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.


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.


Please Don’t Ask Why I’m Not Married

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I’ve lost track of how many times this question has been asked of me since I came to Mongolia. Americans typically dance around the topic; maybe we’ll drop a statement based on one presumption or the other and wait for the other party to confirm or refute the assumption; maybe we’ll approach a friend, and ask him or her instead. Most likely, we’ll do a bit of Facebook stalking. But no matter what approach we take, it’s likely to be a cautious one, because the question is presumed to be a pointed one. Why would you ask unless you had a vested interest in the answer?

Here, I’ve had to let all those assumptions go. The question is simply one of many to be levied at me by any Mongolian I’ve just met for the first time. Typically, they start simple (Where do you work? When did you come to Mongolia?), but it’s not long before they veer into territory Americans would consider personal (What is your dream? How many children do you want?).

It’s like junior year of high school all over again, when all anyone would ask me what college I was going to and I longed to erase that question from the English language. When I know, I’ll tell you! I seethed internally, and There is more to me than my college decision. Ask me about something else for a change!

And so I begin to squirm after the first three or four questions, knowing that the children-and-future questions are on the way and reminding myself that these people aren’t trying to put me through my own personal hell. They don’t know that I don’t know I’ll be doing with my life after I finish my time here, or that my lack of direction is a source of personal stress. They don’t know that I was still recovering from a breakup when I arrived here, or that one of my exes hooked up with a close friend while I was here, and that any mention of boyfriends at that time brought the whole mess of emotions roiling to the surface. And so I smile, and I answer politely, and I reroute the train as best I can when I don’t actually now the words for directions, reminding myself of the many reasons not to red-light the conductor.

But there are times when I long to do so. If you follow the boyfriend question with Where do you live? and Do you live alone?, I’m going assure you that I have a Mongolian roommate with lots of brothers and get out of your cab as fast as possible. If you proceed to ask me why I don’t have a boyfriend, I will contemplate spilling whatever beverages we have at hand in order avoid answering the question, and to forestall your offer to set me up with your coworker/brother/son/neighbor/husband’s cousin’s neighbor’s teacher. I’m sure they’re lovely men, all of them, but I have no desire to be set up with some guy I’ve never met and probably can’t actually talk to.

They don’t always start with boyfriend, either, these well-meaning but uncomfortably nosy Mongolians. As often as not, they’ll start with Are you married? or Do you have children? And to be fair, I’m guilty of asking these questions myself. Та гэр бүлтэй юү? is one of the few introductory-type questions actually covered by my minimal vocabulary, and if the silence begins to stretch awkwardly once my new Mongolian acquaintances and I have shared our names and professions, I’ll begin to ask them about the number and age of their children.

These questions are, in fact, much easier to answer. No, I’m not married, and no, I don’t have children; yes, I want them someday, but not for a very long time. Three words (no, no, later), and we’re usually out of the woods and on to safer territory. Except, of course, for that one conversation with a school administrator whose name position I can’t recall. Why?, she asked, throwing a new wrench into the works. When I was your age, I was already married with two children!

Please excuse me while I run screaming from the thought.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to the topic; three of my friends have gotten married within the past two weeks, joining the ranks of what seems like half the girls from my freshman dorm. It’s rather frightening how many Facebook friends’ names I no longer recognize because they’ve gone off and gotten married while I wasn’t looking. 

If, at the age of 22, you are confident that you have found the love of your life, and you’re ready to get married and start having kids, then more power to you. I wish you every happiness. But I am far from ready to start down that path, and I’m a little sick of questions implying that something must be wrong with me.

Not that my Mongolian acquaintances are trying to imply that; I know they’re not. They’re just curious about yet another characteristic that makes me different from most of the people they know. Mongolians tend to start their families young; most of my female coworkers in their early to mid-twenties are married with a kid or two. I imagine early marriage and childbearing are especially common for countryside dwellers not pursuing higher education, but they aren’t limited to this group. It’s very common for a couple to have a child while they’re still in university; the child is typically raised by one set of grandparents while the parents finish school. The parents may or may not be married by that point; often they wait until at least one of them has a job before tying the knot.

That I am without husband, children, or even a boyfriend at the age of twenty-three doesn’t make me a complete anomaly here, but it is somewhat unusual. It’s natural that the Mongolians should ask about it, especially when doing so is in their line of introductory questioning anyway. I’m getting used to it and learning not to twitch. At least I haven’t been asked when/why I got fat, as some of the other American women have. 

Tact: one of the most culturally variable concepts I have ever encountered.

