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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Semper Gumby

My brother, as readers may or may not know, is in the Marines. The official motto of that brotherhood is Semper Fidelus, or “always loyal,” but a number of alternatives persist as in-jokes among the Corps members and their families. Given the hurry-up-and-wait nature of dealing with the military, the most common is probably Semper Gumby. (For non-US readers: Gumby wikipedia page, further explanation). We were recently provided with a perfect example of the phrase when my brother’s return to the States for Jump School was postponed due to paperwork problems.

“When are you coming now?” asked my mother, who had been looking forward to the visit she and my father had scheduled.

My brother just shrugged. “Mom, it’s not official until I’m on the plane. And even then, they could still change their minds.”

Life in Mongolia is a lot like that. I’ve already written about Mongolian time and how everything here typically runs ten minutes to three hours behind its scheduled time. But that’s only part of the story. Often, you’re lucky if there is a schedule at all.

Mongolians really aren’t much for planning ahead. Tsagaan Sar and Naadam, the two major holidays, are at approximately the same time every year, but no one seemed able to give me an exact date for this year’s Tsagaan Sar celebration until about two weeks before it happened, even though it’s a national holiday. I suspect the same will be true for Naadam. It’s certainly true of the SOP at my workplace.

“Can you do [xyz]?” my counterparts will request. I’ll ask when, expecting a time in the next few days, or at least a few hours from now, as would be customary in the States. But here, more often than not, the answer is, “now.” Can you come to school for a meeting in five minutes? (It takes me twenty to walk to school.) Can you find a song for this tense I am teaching in an hour, even though the Internet is down? Can you teach my class for me so I can go to the bank during my scheduled work hours, even though you have no idea what these students are learning and can’t actually explain an activity without a co-teacher to interpret for you? I don’t have a lesson plan to give you, but you can just teach out of the book, right?

I put my foot down on that last one.

By this standard, I suppose that learning of yesterday’s end-of-year festivities a whole twelve hours in advance ought to have been ample warning. My director mentioned the event in passing, the way you’d reference something that was common knowledge – summer vacation, perhaps. I asked her to elaborate, saying that I knew nothing about it.

“Why?” she said, her voice soaring in surprise. “All teachers know!”

This is, by now, a familiar exchange. It would take both hands, and maybe even a few toes, to number the times teachers have neglected to inform me of a scheduled event and then been surprised when I don’t know about it. Why don’t I know? Because you didn’t tell me, and I can’t read the bulletin boards in this country, much less the minds of my fellow teachers. I am completely dependent on word of mouth to learn of such things, and the amount advance notice Mongolians seem to think I require in order to show up at a fancy party for which the women are having their hair done at salons and breaking out their dress clothes is apparently about an hour and a half. (Still not as bad as Adam’s experience of being told about his school’s New Years party an hour after it started, though.)

As frustrating as this, I know the teachers aren’t leaving me out of the loop on purpose. They have their own lives to attend to without constantly updating the American teacher they can’t really talk to anyway. And so much here is decided at the last minute: no one knows what the class schedule for the semester will be until 15 minutes before the first class starts, and rooms and times change so frequently that students are perpetually crowded around the schedule posted in the hallway to check where they’re supposed to be at that moment (or, more likely, five minutes previously).

Khongorzul, the children’s palace director, attributes this general lack of communication and coordination to Mongolia’s nomadic history – and, to a lesser extent, present. Mongolia has old temples but no ancient cities, because living in cities is a recent development for this culture. For most of their history, Mongolians have lived in small nomadic groups that convened primarily at the aforementioned holidays. The rest of the year, families were pretty autonomous, doing things when and where they wanted without needing to consult with other people’s schedules.

Thus, while Mongolia is an ancient civilization, many of the trappings of what we Westerners call “civility” – courtesies like knocking on doors, scheduling meetings in advance, calling ahead if you know you’ll be late or won’t be coming at all – are absent here. In Western culture, these expectations help large groups of people to live together by minimizing the need to impinge upon each other’s space and time. Maybe Mongolians will develop some of these expectations after they’ve lived in large cities for a few more generations.

