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.


All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.


So, Where Can I Learn Mongolian?

… is a question probably asked by very few people, since the language is useful in all of two countries. It’s not an easy question to answer, either, since it’s asked by so few. But if you found your way to this blog by asking it, then you’re in luck, as I will endeavor here to answer it.

To begin with, let me clarify: most of the resources I know of teach Standard Khalkha, the  main language spoken in Mongolia proper, but there are a number of other dialects. The dialects spoken in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, are phonologically and morphologically similar but written in Mongol bichig rather than Cyrillic; whether they are mutually intelligible, I’m not certain.

Peace Corps Materials

The Peace Corps has had a presence in Mongolia for 25 years, and most of its volunteers are placed in the countryside, among people who speak little to no English. Three of the PCVs who left Mongolia in 2013 tested at an “advanced high” language level. Obviously, you’re not going to get the same results without the two years of immersion, but I still have great respect for their teaching materials and methods.


If you want to go the teaching-yourself-with a textbook route, the good news is that there are quite a few out there. The bad news is that most of the ones I have encountered are, quite frankly, terrible. UCLA’s Language Materials Project has a handy, if slightly out-of-date, list of available textbooks, many of which I’ve attempted to use, with mixed results. Some of them are (theoretically) available on Amazon, but I suspect you’ll have much better luck ordering from the Language Resource Center at the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulaanbaatar.

  • While I have no experience with them, the three book Сайн Байна Уу? series is by far the best reviewed.
  • Colloquial Mongolian: The Complete Course for Beginners is perhaps overeager where other textbooks underachieve: in its grammatical explanations. If you are a language teacher or grammar enthusiast to whom terms like “temporal converb” and “perfective verbal noun” have meaning, I highly recommend this book; if not, you will likely find yourself staring blankly at the explanations and wondering if they’re really written in English. My copy did not come with a CD, but I was able to find the audio online.
  • Practical Mongolian-English Grammar uses side-by-side translations grouped via grammatical principle to demonstrate the workings of basic Mongolian grammar. In theory, this should allow the learner to induce the rules; in practice, I found that while I was able to observe a number of patterns, I understood very few of them and needed outside input to test my hypotheses. Which words take -d in the dative/locative, and which take -t? Is ажилчин (worker) pluralized ажилчид because it’s a people word, or because it ends in -н? I would recommend this book as a reference, but not a primarily learning tool.
  • Gateway to Mongolian, if you are able to track down a copy with a CD, can teach you a number of things but will likely leave you frustrated. New vocabulary terms are often introduced in lists without illustration or translation (and are absent from the glossary); grammatical explanations are spotty. Some are helpful, others nonexistent: the new pattern is presented, but its meaning is not discussed. And I found some of the explanations to be completely unintelligible. It’s clear that this book’s authors are not native English speakers.
  • Golden Key to Mongolian suffers from similar issues and is just as difficult to track down. I don’t recommend it.

Online Resources

  • Bolor-toli is probably the most comprehensive online dictionary I’ve found.
  • Byki is a notecard-style program that’s great for basic vocabulary. No grammar and a limited number of vocabulary lists, but it’s offered in Cyrillic or the Roman alphabet, and the basic model is free.
  • Glovico.org offers online, Skype-based lessons. It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but I’d be fascinated to hear a review!
  • LinguaMongolia has a detailed breakdown of the Uighur (Mongol bichig) script, as well as grammatical explanations particular to that writing system.
  • Mazaalai (Mongolian for Gobi Bear) is a Mongolian dictionary app available for iOS or Android. It’s not particularly comprehensive but still faster to use than the average paper dictionary, especially if you’re less than familiar with the order of the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • MongolHel is a YouTube channel with basic lessons for English speakers. There are only seven videos, but the one on vowels is a great supplement for those impossible-to-pronounce diphthongs!
  • MongolUls.net has a few basic tutorials, though the Cyrillic is illegible unless you download the font. More helpfully, it offers a number of short articles on elements of Mongolian culture which, although obviously written by a nonnative English speaker, are still entirely readable.
  • Omniglot has some basic information about the language, including a breakdown of the Mongol bichig alphabet in its initial, medial, and final forms. It also lists a number of language resources.

