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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Why Avoiding Food Poisoning Here is a Crapshoot

Sorry for this week’s delayed posting! My home internet now takes approximately 5 minutes just to load my email inbox and won’t load WordPress at all. The internet here at work is a little better, but my time at work has mostly been spent on things like lesson planning and teaching. So now I bring you, a few days late, my thoughts for the week.

December 10

When asked how I feel about having a Mongolian roommate, I usually answer that I like it just fine. Namuunaa and I aren’t exactly close friends, as my previous roommates and I have been, but she’s nice, and I think we get along pretty well. We’ve gotten better at talking to each other as our vocabularies have increased; a few nights ago, I managed to explain to her that my hands are always cold because I have bad circulation. And her presence has plenty of advantages: she acts as a translator and cultural mediator, she drives me to or from school on days when our schedules align, and she has almost unbearably adorable nieces who give me an excellent opportunity to practice my Mongolian.

But if there is one thing about living with a Mongolian, any Mongolian, that will drive you crazy, it’s their total ignorance of food safety. It’s a completely foreign concept here. At parties, it’s common for the host to pour the alcohol into one cup and hand it to each guest in turn, topping it off after every one. When the alcohol in question is vodka, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem – but when it’s wine, or beer, or airag, that seems like a lot of potential germ-sharing. A single case of mono could take out my school’s entire faculty if someone contracted it during a holiday.

I think the situation is even more alarming when there’s no alcohol involved. A ‘clean’ dish or utensil is one that no longer has food on it, even if the food was removed with someone’s tongue. That’s not an exaggeration; I have watched Namuunaa lick the jelly from a spoon and put in the jar with the rest of the “clean” utensils. (As soon as she left the room, I took it right back out and put it in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes.) If they do wash the dishes, it’s often just with water, and not always hot water. We didn’t even have dish soap until I went out and bought some after I’d lived here in the while.

Similarly, the same towel might be used to clean dishes, the table, and the floor. I keep one in my room specifically so that I can control what it gets used for; if I need to wring moisture from potatoes and zucchini, or wipe my desk so that I can roll out dough on it, I certainly don’t want to do so with a cloth that, unbeknownst to me, was last used to wipe the bathroom floor.

But I think what scares me most is the total lack of understanding of the potential health problems posed by meat. While we have separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat, Namuunaa and her family will cut bread on the meat board if the vegetable one is in use, or take the knife that was just used on raw meat and slice bread with it without cleaning it first. They’ll also cut meat and then put the board back without cleaning it; last time, it was hung up face to face with the vegetable cutting board, so that both now had blood and bits of fat on them.

Namuunaa has also unplugged the refrigerator before in order to defrost and clean the freezer. It needed to be done, but I would have appreciated it if she put my half-kilo of horse meat out on the porch to keep it frozen while she did so. That’s not the first extensive period that meat had gone unrefrigerated, either. The meat market at the ax is heated, and very little of the meat is kept frozen (by which I mean only the chicken and fish). The smell in there is something, let me tell you. Everything else is right out on the counter, sold by women who don’t wear gloves – or if they do, they also handle money with them. And then they weight the meat directly on scales that are cleaned who knows how often and hand it to you in a plastic shopping bag.

Then you take it home and put it directly into the freezer; when you need it, you take the entire chunk out and let it sit at room temperature until it’s softened enough for you to shave off what you need so you can put the rest back in the freezer. The meat is usually added to whatever you’re making while still mostly frozen – but then it is cooked to well done. You can’t order meat done ‘medium rare’ here, and you wouldn’t want to; it’s just not safe.

Even so, a lot of Mongolians add yet another risk factor. If you don’t eat all of the food you’ve prepared, it’s not uncommon to let it sit out overnight, meat and all, and eat it (often cold) for breakfast.

Had we a language in common, I might be able to talk to Namuunaa about some of these things instead of doing the passive-aggressive complain-about-it-on-the-internet thing. But germs and sanitation are, alas, topics beyond the scope of my language skills. Moreover, it’s not just a language barrier – it’s a cultural one. When I asked Namuunaa why she wasn’t refrigerating her tsuivan, she said that Mongolians often leave it out and eat it the next day. When you live in a ger, you probably won’t get food poisoning from doing so, as the food will likely freeze overnight. In an (overly warm) apartment, you still might not get food poisoning most of the time, but I’d prefer not to take the risk.

