiences elsewhere. I know that this is not what you come to my blog to read. But it’s too important not to share.

Disrupting Dinner Parties

If you’ve looked at a computer or television screen in the last week, you’ve probably heard something about Ferguson, MO and a boy named Michael Brown. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of conflicting stories. Let’s gets some facts straight.

This is Michael Brown. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson. This is Michael Brown, on the right. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson.

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Once and Always Camp Staff

As the readers who’ve never met me IRL may or may not know, I worked at a Boy Scout Camp in northern Wisconsin for three summers before my adventure in Mongolia. [1] My summers there were a big selling point in my Fulbright application process: I had worked extensively with horses (animals central to Mongolia’s culture); I had experience roughing it and making creative and resourceful use of limited supplies (as I would likely need to do in a non-first-world nation); I knew how to handle unruly teenaged boys unwilling to learn the material I was supposed to be teaching them. But even as I explained the experience and its many contributions to my skill set to my interviewers, I had no idea of the extent to which my years of scout camp would color my experiences in Mongolia.

Some background first: The staff at MaKaJaWan are not sleepaway camp counselors in the typical sense. We don’t sleep in cabins with randomized groups of kids; they come to camp as a troop, with at least two adults leaders to supervise them, and sleep on cots in platform tents. Instead, the staff focus on providing good program. We teach merit badge classes, run afternoon/evening activities, and keep the kids entertained in the dining hall, where we eat and talk with them and lead them in songs.

Yes, you read that right: Songs. It is indeed possible to get teenaged boys to do something as uncool as singing together. Every meal at camp ends with a staff-led song, most of which are ridiculous and all of which have accompanying hand gestures or full-body movements. After-breakfast songs tend to be especially movement-centric: “Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic” has hand motions, “Big Tub of Glue” involves clinging to a partner for balance, “Button Factory” and “The Penguin Song” result in full-body flailing while hopping, nodding, and sticking out your tongue, and “My Bonnie” and “The Grand Old Duke of York” involve copious amounts of high-speed sitting and standing.

I could go on about the lunch and dinner repertoire, but I think you get the point: I have an awful lot of these up my sleeve. And while I somehow managed to work at camp for three summers without once leading a song, I think I more than made up for that in Mongolia. Once I learned of the cultural importance Mongolians attach to singing, this stuff became my bread and butter.

As anyone who’s ever taught knows, songs are great warm-up and review activities, especially when they tie into the subject of your lesson. Teaching parts of the body? “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are classics, the former working especially well if you include nontraditional body parts like elbows, ankles, and so forth. Directions are a perfect time for “The Grand Old York” with MaKaJaWan’s typical side of TPR: stand for the word “up,” sit for “down,” half-squat for “halfway up.”

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up, you’re neither up nor down.

For more basic classes, asked my students to identify the “b” sounds in “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” For every word starting with the letter “b,” I asked them to stand if they were sitting or stand if they were standing. As you can see, the song results in a lot of movement:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me

I was also fond of “The Bear Song” when teaching the past tense. This one’s much longer, so I usually printed out the lyrics with some of the words blanked out, sang it a few times and asked the students to fill in the blanks, and then asked them to identify the verbs in past tense. Not the most creative lesson plan, I’m afraid, but the kids liked the story and it surprise ending, as well as the repeat-after-me format, so I suppose that something. [2] If anyone has suggestions as to a more engaging way to teach this song, I’m all ears!

The other day
I saw a bear
A great big bear
Oh, way out there
The other day I saw a bear,
A great big bear oh way out there

He looked at me
I looked at him
He sized up me
I sized up him
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him

He said to me
Why don’t you run
I see you don’t
Have any gun
He said to me, why don’t you run
I see you don’t have any gun

And so I ran
Away from there
But right behind
Me was that bear
And so I ran away from there
But right behind me was that bear

Ahead of me
I saw a tree
A great, big tree
Oh, glory be!
Ahead of me I saw a tree,
A great big tree, oh, glory be

The lowest branch
Was ten feet up
I’d have to jump
And trust my luck
The lowest branch was ten feet up
I’d have to jump and trust my luck

