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.


Losing My Name

I’ve always been a bit of a brat about who is allowed to call me what. I hate it when people shorten my name, and not just because it feels overly familiar and disrespectful. I know many girls named Kate or Katie, and they’re lovely names. They’re just not mine.

There are exceptions, of course. My parents call me Kate at times, especially when annoyed – which doesn’t make me particularly eager to let other people call me that. They also call me Katie, as do my aunts and uncles and cousins; once your grandmother decides to call you something, you’re stuck with that moniker for life. I have precisely three friends who call me Katie-lyn, and my college friends and I address each other using a wide variety of endearments: dear, hon(ey), sug(ar), darlin(g), love. (Babe and baby are off-limits even to boyfriends; as my first roommate once so aptly put it, “unless someone is currently putting me in a corner, ain’t nobody calls me ‘Baby!'”

But aside from those very particular exceptions, I hold firm. Unless you are related to me, you may not call me Kate, nor Katie. I do not answer to Kat, nor Kay. I can handle [katlin] (“kaht-leen”) from the French and [Kætlɪn] (“cat-lin”) from the Irish, but unless your dialect gets in the way, my name is Katelin, thankyouverymuch.

Or at least it was, until I moved to a country where [ke:ʔlɪn] is apparently impossible to pronounce and everyone has both a long and short name. To keep from being called Kate or Katie, I told Mongolians my name is Katya – but with limited success. My roommate and her family called me Katie or Ketty; the Embassy staff and some of the school administrators, despite my repeated requests, routinely shortened my name to Kate. Factor in the mispronunciations and Mongolian terms of address, and I found myself answering to a wide selection of names:

  • Kate
  • Kat
  • Katya
  • Katie/Ketty
  • Ketty-sister
  • эгч ээ and анаа, (“ig-chay” and “anaa”), two terms of address for an older sister
  • Kata anaa (this one was exclusive to my roommate’s youngest niece, who couldn’t quite manage Katya, but usually paired her attempt with the affectionate term for a younger sister)
  • Kately, Ketlin, Kailey, Kailin, and other failed attempts to pronounce my name
  • Katyushka, in the fashion of Russian dimunitives

For that matter, I found myself reacting to nearly any word beginning with a /k/; the letter is not native to Mongolian, and while there is a similar sound natively present, it’s never found in the word-initial position. Which is to say that only names and (mostly-Russian) loanwords start with [k], and any such word uttered in my presence was usually an attempt at my name.

With my return to the US, I knew, would come a renewed fanatical insistence upon my full name. But in the meantime, I had to meet people halfway.


Cooking’s Got Me in Stitches

My apologies for the silence of the past week. After ten months of teaching maybe twelve hours a week, this sudden jump to over thirty  has left me with absolutely no recollection of how to manage my time. I meant to write about my recent trip to UB last night, but that was before the evening went so thoroughly awry that all thoughts of getting any work done were summarily dispensed with. I don’t mean the “the power’s out and my computer’s dead, so I guess I can’t plan my lessons” sort of awry, either; I mean the sort that results in blood on the carpet and freaking out your friends with text like, “how deep does a cut need to be to require medical attention?”

Like everything else in this apartment, our knives are cheap and shoddily made. One of the first skills I learned here was how to sharpen them on the unglazed bases of our ceramic bowls, but while you can use this method to put on an unexpectedly good edge, it never holds for more than a day or two. So I’ve grown accustomed to brute-forcing my way through carrots, potatoes, and beets with dull knives and a carelessness that nearly always earns me a few nicks on the days when I actually think to sharpen them. (Yes, I know my Scouting readers are shaking their heads and threatening to take away my Totin’ Chip. I don’t blame you; if I was my merit badge instructor, I would too.)

Today, it was not I who did the sharpening, but my roommate’s brother, and he actually used the back of another knife for the purpose. I thumbed the edge when he’d finished, unimpressed; it didn’t seem that much sharper than it had been before. But I figured it would do; at least it wouldn’t be a struggle to slice bread.

