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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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.


A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.


Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.


Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.


Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!


Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur


Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.


A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.



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.


Yanaa, Yasaa, Yahtzee: The Three Яs of Life in Mongolia

Я, or ya: a letter not present in the Latin alphabet, but the beginning of several important phrases that I used regularly during my time in Mongolia.


A phrase that roughly translates to oh no. Spill your suutei tsai? Miss the bus? Drop a folder that sends a sheaf of papers flying every which way? Forced to pick up a ton of cards because you can’t beat them while playing huzur? Express your dismay with a sigh of, “oh, yanaa.”

While it’s generally regarded as a “girly” phrase, I’ve definitely heard men use it as well. Yanaa is one of the first phrases I learned in Mongolian – because, alas, I picked up on the useless filler that everyone uses constantly faster than, y’know, the vocabulary I actually needed for day-to-day life. But at least it made me feel more culturally integrated: Mongolian friends applauded my use of the phrase, and strangers expressed surprise and delight at hearing a Westerner use one of their words for such a universal sentiment.

My American friends and I even used it when talking to each other, so of course it’s carried over into my everyday speech even now that I’m back in America. So if you hear me sigh it, now you know what it means. Though chances are you’d figure it out without the explanation: context and inflection usually make this one pretty obvious.


Another  phrase I picked up before without actually learning its spelling or literal meaning. Yasaa is a shortened form of yasan be, and Mongolians use it as we would what’s up? or what happened? The full form, yasan be?  (“yah-sun bay”), is another easy one to figure out; when I asked it of a non-Mongolian-speaking friend after witnessing her start and squeak at something I couldn’t see, she replied that she had spilled something on herself without me needing to translate.

Yasaa‘s a little harder to figure out, though. For one thing, the two sounds lost in the truncation are the grammatical markers a low-level speaker is most likely to recognize: the past tense suffix -сан (-san), and the question particle бэ (be). Even without contextual clues to help, it’s obvious to anyone who knows even the rudiments of Mongolian language structure that ясан бэ? is a question about something that happened in the past. Without the -сан and the бэ, though, all you’re left with is an unfamiliar syllable that could mean anything.

For another, it’s used more broadly than the English what happened?. English speakers ask this question as a response to an obvious indication that something has just happened, and often we use it interchangeably with what’s wrong?. We don’t typically answer the telephone by asking “what happened?” But Mongolians, when picking up their cell phones, often skip over Байна уу? (baina uu; are you there?) and just open with “yassa?”


This one’s exactly what you think it is. I’d never played Yahtzee before I went to Mongolia; while I like board games, this one just didn’t sound interesting. But when the Internet is too slow for streaming and downloads can take an entire day, or the only available screen is too small for eight people to watch a movie on it, or electricity is unreliable, you spend a lot of time on pastimes my generation has largely foregone, and you don’t quibble about which ones sound boring. Board and card games are not relegated to “game nights” that are considered a throwback-type rejection of electric amusement; they’re standard group activities. Between the eight Americans in Erdenet, we had Apples to Apples, Scrabble, Phase 10, Set, Yahtzee, and Cards Against Humanity (in addition to innumerable decks of standard playing cards). Since it was A) not limited to  certain number of players, B) playable even by those with limited English, and C) conducive to continued conversation, we played a lot of Yahtzee.


The Internet Knows Nothing About Mongolia

Mongolia is a country large in land but small in population, and as a result, it’s not exactly on the world’s radar. The most common question I received when I told people I was coming here was, “What are you doing there?” The second most common questions were, “Why Mongolia?” and “Where is that, exactly?” The Chinese people I spoke to asked if I meant Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province; when I informed them that I meant the actual country, they referred to it as Outer Mongolia. But there is no “Outer” in the country’s name; it seems to me that only the Chinese, or those with a China-centric point of view, call it Outer Mongolia.

