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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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.

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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.

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I Couldn’t Possibly Eat Another Buuz: Tsagaan Sar

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

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

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A bucket of frozen buuz just waiting to be steamed.

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Into the steamer they go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Airag in all its sour, greasy glory.

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

Yep, that’s sheep butt alright.

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


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Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

And the food was delicious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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