Colleges, Classes, & Libraries

There are, of course, other lists of resources: this one from “So You Want to Learn a Language” is particularly extensive. It is not, however, concise, and I’ve tried to focus on what will be most useful.  If you’ve got resources you particularly recommend, I’d love to include them here.

Hope this is helpful!


Mongolian Language Maze: Consonants We Don’t Have

One of the immediate difficulties of learning Mongolian – after tackling the unfamiliar Cyrillic characters – is the presence of a number of sounds that just don’t exist in English. For a beginner, it’s often difficult to hear and identify these sounds, much less reproduce them. A simple phrase like “Aнгли хэлний багш байгаа юу?” (Angli khelni bagsh baigaa you?, or Is there an English teacher here?) become unreasonably terrifying when you’re suddenly faced with an array of hissy, guttural sounds you don’t normally equate with speech. Once you actually learn to recognize these sounds, though, things get a lot easier.

Below, for your pronunciation practicing pleasure, is a list of some of the trickier sounds in the Mongolian language maze.

(Headings format: Cyrillic letter, /the most closely associated English phoneme/, [representation in the International Phonetic Alphabet], English transcription. Confused by the brackets? Linguists use square brackets to enclose speech sounds and slashes to enclose phonemes, or meaningful sounds. In this post, that means that “s” is written as [s] when I mean the sound and /s/ when I mean the letter or concept.)

Х, /h/, [x]; transcribed kh or h

I was familiar with this sound before attempting to learn Mongolian, having grown up hearing words like challahtuchus, and chutzpah (not to mention Chanukah),  but many English  speakers aren’t. It’s a velar fricative – a sound made at the back of your throat by allowing air through a channel so narrow it causes a lot of turbulence. (Examples: [f,s,z] are all fricatives; so are [ð] and [ө], the /th/ sounds.)  Most of us have come across this sound at some point (who hasn’t heard of Bach?), and it’s not particularly hard to make. In standard transcription, though, it’s rendered as kh to represent its difference from the English /h/, and this causes problems for innumerable tourists who insist on pronouncing the k.

When saying words like Darkhan, just throw in a little extra vibration at the back of your throat for the /h/; if you can’t manage that, just say it like a normal English /h/. You’ll sound a lot less silly than that tourist asking how to get to “Dar-con.”

Ц, /ts/, [ts]; transcribed ts

Alright, so this one’s sort of cheap, because we have the [ts] sound in English even if we don’t have a single letter for it: Pittsburgh. Cheats. Gutsy. Pizza – well, close enough. You get the idea. The problem is that English does not allow syllables, much less words, beginning with [ts], and Mongolian has plenty. As a result, English speakers will pronounce one sound but not the other when saying a word that starts with ц, rendering цамц as “tamts” and цагаан as “sagaan.”

(Цагаан is difficult to say even for those who can manage the word-initial [ts], as the Mongolian /г/ is realized in a number of unfamiliar ways to which I’ll devote a separate post.)

Р, /r/, [r]; transcribed r

It’s not a /p/, and it’s not the flat American /r/ either; that one’s represented as [ɹ] in most dialects. The Mongolian /r/ is trilled, like its Spanish or Italian counterparts. Since I speak neither of those languages, I hadn’t had a whole lot of practice trilling my /r/s  before I left for Mongolia. Needless to say, I’ve gotten a lot better in the past year and a half! I still can’t trill them without a vowel first, but luckily for me, most Mongolians have the same problem – that’s why the Mongolian word for Russia is Орос, or Oros.