The only things that people are likely to associate with this country are Genghis Khan and Mongolian barbecue, both of which are varying degrees of inaccurate. The Mongolians do not call him Genghis, but Chinggis. The name passed through Persia on its way west, and the Persians, lacking the /ch/ sound, replaced it with a hard /g/, the closest approximate in their language. And so the one Mongolian of world-renown is known to the world by a different name than that used by his own people.*

As for Mongolian barbecue, well, it has even less relation to Mongolian food than Taco Bell does to Mexican. Mongolian food traditionally features meat (usually mutton), flour, milk, and little else; in more recent years, they’ve added cabbage and root vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, beets) to their repertoire. It’s plain, unadorned fare that has nothing to do with the fancy array of meats and vegetables and sauces you’ll find at a “Mongolian barbecue” restaurant.

A while back, someone posted a picture of a bottle labeled “spicy Mongolian barbecue sauce” to the Expats in Mongolian Facebook page, and I wanted to put that here. Alas, I can no longer find it, so y’all will just have to use your imaginations. We all about split our sides laughing at the absurdity of such a thing; Mongolians don’t really do barbecue or sauce, and they really don’t do spicy.

The world, in short, knows very little of Mongolia. And no wonder; in this world where you can find everything online, from pictures of breaded cats to instructions on how to strip a car’s paint job using lunchmeat, Mongolia has next to no Internet presence. That sounds like a gross exaggeration, I know – but it’s not.

Let’s start with the obvious giant. There is a Google.mn, but I have yet to find a discernible advantage to using it. Google Translate, alas, does not support Mongolian, and Google Chrome doesn’t even recognize it as a language. Any time I visit a site with Mongolian text (even those clearly marked as Mongolian – like Bolor-Toli, the only online dictionary I know of), Google Chrome subjects me to a banner as annoying as it is futile.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.51.15 AM

I mean, you could try to translate this “Russian” webpage, but it wouldn’t work…

If I wanted, I could take the time to help Google improve its language recognition by reporting the error. And I do… sometimes. But since Chrome doesn’t actually recognize it as a language, it’s not on the list of reportable languages. I have to write it in each and every time I report the error. If I went through that process every time I needed to look up a word (or cross-reference the definitions to make sure I’ve picked the right translation), I’d never get anything done.

Mongolian: not on this list.

Mongolian: not on this list. Also note the character viewer I keep in the bottom right of my screen, since Russian Cyrillic lacks those letters and my computer doesn’t have Mongolian Cyrillic.

There is a Mongolian Wikipedia (all 9745 pages of it), though no Mongolian I’ve spoken to knows of its existence . And while some information about Mongolia is available on English Wikipedia, its accuracy and cultural relativity leave much to be desired. Take this page on the capital city, for instance.


Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.58.04 AM

See that vertical stack of scribblings? That’s the way Wikipedia renders all in-text instances of the Mongolian classical script. I’m not sure if they do it that way to show all of the individual components or because no one’s bothered to code the page in such a way that it will be rendered properly. But either way, that’s not what the name looks like when written out in Mongolian script. It looks like this:

Granted, this image was also taken from Wikipedia – but the image is significantly further down than I could capture with a screenshot. Why is the actual appearance of the name in Classical Script so diminished in visual importance, and why can’t Wikipedia show what the script actually looks like in-text?

No one’s bothered to update this page in a while, either. The population statistics cited in the text are from 2008 and place the population around 1 million. The sidebar (not pictured; too far down to catch in the screenshot) lists the population as 1,721,000 as of 2012. That’s a pretty enormous disparity; an extra 700,000 people might go unnoticed in Beijing, but in UB, their presence is constantly heard (extra horns honking at all hours), felt (in the crush of people on the main buses, where they pack you in like sardines), and even breathed (nearly all of those additional 700,000 would have taken up residence in the ger district, adding that much more smoke from their coal-burning fires).

But most problematic is the name under which the city is listed. The city, contrary to what Wikipedia and any number of international listings will tell you, is not called Ulan Bator. Mongolians have been fighting for a long time to get their city recognized by its rightful name in international newspapers and websites, but Wikipedia has yet to take notice.

Ulaanbaatar is a direct transliteration of the city’s name in Mongolian, Улаанбаатар. I can understand splitting the word into its two parts, ulaan (red) and baatar (hero). I can even understand simplifying it to Ulan Batar, since the double vowels will just confuse most Westerners. But changing the final a into an o implies an entirely different pronunciation. Аа and a differ only in the length of the vowel; o is a different sound. Think of the difference between cot and caught, Don and Dawn. It’s subtle, but it’s there (unless you’re from Boston). Батор is not a word in Mongolian. Nor are батар, баатор, or any of the other variations implied by this spelling. Ulan Bator makes no sense as a transliteration.