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Taboos and Tiger Time: Addendum

A few facts gathered from discussing the previous post with the Russian friends:

  • Some gers are fitted with curtains to provide at least a minimal amount of privacy
  • A red rag somewhere on the outside of the ger is the equivalent of hanging a tie (or a shoe, or a sock… while the tie is traditional, I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of variations) on your door. Only useful during the day, though, given the lack of lighted hallways.
  • Irina confirms that children who grew up in gers have a lot more sexual knowledge than those who did not – which manifests in Mongolian children engaging in or imitating sexual behaviors at a very young age. The Russians find this disturbing and discourage it, but they say that their Mongolian counterparts think of it as normal.

I think this last point is the most interesting. Obviously, we have differing ideas of “normal” competing here, and this intersection is a good place to point out that not all cultures think of children as “innocents” from whom sex should be hidden. I’ve never lived in such a culture before – to the contrary, both of the countries I’ve previously lived in were mostly Catholic – so this is an interesting contrast for me. Anyone know what Buddhism has to say about sex?

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Taboos and Tiger Time

October 18, 2012

Dear younger cousins (and for that matter, anyone else not yet in high school), if you’re reading this, please stop. I’m sure you’ve all had Sex Ed by now, and nothing in this post is especially racy or at all personal, but all you’re going to do is make yourselves uncomfortable. And me, thinking about you reading this. Go on, shoo.


Last night, I was intrigued to see some familiar taboos about sex in operation here. By this, I mean that I was sitting in the living room playing cards with my roommate and her brother, who was flipping through the channels until he landed on Game of Thrones. It was dubbed and I’ve never seen more than a few minutes of the show, but it’s kind of hard to mistake for anything else. The brother obviously wanted to watch it but didn’t seem to think its content suitable for the audience at hand; he changed the channel every time something sexual happened, only to flip back after a few minutes. I’m not sure whether he was intrigued by the outlandish costumes or the dialogue or what, but he clearly wasn’t familiar with the thoroughly NSFW nature of the show. We’d watch for a few minutes, and then he’d hurriedly change the channel, wait a minute or two, and then change it back. But because it’s Game of Thrones, it was never very long before he had to change it yet again.

My assumption was that he judged the sexual content to be inappropriate for his eight-year-old daughter, who was doing her homework next to us (albeit facing away from the television). But I suppose he could also have been uncomfortable watching it with his younger sister and her roommate. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, I was surprised to see this particular taboo in operation, because a lot of America’s puritanical expectations don’t exist here. Women have absolutely no qualms about breastfeeding in public, for instance. If the baby’s crying, then they feed him – on the train, in the park, at dinner with their coworkers. They don’t cover themselves while they’re doing it, either, much to the discomfort of any American men present. The fidgeting and carefully averted eyes are pretty funny to watch.

Obviously, there’s a distinction between maternal and sexual nudity here. But to me, prudishness still feels like a privilege restricted to those with large houses. Don’t get me wrong, here; it’s not like I’ve seen Mongolians having sex in public. I’ll bet that’s pretty taboo in most cultures. But there’s only so much privacy when your entire house consists of one round room you could cross in about ten steps.

I think that’s one of the questions that occurred to all of us after visiting a ger – perhaps not the first one, but probably among the first few. Most families have multiple children, and once you’ve had the first, your privacy is pretty much shot. And unlike in college dorms, it’s not like the residents have the option of sexiling their roommates (or in this case, children). So, how do you…?

Most of us probably keep this question to ourselves, but one of the Peace Corps Volunteers actually posed it to a counterpart. She replied with the scenario dreaded by every dorm resident whose roommate has had overnight guests: you wait until the kids are asleep. “And when it gets really good,” she said, raising her hands to demonstrate, “you cover your mouth.”

She also introduced him, and by association, us, to a term too good not to share: “tiger time.” Gers are all traditionally set up the same way: the door faces south, the stove is in the middle, the shrine is in the north. But you can also section them off by signs of the zodiac, as well as directions. Which, according to Adam’s CP, puts the parents’ bed squarely in the “tiger” section.

But no matter how quiet the parents try to be during Tiger Time, sleeping children are far from a perfect solution. The logistics of the thing remain: they are, at most, ten to fifteen feet away. So I’ll bet that the percentage of kids who have witnessed their parents in the act is a lot larger here than in the US. One third of the population still lives in gers, after all, even well-employed city dwellers like Namuunaa’s parents. And even most apartments probably aren’t large enough to give the kids their own rooms.

Given all that, I hadn’t expected kids seeing sex on TV to be as big a deal. But apparently it’s something Khaliun’s father, at least, doesn’t want her seeing. Then again, one of the offending scenes was pretty much an orgy of painted people. So I suppose that could be it too.