But then again, maybe they won’t. Mongolian culture is different, but it’s not primitive. Mongolians have their own system of etiquette every bit as intricate as the Western one to which I am accustomed. You can cause offense here by giving something with your left hand, or failing to show respect by supporting your right elbow with your left hand when taking something offered in that manner. It’s rude to take candy from a dish without tapping the side first, and ruder still to point your feet at someone.

Mongolian culture is what it is, and since I can’t claim an emic perspective here, I hesitate to posit any explanation that implies that it is developmentally delayed – which the “Mongolians are new to city life” trope does. There are already enough schoolyards where “Mongol” is synonymous with “retard” without me adding to that particular stereotype. Had I come to the conclusions above on my own, I probably would have discarded them as ethnocentric dismissals of what I found to be irritating aspects of this culture.

But I didn’t come to them on my own; they were proposed to me by a Mongolian woman. I love talking about Mongolian culture with Mongolians who are willing and able to look critically at it; they are invariably fascinating, and they offer insights I would not have grasped on my own. And often, as in this case, they help me to accept aspects of life that I would otherwise find frustrating.

Is it patronizing, when I walk to school and discover (yet again) that no one bothered to tell me that class was canceled that day, to close my eyes and think of isolated herder families without the need or means to coordinate their schedule with another family’s? Probably. But if it helps me to smile at my coworkers and get on with my day instead of gritting my teeth and bemoaning my wasted time, I’m willing to live with that.

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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part I: A Geography Lesson

I realize these posts are coming to you rather out of order, and for that, I apologize. I have a giant backlog of things to talk about, and I’m hoping (probably in vain) to get caught up on it soon. It’s hard to write about the arrival spring and how you wish for more winter when you haven’t really done winter justice in your writing yet. But in writing about winter, I get caught up on things like what it’s like to use an outhouse in the winter, and that should properly go in my yet-to-be-written entry on my visit to Govi-Altai. But if I’m forever trying to catch up with where I should be, I don’t bother to write down the things that are happening currently, and then I lose the better part of those details. Baugh. I suppose that’s why I have a journal and a blog. I just have to make the time to write in both. And now that I’ve done my typical pre-entry ramble, let’s get on with the topic of today’s post!

For those of you who don’t know me from real life, or who I haven’t talked to much, I flew down to the southwestern corner of Mongolia in January to visit a friend who lives in Govi-Altai. Mongolian geography 101: Mongolia is divided into 21 aimags, or provinces. I live in Orkhon, the smallest; Govi-Altai is one of the largest. It’s also one of the five aimags named after the desert that sprawls across them. (And yes, it’s called the “Govi” here, not Gobi; in Cyrillic, the /v/ sound is written is /в/, which I think is where the disparity arose.)

This aimag is so called because it contains both the Govi desert and the Altai Mountain Range. I love me some mountains, so I was very happy about getting to see those, even if it was just from the air.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

My flight landed in the aimag center, Altai. An aimag center is not centrally located within an aimag; rather, it is that aimag’s largest town and the center of its administration. Aimag centers often share names with their aimags, but not always; Erdenet is the aimag center for Orkhon, for example. Eric, however, does not live in an aimag center; he lives in Delger, a soum about an hour from Altai. Soums are smaller than aimag centers; essentially, they’re small towns out in the countryside. They have schools and small shops and lots of dwellings… and not much else. For anything other than the most basic groceries, Eric has to go to Altai.

Driving is a good way to make money in Mongolia, so you can nearly always find someone who’ll take you where you need to go. Some drivers make the journey from one major city to another, or from an aimag center to nearby soums, on a daily basis. But while there would certainly be drivers going from Altai to Delger, neither Eric nor I trusted that I would be able to find one with my limited Mongolian language abilities. So he met me at the airport, and then we hung out in Altai for a few hours before heading to his soum.