Л, /l/, [ɬ]; transcribed l

Though л is always transcribed as l when using the Roman alphabet, the Mongolian /l/ sounds nothing like what we’d expect it it. It’s a hissy sound English-speaking friends have mistaken for /s/ or /t/, but that they never equate to /l/, and probably wouldn’t unless they spoke Welsh. The English [l] is a voiced lateral approximant; the Mongolian [ɬ] is an alveolar lateral fricative that Wikipedia says is technically voiced, though I’ve never heard it said that way and wouldn’t know how to voice it if I tried.

If the linguistic terms are meaningless to you, try this: put your tongue where you normally would to make the /l/ sound, between your front teeth and the alveolar ridge just behind them. Move the tip of your tongue behind that ridge, closer to your palate, and flare the sides outward a little. Blow air around the sides of your tongue without making your vocal cords vibrate. That’s the elusive Mongolian /l/.

Interested in the language I’ve spent the past 15 months trying to wrap my tongue around? More posts to come on the subject, under the Language Notes category. Also, I’d love some feedback on the readability of this post – I’m trying to make it approachable to those unfamiliar to the field of linguistics without losing the specificity of technical language.

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually written about the Cyrillic alphabet yet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out Polly’s post on the Russian alphabet over at A Girl and Her Travels – that should tide you over until I can write something about Mongolian Cyrillic, which is only slightly different.


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.


Everyone Loves a Good Riddle

More often than I’d like to admit, I’m interrupted while getting ready for bed with the realization that I have a lesson to teach the next morning, and that I haven’t planned it yet. The nice thing about speaking lessons, of course, is that they don’t require a whole lot of advanced planning – just a topic and enough activities or questions to keep a conversation going for the whole hour.  But you still have to come up with something beforehand.

With my more advanced students, I tend to fall back on riddles. They’re hard in a second language, since English riddles (like our jokes) tend to make such heavy use of wordplay. But talking through the double meanings is a fun way to improve my students’ vocabularies, and I’m always looking for a good way to stretch their critical thinking muscles.

And then, of course, I ask them for some examples of their own. For whatever reason, this is typically met with resistance. “Mongolia has many riddles,” they often respond, as though I’d asked them to provide an exhaustive list.

Of course it does; I don’t know of any languages that don’t. I’d love to do a sociolinguistic research project on the subject of riddles: their importance in various cultures, the ways in which they are used, the kinds of logical twists that must be followed in order to guess the answers. Alas, my copy of Speech Play and Verbal Art is back in Chicago, and so I’ve no analysis to inject into this post, nor any cross-cultural examples to present to you.

Instead, I’m collecting my own list of Mongolian examples. “Tell me some,” I insist to my students when they continue to dither. They’re resisting for the same reason I’m persisting: translation is a difficult exercise, and I want them to practice it. And while not all riddles make sense in translation, the Children’s Palace director managed to provide me with a few that did.

1. Ten sons of father are very hard workers; ten daughters of mother are too lazy.

2. Далан давхар хувцастай – It wears seventy layers of clothes.

3. Өглөө дөрвөн хөлтэй, өдөр хоёр хөлтэй, орой гурван хөлтэй – In the morning it has four legs, in the afternoon it has two legs, in the evening it has three legs.

I was particularly intrigued by the third one, given that we have the same riddle in English. I’d love to know whether that one cropped up independently in both languages or was borrowed by one from the other. Khongorzul, though a font of other kinds of information, did not know.

If, like me, you were unable to puzzle out the first two riddles without further information, here are some hints: #1 is something everyone has; #2 is a kind of food.

If you’ve any more riddles from other languages to add to my collection, please leave them in the comments! I’d like to write a more thoughtful post on the subject when I have time to do it justice.



Whenever someone asks me, “What are Mongolian people like?” I always give them the same answer:

Life in Mongolia is like living with an entire country of grandmothers. Everyone is always trying to feed you and telling you to put on more clothes.

