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.


Zuds and their Ghosts


The only post-2000 grave I recall seeing.

We stood at the base of the hill, considering how best to satisfy the needs of both curiosity and decorum. The gloriously blue sky overhead was a brilliant lie, giving the impression that this wasn’t a brief break between the downpours that had predominated our time here in Khatgal, and throwing the engravings on the headstones at our feet into garish relief.

I’d seen ovoos and stupas aplenty in the past ten months, but a cemetery was a new sight. I’d been told at some point that Buddhists usually burned their dead and accepted without question that Mongolians, even the ones who weren’t Buddhist, would do the same for pure practicality’s sake. Mongolia is a country of permafrost, where lakes freeze solid to a depth of four feet or more in winter and don’t thaw completely until June, and the snows that fall in late October have no chance to dissipate until February, when the temperature finally edges above freezing once more.

It doesn’t stay there, either, but flirts with both sides of the divide for the next three months. The first rain of the year fell on April 20th, but the snow continued intermittently until May 27th (when we got nearly a foot of it). Even in April, workers wishing to dig so much as foot-deep trench to lay cable were first obliged to literally set the ground on fire in order to soften it. Digging deep enough to lay a grave would be possible for a few months of the year, no more.

So it was with great curiosity that I moved about the remains of Khatgal’s dead, noting the differences between these graves and those I’d seen elsewhere. They lacked the space-efficient grid pattern that makes it impossible to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on someone’s grave, sprawling haphazardly in every direction. No marble angels here, either, nor a single imposing obelisk, though one solitary cross sat surrounded by its mostly-rectangular brethren. Some markers were of stone, others of a metal that, though tawdry in appearance, bore better witness to the lifetimes it marked than did its more traditional weatherworn counterpart.


Not enough Cyrillic for me to read the name, and I can’t read the Tibetan.

It was fairly recent, this graveyard, with only a few birthdates predating 1900 and at least one resident who’d not moved there until the turn of the millennium. A few stones bore inscriptions in Tibetan, but all the names we found had been engraved after Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940’s. The dates bespoke the same communist era as the cemetery’s Spartan sensibilities: most of them marked lives lived in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

After only a few minutes of wandering, I noticed that one date was starting to sound awfully familiar. The birthdates differed, of course, but surely the last grave I’d looked at also marked a life ended in 1983 – and for that matter, so did at least four of the last ten. In fact, nearly half the stones in this section of the graveyard dated from that year, many of those from its first few months. Assessing each marker with new purpose, now, I noticed another pattern as well: a disproportionate number of the 1983 graves were heartbreakingly small.

What happened in 1983? I wondered aloud, and my companions murmured their mutual curiosity. And then someone made the inevitable suggestion: Maybe there was a zud.

None of us had witnessed one of these devastating winters, the last having occurred in 2010, but I’d learned the term within a week of arriving in the country. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions – most of the natural disasters familiar to us are (almost) completely absent in Mongolia[i]. But they do have winters so cold the livestock freeze to death, or so snowy they starve for lack of forage. A zud is not measured in degrees below zero or centimeters of snow, but in cost: I’ve heard it defined as a winter in which over a million head of livestock are lost to the elements. The zud of 2010 took over eight million, more than 17% of the country’s livestock population.

For the many urban residents of developed countries (as I assume most of my readers are), it might be hard to translate that number into more understandable terms. Yes, that’s an awful lot of dead animals, but what exactly does that mean in terms of human suffering?

A lot. In a country largely populated with subsistence herders, that’s a catastrophic loss. It means that at least one animal corpse for every three people lies frozen on the steppe, to rot there in the coming summer. It means that thousands of herders and their families will have to move to the city, having lost their livelihoods with the death of all or most of their livestock. It means that eight million animals will not contribute their monetary value to Mongolia’s economy, nor their meat to its people: Mongolians will eat no animal that died of natural causes, not even hypothermia. The fattest cow, once dead at hands not human, will feed only the varmints. Some herders will slaughter their animals themselves in the face of insurmountable cold, that their flesh might still be fit for human consumption – but once wiped out in this matter, neither herd nor livelihood will regenerate.