We went out to lunch with the PCVs stationed in Altai (there are several) and hit the zah for groceries. We were thwarted in our attempts to find meat other than mutton, but I did get to pet the resident rabbit at the produce store. (You’d think he’d eat the merchandise…) And we had one other important errand: the acquisition of a deel. It occurs to me that I have yet to write about Mongolian traditional clothing, so I will relate the story of purchasing my own in a subsequent post.

And then, suddenly, we had to go. Delger is apparently located in a rift in the space-time continuum, in which the laws of Mongolian Time operate in reverse. Concerts take place two hours before the posted start time and are just ending when you arrive; buses that were supposed to leave at 3 depart at 2. We took our time about getting lunch and heading to the zah because our driver had said we wouldn’t be leaving until 8. Then, as we headed to lunch, he called to say we’d be leaving at 5. And when we ran into him at the zah, the departure time had been changed to 3.

So we piled into the car with four other people, a number of bags and packages, and an accordion, and started down the road to Delger.


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Mongolian Time

When I lived in Ireland, my roommate Celina and I liked to joke that our apartment ran on Mexican time—which is to say that we were always running late. Her family is Mexican, so we could get away with that kind of joke (or at least, she could).

Well, let me tell you: when it comes to being late, Mexicans ain’t got nothin’ on Mongolians.

My brother joined the Marines last November, so I had some time to get accustomed to the “hurry up and wait” way it operates. It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, I might have gone mad here. To come here from America, land of “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, don’t bother” takes some getting used to.

My lessons at school, for instance, are scheduled to begin at specific times: 9:30, 11:20, 12:50. In an American school, this would mean arriving in the room as soon as possible after the last class had ended, ideally being ready to teach at the scheduled start time. Here, by contrast, my co-teacher and I leave the teacher’s room when the start bell rings. Once we’ve made it to our scheduled room, we usually spend the first few minutes arguing with someone else who’s trying to use the same room. Sometimes we win, and the other class streams out; others, we’re the ones trooping out in search of a place to hold class. When this happens, we might have to try as many as three rooms before we find one where we can actually teach.

And incredibly, there are still students who walk in after all of this negotiating is over. It’s not uncommon for students in the 9:30 class in particular to show up over half an hour late for an 80-minute class.

Earlier this month, I went to see a play at the Erdenet Children’s Theatre (which is to say, Erdenet’s only theatre; we don’t have a cinema). I arrived at the doors at 5 pm, the scheduled start time, to find that nothing was ready yet. I walked upstairs and socialized with the visiting representatives from the Embassy while we waited for my friends to join us. When they arrived, we talked for a while more before wandering into the theatre, and once seated, we continued to talk and wait. I don’t think the performance actually started until at least 5:45.

When I visited a ger camp with my teachers in September, I was initially told we’d be leaving at four. By the time I left school that day, the departure time had been pushed back to 5:30. Namuunaa and I left the apartment at 5:30, walked the 20 minutes to school, and waited with the rest of the teachers. I think we actually left between 6:30 and 7.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Schedules are a very fluid thing here; start times are guidelines rather than rules.

The easy conclusion to draw would be that Mongolians are a patient people, but anyone who’s seen drivers in Ulaanbaatar will disavow this in a heartbeat. They fly down the roads at unreasonable speeds, driving in the wrong lane (or in the bus lane) to pass those not going fast enough for their liking. They honk at anything or anyone that gets in their way—even if the car they’re honking at is part of a long line and can’t actually go anywhere.

That last “if” should really be a “when” – traffic in UB is terrible, and getting halfway across the city to the train station can take over an hour. It’s really a crapshoot as to whether bussing, taxiing, or just plain hoofing it will be fastest; the buses are fastest in theory, but if people are driving in the bus lanes, a taxi might be faster. But sometimes there are just no taxis to be found, so you end up walking anyway. And then running, and then arriving at the station just in time to watch your train pull away.

Because there is only one thing in this entire country that leaves exactly when it’s supposed to – and that’s the train.