Some of you have probably heard this from me a few times now, and I’m sure the answer’s gotten a little tired in the telling. But cliché or not, I stick to it because it’s no less true than it was eleven months ago. I know I complained about it in the winter months, when the inherent condescension of not being trusted to dress myself properly began to grate on my nerves. But even then, I knew I preferred the endless chorus of, “Don’t you have a real winter coat?” and “Your shoes not warm enough” to being left to fend for myself in the coldest weather I’d ever experienced. Parents and grandparents can be overbearing, certainly, but we all know that they do it because they care about us. And that concern is itself a potent charm against the cold of winter.

The arrival of warmer weather brought an end to my being made to feel like my brother (who makes a habit of running around in Chicago winters in shorts and a sweatshirt), but other forms of hospitality persist. Yesterday, for instance, I stopped by a seamstress’s home to pick up the new deel I’d commissioned from her (a short “fashion” deel, not the traditional kind I purchased in January). She was in the midst of cooking some sort of large, thick, fried pancakes, and she ushered me into the kitchen to wait until she’d finished cooking.

“Суу, суу,” she said, pointing at a chair. “Цай уух уу?”

Upon being informed that it was black tea she had on hand, rather than the ubiquitous milk tea I want but fail to enjoy, I said I would indeed like some. She poured me a cup from the standard pink plastic thermos and placed a large bowl containing the first completed cake in front of me. “Ид, ид.” This is a command I’ve heard countless times; it’s the endless refrain of Mongolian hosts, and it sounds exactly the same in both English and Mongolian: “eat, eat.”

I’d never had this sort of food before, and I didn’t catch what it was called, but it was delightful: about half an inch thick and slightly sweet, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. I asked what was in it, besides the obvious flour and sugar; just butter, she said. Utterly lacking in nutritional value, I’m sure, but deliciously so.

I’d eaten my fill and finished my tea by the time she finished cooking the remaining cakes, but had that not been the case, she would have waited for me before proceeding to the purpose of my visit.  Mind you, I wasn’t a friend she’d invited over for a meal, or even a short social visit; I was just there to try on the deel she was sewing for me. But Mongolian manners dictated that as a guest who’d be staying any significant length of time, I be offered a cup of tea. And she certainly wasn’t going to cook in front of me without offering me some, especially since she sat down to break off part of the last crispy cake after it came out of the oil.

The custom holds no matter where I go; when I step into the offices of my school’s director or the Children’s Palace Director, even when I’m there to tutor them, the first question I’m asked is, “Coffee or tea?” The owner of whatever ger you’ve just entered, to my undying chagrin, will often hand you a steaming bowl of salty milk tea and the tray of aaruul completely unprompted, leaving me scrambling to stutter out my standard lie (“Sorry, I can’t drink milk”). I really do appreciate the gesture; I just wish it wasn’t made with milk. I can drink it, technically; it’s just that the whole milk they use, to which they often add more fat, makes me queasy.

I have yet to see a Mongolian pass up a chance to feed me, either. If you visit a friend’s home, the second thing she will most likely do is to bustle into the kitchen and begin cooking for you – the first, of course, is to offer you tea. And they’ll go out of their way to do this for you. My roommate’s oldest sister has a house in UB, and Namuunaa called to let her know I was in the city when I went in May. Amarjargal, in turn, called to ask when I was coming over for dinner. Her disappointment at my “Thanks, but I’m not sure I have time” crackled more loudly than the phone; I was afraid I’d offended her!

When I did find time to visit their home, she and her husband picked me up from the State Department Store; after a dinner of tsuivan with beets and beef cheeks, they tried to keep me for the night. When I insisted that I really did need to get back, they took a taxi in with me from their home in Sansar and walked me to my friend’s apartment building. I hadn’t even remembered their names at the outset of the evening, but they, like almost everyone else I’ve met in this country, wanted to keep me safe and make me feel welcome.

So when I sipped at my tea and tried my best to make polite conversation with my seamstress yesterday, it was with thanks but without surprise. Her name is Oyuntuya, I learned, though the Mongolian friend who up until now had acted as translator had simply called her эгч ээ (“ig-chay”). It means older sister, and it’s the standard term of address for an older but not old woman in this country. Still, it wasn’t what came to mind as I watched this cheerful, hospitable woman bustling about her little kitchen. What I wanted to call her, in the best possible sense of the word, was эмээ: grandmother.