But then, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Wikipedia is inconsistent in its transliteration of Mongolian Cyrillic. An attempt to learn a particular grammatical construction recently had me puzzling over hard and soft signs (ъ and ь, respectively) and the way they affect the pronunciation of the preceding sounds. A Google search turned up no definitive answers, but it did send me to the Wikipedia Talk page on which the editors were discussing the issues of transliteration. What I found was a great deal of debate as to whether the transliteration system should be designed with native or nonnative speakers in mind, since native and nonnative speakers will assign different values to some letters.

The conclusion, unsurprisingly, seemed to be to that they ought to spell things in ways that would approximate the pronunciation for nonnative speakers. But how they proposed to find an English spelling for words they don’t know how to pronounce, I’m not sure; while several of the editors on the page reported themselves to be linguists, none of them reported themselves as Mongolian speakers.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 10.06.44 AM

The “Mongolian contributors” listed here, so far as I’ve found, are all the students of the actual editors, and their contributions are along the lines of “this is how we spell x when typing/texting” rather than “this is how this is pronounced.” At least the editors acknowledge their ignorance.

Clearly, there’s a vacuum here – an informational gap that needs filling.** There are no online resources to learn more than a few basic phrases in Mongolian or verify your translation; Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer Mongolian. While the rest of the world’s demand for Mongolian language learning resources pales (nay, bleaches) in comparison to the demand for, say, Chinese, I’m sure Mongolians would like to see more content in their own language, and more accurate content in others. I have no idea if there’s a job market for the field of educating the Internet, but it would seem that the subject bears looking into.

*At least, this is the commonly-cited explanation. I have not attempted to verify it, for the reasons expounded upon in the rest of this post.

** Sorry, Ohio friends, but even after four years in your state, I cannot bring myself to say “needs filled.”

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Scotch all the things!

Kleenex. Xerox. Band-aid. While I’m sure you could all add to the list, these are probably the most famous examples of brand names that have become genericized – a process known as synecdoche or or eponymy, depending on whose terminology you’re using (literary or legal; I swear there’s another linguistic term for it, but my notes are all on the other side of the world). On its own, the process is well know, probably of interest only to the companies in danger of losing their trademark protection. But here, I’ve seen another layer or two of added manipulation: translation.

The dictionary, paper or online, translates tape as тууз. But then again, my dictionary also gave be банзал for skirt. That may once have been its primary meaning, but no longer; now, it’s a vulgar term for a woman who, were she wearing skirts, would have them up around her waist more often than not. When they mean the garment rather than a wanton woman, the Mongolians use the Russian юбка (metathesized, after the Mongolian pattern, to sound like “yoo-pick,” though I’m guessing the Russians say “yoob-ka”). The dictionaries do not reflect this usage, refusing to acknowledge that the Russian word is used at all, much less in preference to the Mongolian term.

Likewise, I have never heard anyone call tape тууз. Packing, duct, or otherwise, it makes no matter, they call it all скоч. If ever there was any recognition that the word is simply a transliteration of the brand name Scotch, it has long since vanished. They’ve even slapped on the regular -axstem to make it a verb: скочдох.

The expats use it as a verb too, albeit in a more limited context. To scotch is to cover something, usually paper, with packing tape as a cheap form of lamination. Laura promised to scotch the drawings we used as speaking prompts for the English Olympics, to make sure they would survive being handled by children all day; Jonathan scotched his Mongolian driver’s license  to keep the ink from wearing off.

I’ve learned the hard way to scotch any papers I’ll be using for multiple classes; if I don’t, they won’t last the day, much less the week. My students, on the whole, are rather lacking in the area of fine motor skills. For today, I had planned to pass out slips of paper with questions and answers and have the students trade around until they had a matching set (Where do your friends play soccer? My friends play soccer at the park.), then put out four pictures that corresponded to the pictures and have the groups find each other. This plan was somewhat hindered, however, by the fact that my students had managed to lose three of the slips and tear a fourth within the span of about five minutes. I hadn’t thought it unreasonable to give a few pieces of paper to a group of sixteen-year-old boys and get them back intact, but it took only those few minutes to make it clear that I had misjudged my students.