And then I attempted to cut the slightly-moldy part off of a carrot and made two discoveries. First, that the carrot was more rotten than I’d thought and offered almost no resistance, and second, that the knife was much sharper than I’d taken it to be. So sharp, in fact, that it sliced straight into my finger without causing any actual pain; the sensation was one of surprise more than anything. And then I was standing over the sink, rinsing away the dirt and holding tightly to stem the flow of quite a lot of blood. Sh*t, I thought, surveying the damage. That’s probably going to need stitches.

Brother got a look at the wound and turned away with a grimace of disgust. I’d not anticipated squeamishness from a people so tough, but obviously, some people are more easily grossed out than others. If you’re among the former category, I’d suggest you stop reading now, because I am not. And because I hang out with people who spend an inordinate amount of time discussing poop, even while eating, and so I have misplaced my that’sgrosspeopledon’twanttoknowthat filter. You’ve been warned.

Rather than go straight to the hospital, as would probably have been advisable, I sat around holding a dishrag wound about my finger for a while. I’m indecisive under the best of circumstances; under duress, I freeze, fret, and cry. My first thought upon seeing how deeply I’d cut myself was that I probably would need stitches – but I’d never had stitches, so who was I to make that judgement? Brother hadn’t suggested we head across the street, so maybe I was just overreacting. Plus I wasn’t sure how well I could navigate a hospital with my limited Mongolian, and the PCV who worked there sounded like she trusted it about as far as the students at Miami had trusted McCullagh & Hyde (which is to say, not very far; we called the place “kill ’em and hide ’em”). Also, I was pretty sure my Fulbright insurance coverage had expired the previous Friday; would that be a problem? But not going could very well be a bigger problem; that large a flap of flesh wasn’t going to graft itself back on with ease. Maybe I should take some ibuprofen while I sat here figuring out what to do, since that would help with the pain and swelling. But if aspirin was an anticoagulant, didn’t that mean ibuprofen probably was as well? Taking an anticoagulant while bleeding seemed unwise.

And so it was it about this point in the evening that I started snapping at the two-year-old niece every time she toddled into my room and making sounds of frustration when the brother tried to ask me questions in Mongolian too fast and complex for me to understand. Who yells at a two-year-old when she calls you “big sister” and asks if you hurt your hand? Me, apparently: sharp-tongued, dull-witted me, the girl who starts crying after she cuts her finger open, not because it hurts, but because she just wants someone to tell her whether she needs to go get stitches or find some gauze to stop the bleeding herself.

Well, gauze was a place to start. I didn’t have any, but the Peace Corps Volunteers all have medical kits, and those would probably have gauze. Kevin would be closest, and after coaching for so long, he was sure to have extensive medical training. So it was away from the hospital and off to Kevin’s I went (though not without first grabbing some cash in case we ended up there).

I probably should have saved myself the walk and the seven-story climb. I think even Kevin knew the probable prognosis when I moved to the sink before unwrapping the dishrag. Kevin surveyed the damage for approximately a millisecond before declaring, “ooh, that’s deep. That’s gonna need stitches.”

But at least now, as I headed to the hospital, I at least had a few friends in tow, and one of them was even Mongolian. When we entered the “emergency room” (it was a room, and the door did say “emergency,” but mostly it just looked empty), Suvdaa explained to the clerk what I had done to myself and to me what I’d need to to do to get myself stitched up again. The sum total of my paperwork: my full name, age, and Mongolian address. They didn’t take my phone number or my passport number, which I’m required to produce every time I want to purchase so much as a bus or train ticket. They didn’t make a fuss about me not having insurance; they didn’t even ask if I had any. They just asked me to write down those three facts on a scrap of paper, once they managed to find a blank one.

And then I was following a doctor in mint-colored scrubs into the next room, where he sat me down on a plastic stool as he set a ceramic basin on a table covered with paper that looked clean, but probably wouldn’t be changed until it stopped looking that way. You are so going to get some sort of disease from this place, whispered part of my brain – the part that’s seen that most Mongolians don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom and slice bread with the same knife and cutting board they just used to cut frozen, but raw, meat. But the doctor snapped on gloves before setting to work, and the syringe of anesthetic came from a sealed package; so far as I could tell, everything that needed to be sanitary was.

