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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Side Trip into Flower Land

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to sing. She liked singing so much that she did it everywhere she went – at home, at church, in the grocery store. She liked to stop by the flower shop on her way home from school or the weekend farmer’s market, and because she was an audacious child, she somehow managed to talk her way into an arrangement whereby she sang for the florists, and they gave her flowers. Nothing too expensive–mostly the flowers that had broken or been cut too short to fit into arrangements–but to her thinking, a good deal nonetheless.

Many years later, she graduated college and needed a part-time job to fill the summer before she left for Mongolia. Unsurprisingly, “I’m only here for the next three months, and also I want to volunteer at camp for a week in July,” was a bit of a hard sell, and most of the local places didn’t bother to call me back. And then, one fine day, I walked back into the flower shop and asked if they were hiring.

“Not really,” said the manager, “but I can take your name and number and call you if anything comes up.”

And then he took a closer look at me, and I watched a grin break across his face as he asked, “Are you the girl who used to come in and sing for us?”

Blushing deeply, I nodded.

“Mother’s Day is next week,” he said. “Want to start tomorrow?”

I spent that summer doing a lot of grunt work: processing and preparing flowers, schlepping stuff from point A to point B, making deliveries. And helping to set up weddings, which doesn’t really count as “grunt” work but almost always happens at odd weekend hours when the regular employees have absolutely no desire to come in. It wasn’t the most consistent or best-paying job out there, but it was fun and allowed me to work on my own terms, which was really all I could ask for at the time.

So when I had yet to find a degree-related job 2.5 months after returning to the US, I decided it was time to visit the flower shop again. Naturally, this decision coincided with the imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day; timing is everything when looking for a job, they say, and while I have no idea what factors might make me more less likely to land this internship or that full-time position, the busy season for flowers is pretty predictable.

Yes, I was told, they did need an extra pair of hand for Valentine’s Day, and how long had I been back in the country? Why hadn’t I come in earlier?

I made these things! I’ve taken a few steps up the ladder, from driver to rose stripper to underling designer. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months instead of writing. Or rather, this is:

February 24: Valentine’s Day
March 31-April 4: Supposedly a slow week because of spring break, but in fact, parties and birthdays and mitzvahs up the wazoo and a phone that never stopped ringing.
April 14: Passover
April 20: Easter and Orthodox Easter
April 23: Administrative Professionals’ (*couch* Secretaries’ *cough*) Day
May 11: Mother’s Day
May 17: Prom

April was a busy month – we had at least one holiday or massive party every week, on top of our day-to-day business. And while May’s been much calmer so far, we’ve yet to get through prom.

So I should have a nice, Mongolia-related post out for your reading pleasure in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve got boutonnieres to make.

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All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.


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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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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.

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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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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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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.


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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.