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.


A Land of Milk and Snow

“What’s your favorite color?” I used to ask my students in English and my acquaintances in Mongolian, and more often than not, I was surprised by the answer: white.

I think it’s probably safe to say that most Americans, unless they’ve studied or worked with lighting design, think of white not as a color, but as the absence thereof. It’s ceilings and doors and moldings that frame brighter-colored walls without calling attention to themselves; it’s a canvas not yet painted, a page not yet filled. It is, metaphorically and literally, a blank slate, a color whose only cultural connotations are of purity – which is to say, absence.

Mongolians feel very differently. Not only is white a color, it’s one of immense significance; after blue, it’s probably the second-most ceremonially important color.

That fact is particularly evident at this time of year. This Friday marks the beginning of one of the biggest holidays of the Mongolian calendar: Tsagaan Sar, which literally translates to white moon/month. That’s some cultural heft right there; while we westerners affiliate certain colors with particular holidays, we don’t call Christmas “red and green day.”

But what makes this month “white?” The moon itself? That would be my first guess, especially if the holiday fell on a full moon. But it doesn’t; it marks the beginning of the lunar cycle, starting the day after a night devoid of any moon at all. During Tsagaan Sar, even a clear night is frightfully dark out in the countryside, since the moon’s only presence is the tiniest of slivers.

The snow? That might be your next guess, and it wouldn’t be a bad one. Snow blankets the Mongolian landscape unmelted from the beginning of November to the end of February and can continue to color it as early as August, or as late as June. For countryside-dwelling herders, it is the color of half their world for up to half of the year, a ceaseless sheet of brilliance that turns many of their eyes blue with cataracts by the time their grandchildren are born. Snow is a source of beauty, but also of danger; too much of it will keep their herds from being able to graze on the dead remnants of last summer’s grass. It is also more likely to fall after Tsagaan Sar than in the two months previous, during which the weather is often too cold for snow.

But while snow is a fact of life in Mongolia, it’s not a sustainer of life, and so white is most strongly and importantly associated not with snow, but with milk.

When I’ve stayed with nomadic families, I’ve noticed that the first thing they do in the morning is to light a fire in the stove; the second, to heat a big bowl of water over that fire and draw off what they need for other uses; the third, to add the tea leaves, milk, and salt needed to make suutei tsai, or milk tea, which they’ll pour into a thermos to be drunk throughout the day. It’s what they give to a visitor the moment he crosses the threshold, what they socialize over and warm their hands with, and what they drink with meals, since they largely believe that drinking cold water with hot food will make you sick.

But the fourth thing nomadic families do, before anyone gets to drink the prepared milk tea, is take a ladle-full outside and fling it skyward in an offering to Tenger, the shamanist sky god. Even apartment-dwelling city folks lean out their windows with full spoons to participate in this ritual. The Mongolian gods must like milk, because their religious sites are soaked in it: splashed across ovoos and shrines, neatly collected in cups around their bases, and even illuminating temples in the form of milkfat-based candles. Seeing these religious applications was what helped me to understand that milk, and the mind-boggling array of things made with it, are much more than a mainstay of the Mongolian diet. You don’t make a point of sacrificing cheap gruel to a household god, no matter how much of it you eat; you give the gods the best of what you have.

You welcome important guests and occasions with it, too. When I visited the Mongolian countryside on an outreach trip with the other Fulbrighters and some higher-ups from the Embassy, the mayor of Tosontsengel greeted us with a copper cup of milk, which we passed between us peace-pipe style. On my last day at the school where I’d taught for a year, I was presented with a similar cup, also filled with milk. And when an American friend married a Mongolian woman, his father-in-law handed him a silver cup of milk as part of the ceremony, from which he and his new bride then drank.

After witnessing these and many other ceremonial uses of milk, I eventually learned not to be surprised when my students told me their favorite color was white. To me, it’s the color of the stuff I put on my cereal or in my coffee – but to them, it’s life.


A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.


Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.


Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.


Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!


Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur


Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.


A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.


