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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Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.

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Losing My Name

I’ve always been a bit of a brat about who is allowed to call me what. I hate it when people shorten my name, and not just because it feels overly familiar and disrespectful. I know many girls named Kate or Katie, and they’re lovely names. They’re just not mine.

There are exceptions, of course. My parents call me Kate at times, especially when annoyed – which doesn’t make me particularly eager to let other people call me that. They also call me Katie, as do my aunts and uncles and cousins; once your grandmother decides to call you something, you’re stuck with that moniker for life. I have precisely three friends who call me Katie-lyn, and my college friends and I address each other using a wide variety of endearments: dear, hon(ey), sug(ar), darlin(g), love. (Babe and baby are off-limits even to boyfriends; as my first roommate once so aptly put it, “unless someone is currently putting me in a corner, ain’t nobody calls me ‘Baby!'”

But aside from those very particular exceptions, I hold firm. Unless you are related to me, you may not call me Kate, nor Katie. I do not answer to Kat, nor Kay. I can handle [katlin] (“kaht-leen”) from the French and [Kætlɪn] (“cat-lin”) from the Irish, but unless your dialect gets in the way, my name is Katelin, thankyouverymuch.

Or at least it was, until I moved to a country where [ke:ʔlɪn] is apparently impossible to pronounce and everyone has both a long and short name. To keep from being called Kate or Katie, I told Mongolians my name is Katya – but with limited success. My roommate and her family called me Katie or Ketty; the Embassy staff and some of the school administrators, despite my repeated requests, routinely shortened my name to Kate. Factor in the mispronunciations and Mongolian terms of address, and I found myself answering to a wide selection of names:

  • Kate
  • Kat
  • Katya
  • Katie/Ketty
  • Ketty-sister
  • эгч ээ and анаа, (“ig-chay” and “anaa”), two terms of address for an older sister
  • Kata anaa (this one was exclusive to my roommate’s youngest niece, who couldn’t quite manage Katya, but usually paired her attempt with the affectionate term for a younger sister)
  • Kately, Ketlin, Kailey, Kailin, and other failed attempts to pronounce my name
  • Katyushka, in the fashion of Russian dimunitives

For that matter, I found myself reacting to nearly any word beginning with a /k/; the letter is not native to Mongolian, and while there is a similar sound natively present, it’s never found in the word-initial position. Which is to say that only names and (mostly-Russian) loanwords start with [k], and any such word uttered in my presence was usually an attempt at my name.

With my return to the US, I knew, would come a renewed fanatical insistence upon my full name. But in the meantime, I had to meet people halfway.


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Hospitality

Whenever someone asks me, “What are Mongolian people like?” I always give them the same answer:

Life in Mongolia is like living with an entire country of grandmothers. Everyone is always trying to feed you and telling you to put on more clothes.

Some of you have probably heard this from me a few times now, and I’m sure the answer’s gotten a little tired in the telling. But cliché or not, I stick to it because it’s no less true than it was eleven months ago. I know I complained about it in the winter months, when the inherent condescension of not being trusted to dress myself properly began to grate on my nerves. But even then, I knew I preferred the endless chorus of, “Don’t you have a real winter coat?” and “Your shoes not warm enough” to being left to fend for myself in the coldest weather I’d ever experienced. Parents and grandparents can be overbearing, certainly, but we all know that they do it because they care about us. And that concern is itself a potent charm against the cold of winter.

The arrival of warmer weather brought an end to my being made to feel like my brother (who makes a habit of running around in Chicago winters in shorts and a sweatshirt), but other forms of hospitality persist. Yesterday, for instance, I stopped by a seamstress’s home to pick up the new deel I’d commissioned from her (a short “fashion” deel, not the traditional kind I purchased in January). She was in the midst of cooking some sort of large, thick, fried pancakes, and she ushered me into the kitchen to wait until she’d finished cooking.

“Суу, суу,” she said, pointing at a chair. “Цай уух уу?”

Upon being informed that it was black tea she had on hand, rather than the ubiquitous milk tea I want but fail to enjoy, I said I would indeed like some. She poured me a cup from the standard pink plastic thermos and placed a large bowl containing the first completed cake in front of me. “Ид, ид.” This is a command I’ve heard countless times; it’s the endless refrain of Mongolian hosts, and it sounds exactly the same in both English and Mongolian: “eat, eat.”

