“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I’ve lost track of how many times this question has been asked of me since I came to Mongolia. Americans typically dance around the topic; maybe we’ll drop a statement based on one presumption or the other and wait for the other party to confirm or refute the assumption; maybe we’ll approach a friend, and ask him or her instead. Most likely, we’ll do a bit of Facebook stalking. But no matter what approach we take, it’s likely to be a cautious one, because the question is presumed to be a pointed one. Why would you ask unless you had a vested interest in the answer?
Here, I’ve had to let all those assumptions go. The question is simply one of many to be levied at me by any Mongolian I’ve just met for the first time. Typically, they start simple (Where do you work? When did you come to Mongolia?), but it’s not long before they veer into territory Americans would consider personal (What is your dream? How many children do you want?).
It’s like junior year of high school all over again, when all anyone would ask me what college I was going to and I longed to erase that question from the English language. When I know, I’ll tell you! I seethed internally, and There is more to me than my college decision. Ask me about something else for a change!
And so I begin to squirm after the first three or four questions, knowing that the children-and-future questions are on the way and reminding myself that these people aren’t trying to put me through my own personal hell. They don’t know that I don’t know I’ll be doing with my life after I finish my time here, or that my lack of direction is a source of personal stress. They don’t know that I was still recovering from a breakup when I arrived here, or that one of my exes hooked up with a close friend while I was here, and that any mention of boyfriends at that time brought the whole mess of emotions roiling to the surface. And so I smile, and I answer politely, and I reroute the train as best I can when I don’t actually now the words for directions, reminding myself of the many reasons not to red-light the conductor.
But there are times when I long to do so. If you follow the boyfriend question with Where do you live? and Do you live alone?, I’m going assure you that I have a Mongolian roommate with lots of brothers and get out of your cab as fast as possible. If you proceed to ask me why I don’t have a boyfriend, I will contemplate spilling whatever beverages we have at hand in order avoid answering the question, and to forestall your offer to set me up with your coworker/brother/son/neighbor/husband’s cousin’s neighbor’s teacher. I’m sure they’re lovely men, all of them, but I have no desire to be set up with some guy I’ve never met and probably can’t actually talk to.
They don’t always start with boyfriend, either, these well-meaning but uncomfortably nosy Mongolians. As often as not, they’ll start with Are you married? or Do you have children? And to be fair, I’m guilty of asking these questions myself. Та гэр бүлтэй юү? is one of the few introductory-type questions actually covered by my minimal vocabulary, and if the silence begins to stretch awkwardly once my new Mongolian acquaintances and I have shared our names and professions, I’ll begin to ask them about the number and age of their children.
These questions are, in fact, much easier to answer. No, I’m not married, and no, I don’t have children; yes, I want them someday, but not for a very long time. Three words (no, no, later), and we’re usually out of the woods and on to safer territory. Except, of course, for that one conversation with a school administrator whose name position I can’t recall. Why?, she asked, throwing a new wrench into the works. When I was your age, I was already married with two children!
Please excuse me while I run screaming from the thought.
Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the topic; three of my friends have gotten married within the past two weeks, joining the ranks of what seems like half the girls from my freshman dorm. It’s rather frightening how many Facebook friends’ names I no longer recognize because they’ve gone off and gotten married while I wasn’t looking.
If, at the age of 22, you are confident that you have found the love of your life, and you’re ready to get married and start having kids, then more power to you. I wish you every happiness. But I am far from ready to start down that path, and I’m a little sick of questions implying that something must be wrong with me.
Not that my Mongolian acquaintances are trying to imply that; I know they’re not. They’re just curious about yet another characteristic that makes me different from most of the people they know. Mongolians tend to start their families young; most of my female coworkers in their early to mid-twenties are married with a kid or two. I imagine early marriage and childbearing are especially common for countryside dwellers not pursuing higher education, but they aren’t limited to this group. It’s very common for a couple to have a child while they’re still in university; the child is typically raised by one set of grandparents while the parents finish school. The parents may or may not be married by that point; often they wait until at least one of them has a job before tying the knot.
That I am without husband, children, or even a boyfriend at the age of twenty-three doesn’t make me a complete anomaly here, but it is somewhat unusual. It’s natural that the Mongolians should ask about it, especially when doing so is in their line of introductory questioning anyway. I’m getting used to it and learning not to twitch. At least I haven’t been asked when/why I got fat, as some of the other American women have.
Tact: one of the most culturally variable concepts I have ever encountered.