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.


How-To: Laundry Day

When my friend Corry studied in India, she had to ask her her host sister how to do laundry. “You don’t know how to wash your clothes?” the sister asked, bewildered. When Corry explained that in America we have machines that do the washing for us, her host sister was even more amazed. After doing my laundry by hand for over a year, I began to comprehend that feeling. Just think of all the things you can do while a machine washes your clothes for you!

Mongolia is a little more advanced when it comes to time-saving gadgets. Washing machines are common in the big cities, and even out in the soums, they’re not unheard of. Most of them are manual: you’re the one who does the filling and the draining and the rinsing. All the machine really does is agitate your clothes. The attached dryer, if there is one, is little more than a centrifuge that spins most of the water out of your clothes.

While we had such a machine in my apartment, I would classify it as mostly nonfunctional. It didn’t drain properly  and always smells like mold, and my clothes often came out of it more worn and wet but no less dirty. The dryer didn’t spin at all unless you leaned most of your weight on the (broken) lid, and even then, it was too weak to handle a single wet sheet or towel. Even with lighter items, all it usually did was clunk about half-heartedly (and without appreciable results).

So I didn’t use it. Bulky items like sheets, towels, and sweatshirts I schlepped to the homes of friends with functional machines, who were kind enough to let me use them. But everything else I did the old-fashioned way. Mostly, I didn’t mind, as long as I was good about doing the laundry regularly. I’m not saying I would have wanted to be a laundress (in the days when such people existed), but there’s something peaceful about staring into a bucket of suds.

I would venture a guess that most Americans, excepting those who have gone on long camping trips, have never done laundry by hand. The process isn’t especially difficult, but it’s certainly time-consuming. Here are some tips on how best to accomplish it.

1. Make sure you’ve got everything on hand before you start and that the box of soap you plan on using isn’t actually empty. Mongolians typically use two types of soap when hand-washing: the powdered detergent (to create suds) and the ordinary bar kind (for scrubbing). You can do the wash in the bathtub, but that requires a lot of water, so I usually just use the tumpin. I acquired a small plastic washboard from the Korean home supply store shortly after I moved into my apartment (thank heavens for the Koreans!)


Laundry materials: assembled.

Laundry materials: assembled.

2. Use hot water. Hand-washing is not super-efficient, and it’s unlikely you’ll actually scrub most of whatever garment you’re washing. This means that you need hot water if you’re going to do any serious odor removal. Cold water doesn’t remove grease, either. So either pick a day when the hot water’s working or get that kettle going.

3. Everything your mother told you about sorting according to colors? I’m sure you all forgot it as soon as you got to college, relying on cold water and dye-absorbent sheets to keep everything from turning the same color as everything else. Well, dredge that knowledge up again, because it counts double here. Your clothes will leach out a truly amazing amount of dye, and the dirt… let’s not think about the dirt.

4. Reuse the wash water. Chances are, you can clean more clothes with it than you can manage at one time in a little tumpin. Just remember to wash your lightest clothes first, and your dirtiest clothes last.

5. WASH YOUR SOCKS LAST. You will be disgusted at how much dirt they pick up. Unless  you wear slippers, like the Mongolians; then they might not be quite so bad.

6. Handkerchiefs are unimaginably gross to hand-wash. Do not attempt without a washboard. Do not reuse the wash-water.

7. Baking soda is a surprisingly effective stain remover.

8. Wring out the soapy water before rinsing. You probably had to use a lot of soap to get the suds going, and it’ll take more water than you think to get it all out.

9. Wring as much water as possible out of cotton before hanging it to dry. Wet cotton stretches like you wouldn’t believe.

Efficient use of radiator drying space.

Lotsa socks!

10. Stuff socks in the spaces of your radiator to make more efficient use of your precious drying space.

11. Wash right-side out; dry inside-out. The dirt’s on the outside, so that’s what you want to scrub, but if you’re drying clothes on old metal radiators, you want any rust stains incurred to be on the inside.

12. Do not forget your clothes on the laundry line, or it will rain and they will get wet and you will have to leave them out even longer. If you’re really unlucky, the wind will blow them off the line onto the filthy porch, and you’ll have to wash them all over again.

13. Laundry mountain is not fun to scale. By the time I’ve gotten one tumpin’s worth of laundry washed, rinsed, and hung to dry, my laundry zen is pretty much exhausted – as is the available space to hang my clothes to dry. So for most of my time in Mongolia, I did one “load” a day, 2-3 days per week.

14. You don’t have to wash your clothes as often as you think. A good airing-out (hung up, and not in an enclosed space like a closet) will remove most of the odor from clothes that aren’t sweat-soaked or spilled-upon. I re-wore most garments several times before washing them, especially work clothes, which I swapped out and hung up as soon as I got home.

15. Wool is your friend. It’s warm, it’s durable, and it’s remarkably odor-resistant. I have one yak-wool dress that I’ve owned for over a year and never washed. It’s not sweat-stained, and it doesn’t smell; why would I wash it?

Makes you grateful for washing machines, don’t it?


Leave a comment


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.