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Settling In

September 1, 2012

I wonder how long it will be before Namuunaa and I can manage a full conversation, regardless of what language(s) we conduct it in. Every time silence falls between us, one or the other will inevitably ask for new words or review the ones we’ve already taught each other. We’ve already Post It-noted most of the kitchen and both of our rooms with labels in English and Mongolian, and I’ve no doubt that the bathroom’s next. What with the number of word lists on the walls, I’m sure our apartment will look like we wallpapered it with a dictionary before the end of the semester.

Translation can take some creativity; today I explained the difference between a blanket and a duvet using a Venn diagram. I have no idea if they use/teach those in schools here, but when I did an example using red, blue, and purple, she seemed to get the idea quickly enough.

Quite the lively pair we are – Saturday night, and we’re sitting around drinking tea and trading vocabulary words. There’s no alcohol in the house that I’ve seen so far, so I don’t even know if she drinks. A conversation for another time, I guess. It’s really the other end of the spectrum from the kind of stuff we’ve been doing, anyway. We shared the words for facial features today, and I’ll probably teach her “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” as soon as I remember the words for “children” and “song.” The hokey pokey might be fun, too.

In the meantime, we try to find activities that don’t require much language. Cards are always good; I bought some today, and we played a few rounds of a Mongolian game called “heutzer.” I also taught her King’s Corner and Egyptian Rat Screw. The former required only a brief demonstration; the latter I half-explained, half demonstrated as we went. She knows cat’s cradle too, as does her mother – we played when her parents and nieces stopped by yesterday. I also made the older niece an origami swan; she called it a “shoowoo,” which I’m guessing means bird. I need some kind of small toy in case the little girls come back – and this time, maybe I’ll actually learn the older girl’s name. I have a really hard time catching people’s names without seeing them written down, unless they’re exceptionally short.

September 2

Well, today didn’t exactly go as planned. I had wanted to wander the city, but Namuunaa wanted to come with me, and exploring quickly turned into shopping. And while there are certainly things I need to buy, I’m not very good at shopping with other people. I really wish I’d bought more at Naraantuul (the “black market” in UB), especially that camel wool sweater I eyed and then decided against. I have so little in the way of professional clothing, and a few cardigans would go a long way in extending my wardrobe possibilities. I’ll have to go back to Naraantuul, and sooner rather than later; I had hoped that clothes here would be cheaper, but from what I’ve seen, food prices are the only ones that are significantly lower than what you’d find in the US.

Nor did I see any more of the city once we left the shopping center; we took a taxi to ter parents’ ger, where we’ve been for the past few hours. Neighbors and their babies trooped in and out, and I’ve held Namuunaa’s youngest niece and went with the older one to buy bread from a nearby food shop. Her mom gave me “bortzak” and “suutei tsah” (frybread and milk tea) when I came in, a gesture I still have mixed feelings about. I certainly appreciate the hospitality, and bortzak is delicious, but I have yet to learn to like warm, salty milk with a few tea leaves thrown in. At least this wasn’t fatty, but I still didn’t manage very much of it before they sent us to get bread. Someone dumped or drank the rest of mine before I returned, for which I was thankful. If I’m asked whether I want tea, I usually decline as politely as possible, but it’s only possible to do so with people you’ve met before. Usually, people don’t ask; they just pour you a bowl, and it’s not like you can refuse that without being extremely rude.

Anyway, I hope we’re heading back soon; classes start tomorrow, and I still have no idea what to expect. I don’t even know what time I’m teaching, or how many classes!

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I wish…

… more than anything…

But seriously, now that I’ve got that song stuck in your head (and if you were ever involved in Into the Woods and now have to sing through the entire musical to get it out of your head… sorry!), I really do wish:

  • The Irish had a defined passing pattern. In the States, you walk on the right side of the sidewalk, you don’t run into people, and everything’s cool. Here, they’re as likely to go left as right, and they probably won’t move out of the way if you’re on a collision course.
  • The Euro hadn’t gone up to $1.36. Ouch!
  • The grocery stores here sold sour patch kids. And Worcestershire sauce. And turkey, not in a package where you pay E3 for 3 slices.
  • Irish kids turned the TV off when they were done watching it. Or at least before leaving the house.
  • It wasn’t impossible for me to canyoning at Interlaken.
  • Swing dancing lessons weren’t E10 for a one-hour lesson once a week.
  • I could have actually been with my family for the September birthday celebrations.
  • That more of my classes had midterms. (A weird concept, I know – but think how stressed/terrified I’m going to be in November when I’m writing essays upon which my entire grade will be based!)
  • It were easier to make Irish friends. It’s really hard when your classes are massive lectures! But maybe now that I’m doing mores stuff with the clubs and societies, I’ll have more luck.
  • That Miami had a capoeira club, because capoeira is awesome.
  • That I understood how the heck Gaelic Football works.
  • That some of my friends could be here to experience all this awesomeness with me. Because although this list was mostly one of complaints, I really am having a great time.