Even now, for most Mongolians outside the three largest cities, meat is the primary source of sustenance during the long months of winter. Permafrost is not particularly conducive to agriculture, so the few vegetables widely available in this country (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets) are recent, mostly imported, additions to the Mongolian diet. Mongolia’s three “national foods[ii]” require only meat, fat, flour, and salt; anything else is a recent addition, and in the most isolated parts of the country (a phrase akin to ‘the hottest parts of the Sahara,’ perhaps, or ‘the wettest parts of the ocean’), those additions often remain unavailable. Take the meat and animal fat out of the equation, and you’re left trying to survive the winter on flour, rice, and little else.

That might not mean complete starvation, but in my mind it certainly constitutes famine, and that level of malnutrition would also leave people vulnerable to the first spark of contagion to come wandering through the community. People compromised by malnutrition, its accompanying ailments (scurvy, rickets, and so forth), and exhaustion are also more prone to accidents. A zud doesn’t result in the sudden, large-scale loss of human life that we associate with most natural disasters; its toll is slow and insidious, taking months instead of minutes to end or alter lives.

We did not ask our hosts, nor anyone else in Khatgal, what had happened in 1983 to end so many lives; by the time we made it back to our lodgings, we were more concerned with not getting struck by lightning than unraveling the mysteries of years past. But I wish now that we had. Excepting its major interactions with the rest of the world, Mongolia is not a country whose historical events may be uncovered by a casual perusal of the Internet, particularly if the peruser doesn’t speak Mongolian. The story of Khatgal’s difficult winter of 1983 most likely exists only in the memories of those who survived it.

It might not have been something so widespread as a zud, after all. Perhaps that specific part of northern Mongolia was particularly cold or snowy that winter, and the local livestock populations were devastated, or the roads (such as they are) did not permit the transportation of food. Perhaps the soum was struck by disease, and the residents of the nearby aimag center preferred to watch their neighbors waste away rather than risk infection themselves. Perhaps a spark from someone’s stove caught in the felt or floorboards of a ger and the fire leapt from khashaa  (yard) to khashaa, the smoke inhalation taking its toll on even those whose homes survived the blaze.

I wondered, as I wandered amongst the thirty-year-old graves, what it had been like for those who dug them. How many infants went into the ground that winter, before their first haircuts or even their first steps? How many children were left to those grieving mothers, and for how many was the loss of a hungry mouth a terrible sort of blessing?

What did they do for those who passed in March and April, that time of transition when the ground remains frozen, but the air is not? Did they cremate them, as they must have cremated those who died in the months so cold that one might freeze or burn without knowing which was which? Or did they strew smoking coals along the ground, chipping desperately at the half-frozen earth in order to carve out a space large enough to lay the dead to rest?

Did they curse that brilliant blue sky for its ghastly cheerfulness, wishing that it would weep, as they did, while they watched their loved ones fade away?

I don’t know; in all likelihood, I never will. Perhaps the people of Khatgal would prefer that I didn’t go digging about in their graveyard, uncovering old grief to satisfy my curiosity. But I can’t help but believe that some of those ghosts might want their stories told.



[i] The few volcanoes are long dead, and the earthquakes too weak to do much damage.

[ii] The term mostly annoys me, since the standard textbooks would appear to conflate national and traditional, but as what Mongolians call their “national foods” do not include the milk products that compose most of the traditional summer diet, the term is useful here. The “national foods,” for those interested, are бууз (buuz), хуушуур (khuushuur), and цуйван (tsuivan).


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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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.