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The Obligatory Post-Election Political Musings That Ramble Far from the Election

If America suffers from low voter turnout, that fact was certainly not reflected in my Facebook feed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many posts on the same topic; on election day, I think I saw at most five posts that didn’t urge people to go out and vote – and that includes posts by friends overseas. Great job making your voices heard.

I’m especially proud of the country for the steps that it has made towards equality in states like Maine and Maryland. Equality is something we promised to everyone, not just the straight people.

I also believe that you don’t have to approve of gay marriage to allow it. You can respect an opinion, a lifestyle, an identity without agreeing with it. I certainly don’t believe that the world was created in seven days or that Adam rode dinosaurs, but if that’s what you think, I won’t argue with you. All we would do is get angry at and frustrated with each other; I doubt either of us would change our minds.

About a month ago, a friend made the following post on Facebook:

I believe God made two genders, man and woman, to be partners in this life. Don’t tell me I’m naive or uninformed when I respect the difference between them. I will not judge you, but I expect not to be judged either.

I don’t agree with her that there are only two valid genders, or that one of each is the only valid form of partnership. But I respect her right to that belief, and her right not to be made less of because of it. To me, a promise not to judge someone means more than grudging tolerance or an I-won’t-condemn-you-outright-but-I-don’t-have-to-be-nice-to-you attitude. It means treating that person as you would any other, allowing them the right to make their own choices and live their own lives, even if you consider them to be mistakes. If her promise not to judge others is that sincere, then I respect her highly for that.

I have always taken offense to the notion that America is, or should be, a Christian nation. America is a nation full of Christians; that is certainly true. But it is also a nation full of Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews, and Buddhists, and atheists. That there are more Christians does not it itself make their beliefs any more intrinsically valid. Yes, our laws are based on many of the principles that Christianity espouses, but the fact is that most major religions teach those same principles: Treating others as you’d like to be treated. Not killing other people just because you can. Respect for your fellow man. Love. Religion doesn’t make you a good person, or a good citizen. I know plenty of atheists who live more strongly by their own moral codes than lots of Christians. Thus, the idea that religiosity qualifies a person to be present holds no weight with me. You can be a born-again Christian and a hypocrite; you can run for office with the intent to impose your interpretation of an ancient book on millions, even though you have no idea how the legal system works.

As author K.A. Thompson pointed out on her blog, freedom of religion means there is also freedom from religion. It means that you are free to practice as you choose, but not that you are free to impose those practices or beliefs upon others. So if you believe that abortions are a sin, don’t get one. Don’t tell some poor young woman who can’t afford another mouth to feed, and whose circumstances you don’t know, that she can’t get one. And especially don’t deny her access to contraception, either. If you believe that her choices violate God’s laws, I’m pretty sure you also believe that He will punish her for it. Let that be His prerogative, not yours.

I should point out that you can be religious without believing that all people should be bound by the laws of your religion. I know plenty of people who do – this girl from my high school, for instance:

I’ve heard Christian stress over the future of our country because of the passing of laws that go against Christianity. What kind of message does that send to other when we freak about these things? It perpetuates the impression that people have to fit a certain mold in order to fall in love with Jesus. Christ was about love, not restriction. What good is a follower if they only follow because they have no other choice?

Her point differs slightly from mine, but they’re two sides of the same coin, really. Banning abortions, gay marriage, and contraception doesn’t reduce the practice of abortion, homosexuality, or sex that you consider unKosher. It doesn’t win your religion any converts, either. All it does is spread discrimination.

Way to go, Maine and Maryland. Good for you.

This is, without a doubt, the most controversial post I’ve written on here, but it was something I thought needed to be said. If you want to voice your own opinion, please do so, but play nice. You’ve the right to your own opinion, remember, but not to abuse others for theirs.

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Opinion (Not News)

Today I attended a lecture by S.E. Cupp entitled “The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity.” At the end of the lecture, I was surprised to discover one of my professors sitting behind me. He asked me what I thought of the lecture; I told him that I would have found her more convincing if she wasn’t just as general and dogmatic as the liberal media she was attacking.