I’d never had this sort of food before, and I didn’t catch what it was called, but it was delightful: about half an inch thick and slightly sweet, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. I asked what was in it, besides the obvious flour and sugar; just butter, she said. Utterly lacking in nutritional value, I’m sure, but deliciously so.

I’d eaten my fill and finished my tea by the time she finished cooking the remaining cakes, but had that not been the case, she would have waited for me before proceeding to the purpose of my visit.  Mind you, I wasn’t a friend she’d invited over for a meal, or even a short social visit; I was just there to try on the deel she was sewing for me. But Mongolian manners dictated that as a guest who’d be staying any significant length of time, I be offered a cup of tea. And she certainly wasn’t going to cook in front of me without offering me some, especially since she sat down to break off part of the last crispy cake after it came out of the oil.

The custom holds no matter where I go; when I step into the offices of my school’s director or the Children’s Palace Director, even when I’m there to tutor them, the first question I’m asked is, “Coffee or tea?” The owner of whatever ger you’ve just entered, to my undying chagrin, will often hand you a steaming bowl of salty milk tea and the tray of aaruul completely unprompted, leaving me scrambling to stutter out my standard lie (“Sorry, I can’t drink milk”). I really do appreciate the gesture; I just wish it wasn’t made with milk. I can drink it, technically; it’s just that the whole milk they use, to which they often add more fat, makes me queasy.

I have yet to see a Mongolian pass up a chance to feed me, either. If you visit a friend’s home, the second thing she will most likely do is to bustle into the kitchen and begin cooking for you – the first, of course, is to offer you tea. And they’ll go out of their way to do this for you. My roommate’s oldest sister has a house in UB, and Namuunaa called to let her know I was in the city when I went in May. Amarjargal, in turn, called to ask when I was coming over for dinner. Her disappointment at my “Thanks, but I’m not sure I have time” crackled more loudly than the phone; I was afraid I’d offended her!

When I did find time to visit their home, she and her husband picked me up from the State Department Store; after a dinner of tsuivan with beets and beef cheeks, they tried to keep me for the night. When I insisted that I really did need to get back, they took a taxi in with me from their home in Sansar and walked me to my friend’s apartment building. I hadn’t even remembered their names at the outset of the evening, but they, like almost everyone else I’ve met in this country, wanted to keep me safe and make me feel welcome.

So when I sipped at my tea and tried my best to make polite conversation with my seamstress yesterday, it was with thanks but without surprise. Her name is Oyuntuya, I learned, though the Mongolian friend who up until now had acted as translator had simply called her эгч ээ (“ig-chay”). It means older sister, and it’s the standard term of address for an older but not old woman in this country. Still, it wasn’t what came to mind as I watched this cheerful, hospitable woman bustling about her little kitchen. What I wanted to call her, in the best possible sense of the word, was эмээ: grandmother.


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Cooking’s Got Me in Stitches

My apologies for the silence of the past week. After ten months of teaching maybe twelve hours a week, this sudden jump to over thirty  has left me with absolutely no recollection of how to manage my time. I meant to write about my recent trip to UB last night, but that was before the evening went so thoroughly awry that all thoughts of getting any work done were summarily dispensed with. I don’t mean the “the power’s out and my computer’s dead, so I guess I can’t plan my lessons” sort of awry, either; I mean the sort that results in blood on the carpet and freaking out your friends with text like, “how deep does a cut need to be to require medical attention?”

Like everything else in this apartment, our knives are cheap and shoddily made. One of the first skills I learned here was how to sharpen them on the unglazed bases of our ceramic bowls, but while you can use this method to put on an unexpectedly good edge, it never holds for more than a day or two. So I’ve grown accustomed to brute-forcing my way through carrots, potatoes, and beets with dull knives and a carelessness that nearly always earns me a few nicks on the days when I actually think to sharpen them. (Yes, I know my Scouting readers are shaking their heads and threatening to take away my Totin’ Chip. I don’t blame you; if I was my merit badge instructor, I would too.)

Today, it was not I who did the sharpening, but my roommate’s brother, and he actually used the back of another knife for the purpose. I thumbed the edge when he’d finished, unimpressed; it didn’t seem that much sharper than it had been before. But I figured it would do; at least it wouldn’t be a struggle to slice bread.