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Тэрний Дүү, Миний Багш

September 16, 2012

Yesterday morning, I was awakened by the patter of tiny feet. I opened my door to see an almost-two-year-old girl running (pantsless) around my apartment: Энгүүн. (Inguun, for those of you who don’t read Cyrillic). She and her sister – my roommate’s nieces, or sisters, or cousins, or whatever they are; the Mongolians call them all дүү (duu) – had spent the night at our house. Eight-year-old Халиун (Khaliun) sat in the kitchen, doing her homework; Namuunaa was still asleep. [Note: though  /x/ is conventionally transliterated as /kh/, it doesn’t sound very k-like. More like the /ch/ in loch or chutzpah.]

Inguun gets into everything, but mostly I enjoy it when the duu come to visit. I had helped with bath time the night before, which was a long and messy, but very fun, process. Lots of squealing and splashing; there’s nothing quite like the laughter of a small child. On this morning, I got out my homework while we waited for Namuunaa to wake up, and Khaliun and I sat at the kitchen table together, working quietly.

Until Inguun pooped on the kitchen floor, anyway. Mongolians potty-train their children very young, and it seems they’re usually out of diapers between the ages of one and two. But you have to keep an eye on them: when they start to pull at their pants, you pick them up and hold them over the toilet. The system seems best suited to gers, where the kids can just go outside and do their business wherever.

But Khaliun got up and cleaned up after sister, so at least I didn’t have to worry about it. Mongolian kids are wonderfully hard-working. When Namuunaa saw how much fuzz has accumulated on my heavily-shedding carpet, for instance, she got out a couple of wet rags to wipe it down with, handing one to me and the other to Khaliun. Khaliun helped me to rub the fuzzies from that carpet for nearly an hour, without a single complaint.

It's like living with a multicolored golden retriever!

Quite the pile, eh? I can scrape up this much every other week, believe it or not.

Patience is not a trait usually associated with children, but there are certainly instances wherein they display more of it than adults. Six- to ten-year-olds, for instance, are wonderful language teachers. They’ll repeat the name of the thing you’re playing with endlessly if you keep asking. They have a much better idea of how slow they need to speak in order for you to understand them. And they have a fantastic time correcting your grammar and pronunciation – even your spelling, if they get the chance. Khaliun read over my shoulder while I worked through my language exercises, saying each phrase aloud for me and correcting me when I used the wrong suffixes.

In fact, I think the longest conversation I’ve had in Mongolian (not counting canned phrases like how are you? what’s your name? and how old are you?) was with Khaliun. It went something like this:

Me: Энэ гэрийн далгавараа? (Is this homework?)
She: Хичээл. (A lesson.)
Me: Ямар хичээл? (Which lesson?)
She: Монгол хил. (Mongolian language.)
Me: Би ч бас, би монгол хил сурж байна. (Me too, I am studying Mongolian language.)

Riveting stuff, I know. But it’s progress, and it’s more pertinent than memorizing the seemingly random assortment of vocabulary the Mongolian language teacher presents me with every week, so I’ll take it.

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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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I have an address!

This is a big deal, people. You have no idea how long it took me to learn the address at which I can be reached. It sounds incredible to us western folk, but Mongolians don’t use mailing addresses. Culturally, I suppose it makes sense; the Mongolians are historically a nomadic people. Heck, a third of the populations still lives in gers, even some of the city-dwellers. My roommate’s parents, for instance.

For those of you too lazy to do your own wikipedia/google image search, this Australian expat’s blog is a great illustrated explanation: http://tanyavok.blogspot.com/2011/01/ger.html

But anywho, the point of this post. Supposedly, I can receive mail if you send it to me at my school. Thus, my mailing address (which should be written in both English and Cyrillic, apparently) is:

Vocational School of Agriculture
Orkhan Aimag, postal box 986

Орхон Аймаг 
Хөдөө Аж Ахуйн Мэргэжил Сургалт Үйлдвэрлэлийн Төв
Шуудангийн хайрцаг: 986

Obviously, please put my name on there too.

This is not intended as a shameless plug for mail, but if you want to write me letters, I’d be delighted to receive them.