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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A Disappointing Dinner

So it’s nine o’clock and I’m exhausted, probably because I teach a class at 8 am on Thursdays now. I don’t know why that’s such a big deal; for the entirety of my high school career, I was usually at school by 7 am. But with the exception of one twice-weekly 8:30 am class my first semester of college, I haven’t had an eight o’clock class since, well, high school. For matter, I think I had maybe four classes in my entire college career that started before ten o’clock. At least my introduction to a Real Adult Job with Real Adult Hours is a slow one, as I only teach classes three days a week.

But that was not the point of this post. I did not log on to complain about having to walk to work in the dark in the snow, but rather about my failed attempts to make dinner last night.

Most of my friends would agree that I’m a pretty decent cook. I can follow a recipe, I know the approximate extent to which I can modify said recipe without risking disaster, and I’m good coming up with ingredients that will taste good together based on what’s available (an invaluable skill here, where ingredients common in the US—limes, say, or rosemary, or spinach—are not to be found). Nor am I one to confuse sugar with salt, or forget I have something on the stove, or drastically undercook things. In short: I am not particularly used to kitchen disasters.

Yesterday’s dinner, however, was definitely one of the more dismal I have prepared. I don’t know how it’s possible to screw up cooking rice in a rice cooker, but mine went straight from crunchy (when it first said it was done) to mushy (when I attempted to cook it longer) without ever reaching ‘fluffy and delicious.’ I suspect it had something to do with the power cord, which the тогоо recently fried—which is to say that it overheated to the point where part of the coating melted off to expose the wires, though said wires still conduct electricity. Тогооs are standard cooking equipment in gers, but these electric woks are ill-suited to apartment life. Beyond their complete inability to brown food without burning it black, I have every confidence in their ability to blow fuses and start fires.

Needless to say, they’re made in China; Mongolians are deeply suspicious of most Chinese-made goods, and rightly so. All Chinese exports of decent quality go to America, and Europe, while the stuff they send here is virtually guaranteed to fall apart or self-destruct in an unreasonably short period of time.

But mushy rice does not a ruined dinner make, though it does mean that your broccoli goes similarly mushy when you try to keep it warm while waiting for the rice to finish cooking. No, what ruins your dinner is when you fail to distinguish between two frozen, unlabeled chunks of meat and grab your roommate’s хонины мах instead of your адууны мах.

I don’t know if every Westerner who moves to Mongolia promptly acquires an abiding hatred of mutton, but I think I can safely say that most of them do. I had nothing against the stuff when I arrived here; for the first week or two, I had no problem with mutton huushuur and buuz (or at least, I had problems with the amount of fat they contained, rather than with the kind of meat).

But mutton has a distinctive taste, one that everyone I know quickly grew sick of. Unfortunately, you can’t really escape it; it’s by far the cheapest meat available, and it’s pretty much all Mongolians eat. Some restaurants offer beef, chicken, or pork, in that order of frequency, especially if they offer Western food. But if the kind of meat in a dish is not specified, it’s safe to bet it’s mutton.

That might not be so bad if were seasoned, but Mongolians season most of their foods with two things: fat and salt, and lots of them. Sometimes they add onions, and very occasionally, garlic. But the traditional Mongolian diet consists of mutton, sheep fat, flour, salt, milk products—and not much else. Vegetables are a recent addition; nomadic families don’t plant gardens, and Mongolian greenery is mostly grass.

All of which is a long way of saying that Mongolia has pretty much killed sheep meat for me. We’ll see if I can stomach lamb when I get back to the states, but with the exception of tsuivan, I would usually rather not eat than eat mutton. The taste is strong and unpleasant, and the smell it gives of when you cook it is even more so.  So realizing, when the meat hit the pan, that it was not what I thought it was, made my dining experience a distinctly dismal one.

Dismal, you’ll notice, not disastrous. Mutton with mushy broccoli and mushier rice is certainly edible, and as expensive as broccoli is here, it’s not something you can justifiably throw aside in despair as you make a beeline for the nearest restaurant. It’s just not enjoyable.

