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.


Children’s Day

My apologies for the suddenly sporadic posting! Now that the school year is over, I’m actually teaching a lot more often. I’ve also apparently lost the favor of the Internet gods; you know your connection is horrible when it won’t even load WordPress (hence Monday’s lack of post).

But despite my sudden business and inability to write about it, interesting things have been happening here. We kicked of the beginning of June by celebrating Children’s Day. I knew the day was coming and that the workers at the Children’s Palace would be giving out gifts (mostly candy), but I had no real idea of the scope of this particular holiday.

I started to get an idea of what I was in for when I headed over to check out the festivities at the Children’s Park at the south end of town. While I see plenty of people going about their business every day, their business doesn’t usually take them all in the same direction. The princess dresses and balloons were also a new addition.


Except for the girl in the left-hand corner, of course. Not sure where she’s headed.

Upon joining the throng, I quickly rediscovered something Mongolia had thus far allowed me to forget: my hatred of crowds. This parade, full of parents walking hand in hand with their young children, ambled along at a painfully slow pace, blissfully unaware of the frustrated foreigner trapped behind them. For so small a crowd, this one was also strangely impermeable – groups holding hands offer few gaps to dart through if you’re unwilling to play hurdles or red rover. So for most of the walk, I was stuck shuffling along with the rest of the crowd.

But that, I realized upon reaching the park, was only beginning. The Children’s Park, no longer the desolate place I remembered from the long winter, teemed with people. A sea of bright colors stretched before me: kite flyers, toy vendors, and more Mongolians than I have ever seen in one place, even in the capital. The ferris wheel and carousel that had so long stood as silent sentinels over the south side of town had suddenly whirled into life, and the air was thick with the smells of woodsmoke and fried food.

People everywhere!

People everywhere!

I texted the friends I was supposed to meet and began to wander, knowing I had absolutely no hope of finding them on my own in this throng. Our fair-haired group is unmistakeable amongst the Mongolians, but that was of little help with so many Mongolians between me and them. Half the city seemed to have descended on the fairgrounds.

In some ways, Children’s Day was a carnival like any other: vendors hawking all manner of cheap and useless toys, most of which would probably find their way into the trash by the following day; long lines that wound their way around the rides to which they led; games like pop-the-balloon and ring toss; cotton candy and fried food.  But there was more than just the language and predominant hair color to keep me mindful of where I was. The ring-tossers aimed for foot-tall wooden blocks carved in the shape of horse heads, and plenty of the emees (grandmothers) shuffling through the crowd wore  deels. A few people had even ridden their horses to the event and left them, fettered, to munch happily on the fairground grass. And some of the food vendors I passed offered fare unlikely to be well-received in the States.

Grilled sheep fat and guts? Yum!

Grilled sheep fat and guts? Yum!

Eventually, I met up with my friends, and we purchased tickets to ride the ferris wheel. They allowed all five of us to board, despite the presence of only four seats, and clipped a flimsy little chain across the entrance. It was only when we reached the top of the wheel that we observed that parts of the structure appeared to be held together with tape. We pointedly ignored this fact, choosing instead to admire the view afforded by our vantage point. From here, we could see the long row of gers lining the back edge of the fairgrounds, each with a table placed before its door.

The Mongolian equivalent of food stands.

The Mongolian equivalent of food stands.

It was from these gers that most of the smells originated: woodsmoke from the stoves, hot grease from the pans above them. A Mongolian crowd at a summer celebration hungers for huushuur and thirsts for milk tea, and the industrious owners of these gers had set up shop to provide just that. When I wandered by this food court of sorts, I found every table full of Mongolians slurping their tea and hungrily awaiting their plates of fried mutton pies. I passed by without eating; I wasn’t particularly hungry, and while I do enjoy huushuur when it’s not too greasy, I’m sure I’ll have my fill and more at Naadam.

Instead, I contented myself with taking pictures, petting horses, and marveling at the general excitement of the atmosphere. The Mongolian winter is long, slow, and generally quiet, but when the country springs back to life again, it does so with great gusto.


Mini-Mongol Invasion

Apparently I am a magnet for small children.

It’s spring in Mongolia, and the balmy 50-degree weather has brought the children out in hordes to play. They are everywhere: running through school yards, traversing the streets in packs, thronging to the playgrounds at the center of every apartment complex. I understand their enthusiasm; it’s been a long winter, and they’ve been cooped up indoors indoors for months now. You don’t go out to play in the snow in the dead of winter here, as children do in America; it’s just too cold. The snow is too dry and powdery to pack together, and the smaller children, when their parents do bring them outside, are so bundled up as to be almost immobile. The youngest ones are, in fact, immobile: puffed out to twice their size and spread-eagled by their snowsuits. The local PCVs call them “starfish babies.”



A coworker and her starfish baby.

But now they’ve shed their layers and run rampant throughout the city. This I’d expected. What I hadn’t expected was to draw so much attention from so many of them.