And then I attempted to cut the slightly-moldy part off of a carrot and made two discoveries. First, that the carrot was more rotten than I’d thought and offered almost no resistance, and second, that the knife was much sharper than I’d taken it to be. So sharp, in fact, that it sliced straight into my finger without causing any actual pain; the sensation was one of surprise more than anything. And then I was standing over the sink, rinsing away the dirt and holding tightly to stem the flow of quite a lot of blood. Sh*t, I thought, surveying the damage. That’s probably going to need stitches.

Brother got a look at the wound and turned away with a grimace of disgust. I’d not anticipated squeamishness from a people so tough, but obviously, some people are more easily grossed out than others. If you’re among the former category, I’d suggest you stop reading now, because I am not. And because I hang out with people who spend an inordinate amount of time discussing poop, even while eating, and so I have misplaced my that’sgrosspeopledon’twanttoknowthat filter. You’ve been warned.

Rather than go straight to the hospital, as would probably have been advisable, I sat around holding a dishrag wound about my finger for a while. I’m indecisive under the best of circumstances; under duress, I freeze, fret, and cry. My first thought upon seeing how deeply I’d cut myself was that I probably would need stitches – but I’d never had stitches, so who was I to make that judgement? Brother hadn’t suggested we head across the street, so maybe I was just overreacting. Plus I wasn’t sure how well I could navigate a hospital with my limited Mongolian, and the PCV who worked there sounded like she trusted it about as far as the students at Miami had trusted McCullagh & Hyde (which is to say, not very far; we called the place “kill ’em and hide ’em”). Also, I was pretty sure my Fulbright insurance coverage had expired the previous Friday; would that be a problem? But not going could very well be a bigger problem; that large a flap of flesh wasn’t going to graft itself back on with ease. Maybe I should take some ibuprofen while I sat here figuring out what to do, since that would help with the pain and swelling. But if aspirin was an anticoagulant, didn’t that mean ibuprofen probably was as well? Taking an anticoagulant while bleeding seemed unwise.

And so it was it about this point in the evening that I started snapping at the two-year-old niece every time she toddled into my room and making sounds of frustration when the brother tried to ask me questions in Mongolian too fast and complex for me to understand. Who yells at a two-year-old when she calls you “big sister” and asks if you hurt your hand? Me, apparently: sharp-tongued, dull-witted me, the girl who starts crying after she cuts her finger open, not because it hurts, but because she just wants someone to tell her whether she needs to go get stitches or find some gauze to stop the bleeding herself.

Well, gauze was a place to start. I didn’t have any, but the Peace Corps Volunteers all have medical kits, and those would probably have gauze. Kevin would be closest, and after coaching for so long, he was sure to have extensive medical training. So it was away from the hospital and off to Kevin’s I went (though not without first grabbing some cash in case we ended up there).

I probably should have saved myself the walk and the seven-story climb. I think even Kevin knew the probable prognosis when I moved to the sink before unwrapping the dishrag. Kevin surveyed the damage for approximately a millisecond before declaring, “ooh, that’s deep. That’s gonna need stitches.”

But at least now, as I headed to the hospital, I at least had a few friends in tow, and one of them was even Mongolian. When we entered the “emergency room” (it was a room, and the door did say “emergency,” but mostly it just looked empty), Suvdaa explained to the clerk what I had done to myself and to me what I’d need to to do to get myself stitched up again. The sum total of my paperwork: my full name, age, and Mongolian address. They didn’t take my phone number or my passport number, which I’m required to produce every time I want to purchase so much as a bus or train ticket. They didn’t make a fuss about me not having insurance; they didn’t even ask if I had any. They just asked me to write down those three facts on a scrap of paper, once they managed to find a blank one.

And then I was following a doctor in mint-colored scrubs into the next room, where he sat me down on a plastic stool as he set a ceramic basin on a table covered with paper that looked clean, but probably wouldn’t be changed until it stopped looking that way. You are so going to get some sort of disease from this place, whispered part of my brain – the part that’s seen that most Mongolians don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom and slice bread with the same knife and cutting board they just used to cut frozen, but raw, meat. But the doctor snapped on gloves before setting to work, and the syringe of anesthetic came from a sealed package; so far as I could tell, everything that needed to be sanitary was.