Now, most of you know I was a linguistics major, and you don’t major in linguistics without taking at least a few anthropology classes. The part of me that really enjoyed those three classes (or at least, two of the three) is severely displeased with the ethnocentrism running rampant throughout this entire post. But I know what food poisoning feels like, and I’d really rather not feel it again. So, anthropologists (especially those of you who studied in India!), I’d love to know – how do you balance cultural sensitivity with self-preservation?

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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

Duly noted: chicken tacos do not sit well when ingested immediately after working out. I knew they weren’t going to after the first few bites, but I finished my plate anyway; they were delicious, and I was hungry, and I was going to get my money’s worth. Besides, chicken tacos. An everyday thing stateside, but definitely a treat here.

And I can deal with some gastric grousing, so long as it’s not actual food poisoning. I leave UB in two days, and a train is not a good place to be when your stomach declares war. Not as bad as, say, a bus or an airplane (or worse yet, a meeker – see below), but still not good.

I've been packed into one of these with 22 of my closest friends; I think it legally seats about 14. Thank god it was only for an hour.

The cheapest form of transportation hereabouts, but you get what you pay for.

Besides, I’ve got stuff to do tomorrow: laundry, packing for my trip to UB, making cranberry sauce for Peace Corps Thanksgiving, baking cookies for the friends hosting me, acquiring the ingredients necessary to make said goodies, planning out my lessons for Thursday. Ironically, Thanksgiving is the only day I’m working this week; I don’t have classes Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday is election day (which is a national holiday, unlike in the US), and I’m taking Friday off to travel. Tough life, eh?

I used the first day of this non-work week to have the Americans over for dinner. The high school teachers among us midway through a two-week break, so we’ve been taking turns having everyone over for dinner. I made chili and cornbread, which were very well received by all but the Mongolians, who thought the chili too spicy. It’s the first time I had people over, and I think it went pretty well. I probably won’t play host to such a large group very often, though; there was barely enough space for us all to sit in my room, and nowhere near enough seating. And I think everyone now knows that I mean it when I ask them to bring their own cups/bowls/spoons if they don’t want to eat in shifts. I don’t even have enough bowls for us all to make one do double duty, as the Mongolians do (they don’t have separate words for “cup” and “bowl;” both are an аяга). Besides, that would have meant being unable to enjoy the chili and Nathan’s fantastic horchata simultaneously, and clearly, such things are meant to go together.

It could have been the body heat of so many people in such a small space, or it could have been a variety of other things: the extra layer of tape now gumming up the leaky seals in my windows, the fact that it’s actually stayed above 0*F for the past few nights, someone somewhere cranking up the radiators. But whatever the cause, it is now significantly warmer in my apartment. By “significantly warmer” I mean that my room now averages 75*F, otherwise known as “too dang hot!” It’s at least ten degrees warmer than I’d like it to be, seeing as a comfortable sleeping temperature for me is about 60.

And that’s before my body kicks into cold-weather mode, which it has apparently done. Today’s forecast high was only about 27, but it was a sunny 27, so I dressed appropriately when leaving the apartment: no gloves, hat, or coat, just a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. A short-sleeved T-shirt. I think my little brother would be proud. And no, as I repeatedly told Mongolians, I wasn’t cold.

This week’s teacher lesson is on weather, and for “snow,” I plan on showing them the picture of LSD (Lake Shore Drive, for the non-Chicagoans) during the Snowpocalypse. You know the one:

I really wish I'd been here to see this.

Never mind that this is not a typical Chicago winter, and that I was in a different state at the time. I just want some cold-weather street cred so people will stop telling me to put on a coat. I’ll put on coat when I’m cold, and I ain’t cold yet.

Nor, I’ll bet, are Mongolian babies. We have officially entered what Nathan likes to call “starfish baby season” – the time of year when Mongolian toddlers are so bundled up they can’t move. And I don’t mean they can barely move; they’re legitimately immobile, spread-eagled like a little starfish. Their parents sometimes carry them sideways under their arms, as you might a package. It’s an adorable and hilarious sight, and unfortunately it appears not to have made it onto Google Images. I’ll sneak some surreptitious pictures and post them when I get a chance.