There’s a sizable Russian population in this town, and thus the Americans are accustomed to being mistaken for Russians. Орос хүн, people mutter as we walk by; they hail us with здравствуйте! and try to tell us prices in Russian. But although blondes and redheads are particularly likely to be assumed Russian, I have largely been exempt from this trend. Blonde I may be, but my face is too round and my features too soft to fit the Russian profile. The only people who usually try to talk to me in Russian are drunk men. One man tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation despite my blank stare and unabated pace. Finally his friend elbowed him; “she’s not Russian, stupid,” he said in Mongolian.

But small children make the same mistake. Lacking the more sophisticated profiling abilities of the adults, most seem prone to the belief that all white people are Russian. Is she Russian?, they ask as I walk by. No, say some of their friends, she’s English. And unlike the children I’ve encountered in the countryside, the youngsters of Erdenet have no problem running up to me to settle the debate. Four times in the last three days, I’ve been stopped by children in the street or on the playground. Aнаа, анаа! they call, using a term of address for an older sister. Та орос хүн үү? I tell them that I’m not Russian, but American, and the ones who guessed correctly grin in triumph. Some of them gape at my ability to speak even a little Mongolian; others ask what I’m doing in Mongolia. Hello!, they often chorus, eager to show off the few English words they know.

When I ask them their names and ages, they chatter at me in rapid Mongolian – eager, I can only assume, to share their life stories. My utter lack of comprehension is usually lost on them, and often they follow me even after I’ve walked away, shouting goodbye! in English if they know it and Mongolian if they don’t. Today a five-year-old boy bounded over to me on the street and tried to talk to me in Mongolian. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t understand, but this little one was nothing if not persistant. Анаа, нааш ир, he said, reaching up to take my hand. I followed him to his mother’s delguur; what else are you supposed to do when a five-year-old takes your hand and says, “big sister, come here” ? His mother laughed when he led me in and greeted me in Mongolian. I asked his name, confirmed that he was her son, and said I had to go; when I left the shop, he ran after me shouting Баяртай!.

As a blonde living in Asia, I’ve gotten used to being stared at. But I don’t remember being swarmed this way when I came here in the fall. You’d think I’d lose novelty over time, rather than gain it. But either I’m more interesting now than I was in the fall, or the children have gained some courage. Either way, I’m not complaining. This morning’s encounter was the most adorable thing that’s happened to me in a while. Even if it did make me late for my lesson.

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Тэрний Дүү, Миний Багш

September 16, 2012

Yesterday morning, I was awakened by the patter of tiny feet. I opened my door to see an almost-two-year-old girl running (pantsless) around my apartment: Энгүүн. (Inguun, for those of you who don’t read Cyrillic). She and her sister – my roommate’s nieces, or sisters, or cousins, or whatever they are; the Mongolians call them all дүү (duu) – had spent the night at our house. Eight-year-old Халиун (Khaliun) sat in the kitchen, doing her homework; Namuunaa was still asleep. [Note: though  /x/ is conventionally transliterated as /kh/, it doesn’t sound very k-like. More like the /ch/ in loch or chutzpah.]

Inguun gets into everything, but mostly I enjoy it when the duu come to visit. I had helped with bath time the night before, which was a long and messy, but very fun, process. Lots of squealing and splashing; there’s nothing quite like the laughter of a small child. On this morning, I got out my homework while we waited for Namuunaa to wake up, and Khaliun and I sat at the kitchen table together, working quietly.

Until Inguun pooped on the kitchen floor, anyway. Mongolians potty-train their children very young, and it seems they’re usually out of diapers between the ages of one and two. But you have to keep an eye on them: when they start to pull at their pants, you pick them up and hold them over the toilet. The system seems best suited to gers, where the kids can just go outside and do their business wherever.

But Khaliun got up and cleaned up after sister, so at least I didn’t have to worry about it. Mongolian kids are wonderfully hard-working. When Namuunaa saw how much fuzz has accumulated on my heavily-shedding carpet, for instance, she got out a couple of wet rags to wipe it down with, handing one to me and the other to Khaliun. Khaliun helped me to rub the fuzzies from that carpet for nearly an hour, without a single complaint.

It's like living with a multicolored golden retriever!

Quite the pile, eh? I can scrape up this much every other week, believe it or not.

Patience is not a trait usually associated with children, but there are certainly instances wherein they display more of it than adults. Six- to ten-year-olds, for instance, are wonderful language teachers. They’ll repeat the name of the thing you’re playing with endlessly if you keep asking. They have a much better idea of how slow they need to speak in order for you to understand them. And they have a fantastic time correcting your grammar and pronunciation – even your spelling, if they get the chance. Khaliun read over my shoulder while I worked through my language exercises, saying each phrase aloud for me and correcting me when I used the wrong suffixes.

In fact, I think the longest conversation I’ve had in Mongolian (not counting canned phrases like how are you? what’s your name? and how old are you?) was with Khaliun. It went something like this:

Me: Энэ гэрийн далгавараа? (Is this homework?)
She: Хичээл. (A lesson.)
Me: Ямар хичээл? (Which lesson?)
She: Монгол хил. (Mongolian language.)
Me: Би ч бас, би монгол хил сурж байна. (Me too, I am studying Mongolian language.)

Riveting stuff, I know. But it’s progress, and it’s more pertinent than memorizing the seemingly random assortment of vocabulary the Mongolian language teacher presents me with every week, so I’ll take it.