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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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.


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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.)


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Siamese

After Thailand’s initial temperature shock had worn off, and I’d sighed in gratitude at both iced beverages and spicy food, I began to notice them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were everywhere – lurking in corners, watching from the shadows, draped across doorsteps and sidewalks and curled lazily in the sun. Some fled at my approach; others welcomed me, coming out to greet me with tails held high. Most took in my presence through half-lidded eyes, twitched the the tips of their tails, and continued their repose.

In the preceding year, I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing cats with any regularity. There were a few to be found in the streets of Erdenet, mostly in the Russian districts, but the sight of approaching humans sent most of them running for the crevices that led below the apartment buildings, the warm dark spaces too small for most pursuers. Some Mongolians hudoo-dwelling Mongolians keep them for pest prevention, but few in the cities have such a use for them. And the vast majority would never keep them as pets.

Most Mongolians, when I tell them that cats were my favorite animal, shudder or grimace in surprise and disgust. They’re not afraid of cats, per se, but they definitely don’t like them. Their eyes are scary, they tell me; their eyes will put curses on you. My protests that cats were smart and independent and graceful, and their hard-won affection heartwarming, fell on deaf ears. “Муур муухай,” they answered; “муур муу.” Cats are ugly; cats are bad.

Most Mongolians are definitely team “cats will kill you in your sleep.”

The Thai people, by contrast, love their cats. I’d see them at fruit and vegetable markets, napping on boxes behind counters and in stores; I’d see them walking the city streets like they owned them. I especially saw them at temples, where they lurked in droves. All, owned or stray, seemed sleek and well-fed – nothing like the scrawny, mangy moggies cowering in Mongolian courtyards. And most, I noticed, watched me with bright blue eyes.

I was, after all, in the country that brought us the Siamese.

The presence of cats made feel both at home and homesick. I’d missed cats during my year in Mongolia, stopping far more often than was wise to pet the strays who didn’t bolt the moment I took a step in their direction. It was nice to be among people who loved these animals as I did, but each new pair of blue eyes sent a pang through my heart as I remembered my own Siamese.

Bailey was an irritable little old lady for most of her life. Her meow was nasal and unpleasant, and she wasn’t particularly playful, though she grudgingly tolerated the dog’s tendency to lick her ears until they were sopping wet. She liked to crawl beneath the covers and bite my parents’ toes at night. We’d had her since before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and she grew too old and senile to remember how I’d put a hairclip on her tail when I was three that she began to warm up to me.

I loved her anyway. She was a fixture, not only of my childhood, but of my adolescence as well; it wasn’t until I turned twenty-one, nearly three years after we’d had to put Bailey down, that I was finally the older of the two of us.

I hadn’t thought about her in a while when I arrived in Thailand, but I had plenty of time to do so while I was there. I sat down in a temple and counted the number of cats within sight – sixteen, at least – and petted the ones who let me for a while, remembering my cranky old cat. I’m told she used to play with my grandparents’ long-dead golden retriever as a kitten, running behind the couch and then coming out the other side and smacking him on the butt when he stuck his head behind it to look for her. I hope they’re playing now, reunited at long last.


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A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.

Phags-pa

Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

  Soyombo

Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.

Cyrillic

Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!

Latin

Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur

Tibetan

Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.

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A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.

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