And so I jumped
Into the air
But I missed that branch
Oh, way up there
And so I jumped into the air
But I missed that branch oh way up there

Now don’t you fret
And don’t you frown
‘Cause I caught that branch
On the way back down
Now don’t you fret and down’t you frown,
‘Cause I caught that branch on the way back down

That’s all there is
There is no more
Unless I meet
That bear once more
That’s all there is, there is no more
Unless I meet that bear once more

And, of course, my favorite song to teach never had anything to do with the curriculum at hand, but the kids enjoyed it because it was just fun to do.

Little cabin in the woods
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at his door
Help me, help me, help!” he cried,
Before the hunter shoots me dead
“Little rabbit, come inside;
Safely you’ll abide.”

The bolded words all have accompanying hand motions, which the kids know quite well by the time you’ve finished singing: The song is sung not once through, but nine times. The first time you sing the entire thing; the second, you skip the word “cabin,” doing only the hand motion; the third, you sing neither “cabin” nor “window,” and so on, until every bolded word has been replaced by silent gestures. Because competitions always went over well, I often added the rule that everyone had to stand at the beginning, and anyone who sang out of turn would have to sit down. This was, of course, all but impossible to enforce, but as it made the kids  pay closer attention, I considered its purpose served.

In the end, I don’t know how much my students actually learned from these songs. In teaching them, I learned the Mongolian words for “bear,” “hunter,” “rabbit,” “ocean,” “up,” and “down,” so I hope they learned at least that much in English. But I do know that my students were always happier and more engaged when working on songs than the exercises printed in their books, and so I consider that a success. It helped me to combat my own homesickness as well, and I get a kick out of the idea that there are kids in Mongolia who might still remember a few American camp songs.

Fellow English teachers, I’m curious: What are your favorite songs to teach, and how do you work them into your lessons? Non-teachers, what songs are central to your memories of childhood?

[1] IRL friends all know this because I won an entire drawer full of shirts and hoodies bearing the words “MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation,” and wearing any of them invariably causes people either to tell me about their experiences at the camp, or to try and fail miserably at pronouncing the name.

 [2] I do wish I’d been able to team-teach this song with a teacher who spoke better English, so that we could demonstrate, little-kid-copycat fashion, what “repeat after me” meant. Without a collaborator, this was often unexpectedly difficult to explain!


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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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Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.


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Mongol-Fabulous

On a lovely day late last April, I sat down for lunch with one of the Greater Erdenet Area Soumers – a Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in a soum a few hours’ drive of Erdenet. The weather had been unseasonably hot this month, with temperatures reaching the 80s (high 20s, for you non-Americans), and since the fur-lined boots she’d worn for the past six months had suddenly become unbearable, she’d come into town to peruse our зах – zakh, or market.

“I found these flats for eight thousand tugs!” she said excitedly, pulling them out of her bag to show me. “They’re a little Mongol-Fabulous, but for that price, they’ll do.” (8,000 MNT, at that time, was worth about 6 USD.)

They were, indeed, Mongol-Fabulous: black and shiny, with bows on the toes and an obnoxiously large rhinestone design on the heels. Neither she nor I would ever have dreamed of purchasing them in America, much less wearing them to work. But here they would blend in nicely.

Mongolian fashion sense, to the American eye, is… a little out there. I don’t like my clothing to sparkle at all, but even if I liked the look in moderation, I’d still find the Mongolian passion for all things bedazzled a little overwhelming. Shirts, shoes, dresses, jeans, hair clips, sunglasses – if it can hold rhinestones, it will usually be covered in them.

Even the wallpaper in your average Mongolian home glitters. It is also likely patterned with enormous flowers, as in the examples below.

Mongolians like prints on their clothes, too. Specifically leopard print. In my fifteen months in the country, the only leopard-printed piece of clothing was the scarf I used as a tail for my Halloween costume, but a number of the female Peace Corps Volunteers adopted the leopard-print leggings trend so popular among the locals.