How to Play Cards with Mongolians

If you visit Mongolia at any point, you will probably find yourself playing a lot of card games. Mongolians love their cards and rarely pass up an opportunity to play or to learn a new game. I almost always have a deck with me, because a) It allows you to interact with those around you even when the language barrier is too great to allow meaningful communication, b) It takes up next to no space and can be used to play a huge variety of games, and c) It’s a great teaching/learning tool, no matter what the target language; I played Liar with Mongolian friends to practice my Mongolian numbers and Go Fish with my students to reinforce English numbers and “have.” Even if you forget your cards, they’re easy to acquire; most delguurs sell them, usually for no more than 300-500 MNT ($.15-.25, about the price of a cup of tea).

There are many Mongolian games, some of them quite similar to ours: the game they call “Liar” closely resembles BS, and another whose name I’ve forgotten is much like Crazy Eights. But if you’re asked if you’d like to play cards, the game you’ll most likely find yourself playing is Хөзөр (khuzur), which is also the name for playing cards in general.

  1. Remove the 4s, 5s, and 6s from the deck, but make sure you have the jokers.
  2. Amaze the surrounding Mongolians by shuffling Western-style. Most people here shuffle by holding a small portion of the deck longways above the rest and gently shaking the cards until they fall in randomly, though a few will pull out the center section of the deck and slap ever-smaller portions of it atop the rest of the deck. My only guess as to the reason for the popularity of these methods is that they do not bend the cards. This greatly contributes to their longevity, since the playing cards available in Mongolia are typically not plastic-coated.
  3. Don’t forget to let someone else cut the deck, or you will be called out for it.
  4. Deal five cards to each player; up it to seven if only two are playing. Put the rest of the deck in the center, face down.
  5. Flip the top card and tuck part of it beneath the deck. This card marks your trump suit and should remain untouched until the deck is exhausted, at which point it may be drawn. The player holding the 7 of the trump suit may, however, exchange it for this card at whatever point he or she wishes.
  6. The first player may play one or three cards if all players have five cards in their hand; he may also play five if all players have seven cards. If playing three cards, two must be a pair; if five, two pairs must be played, and so on. The entire hand cannot be played until the entire deck has been drawn.
  7. The player draws until he once more holds five cards. All players should have at least five cards in hand until the deck runs out.
  8. Play continues in a circle. The second player must beat all cards played by the person before him, either with a card of higher value in the same suit, or with any card from the trump suit. The cards, in decreasing order of value, are as follows: 3 2 1 A K Q J 10 9 8 7. A card in the trump suit beats any in another suit, regardless of numerical value; jokers beat trump; red joker beats black joker, making it the most valuable card in the deck. Once the appropriate number of cards has been played, the player draws to refill his hand.
  9. If a player cannot beat all the cards played, or if he wants to save his trumps for later, he must take all the cards in play. This forfeits his turn, and the next player begins the next round of play.
  10. If the round makes it all the way back to the player who started it without being picked up, the cards are discarded from play, and the player who finished the round begins the next one. Thus, if a round was begun by player B and all players, including A, were able to beat the cards before them, A would start the next round.
  11. Once all cards have been drawn, players may begin attempting to go out. Players may play as many cards as they wish, so long as a) they abide by the pairs+1 pattern, and b) they do not play more cards than any player has in hand. If all players have at least five cards, up to five may be played, but if one player has only two, only one card may be played at at time.
  12. The first player to go out wins. When playing multiple games, the winner of the previous game begins the next.

Шинэ Үгс (New Words):

  • хөзөр – card
  • холих – to shuffle
  • тараах – to deal
  • авах – to take or draw; if you forget to do so, your opponents may cry, “Аваагүйштээ!” (that’s an approximate spelling)
  • чиний/таны элж – your turn!
  • хожих – to win; ялагч – winner
  • тамга – ace
  • хаан – king
  • хатан – queen

Cut and jack are notably absent from this list, I know. If you know them or have other words to submit, please share below!


