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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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.

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I Couldn’t Possibly Eat Another Buuz: Tsagaan Sar

So you know those thousands of buuz I said all the families in Mongolia were busy making last week? Well, they make that many for a reason. I didn’t bother to keep track of how many buuz I ate during the three days of festivities, but Peace Corps Volunteers say it’s not uncommon to put away 30-50, and this year’s record-setter downed over a hundred within 24 hours. My number was nowhere near so impressive, but we did visit eight or nine households during my two days in the countryside with my director and her family, and you have to eat at least a few at each visit or your hostess will be offended.

Buuz, I must concede, are perfectly suited to the way this holiday is celebrated. When new guests arrive, you offer them candy (or aaruul, which Mongolians eat like candy) and milk tea, and you throw another found of buuz in the steamer. Twenty minutes later, you serve them to your guests, who, despite having eaten the same thing for the past two or three days straight, greet it with seemingly undiminished enthusiasm. To quote Peace Corps Volunteer Andrew, who has already been quoted by my friend Adam in his own post on the subject, “Tsagaan Sar is like Halloween and Thanksgiving – except when you go trick-or-treating, instead of candy, you get Thanksgiving dinner at each house.”

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A bucket of frozen buuz just waiting to be steamed.

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Into the steamer they go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least there is plenty of variation between each household’s buuz. Some include more fat than others; some add garlic or dill; most use mutton, but others make them with beef or horse meat. And almost everyone will have soy sauce and ketchup with which to douse them.

But you don’t just sit and drink tea while ou wait for the buuz to cook; quite the contrary. There are complicated greeting rituals to perform, with exacting traditional specifications. You greet the occupants in order of status, which is a combination of age and gender: Grandma comes before Mom and Dad but after Grandpa. Who starts the greetings is also important; head of the visiting household goes first, then wife, and then children in descending order of age. I usually followed the children, since I’m not actually part of the family. It’s a lot of information to absorb at first, but even I got the joke when the director’s husband, who had been outside attending to the car, ended up being last to greet our host.

To greet someone older, you place your hands under they elbows; they may put both hands on either side of your face or just rest their arms on yours. Often, they will kiss you on both cheeks. “Amar baina yy?” they say, or “Saihan shin jilsen yy?” and you return the greeting, asking how they are doing and if their new year has been good.

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam's are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam’s are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

There’s no kissing when you greet someone of equal age; you both place your right arm above the other’s left and say the words, and that’s it. Respected or closely related family members are often presented with money (not much; usually it was a crisp 1000 Tg bill, worth about $.70). And sometimes you use the ubiquitous blue scarf whose meaning I don’t quite understand, in which case you turn it around before returning to the other person. And you’re supposed to wear your hat, if you have one with you.

And, of course, there’s drinking. As at all special occasions, one of the hosts is in charge of distributing drinks, and everyone usually drinks rom one communal cup, shotglass, or bowl, depending on the drink in question. There is a polite way to refuse to drink that involves flicking the vodka in the air, but this trick, alas, is not one that was included in our orientation. It’s hard to pass up drinks without it; Mongolians aren’t particularly inclined to take ‘no’ for an answer, and often they will not let you return the glass until they judge that you have drunk enough. This means you end up drinking a lot of vodka, and if you like it enough to do more than sip at it, airag. I unfortunately don’t care for Mongolia’s traditional alcohol of fermented mare’s milk, though I admit I would like to see the process by which it’s made.

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Airag in all its sour, greasy glory.

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

 

The tables are piled high with a number of things – some of them familiar to the American eye, others completely foreign. The bowl of candy is a familiar addition to an American table, though not a requirement as it is here; the bowl of airag, its surface and rim dotted with yellowish fat, rather less so. Fruit trays (usually whole apples, oranges, grapes, and occasionally bananas, rather than the cut-up assortments seen on most American tables) are fairly ubiquitous, as are plates of potato salad, but so too are what I think are called eadees. These stacks of bau, or fried bread, vary in height between houses; my director’s had three tiers, while her parents’ had five. But they are always covered with aaruul, urum, sugar cubes, and sometimes shar ukh, or yellow fat. And then there’s the meat: sheep butt with the fat and tail still attached, from which the head of the family cuts slices and distributes them to his family members. My director’s family doesn’t really eat mutton, so they had beef ribs instead, but what I saw on every other table was most definitely sheep.

Lots of different salads on this table, thankfully; I like the beet and cabbage salads, which use vinegar, and carrot salad is usually palatable because it's light on mayo, but I just can't touch the potato salad.

Yep, that’s sheep butt alright.

So that’s what I did for two full days: travel from house to house, eating copious quantities of buuz and reluctantly sipping shots of vodka in between nervously greeting whatever elders happened to be present. It was cool, and I’m very grateful to my director for inviting me, but I was just as grateful when it was over. At that point, I just wanted to sit in my own room and eat something that wasn’t a dumpling.