Speaking of leggings: do they spark debate in other countries, or is that specific to the American twenty-something demographic? Among college-age American girls, there’s a pronounced split between those who do and do not consider leggings to be pants. Personally, I treat them as I would tights: leg coverings that provide decent covering when paired a long shirt or short dress but are, on their own, insufficient. Most of the girls at my alma mater, where North Face jacket + black leggings + Ugg boots was practically a uniform, disagreed.

So, for that matter, do Mongolians. Most of them dress up for work but dress down as soon as they get home, and this often means swapping a dress or nice pair of slacks for leggings. A very particular sort of leggings: the kind lined with fake fur and printed with high-contrast patterns of snowflakes and reindeer.

Yes, you read that correctly. Reindeer.

These leggings are extremely warm; I owned some myself and wore them around the house and when I went camping. I would never have worn them around town, but an awful lot of people – men and women alike – did so regularly.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics. Team Leggings-Are-Pants does not translate readily into Mongolian because there is no separate word for leggings, or for tights: all are called өмд. I wish I had thought to cut out pictures of pants, leggings, and tights in various shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple, and asked Mongolians to sort them according to each designation. I suspect the test would result in a lot of confused, frustrated Mongolians and a random scattering of answers. The Mongolian word for orange is улбар шар, or reddish yellow, while purple is usually called хөх ягаан, or dark pink. Conceptually, the colors don’t seem to exist for most Mongolians, and so they have a hard time applying what seems to be an arbitrary distinction. The same might very well be true of pants and leggings.

Or it might just be another case of Mongolian fashion sense differing wildly from its American counterpart. Some Americans are fans of glitzy wardrobes, to be sure, but Mongolians bring the preoccupation to a scale I’d never seen before.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I've ever seen.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how walk through ice and snow in stilettos without breaking an ankle, but my coworkers treated it as a matter of course. Expats readers, how does the local fashion sense compare with your own tastes?

 


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Potty Talk: Squatty No-Potty

As the title suggests, the “Potty Talk” series will discuss defecation, digestion issues, and related parts of everyday life not usually discussed in polite company. If the thought offends, I suggest you read no further. Please enjoy my review of Dijon in ice cream instead.

Why, you may well ask, do I want to talk about poop, on the Internet of all places, where my future children, if I have them, will be able to find it someday–or worse yet, my future in-laws? Because A) it’s a universal experience, B) different cultures approach it differently, and C) I have fun stories to tell. And a good story is a good story, regardless of how puritanical our culture feels about the subject. Frankly, I’ve wanted to do this series for months now, but other topics always seemed more pressing. With my Facebook feed one more abuzz regarding the virtues of squatting, however, it seems the time has come.

I have a friend who’s a radio DJ, and because he’s the new guy at the station and therefore works the crummy weekend shifts, I like to call in to his show with song requests, answers to his questions, and veiled references to the camp where we both worked. The first time the temperatures dipped below 0˚F this winter, he asked his listeners about the craziest thing they’d ever been stuck doing out in the cold, so of course I had to call in.

“Does using an outhouse for a week in -20˚ weather count?”

Shuddering audibly, he assured me that it did and asked where in the world I’d been to have to do such a thing. And then he made the comment I’ve heard so many times from people trying to contemplate using an outhouse in below-zero weather: “Did you have to hover above the seat? I bet it must have been awfully cold!”

Seat? What seat?

I suspect most Americans imagine outhouses to be like the one in Shrek: wooden buildings with raised seats, ideally with a lid to cover the the seat, and probably with a cute little moon-shaped cutout in the door. Those with more camping experience might picture latrines like the ones found in the boundaries, which are decidedly more… exposed in nature.

Image credit: M. Byers

Image credit: Voyageur Canoe Outfitters(Left, a lovely cedar seated outhouse; right, a more minimal BWCA latrine. Image credits in the alt text.)

But even the bare-bones outdoor latrine has what I would consider the defining feature of a Western-style toilet: a seat.