If I’d thought about it, I probably would have realized that injecting a digit full of fluid would a) force most of the blood from the wound and b) make the afflicted area swell to roughly twice its normal size, so that the wound began to turn itself inside out. But, never having needed stitches before, I hadn’t, and so this part of the process was characterized mostly by alarm. Also by pain. The doctor snorted at me as I winced and gasped and grimaced, asking how old I was the way you’d ask the same question of a teenager throwing a toddler-type temper tantrum. But this was the part that was supposed to make the process hurt less; how on earth could getting anesthetic injected into the cut be more painful than the actual cut? And did he really need to move the needle eight frakking times, or progress from less to more sensitive parts of my finger every time he did so?

Happily, the drugs had kicked in by the time he broke out the actual sewing materials; that part I didn’t feel at all. I couldn’t quite bring myself to look as the needle went in, but I did find myself watching as he knotted off the first two stitches. The first two of exactly how many, I’m not sure. It was at this point that the world around me began to dissolve into a vivid shade of purple laced with yellow lightning bolts, the sort of color combination that compels you to put your head down whether you want to or not. I’m dehydrated; I need water, I managed to think through the most extreme light-headedness I’ve ever experienced, but in that state, the ability to assemble and voice the phrase “Ус байна уу?” eluded me.

Happily, the doctor, having noted my distress and inability to do anything but focus on not sliding off my backless little stool, summoned Kevin and Suvdaa, and the two glasses of water Kevin brought me did wonders. The world returned to a reasonable color spectrum, and I was able to sit upright and watch as the doctor wound a roll of gauze around his handiwork.

In the end, the entire process cost me 5,000 tugriks – the average hourly wage for a teacher, equivalent to roughly $3.50 in USD. It is also, apparently, the cost of a little iodine, a syringe of Novocaine, and some surgical thread. I’m not sure how many different things you get billed for during your average trip to an American emergency room, but all the Erdenet Hospital charged me for was materials.

There’s an argument to be made, I’m sure, about the costs of healthcare and the pros and cons of the American system, but it shall have to be made at a time when I’m not exhausted and mistyping every other word because my left middle finger’s doing double duty. For the moment, I’m just glad the process was quick, easy, and cheap.

If I start to develop gangrene, I’ll let you know.


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Cookies, Continued!

Sometimes your day just doesn’t go how you think it will.

Last night, for instance, I just wanted to curl up in bed (or at least, next to the radiator) with some mulled wine and watch the rest of Titanic. And then, just before I finished cooking dinner, Namuunaa came home with relatives in tow – the same set as in the previous post, plus two-year-old Inguun. They had brought baking supplies with them and wanted to continue the baking lesson. The next way was Khaliun’s birthday, they said, and they wanted to make cookies.

Well, it’s not like I could say no.

So Namuunaa and her sister and I made cookies. They turned out differently than mine – no vanilla, some pretty insipid lemon zest, and what I think was an extra cup of flour – but overall, I think the lesson went pretty well. I learned, and promptly forgot, how to say things like “fast” and “my hands are covered in chocolate; I failed pretty spectacularly at separating one egg (but really, have you ever cracked an egg and had the shell flake off, leaving the membrane intact? what are you supposed to do with that?!); we took turns at the incredibly labor-intensive process of creaming butter and sugar by hand. That one is, I think, a good thing; it means that in making the cookies, you burn off some of the calories you’ll gain by eating them. Maybe I’ll continue making them that way when I get back to the states.

… maybe.

As always, Inguun popped in and out throughout the entire process, greeting us with “shan oh!” or sometimes even “shan an oh!” each time. She correctly identified the lemon on the table, even after it had been stripped of zest, and she held out a cup, uttering the first complete sentence I’ve ever heard/understood from her: “цай байхгаа.” Laughing, her mother filled the cup for her, and she promptly spilled the water before toddling back into Namuunaa’s room. She can almost say my name now too, though it sounds more like “Kata” than “Katya.”

While we waited for the cookies to bake, we all went into Namuunaa’s room. Khaliun, her father, and Inguun were dancing, which is to say that Khaliun and her father were doing simple dance steps and Inguun was quite literally falling all over herself trying to imitate them. My god, that child is adorable. Naturally, I joined the fun with some shim-sham steps (boogie forwards and boogie backs). Inguun could sort of, almost, do the boogie forwards, but even Khaliun couldn’t manage boogie backs. I couldn’t blame here; a kick-ball-change is a confusing movement that had trouble with when I first tried it.