Truly, I ought not to have been so surprised. The myriad construction paper aids I’ve used in my teacher’s classes have fared little better. The teachers have at least managed not to lose any of my little cards, but they’ve certainly given them a beating. I’ve played a memory/matching game as a vocabulary exercise on multiple occasions, and I’m frankly surprised the cards have survived at all. Most of the teachers seem not to know any way of picking them up besides a whole-handed pinching motion that usually bends the cards in half, even the women with fingernails long enough to slip beneath a piece of paper.

I don’t mean to conclude, or even imply, that all Mongolians are ham-handed; the popularity of cross-stitch kits and the intricacy of their traditional crafts and clothing give the lie to that. But the fact remains that this is a rugged country ill-suited to delicate things – be they shoes, appetites, or teaching materials. That goes double for anything to be handled by a pack of sixteen-year-old boys. So the next hour will find me at my desk, rewriting questions on larger, harder-to-lose pieces of paper.

And scotching them.

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One of the most frustrating things about living in a country where I don’t speak the language is my level of dependence on others. My day-to-day life is manageable, mainly because it’s so routine. I go to the same stores each week and buy more or less the same things; I frequent the same restaurants and favor the same dishes. I’ve had to pick up enough packages that I know who to ask, what documents to bring, and when the customs lady works (these things aren’t publicly announced, of course; you have to figure them out through trial and error). 

But for any task that strays beyond the everyday, I require some level of assistance. Buying a domestic plane ticket to visit a friend in a different part of the country? Ask the director where the airline office is. Buying a ticket for someone else? Have the director call to ask whether this is possible and what paperwork is required to do so. Want to study Mongolian music? Get your school to arrange lessons for you at the children’s palace. None of these are things I am capable of arranging on my own; I don’t know where to go or who to ask for things, and I don’t have the language skills to request and acquire that information.

Nothing has brought that point home to me so much as my recent loss of my residence permit. The process for replacing one of these, I have learned, is complicated, involving extensive wading through deep paperwork and incomprehensible bureaucracy. I’ll need to make a trip to the capital and pay an obscene amount of money to attain a new one. If that wasn’t enough, the paperwork I’ll need to bring with me is extensive: statements from my employer and apartment manager verifying where I work and live, a newspaper clipping announcing the loss of my permit, and, of course, my passport. 

The passport’s easy, but the other requirements – not so much. Where does one go to put an announcement in the newspaper? How does one request such an announcement? How much does it cost? Where is the paper distributed? What is a “residence permit” even called in Mongolian? Мэддэггүй.

My coworkers do, thank goodness, and several have agreed to help me. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be in any great hurry to do so. You’re supposed to obtain a new residence permit within fourteen days of losing your old one, and I’m down to eight now. Seven, if the immigration/registration office isn’t open on Saturdays, which I’m guessing it isn’t. Apparently, there are a few days of lag time between sending the announcement to the newspaper and seeing it printed, which means that I am running out of time fast.

I feel bad for burdening my fellow teachers with this; I know their workloads are at least twice mine, and that doesn’t give them much time to run to various offices around the city in order to deal with the necessary paperwork. But visa and registration paperwork is serious business, and I wish someone besides me seemed to have a sense of urgency about it. I would much prefer not to be kicked unceremoniously out of the country and then fined for the inconvenience to those who kicked me out.

Time to double down on my language study, I think. My communicative incompetence is the main reason I find myself needing so much help from others, and I’m growing sick of feeling trapped and helpless. I’m an adult, now, after all; we’re supposed to be able to take care of ourselves.


Mini-Mongol Invasion

Apparently I am a magnet for small children.