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.

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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.

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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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So, what do you do all day?

I get this question a lot here. Not from the locals, naturally, but from friends and family back home – especially friends in the throes of grad school, for whom “free time” a sort of long-lost fantasy, one coveted almost as highly as sleep. (Almost.)

And they certainly have a point. My workload, compared to theirs, is comically pitiful. I teach five 80-minute classes a week – meaning I teach the same material to five different groups of students. Real teachers, I know, are forever working on lesson plans, but you don’t have to do a whole lot of that when you teach the same lesson all week. I meet with my co-teacher on Monday or Tuesday to plan the lesson, tweak it slightly over the course of the week according to its success or failure, and simplify it for my Friday morning hellions. And that’s about it for time with my actual students.

Of course, that’s not all the teaching I do. I also do one lesson a week for the teachers at my school (at least, the 5-10 who deign to attend), and I work with the director for two hours a week; we spend one on her English, and one on my Mongolian. I teach the Children’s Palace director for three hours a week in exchange for two hours of morin huur lessons. And I attend the Peace Corps community events – conversation night on Tuesdays, movie night on Thursdays.

Even so, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot of time – about 18 hours of scheduled time commitments. I had more than that in college, when you factored in my extracurriculars and the two executive boards in which I took part.

My schedule for the week.

My schedule for the week.

So, what do I do with all that free time?

Well, I blog (obviously). I’ve tried hard to get posts up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past few months, though I’ve certainly missed a few Fridays. This takes a surprisingly long time, though it becomes much less surprising when you consider my tendency to handwrite entries in my journal before transcribing and editing them for online posting. Also, uploading photos takes forever when your internet is so painfully slow.

I hang out with the Peace Corps volunteers and the other Fulbrighter in Erdenet. We hang out at each other’s apartments; we go out to eat; we go to bars or karaoke bars. In a given weekend, I usually spend two of the three evenings in their company. One of the PCVs is getting married this weekend, and five of us are performing a Mongolian dance at his wedding, so we’ve been meeting three or four days a week to practice said dance.

I study Mongolian. On paper, mostly, as my listening skills are still pitiful and many of the sounds continue to escape my command. My book doesn’t have exercises, so I spend a lot of time recopying and sounding out sentences like these:

We came from the city by bus last Sunday. Бид өнгөрсөн Нямд хотод автобусаар ирсэн.

I will go to America during summer vacation. Би зуны амралтаар Америк руу явна.

Which of these children broke this window? Эдгээр хүүхдүүдийн хэн нь энэ цонхыг хагалсан бэ?

(Having recently learned the dative-locative, accusative, genitive, instrumental, ablative, and comitative cases, I spend a lot of my practice time trying to jam as many of them as possible into one sentence, despite my complete inability to construct something so complicated in conversation.)

I wander the city in search of internet connections strong enough to support a Skype conversation. I have weekly Skype dates with my parents and my ‘sister,’ though my brother’s pretty much off the radar.

I spend ridiculous amounts of time on the internet, when I can get access to it. I follow four web comics and several blogs – a few written by friends, most written by people I’ve never met. A few in particular tend to broach complex issues and copious links to other discussions about those issue, which I follow, read, contemplate, and then usually discuss with Sarah during our weekly Skype date. I continue my slow but steady progress through the vlogbrothers YouTube Channel (they’ve been posting regularly since 2007; I’m midway through 2008). This one’s particularly time-consuming, since the speed of my home internet means a four-minute video can take upwards of twenty minutes to buffer fully, at least in the evening.

But most of that extra time is spent just… living. Keeping up with daily life takes twice as long when you have half as many convenient time-saving devices.