One professor walked out before she had spoken for five minutes, and I understood why. I stayed until the end of the Q&A session, though the rest of the audience probably wished I hadn’t by the time I had asked three or four questions.

I will grant her, she had some valid points – and she made them much more effectively during the Q&A session, when she was no longer reading from her prepared speech. Some thought-provoking points, and my responses:

  • We trust the media to be fair and balanced, but they’re taking sides, and our mainstream news is presented from liberal, secular viewpoint.

I’ll give her that one. She had plenty of examples of the the condescending, derogatory way Christianity is often portrayed in the media. The religious columnist for Newsweek probably has much more worthwhile things to write about than compiling a list of the hottest rabbis. Religion should be handled seriously and respectfully, at least by the news. Flippancy belongs to the talk-show hosts, not the reporters.

However, while I can see the objection in a the news being presented in a liberal slant, I see no inherent issue with the news being presented from a secular point of view. If you’re going to take a religious point of view, you’re going to have to pick a religion, and you will essentially be preaching its values to those who might not share them. The secular viewpoint seems to be the only fair one, provided it is not pro-secular.

  • America is 80% Christian, and a secular “mainstream” media no longer represents the mainstream.

This figure, she admitted, was taken from the CIA world factbook, which is great for overviews but less so for specifics. Most of the people I know who identify as “Christian” are so in that they espouse Judeo-Christian values and maybe go to church now and then. Now, that may have a lot to do with being from Deerfield, where the most religious people I knew were Jewish. But I think it’s something worth considering when you start throwing around big numbers like that.

If the mainstream media is indeed to represent the mainstream, does this mean that they are obligated to present a pro-Christian viewpoint? Because I find that idea profoundly distasteful. Is not being pro-Christian the same thing as anti-Christian, at least in the eyes of the Christian public? How should the media, and everyone, for that matter, ride that balance?

If that much of the country truly is religious, then they deserve to be represented. How does one represent religion without implicitly preaching it?

  • The separation of church and state is widely misinterpreted; forcing Americans to keep their religion private is exactly the opposite of the Founding Fathers’ intent.

Yes, America was founded by people who wanted to be able to be able to publicly and openly practice their religions. By this token, I think students and teachers should be allowed to pray in public schools. But once you ask students to pray, or set aside time for them to do so, you’re showing a preference for religion, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.

I guess the trickiest part of this is that evangelism is an inherent part of Christianity, and of many major religions. But once you begin to proselytize, you’re infringing on the religious rights of others – especially when you do so in an official or governmental capacity. I guess I don’t know how this balance can or should be struck.

  • Even those of us who are not Christian (she’s an atheist) share most Judeo-Christian values. Attacking Christianity is unnecessarily divisive and prevents us from recognizing what we have in common.

This is where I started to get a little fuzzy about what she was actually arguing. I agree with the statement above. However, earlier in the lecture, she mentioned how we had gone from a time when the New York Times urged Americans to pray for the astronauts of Apollo 13 to one where the government use of “In God We Trust” was under attack. So I asked her if she thought that retaining those same values while removing any explicit link to Christianity constituted an attack on Christianity.

I did not get a straight answer to this question. Her response was essentially that getting offended that your money says “God” or at being wished a Merry Christmas seems like a waste of time. I’ll agree to the second point, though I do espouse the public use of “Happy Holidays.” If you know that someone is Christian, then by all means wish them a Merry Christmas. But if you don’t, you’re making assumptions. Having grown up in a largely Jewish community means that I don’t assume that people are Christian. 

Christmas wasn’t really the point of my question, however. It was more about the explicit reference to Christianity in a more official capacity – in the pledge of allegiance, on our currency. It was about finding a middle ground. If atheists are offended if we mention God, and Christians are offended if we don’t, how can we ever find a middle ground? Does God have to be acknowledge as the giver of those values in order for it to be acceptable to Christians – can they be “American values” rather than “Judeo-Christian?”

I don’t think that removing phrases like “In God We Trust” and “under God” from government use encroaches on people’s personal faith. Americans can trust in God whether America does or not.