If I’d thought about it, I probably would have realized that injecting a digit full of fluid would a) force most of the blood from the wound and b) make the afflicted area swell to roughly twice its normal size, so that the wound began to turn itself inside out. But, never having needed stitches before, I hadn’t, and so this part of the process was characterized mostly by alarm. Also by pain. The doctor snorted at me as I winced and gasped and grimaced, asking how old I was the way you’d ask the same question of a teenager throwing a toddler-type temper tantrum. But this was the part that was supposed to make the process hurt less; how on earth could getting anesthetic injected into the cut be more painful than the actual cut? And did he really need to move the needle eight frakking times, or progress from less to more sensitive parts of my finger every time he did so?

Happily, the drugs had kicked in by the time he broke out the actual sewing materials; that part I didn’t feel at all. I couldn’t quite bring myself to look as the needle went in, but I did find myself watching as he knotted off the first two stitches. The first two of exactly how many, I’m not sure. It was at this point that the world around me began to dissolve into a vivid shade of purple laced with yellow lightning bolts, the sort of color combination that compels you to put your head down whether you want to or not. I’m dehydrated; I need water, I managed to think through the most extreme light-headedness I’ve ever experienced, but in that state, the ability to assemble and voice the phrase “Ус байна уу?” eluded me.

Happily, the doctor, having noted my distress and inability to do anything but focus on not sliding off my backless little stool, summoned Kevin and Suvdaa, and the two glasses of water Kevin brought me did wonders. The world returned to a reasonable color spectrum, and I was able to sit upright and watch as the doctor wound a roll of gauze around his handiwork.

In the end, the entire process cost me 5,000 tugriks – the average hourly wage for a teacher, equivalent to roughly $3.50 in USD. It is also, apparently, the cost of a little iodine, a syringe of Novocaine, and some surgical thread. I’m not sure how many different things you get billed for during your average trip to an American emergency room, but all the Erdenet Hospital charged me for was materials.

There’s an argument to be made, I’m sure, about the costs of healthcare and the pros and cons of the American system, but it shall have to be made at a time when I’m not exhausted and mistyping every other word because my left middle finger’s doing double duty. For the moment, I’m just glad the process was quick, easy, and cheap.

If I start to develop gangrene, I’ll let you know.

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Cookies, Continued!

Sometimes your day just doesn’t go how you think it will.

Last night, for instance, I just wanted to curl up in bed (or at least, next to the radiator) with some mulled wine and watch the rest of Titanic. And then, just before I finished cooking dinner, Namuunaa came home with relatives in tow – the same set as in the previous post, plus two-year-old Inguun. They had brought baking supplies with them and wanted to continue the baking lesson. The next way was Khaliun’s birthday, they said, and they wanted to make cookies.

Well, it’s not like I could say no.

So Namuunaa and her sister and I made cookies. They turned out differently than mine – no vanilla, some pretty insipid lemon zest, and what I think was an extra cup of flour – but overall, I think the lesson went pretty well. I learned, and promptly forgot, how to say things like “fast” and “my hands are covered in chocolate; I failed pretty spectacularly at separating one egg (but really, have you ever cracked an egg and had the shell flake off, leaving the membrane intact? what are you supposed to do with that?!); we took turns at the incredibly labor-intensive process of creaming butter and sugar by hand. That one is, I think, a good thing; it means that in making the cookies, you burn off some of the calories you’ll gain by eating them. Maybe I’ll continue making them that way when I get back to the states.

… maybe.

As always, Inguun popped in and out throughout the entire process, greeting us with “shan oh!” or sometimes even “shan an oh!” each time. She correctly identified the lemon on the table, even after it had been stripped of zest, and she held out a cup, uttering the first complete sentence I’ve ever heard/understood from her: “цай байхгаа.” Laughing, her mother filled the cup for her, and she promptly spilled the water before toddling back into Namuunaa’s room. She can almost say my name now too, though it sounds more like “Kata” than “Katya.”