It’s spring in Mongolia, and the balmy 50-degree weather has brought the children out in hordes to play. They are everywhere: running through school yards, traversing the streets in packs, thronging to the playgrounds at the center of every apartment complex. I understand their enthusiasm; it’s been a long winter, and they’ve been cooped up indoors indoors for months now. You don’t go out to play in the snow in the dead of winter here, as children do in America; it’s just too cold. The snow is too dry and powdery to pack together, and the smaller children, when their parents do bring them outside, are so bundled up as to be almost immobile. The youngest ones are, in fact, immobile: puffed out to twice their size and spread-eagled by their snowsuits. The local PCVs call them “starfish babies.”



A coworker and her starfish baby.

But now they’ve shed their layers and run rampant throughout the city. This I’d expected. What I hadn’t expected was to draw so much attention from so many of them.

There’s a sizable Russian population in this town, and thus the Americans are accustomed to being mistaken for Russians. Орос хүн, people mutter as we walk by; they hail us with здравствуйте! and try to tell us prices in Russian. But although blondes and redheads are particularly likely to be assumed Russian, I have largely been exempt from this trend. Blonde I may be, but my face is too round and my features too soft to fit the Russian profile. The only people who usually try to talk to me in Russian are drunk men. One man tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation despite my blank stare and unabated pace. Finally his friend elbowed him; “she’s not Russian, stupid,” he said in Mongolian.

But small children make the same mistake. Lacking the more sophisticated profiling abilities of the adults, most seem prone to the belief that all white people are Russian. Is she Russian?, they ask as I walk by. No, say some of their friends, she’s English. And unlike the children I’ve encountered in the countryside, the youngsters of Erdenet have no problem running up to me to settle the debate. Four times in the last three days, I’ve been stopped by children in the street or on the playground. Aнаа, анаа! they call, using a term of address for an older sister. Та орос хүн үү? I tell them that I’m not Russian, but American, and the ones who guessed correctly grin in triumph. Some of them gape at my ability to speak even a little Mongolian; others ask what I’m doing in Mongolia. Hello!, they often chorus, eager to show off the few English words they know.

When I ask them their names and ages, they chatter at me in rapid Mongolian – eager, I can only assume, to share their life stories. My utter lack of comprehension is usually lost on them, and often they follow me even after I’ve walked away, shouting goodbye! in English if they know it and Mongolian if they don’t. Today a five-year-old boy bounded over to me on the street and tried to talk to me in Mongolian. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t understand, but this little one was nothing if not persistant. Анаа, нааш ир, he said, reaching up to take my hand. I followed him to his mother’s delguur; what else are you supposed to do when a five-year-old takes your hand and says, “big sister, come here” ? His mother laughed when he led me in and greeted me in Mongolian. I asked his name, confirmed that he was her son, and said I had to go; when I left the shop, he ran after me shouting Баяртай!.

As a blonde living in Asia, I’ve gotten used to being stared at. But I don’t remember being swarmed this way when I came here in the fall. You’d think I’d lose novelty over time, rather than gain it. But either I’m more interesting now than I was in the fall, or the children have gained some courage. Either way, I’m not complaining. This morning’s encounter was the most adorable thing that’s happened to me in a while. Even if it did make me late for my lesson.

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The Land of Perpetual Snow

My father is well-known, within my extended family, at least, for his propensity to rename that which is new to him. Thus, he refers to the ghost of Gryffindor house as “Almost-Headless Frank,” and that game they play on broomsticks as “wacky badminton.” So when I told him the Mongolian version of “how are you?” it came as no surprise that he did the same thing.

“How are you?” is sort of built into the Mongolian “hello;” сайна байна уу? translates roughly as “are you good?” Their follow-up question, therefore, is more like, “how was your rest?” (Cyrillic: Cайхан амарсан уу?, Latin: Saihan amarsan uu?; sounds like sa [like sat, without the t] han amarse no).

My father’s rendition? “So, how much snow?” As the first two examples illustrate, how well the dad-isms fit varies pretty widely. But this one’s pretty darn accurate.

To wit: In Chicago, and probably in the rest of the world, Chicago is primarily a winter phenomenon. Sure, we might get the occasional flurry in October or May, but in your average year, the majority of the snow falls in January or perhaps early February.