And I didn’t even have any wine to wash away the taste of disappointment.

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“Roommate(s)”

Most of us think of “roommate” as a fairly simple concept. You pick a friend (or are sometimes assigned a stranger) to live with, and then the two of you split the living space and the rent. If you get along well, maybe you agree to share food and set up a cooking rotation.

That’s what you’d expect of an American roommate. But upon arriving in Erdenet, it quickly became apparent to me that having a Mongolian roommate is an entirely different experience – it’s more like having a part-time host family.

I’d estimate that some relative or other stays the night at least once a week. Sometimes, it’s her mother or father, who live in the ger district. Often, its her two nieces (the duu of last week’s post). Last night, it was their parents, Namuunaa’s sister and brother-in-law, who I think live in the same hashaa as her parents. I think. They’ve told me their names enough times that I feel embarrassed asking again; maybe I’ll just get Namuunaa to write them down for me, so that I can actually remember.

These frequent visits leave me with a couple of obvious choices. I can shut myself in my room, and sometimes I do – usually when Inguun’s been getting into everything, or I have lesson plans to write or other work to do. This week, it’s lesson plans and NaNoWriMo (I still have half of today’s wordcount to get through, plus all of Saturday’s to make up).

But in addition to being antisocial, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to shut myself away while the relatives are here. I do try to talk to them at least a little, though there’s still not a whole lot I can say. Mostly I’m limited to simple questions like “what kind of food are you cooking?” And answering questions posed by the adult relatives is complicated; they don’t speak as slowly as Khaliun does, so I usually have to ask them to repeat themselves. And even when I do understand what they’re saying, I don’t always know how to answer.

Last time he was here, for instance, the brother asked me how long I’ve been in Mongolia. Or maybe it was how long I’ll be here. The only words I caught were чи, хэдэн сар, and монгол – you, how many months, Mongolia. To cover all the bases, I told him that I came in August and I’ll leave in June (or rather, “I go June,” since I don’t know how to form the future tense, and I couldn’t remember the ending for the dative/locative case). I got the message across eventually, but it took awhile.

In some ways, it’s really nice to have them over. Khaliun is wonderfully patient with my laughably bad Mongolian, and as long as she’s not throwing a tantrum or spilling milk on everything, Inguun can be pretty darn cute. She recently added two phrases to her vocabulary that even I can understand: сайн уу and баяртай. She spent most of yesterday afternoon practicing these, which is to say that every five minutes, she’d peek around my doorframe, say ‘hi,’ and then disappear again.

I eat more when the relatives are here too Namuunaa and I gave up on cooking for each other a while ago, since, our schedules and meal times are pretty incompatible. But the brother-in-law always feeds me if I’m around while he’s cooking. It’s a nice gesture, and pretty typical of the everything-is-everyone’s attitude that most families seem to have. I just wish I liked his cooking more. LIke most Mongolians I’ve met, he uses a lot of oil and salt, and he usually cooks with mutton. I don’t mind mutton in a lot of foods – I like it in хуушуур/бууз (dumplings), бутаатай хургаа (rice with stir-fry), and цуиван (stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever met an American who doesn’t like it). But in noodle soup, (made with mutton, noodles, water, maybe some salt and garlic, and enough fat to create a nice layer of grease at the top), the flavor’s just too overpowering for me. Even after I threw some spices and lemon juice into my bowl, I still couldn’t manage much of it. I’ll put the bowl back in the kitchen – I’m sure someone will eat it. Mongolians aren’t picky about sharing food.

I had meant to do laundry today, but since the sister had the same idea, I may have to wait until tomorrow There’s a mountain of clothes in our hallway, which she’s slowly working her way through. I guess they don’t have a washing machine, so Namuunaa lets them use ours. It meant I was without internet for most of the day, since you have to unplug the router in order to plug in the washing machine. Also that I haven’t showered yet today, since she was also using the tub to do laundry by hand. But the lack of internet, at least, was probably a good thing. I’ve a lot of writing left to do today, and if there’s no internet to distract me, so much the better.