While we waited for the cookies to bake, we all went into Namuunaa’s room. Khaliun, her father, and Inguun were dancing, which is to say that Khaliun and her father were doing simple dance steps and Inguun was quite literally falling all over herself trying to imitate them. My god, that child is adorable. Naturally, I joined the fun with some shim-sham steps (boogie forwards and boogie backs). Inguun could sort of, almost, do the boogie forwards, but even Khaliun couldn’t manage boogie backs. I couldn’t blame here; a kick-ball-change is a confusing movement that had trouble with when I first tried it.

I also showed them my splits, which Khaliun tried and failed to emulate. I tried to explain that I had done gymnastics for 17 years, but that’s a tricky explanation to make; “Би гимнастик хийдэг” means “I work out” as much as “I do gymnastics,” and the former interpretation is far more common. So I grabbed my computer and showed them videos. Magically, I stuck my beam and bars routines at Nationals this year, so they’re handy ones for showing off. Then they wanted to see more pictures, so I showed some from camp and family gatherings.

How does one explain to a two-year-old that an alpaca is not a horse when one does not know the Mongolian word for “alpaca,” if there even is one? Inguun started shouting, “Адуу! Адуу!” when the alpaca pictures came up, and I couldn’t even say that they were llamas – a lama is a monk!

Finally, they packed up the cookies to take with them, insisting that I come to their house for Khaliun’s birthday tonight. I had planned on joining the other Americans tonight for drinks and a movie, but who am I to refuse a nine-year-old on her birthday?

I just wish my camera battery wasn’t dead. Those kids are pretty darn adorable.

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Cookies and Cards

December 13

Someday, I’m sure, someone will be able to convincingly explain to me how three women, who’ve spent several hours in the same apartment without incident, inevitably – and simultaneously – develop the sudden and urgent need to pee. In the meantime, Namuunaa and I will be doing the potty dance in the hallway while we wait for her sister (in-law?) to get out of the bathroom. (The dance, in case you were wondering, looks exactly the same on this side of the world.)

Insufficient toilet accommodations aside, we really did have a lovely evening Namuunaa came home from work around 6:30 with the relatives n tow: brother and sister (they’re married, so obviously one is an in-law, but I’m not sure which is which) and their eight-year-old daughter, Khaliun. I was in the midst of attempting Sarah’s lentil soup at the time, so they snagged the тогоо (electric wok) to make цуйван in Namuunaa’s room.

After we’d all eaten our respective meals, I offered them some of the shortbread cookies I made earlier this week. That went over quite well – they were greeted with “Ямар гоё юм бе!” which more or less translates to “how wonderful!” The sister wanted to make them, so between my Mongolian and Namuunaa’s English, I think we got the gist of the recipe across. It’s a very yellow recipe, apparently – I had to try to explain, “not the white, just the yellow” twice, once each for the egg yolks and the lemon zest.

“Cream the butter and sugar together” required a lot of frantic gesturing, but that seemed appropriate, as creaming butter by hand, while doable, is a long and tiring process. “Chill the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands” was also a tricky concept, but based on the gestures she was making, I think Namuunaa understood. So I guess we’ll see how well the cookies turn out, if her sister makes them. Baking is such an exact science, and ‘cup’ and ‘spoonful’ are pretty arbitrary amounts here. Luckily, this is a wonderfully forgiving recipe.

After the cookie explanations, we played a few rounds of rummy. I taught Namuunaa to play it the first week I got here, and it’s her favorite game. The woman is a born card shark. We’ve played with the brother, but she had to teach it to the sister. Better her than me, though – I managed with Namuunaa because she had some English, but it still took a lot of demonstration. At least it gives me a chance to practice my numbers. Monetary transactions rarely deal with numbers smaller than one hundred, which is why I managed to go so long without learning the word for 90. Rummy drills the tens nicely, though I really do need to learn the word for ‘negative.’

It’s nights like this that make me glad I have a roommate. For one thing, it’s nice to have someone who keeps me from sitting at home by myself; for another, these kinds of evenings are probably the most beneficial for my language learning. Being surrounded by Mongolians is overwhelming, but a conversation between two or three people I can begin to digest. At the very least, I can pick out the words I know; it doesn’t wash over me in an incomprehensible mess.