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Now that we’ve got the food poisoning out of the way…

August 12, 2012

The others had breakfast at an Internet café this morning, so they could talk to their parents and their friends, but my digestive system decided to throw a hissy fit, so this post will have to be delayed. The first good weather since we arrived, and I’m spending the day in bed. At least my room has its own bathroom, so I don’t have far to go.

I whined when mom made me take my Align during the days leading up to this trip, but I have to concede it was a good idea. I’ve never had problems in Europe, but it appears that Asia is another matter. “Where the **** are you?” my stomach wants to know, “and what the **** have you been eating?”

The same things as everyone else, actually, so I don’t know why I’m sick and they’re not. But whatever it is, it’s miserable, and I’ve spent a good part of the day profoundly wishing IVs were a do-it-yourself kind of thing so I could get enough fluids in my system to make the headache and the dizziness go away. Drinking my water is, unfortunately, rather counterproductive.

I’m very glad to have other Fulbrighters here with me. Lisa agreed to buy me some applesauce, in hopes that I’ll be able to keep it down by tonight, and Lucas offered me some of his antibiotics. And I’ve had a fun time with all of them so far, even before I got sick. Seven of us is too few for the group to really get cliquey, and mealtime adventures and the like have all been open invitations.

UB is an interesting and varied city, from what I’ve seen so far. Its center is pretty well-developed, with an impressive parliamentary building, a number of tall office buildings, and reasonably good streets. The edges, however have a distinctly third-world appearance to them. Everything is either ramshackle, with rusted edges and peeling paint, or under construction – there’s construction everywhere. A five-minute walk takes you past stray dogs, people burning old clothes, and even the occasional ger.

Walking itself is an adventure, as sidewalks are all but nonexistent, and the traffic is terrifying. People weave in and out of lanes indiscriminately, blaring their horns at anyone they judge to be moving too slowly. Turn signal usage appears optional, but then again, it seems nothing has been standardized in this city: the grocery store labels are a mix of Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, German, and even French; it’s anyone’s guess which side the steering wheel of any given car will be on; the appliances in my room include a Korean TV, a Chinese refrigerator, and a British tea kettle (each with its respective kind of plug, of course). Thank heavens for universal power strips.

And the roads – imagine the potholes that turn up in Chicago if they were subjected to a winter half again as long and twice as cold. And never repaired. When it rains, as it has for the past two days, these enormous and irregular holes fill with water, so that you have no idea how deep they are. It’s all but impossible to avoid them on busy streets, and drivers are not exactly careful about splashing nearby pedestrians. Lucas got hit with a particularly impressive spray that cleared the top of his head. His clothes, face, neck, and even his hair were all thoroughly spattered, to the great amusement of the passing locals.

The two of us continued on in search of dinner anyway, the others having decided to stay in and snack in their rooms. We eventually made our way to a place on the left side of the street, whose name we managed, even with our limited knowledge of Cyrillic, to decipher as “Mongol Restoran.”

There were only a few patrons inside, and our waitress spoke enough English to tell us that the items on the first page were soups, but that was about it. With no idea what anything was, we each pointed to a random number, and as the waitress left, we toasted each other with glasses of lukewarm Mongolian beer.

I have no idea which of the random selections I received, which is a shame, because mine was delicious. Beef, potatoes, and carrots are all fairly major ingredients here, which suits me just fine. Portions are generous, too – a mixed blessing, since you can’t take leftovers home. The only thing I haven’t liked so far is the milk tea. It’s vaguely salty, with melted fat that congeals on the top if you let it sit long enough, and it smells like melted butter. I hate butter. I’m not sure what I’ll do about this, as it’s rude not to finish your tea if it’s offered, and even more so to refuse it. I’ll need to learn how to explain in Mongolian that milk tea makes me feel ill, I guess, as that’s probably the only acceptable reason not to drink it. Today’s misery was not a result of the tea, though. I liked the Mongolian Chinese food we had last night, but I guess it did not like me.

I’m feeling much better than I was this morning, though, which I take to be a good sign. Hopefully I’ll be out and about tomorrow, and back on solid food. Cautiously

(Update: I’m posting from a café on the other side of town and just finished eating an omelet, so all is well once more. I was pretty miserable for about eight hours or so yesterday, but it could have been a lot worse. And I’ll be brushing my teeth with filtered water from now on, just in case.)