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Bituun Buuz

Dear Readers (if you’re still out there),

I have long been in remiss of my blogging duties, and for that I apologize. My home internet accessibility was essentially nonexistent for most of December and January – by which I mean browser could sometimes load Facebook but always timed out before loading more complicated sites like WordPress (or Gmail, for that matter). Highly inconvenient, and not particularly conducive to blogging. I went home to Chicago or a week and a half, but I didn’t exactly want to spend my time in the states journaling either. And since returning, I’ve just been a lazy bum. Sorry ’bout that.

However, I’ve certainly done some things worth writing about in the past two months, and I’ll do my best to catch up on chronicling those in the next few weeks. But not in chronological order.

I had thought I’d be able to post this on Monday night, but I was kidnapped by Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar, or “White Month”) preparations. My director invited me to come with her family for the first day, saying we’d start at her in-laws’ and then drie to her parents’ house. But, as per usual in this country, we got a later start than we’d planned, and the first stop on our journey took a long time. At 3 o’clock, we showed no signs of heading out – and since Tsooj’s parents live pretty far away, and you’re not supposed to perform the traditional Tsagaan Sar greetings after sunset, that meant we’d be staying the night. Had I know that beforehand, there are are a few things I would have brought – a hairbrush, for instance. Oh well. You live and learn, right?

This was after I’d already spent the previous night at my director’s apartment. In looking for a place to wash my sheets, I sort of unintentionally invited myself over for Bituun. It’s the night before Tsagaan Sar begins, and it seemed to be treated with the same excitement and importance as, say, Christmas Eve. It marks the end of at least a week of frenzied preparation and the beginning of the celebration.

Namuunaa’s sort of alternated between sleeping at her parents’ and bringing a sibling or two home for a sleepover for the past week. Getting ready for Tsagaan Sar is the mother of all spring cleanings, when you scrub the carpets, wash all (all!) the clothes, and move the furniture in order to sweep under couches and the refrigerator.

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My roommate (and every other Mongolian) for the past week.

Unfortunately, our apartment never looks clean, even when you’ve just cleaned it. The floors are stained, the wallpaper peeling, the linoleum (or whatever our plastic-y sheets of flooring are) so poorly seamed you can never get all the dust out of the cracks, especially not where it meets the walls. But at least my director recently presented us with a most welcome addition to our collection of a appliances: a vacuum cleaner.

Let me tell you, a vacuum cleaner is something you’ll never truly appreciate until you’ve been without one for a few months. Cleaning a constantly-shedding carpet with a broom is an endeavor, to put it lightly. The direction of the carpet bristles is not particularly conducive to effective sweeping (they run from the dirty side to the clean side), and the particulates you’re trying to remove fly in every direction but the one you’re sweeping in. You have to hit the same spot repeatedly, and hard, in order to make any progress at all. You know you’ve left the first world when cleaning the floor is a legitimate form of cardio.

The vacuum cleaner made that aspect of Tsagaan Sar preparation much easier. But I had yet to experience the other part of the holiday prep work: mass cooking.

Mongolia has three traditional foods (at least, three that are substantial enough to make a meal of): huushuur (“ho-sure”), buuz (“boats”), and tsuivan. Tsagaan Sar is a buuz holiday in the way that Christmas is a cookie holiday, only more so. People cook thousands of the little meat-filled steamed dumplings, and that’s not an exaggeration; Namuunaa’s family makes 1300.

Fortunately, they’re pretty quick and easy when you know what you’re doing. I got to (read: was invited in a non-declinable way to) help prepare the Bituun buuz at my director’s apartment. You begin by mixing flour and salt and adding enough water to make a dough, which you knead until smooth. Then you cover it and let it rest for a while – to let the gluten relax, I suppose, since there’s no yeast to make it rise. While it’s resting you mince meat and onion, and maybe a little garlic or cabbage. I talked my director into the garlic, but usually, it’s just meat and onions.

The dough get shaped into snakes and cut into pieces, which you roll by hand into flattened balls. The process of turning each disk into a thin, fillable round involves rolling with one hand (the one holding the rolling pin, obviously) and turning with the other. To fill and seal them, you place one round in your non-dominant hand and add a spoonful of meat, which you hold in place with your thumb. Then you pinch with your other hand, rotating your dumpling to form a little spiral of pleats. Then you dip them in oil, and into the steamer they go!

That evening’s buuz were a group effort: Tsooj made the the dough, her husband chopped the meat and rolled the rounds, her brother and I filled and pinched, and her oldest son did the dipping and placing. With the help of the whole family, even the full thousand a household usually prepares only takes about five hours. As they finish each batch, they set it outside to freeze and then throw the individually frozen buuz in a bag. Apartment-dwellers put the bags on their balconies if they have them, or just hang them out the window if they don’t.

Tsagaan Sar is a visiting holiday, and the first evening was no exception. After dinner, the director and I headed to the next building over to visit Orkhon-Chimeg, the school’s second director, and her husband. There we were given more of what we’d just eaten: slices of meat, freshly-steamed buuz, fruit, candy, vodka, airag, Mongolian vodka (made from distilled aarts, or boiled yogurt), and an assortment of dairy products. This is the kind of holiday where you eat until you’re full, then go to someone else’s house and repeat the process until you’re ready to explode.

But I’ll detail the actual celebrations in a later post; right now, I have buuz to sleep off.


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Thanksgiving

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.