This is not the case in Mongolia, where the setup is usually a wooden floor with a missing slat in the middle, through which you can see (and pee) down to the pit below. A nice outhouse is one with four walls, a door that can be latched closed, and a deep pit, but many lack doors and roofs; in the countryside, there may be little more than a shallow pit with two slats to stand on and three almost waist-high walls to provide a modicum of privacy.

Squatting over a hole in the floor instead of sitting on a porcelain chair isn’t a uniquely Mongolian thing, either. Even indoors, I’ve seen plenty of ceramic squat toilets in China and Thailand, some equipped with a flush mechanism and others simply with a bucket of water and a ladle. Generally speaking, I’d simply categorize this as a cultural difference between East and West.

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Storm door handle during the Vortex. No touchy!

In the case of the Mongolian outhouse, however, the design also serves a distinctly functional purpose. Imagine, if you dare, sitting bare-cheeked on a -20˚ seat–ow! At that temperature, just touching a door handle barehanded is painful enough, as I was reminded during the (overhyped) Polar Vortex. Worse yet, contemplate the possibility that the outhouse’s previous user was a little splashy, and that liquid hasn’t quite frozen yet. We all know what happens when you touch an ice cube with wet hands–it sticks. I suspect that the same thing could happen with a splashed-on outhouse seat, except that with that much skin involved, detaching oneself would be much more difficult. And if you can’t get unstuck yourself, and assistance is not forthcoming, you could literally freeze to death in the outhouse.

I can think of ways to die with less dignity… but not many.

So while using a Mongolian outhouse in the winter was a decidedly brisk experience, I was very glad not to risk freezing to the facilities every time I decided to use them. And a few months into my grant term, I learned that squat toilets had other benefits, too.

When this video first made the rounds, I was skeptical. As a long-time Girl and Venture Scout, I’d been using the outdoor “facilities” for years even before I traveled to Asia, and let me tell you: if you’re used to using a toilet, relieving yourself without one is NOT easy. Most Western women, when asked to pee in the woods, would probably do the same thing we do with dirty public toilet seats: hover in an approximately seated position–not because it makes much sense to do so when there’s no toilet to hover over, but because it’s what we’re used to. I did this at one point too.

The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It’s extremely difficult to tense the muscles needed to hold you upright while simultaneously loosening the ones that release your bladder.

Even if you know you’re supposed to do a full squat, and that it supposedly allows you to void your bowels with less effort, it’s easier said than done. Most of us Westerners are apparently doing it wrong, since we ceased squatting in childhood and have let the necessary muscles atrophy:

Our on-the-toes method of squatting is less stable and harder to sustain, and I suspect instability is the last thing any of us want when crouching over a pit full of feces, especially if the boards we’re crouching on are icy.

I got this lovely diagram from an article on the health benefits of squatting that’s currently making the rounds on Facebook, but if you haven’t seen it and can’t be bothered to click through, the  reasons it lists to squat are:

  • ankle mobility
  • back pain relief
  • hip strengthening
  • glute strengthening
  • posture correction
  • (possibly) decreased risk of arthritis

Whether I’ve seen any of these benefits from the time I spent squatting in this or that outhouse (and over the course of a year, it adds up!), I can’t say for sure, nor have I bothered to check out the medical studies cited for the Squatty Potty’s claims. But I can say that my ability to do a full squat has vastly improved in the past eighteen months, even if they only way I can sustain it for any length of time is by bracing my elbows against the insides of my knees à la malasana, the yoga prayer squat:

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that's not malasana.

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that’s not malasana.

And the Squatty Potty’s claims that a “sensation of satisfactory bowel emptying” is easier to achieve when squatting, once you’ve learned to squat properly? Totally true. Which is especially important when emptying your bladder and/or bowels means putting on several layers, trekking out to the outhouse, and then taking some of them off (at least partway) in below-zero temperatures. Believe me, you don’t want to have to do that any more often than necessary.

So while I strongly appreciate the ability to use indoor facilities once more, there are times when I actually miss squat toilets. Amazing what some time abroad will do to your perceptions and preferences–even the most alimentary ones.

(You know I had to crack at least one poop joke in there. Sorry I’m not sorry.)