Take cooking, for instance. My appliance options are as follows: a hot plate, a toaster oven, a тогоо, a rice cooker, and a tea kettle. Only one of these appliances may be operated in the kitchen at one time, lest we blow a fuse. I can fry an egg, boil water, and make rice all at the same time – but only if I move the tea kettle and rice cooker to different rooms. When you have only one burner to work with, you eat a lot of one-pot meals (which in my case translates to a lot of soup). A meal like, say, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a vegetable is out of the question; it would take hours, and I’d never manage to get it all hot at the same time. Even soups can be tricky, requiring careful attention to the order in which ingredients are added and cooked,  since I can’t have two pots going simultaneously.

And I’ve always been a “from scratch” kind of girl, but there’s “from scratch” and then there’s from scratch. I have no problem throwing together pancakes or a cake without a mix, but how much time does it take to whip up a bowl of batter? A craving for Mexican food, by contrast, requires a saga of cooking to satisfy. I have access to meat, rice, beans, vegetables, and even hot pepper and cumin (thank you, Mom – apparently I cannot live without cumin). But none of it’s prepared. If I want tortillas, I have to make them myself. The same is true for refried beans, and usually for salsa as well. The quest for fajitas becomes an odyssey in which I prepare individual elements over the course of several days so that I can finally, gloriously, assemble them into that sought-after ideal of deliciousness.

Even tracking down the ingredients can be a time-consuming process. One-stop grocery shopping does not exist here; even the chain grocery stores in this town are limited in size, and a great deal of their space is devoted to candy and alcohol. Delguurs are ubiquitous, and most of them sell almost the same things – but not quite. This one carries alcohol; that one doesn’t have noodles. You learn where to go for what items.

Accordingly, I go to one delguur for vegetables and another for fruit (the Americans refer to their respective owners as “the veggie man” and “the fruit lady”). The fruit lady also sells chicken and brown eggs; in fact, I go to her more often for these two items than for overpriced, often overripe, fruit. I cruise the Russian-oriented mini mart near them for honey, jam, spices, and brown eggs (when the fruit lady doesn’t have them, which recently has been often). For cheese and pork, I go to Food Shop (which also caters largely to Russians); for bacon, smoked fish, Russian beer, tea, and other spices, I go to another Russian delguur. Coffee, peanut butter, and beans I get from Good Price, a store on the other side of town that specializes in American goods (its name, alas, is a misnomer). I get red meat from the market on the south side of town. Bread, flour, milk, sugar and other things I didn’t realize I was out of I usually grab from the delguur closest to my apartment – when it’s open. To visit all of these places in one day would take hours and require a full circuit of town – and half of what I bought that day would, in all likelihood, go moldy before I managed to eat it. So I do the Russian circuit (which is blessedly close) several days a week; I go to Good Price only in search of specific items, and only on my way home from work. I haven’t been to the meat market in over two months, and won’t until I finish my current kilo of horse.

4-19 Shopping Map

And then there’s cleaning. My school’s provision of a vacuum cleaner has, thank heavens, drastically reduced the amount of time needed to keep my room in a passable state of cleanliness. No more spending hours scrubbing at the carpet with a wet rag or swiping fruitlessly at it with a broom – hallelujah! But even so, cleaning the floor often takes a lot longer than I’ve bargained for. Namuuna uses the vacuum as well – and while she’s good about emptying the container after she uses it, she doesn’t usually clean the filter. And after a thorough sweeping, the filter is often so clogged as to drastically reduce the efficacy of the vacuum cleaner. Thus, the time I meant to spend sweeping is often spent washing out the filter instead – and then waiting for it to dry, since I fear the potential repercussions of using it wet.

You get the gist. Even the simplest task often takes forever here. I haven’t even started on laundry. To do that herculean task justice would require me to write another whole post devoted to the subject. And so I shall – at a later date, when I have pictures to illustrate and your patience hasn’t already been tried by 1500 words of my rambling.

And that, in short, is your answer: In my copious spare time, I ramble. Around town, around the Internet, on the Internet. I ramble, and I learn, and I live.