I also showed them my splits, which Khaliun tried and failed to emulate. I tried to explain that I had done gymnastics for 17 years, but that’s a tricky explanation to make; “Би гимнастик хийдэг” means “I work out” as much as “I do gymnastics,” and the former interpretation is far more common. So I grabbed my computer and showed them videos. Magically, I stuck my beam and bars routines at Nationals this year, so they’re handy ones for showing off. Then they wanted to see more pictures, so I showed some from camp and family gatherings.

How does one explain to a two-year-old that an alpaca is not a horse when one does not know the Mongolian word for “alpaca,” if there even is one? Inguun started shouting, “Адуу! Адуу!” when the alpaca pictures came up, and I couldn’t even say that they were llamas – a lama is a monk!

Finally, they packed up the cookies to take with them, insisting that I come to their house for Khaliun’s birthday tonight. I had planned on joining the other Americans tonight for drinks and a movie, but who am I to refuse a nine-year-old on her birthday?

I just wish my camera battery wasn’t dead. Those kids are pretty darn adorable.


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Cookies and Cards

December 13

Someday, I’m sure, someone will be able to convincingly explain to me how three women, who’ve spent several hours in the same apartment without incident, inevitably – and simultaneously – develop the sudden and urgent need to pee. In the meantime, Namuunaa and I will be doing the potty dance in the hallway while we wait for her sister (in-law?) to get out of the bathroom. (The dance, in case you were wondering, looks exactly the same on this side of the world.)

Insufficient toilet accommodations aside, we really did have a lovely evening Namuunaa came home from work around 6:30 with the relatives n tow: brother and sister (they’re married, so obviously one is an in-law, but I’m not sure which is which) and their eight-year-old daughter, Khaliun. I was in the midst of attempting Sarah’s lentil soup at the time, so they snagged the тогоо (electric wok) to make цуйван in Namuunaa’s room.

After we’d all eaten our respective meals, I offered them some of the shortbread cookies I made earlier this week. That went over quite well – they were greeted with “Ямар гоё юм бе!” which more or less translates to “how wonderful!” The sister wanted to make them, so between my Mongolian and Namuunaa’s English, I think we got the gist of the recipe across. It’s a very yellow recipe, apparently – I had to try to explain, “not the white, just the yellow” twice, once each for the egg yolks and the lemon zest.

“Cream the butter and sugar together” required a lot of frantic gesturing, but that seemed appropriate, as creaming butter by hand, while doable, is a long and tiring process. “Chill the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands” was also a tricky concept, but based on the gestures she was making, I think Namuunaa understood. So I guess we’ll see how well the cookies turn out, if her sister makes them. Baking is such an exact science, and ‘cup’ and ‘spoonful’ are pretty arbitrary amounts here. Luckily, this is a wonderfully forgiving recipe.

After the cookie explanations, we played a few rounds of rummy. I taught Namuunaa to play it the first week I got here, and it’s her favorite game. The woman is a born card shark. We’ve played with the brother, but she had to teach it to the sister. Better her than me, though – I managed with Namuunaa because she had some English, but it still took a lot of demonstration. At least it gives me a chance to practice my numbers. Monetary transactions rarely deal with numbers smaller than one hundred, which is why I managed to go so long without learning the word for 90. Rummy drills the tens nicely, though I really do need to learn the word for ‘negative.’

It’s nights like this that make me glad I have a roommate. For one thing, it’s nice to have someone who keeps me from sitting at home by myself; for another, these kinds of evenings are probably the most beneficial for my language learning. Being surrounded by Mongolians is overwhelming, but a conversation between two or three people I can begin to digest. At the very least, I can pick out the words I know; it doesn’t wash over me in an incomprehensible mess.

More pointed posts to follow later this week, perhaps even including pictures or descriptions of aspects of Mongolian life. We’ll see how cooperative my internet is.


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Why Avoiding Food Poisoning Here is a Crapshoot

Sorry for this week’s delayed posting! My home internet now takes approximately 5 minutes just to load my email inbox and won’t load WordPress at all. The internet here at work is a little better, but my time at work has mostly been spent on things like lesson planning and teaching. So now I bring you, a few days late, my thoughts for the week.