Not so here. A friend of mine once explained that she dislikes snow because it means that it’s too cold to rain; here, snow means that it’s relatively warm. For much of our winter, it is simply too cold to snow. We got the occasional flurry in December and January, but never enough for any serious accumulation. All we ever got was a thin, glittery layer of dry white powder that rendered sidewalks a deathtrap. Seriously, who decided tile sidewalks were a good idea in a country that’s frozen half the year?

The extreme cold and amount of ice crystals in the air do result in a number of cool atmospheric phenomena, like these parhelia. Photo credit to Jonathan Tavennic Renich.

If you’ll recall, my definition of Mongolian winter was pretty straightforward: winter starts when the snow stops melting and end when it starts to. But the presence of snow in both fall and spring are implicit in this definition; that the snow has started to melt does not mean there won’t be more.

The snow started on September 26th, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d had at least twelve days of snowfall. December and January gave us a hiatus, but now it’s back. We got at least as much snow in February as in December and January combined, and as much again in March. Halfway into April, we’re still getting snow at least twice a week, though it’s now interspersed with several days of 40-60 degree weather.

And unlike the snowfall we got in the winter, this stuff means business. Spring snow doesn’t mean a flurry of the minuscule ice crystals we got in winter, but the big, thick flakes that weigh down your eyelashes and sparkle surreally in the presence of even a little light. The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day brought us five inches of the stuff; the last eight hours have given us at least another four, with drifts over a foot tall in some places.

As someone who enjoys cold and snow, I don’t really mind, but I know a lot of the Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty sick of the stuff.  This morning, I asked the director of the Children’s Palace when the snow usually stops. “Maybe May?” she said. “But last year it snowed on July 1st.”

So get used to the snow, folks. It doesn’t look like we’ll be rid of it anytime soon.

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Everything I Know Is Wrong: The Story of My Music Lessons

In my last post, I included several pictures of traditional Mongolian instruments. There are many, and unfortunately I don’t know enough about them for Wikipedia to be of much help in naming them. There’s the ятга, which is held leaning up against the body so that it’s partially on one’s lap, and plucked; there’s the ёчинwhich is like a piano without a keyboard – you hit the strings with mallets as you would the bars of a xylophone. There are pan-pipes and flutes and a stringed instrument you strum like a guitar. But most notably, there’s the morin huur.

The morin huur, which my word processor keeps trying to turn into ‘moron’ huur, hyuk hyuk, is the most famous of the Mongolian instruments, and it seems to be the one most strongly associated with traditional music. No surprises there; it’s an instrument whose bow and strings are both traditionally made of horse tailhair, with a carving of a horse’s head atop the neck, where the scroll would be on a cello. Small wonder that it resonates with a people whose ancestors were, or whose relatives still are, nomadic herders.

A Mongolian “orchestra” uses all of these instruments to create music quite unlike the classical compositions to which we Westerners are accustomed. I’m not always a huge fan of the singing that often accompanies it (that will have to be the subject of a different post), but I love the instrumental music. It’s dynamic; it’s compelling; it speaks of open spaces and open skies, of people on the move and hoofbeats across the steppe.

(The video above, assuming it embeds properly, is a quick taste; for something a little more extensive, check out this concert. Long, but well worth the time.)

I was in the orchestra from fourth to twelfth grade, so learning to play a Mongolian instrument was high on the list of things I hoped to accomplish during my time here.  And since I’m a horsewoman who played violin for eight years, my choice of instruments was obvious.

I’ve only had a handful of lessons so far, but let me state the obvious: morin huur is hard. Beginners at any instrument usually spend their first few months sounding as though they’re strangling a cat, and this seems to be no exception. To make things harder, my teacher knows about as much English as I do Russian: he can say yes and no, hello and goodbye, good and bad – and that’s about it. I’m still working on the most basic mechanics of playing, and I can’t understand when he says to sit up straighter, or to tilt the huur more, or to press harder or softer, or not to drop my elbow on the downbow stroke. These are all things he can demonstrate, but it takes time to reposition my grip or show me whether we’re playing the scale with a ta ti-ti or ti-ti ta (elementary school music class, anyone?) pattern this time. Thank heavens he’s so patient with me. There’s a whole list of words I need to learn from him: half/quarter/eighth note, bow, string, and so on. I learned flat (би моль), sharp (диез), downbow (татах, which also means pull and smoke, if I’m not mistaken), and upbow (түлхэх, which I think is also push), but those are only the tip of the iceberg.