More pointed posts to follow later this week, perhaps even including pictures or descriptions of aspects of Mongolian life. We’ll see how cooperative my internet is.

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Most of us think of “roommate” as a fairly simple concept. You pick a friend (or are sometimes assigned a stranger) to live with, and then the two of you split the living space and the rent. If you get along well, maybe you agree to share food and set up a cooking rotation.

That’s what you’d expect of an American roommate. But upon arriving in Erdenet, it quickly became apparent to me that having a Mongolian roommate is an entirely different experience – it’s more like having a part-time host family.

I’d estimate that some relative or other stays the night at least once a week. Sometimes, it’s her mother or father, who live in the ger district. Often, its her two nieces (the duu of last week’s post). Last night, it was their parents, Namuunaa’s sister and brother-in-law, who I think live in the same hashaa as her parents. I think. They’ve told me their names enough times that I feel embarrassed asking again; maybe I’ll just get Namuunaa to write them down for me, so that I can actually remember.

These frequent visits leave me with a couple of obvious choices. I can shut myself in my room, and sometimes I do – usually when Inguun’s been getting into everything, or I have lesson plans to write or other work to do. This week, it’s lesson plans and NaNoWriMo (I still have half of today’s wordcount to get through, plus all of Saturday’s to make up).

But in addition to being antisocial, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to shut myself away while the relatives are here. I do try to talk to them at least a little, though there’s still not a whole lot I can say. Mostly I’m limited to simple questions like “what kind of food are you cooking?” And answering questions posed by the adult relatives is complicated; they don’t speak as slowly as Khaliun does, so I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves. And even when I do understand what they’re saying, I don’t always know how to answer.

Last time he was here, for instance, the brother asked me how long I’ve been in Mongolia. Or maybe it was how long I’ll be here. The only words I caught were чи, хэдэн сар, and монгол – you, how many months, Mongolia. To cover all the bases, I told him that I came in August and I’ll leave in June (or rather, “I go June,” since I don’t know how to form the future tense, and I couldn’t remember the ending for the dative/locative case). I got the message across eventually, but it took awhile.

In some ways, it’s really nice to have them over. Khaliun is wonderfully patient with my laughably bad Mongolian, and as long as she’s not throwing a tantrum or spilling milk on everything, Inguun can be pretty darn cute. She recently added two phrases to her vocabulary that even I can understand: сайн уу and баяртай. She spent most of yesterday afternoon practicing these, which is to say that every five minutes, she’d peek around my doorframe, say ‘hi,’ and then disappear again.

I eat more when the relatives are here too Namuunaa and I gave up on cooking for each other a while ago, since, our schedules and meal times are pretty incompatible. But the brother-in-law always feeds me if I’m around while he’s cooking. It’s a nice gesture, and pretty typical of the everything-is-everyone’s attitude that most families seem to have. I just wish I liked his cooking more. LIke most Mongolians I’ve met, he uses a lot of oil and salt, and he usually cooks with mutton. I don’t mind mutton in a lot of foods – I like it in хуушуур/бууз (dumplings), бутаатай хургаа (rice with stir-fry), and цуиван (stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever met an American who doesn’t like it). But in noodle soup, (made with mutton, noodles, water, maybe some salt and garlic, and enough fat to create a nice layer of grease at the top), the flavor’s just too overpowering for me. Even after I threw some spices and lemon juice into my bowl, I still couldn’t manage much of it. I’ll put the bowl back in the kitchen – I’m sure someone will eat it. Mongolians aren’t picky about sharing food.

I had meant to do laundry today, but since the sister had the same idea, I may have to wait until tomorrow There’s a mountain of clothes in our hallway, which she’s slowly working her way through. I guess they don’t have a washing machine, so Namuunaa lets them use ours. It meant I was without internet for most of the day, since you have to unplug the router in order to plug in the washing machine. Also that I haven’t showered yet today, since she was also using the tub to do laundry by hand. But the lack of internet, at least, was probably a good thing. I’ve a lot of writing left to do today, and if there’s no internet to distract me, so much the better.

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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.