December 10

When asked how I feel about having a Mongolian roommate, I usually answer that I like it just fine. Namuunaa and I aren’t exactly close friends, as my previous roommates and I have been, but she’s nice, and I think we get along pretty well. We’ve gotten better at talking to each other as our vocabularies have increased; a few nights ago, I managed to explain to her that my hands are always cold because I have bad circulation. And her presence has plenty of advantages: she acts as a translator and cultural mediator, she drives me to or from school on days when our schedules align, and she has almost unbearably adorable nieces who give me an excellent opportunity to practice my Mongolian.

But if there is one thing about living with a Mongolian, any Mongolian, that will drive you crazy, it’s their total ignorance of food safety. It’s a completely foreign concept here. At parties, it’s common for the host to pour the alcohol into one cup and hand it to each guest in turn, topping it off after every one. When the alcohol in question is vodka, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem – but when it’s wine, or beer, or airag, that seems like a lot of potential germ-sharing. A single case of mono could take out my school’s entire faculty if someone contracted it during a holiday.

I think the situation is even more alarming when there’s no alcohol involved. A ‘clean’ dish or utensil is one that no longer has food on it, even if the food was removed with someone’s tongue. That’s not an exaggeration; I have watched Namuunaa lick the jelly from a spoon and put in the jar with the rest of the “clean” utensils. (As soon as she left the room, I took it right back out and put it in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes.) If they do wash the dishes, it’s often just with water, and not always hot water. We didn’t even have dish soap until I went out and bought some after I’d lived here in the while.

Similarly, the same towel might be used to clean dishes, the table, and the floor. I keep one in my room specifically so that I can control what it gets used for; if I need to wring moisture from potatoes and zucchini, or wipe my desk so that I can roll out dough on it, I certainly don’t want to do so with a cloth that, unbeknownst to me, was last used to wipe the bathroom floor.

But I think what scares me most is the total lack of understanding of the potential health problems posed by meat. While we have separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat, Namuunaa and her family will cut bread on the meat board if the vegetable one is in use, or take the knife that was just used on raw meat and slice bread with it without cleaning it first. They’ll also cut meat and then put the board back without cleaning it; last time, it was hung up face to face with the vegetable cutting board, so that both now had blood and bits of fat on them.

Namuunaa has also unplugged the refrigerator before in order to defrost and clean the freezer. It needed to be done, but I would have appreciated it if she put my half-kilo of horse meat out on the porch to keep it frozen while she did so. That’s not the first extensive period that meat had gone unrefrigerated, either. The meat market at the ax is heated, and very little of the meat is kept frozen (by which I mean only the chicken and fish). The smell in there is something, let me tell you. Everything else is right out on the counter, sold by women who don’t wear gloves – or if they do, they also handle money with them. And then they weight the meat directly on scales that are cleaned who knows how often and hand it to you in a plastic shopping bag.

Then you take it home and put it directly into the freezer; when you need it, you take the entire chunk out and let it sit at room temperature until it’s softened enough for you to shave off what you need so you can put the rest back in the freezer. The meat is usually added to whatever you’re making while still mostly frozen – but then it is cooked to well done. You can’t order meat done ‘medium rare’ here, and you wouldn’t want to; it’s just not safe.

Even so, a lot of Mongolians add yet another risk factor. If you don’t eat all of the food you’ve prepared, it’s not uncommon to let it sit out overnight, meat and all, and eat it (often cold) for breakfast.

Had we a language in common, I might be able to talk to Namuunaa about some of these things instead of doing the passive-aggressive complain-about-it-on-the-internet thing. But germs and sanitation are, alas, topics beyond the scope of my language skills. Moreover, it’s not just a language barrier – it’s a cultural one. When I asked Namuunaa why she wasn’t refrigerating her tsuivan, she said that Mongolians often leave it out and eat it the next day. When you live in a ger, you probably won’t get food poisoning from doing so, as the food will likely freeze overnight. In an (overly warm) apartment, you still might not get food poisoning most of the time, but I’d prefer not to take the risk.

Now, most of you know I was a linguistics major, and you don’t major in linguistics without taking at least a few anthropology classes. The part of me that really enjoyed those three classes (or at least, two of the three) is severely displeased with the ethnocentrism running rampant throughout this entire post. But I know what food poisoning feels like, and I’d really rather not feel it again. So, anthropologists (especially those of you who studied in India!), I’d love to know – how do you balance cultural sensitivity with self-preservation?