At least I can read music, so I’m not starting completely from square one. The lowest note on a morin huur is an F, one note below the lowest on a violin, so the range is one I’m mostly familiar with, and I can read the signs for up- and downbow as motions, rather than having to search for the word in an unfamiliar language.

But that’s the only way in which violin has helped me so far. In most ways, it’s actually a hindrance; I get lulled into a false sense of familiarity and revert to what I know instead of what I’m supposed to be learning. I default to the wrong hand position, the wrong assumptions about which strings produce which notes. Everything I know is wrong.

For instance: you create pitches by pressing your fingers sideways against the string instead of curling them over and pressing down. That finger position where your main knuckle is bent but one closest to your fingertip is locked, the one you are absolutely not supposed to do with your left hand when playing violin? Apparently it’s much easier to do by accident than on purpose.

For instance: I’m used to the lower strings being on the right. Which they would be, if I was holding the huur as I would a violin. But you old it on your lap, facing away from you, which puts the lower strings on the left. Had I played the cello, this wouldn’t be nearly so confusing. But I didn’t play the cello. I played the violin.

For instance: the notes of the lowest major scale you can play on a morin huur are called fa, soe (like ‘soy’ with an elongated diphthong), ya, si, do, re, and mi, in that order. Sounds familiar, right? It sounds like solfège. But it’s not, or at least, not quite. Solfège as I know it is moveable, and a major scale starts on do; that’s just how it works. Thus, in the key of D, do is D; in the key of F, it’s F.

A quick perusal of the dictionary informs me that I’m used to the “moveable do” or “tonic sol-fa” system, whereas the Mongolians use the “fixed do” system, in which each pitch takes the name it would have in the key of C. This means that fa is the pitch I know as F, which is convenient and easy to remember. But do is C, not D, and that never fails to throw me for a loop.

If this goes over your head, I apologize; frankly, a lot of it goes over my head too. I’ve never taken a class in music theory, so my knowledge is limited to what you really can’t miss after eight years in an orchestra. I know what a fifth is, and I know the difference between natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales. I don’t know the relative minor of each major key off the top of my head, but I know the pattern well enough to work it out pretty quickly. I can say, “What do you call two violas playing in unison? A minor second,” and then explain why it’s funny, and why it’s mean. (Viola jokes – sure sign of an orch dork right there.)

But I am not very well-versed in solfège, for the simple reason that I never had much occasion to use it. Singers use it all the time; violinists, not so much (unless they do a lot of transposition – my skills at which, unsurprisingly, are abysmal). So I’m sort of glad that this isn’t the solfège I know, because I don’t really “know” it, even in English. But it’s a different system with the same names, and that causes all manner of confusion.

Thus, I spend a good part of my lessons struggling to remember that the second note of the scale is not re, but soe; re is what I would think of as la, and what I want to call sol is now do. Holy interference, Batman! And when I’m not mixing up the names of the notes, I’m fumbling at the finger positions and placements and failing to keep my elbows in the right places. My lessons are, in short, a train wreck.

I’m struggling to come up with the right terms for this disaster; if I were learning a new language, I’d call it L1 interference, but I’m not. Music is supposed to be a universal language, right? Right? And yet it’s not; we think about it and write it in culturally dependent ways, and it’s really hard to retrain your brain when things so much more similar than they actually are. My subconscious keeps insisting that the term I want is “cognitive dissonance,” but that’s probably me misremembering terms from cognitive psych, since I’ve suppressed most of the memories of that class anyway.

Perhaps comparisons will serve me better: it’s like a ballerina trying to do hip hop, a Lindy hopper trying to do West Coast, a potter trying to knead bread. The instincts and muscle memory are there, trying hard to take over – but they’re all wrong. Between the confusion and the inept squawking, I usually leave with a headache.

But I’ve only had five lessons so far, and I’m not about to give up. Maybe after another fifty or so, this will all start to make sense.