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.