Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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A 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.

Phags-pa

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.

  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.

Cyrillic

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!

Latin

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

Tibetan

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.

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

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Now What?

Coming home is hard.

Certainly, there are days when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for washing machines and paved roads and reliable hot water and the thousand other conveniences I’ve mostly lived without for the past year. There are times when sink back into a known and longed-for activity with enthusiasm and delight, like the 20+ hours of dancing I did the weekend before Thanksgiving,  and times when I rediscover some simple pleasure I’d forgotten altogether in its absence, like cinnamon graham crackers.

But there are also days when I’m overwhelmed with the enormity of life in America and all the things I’m supposed to be able to navigate now that I’m an adult: Car insurance. Credit cards. Running into an ex-boyfriend and pretending it doesn’t still hurt to be around him. Actually flossing every day because I no longer have dental insurance. Watching friends get engaged and married and not even having a date to bring to their weddings. Resumés and networking and interviews and all those other things you’re supposed to do to get a job and that I haven’t really dealt with because aside from easily-obtained summer gigs, my job up until I left for Mongolia was to be a student.

And, of course, the big existential question: Now What? What do I want to do with my life?

I know that regardless of which way I go, I’ll have to start at the bottom of the career ladder and work my way up. I know it takes hard work to get yourself much of anywhere; that part doesn’t scare me. You don’t get yourself a full ride to college and then graduate .01 short of Summa Cum Laude without plenty of hard work.

But I had a goal in those days, and the good grades were their own reward. Now I’m floundering, searching for direction, afraid to spend the next ten years at the bottom of various career ladders as I put in the time and the effort required only to realize that I’ve started up the wrong ladder yet again and move to the bottom of yet another. It’s not work I fear, but wasted work that does nothing to help me figure out what I want to work towards.

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

How do I choose which mountain to head for? What if I pick the wrong set of tracks and get stuck, or lost?

It doesn’t help that my interests are of questionable practicality. Computational linguistics seems to be the biggest career field available to those with my degree, and unfortunately, it holds very little interest for me. My favorite (degree-related) classes when I was in college were the linguistic anthropology classes, in which we talked about meaning-making and analyzed language as an expression of cultural and personal identity. How do you get a job doing that?

More than once, we touched on the Myaamia Project, a language reclamation effort headquartered at my home university by faculty and members of the Miami Tribe. I learned that language reclamation was a field that held great interest for me, and when I went to Ireland in 2010, I found myself drawn to the Irish language and the people who were passionate about returning it to everyday use. I also learned that Ireland was in economic turmoil had few jobs for its own young people, much less interloping foreigners. The dream of getting involved with the Irish language effort in some manner – be it as a teacher, a professor, or as some manner of government employee – shone only briefly before it was quashed by the cold voice of practicality.

What do you get when you Google "the nine nines of Mongolian winter," a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

What do you get when you Google “the nine nines of Mongolian winter,” a well-known cultural nugget? A chain of Peace Corps blogs referencing each other.

Then, as you all know, I went to Mongolia, where I enjoyed learning the language but was frustrated by the lack of good learning materials. There are a number of Mongolian textbooks available, but I had a great deal of trouble finding one that I liked, as their explanations of the grammatical structure were often insufficient or confusingly, even nonsensically, worded – if they were present at all. I was further frustrated by  Mongolia’s apparent absence from the English-speaking internet, which made it hard to source any observations or conclusions I wished to draw and all but impossible for me to blog about anything broader than my own experiences. There are books on Mongolia, to be sure, but they’re few and far between and largely inaccessible to the public. Most of what’s available is more of what I’m producing here: personal experiences unconnected to broader research, with most additional information coming from hearsay. Anecdotes, not data.

So there’s an information gap there, a niche to be filled, and I’m definitely interested in applying the knowledge and experiences I gained from what was undoubtedly an unusual experience. It would be a real waste for me to walk away from this year without putting those things to use, as though the whole year never happened. But it would take years for me to acquire enough Mongolian language skills to begin filling that gap in a scholarly way, and frankly, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them. Mongolia is a country of three million people, Mongolian a language of 5 million speakers, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into so narrow a niche. Because while I’m interested in Mongolia and the Mongolian language, I’m not passionate about it; it’s not part of me or my heritage the way Ireland is. “Interested but not passionate” is how I felt about architecture my freshman year of college, and I dropped that major within a year, too burned out to continue.

What I am passionate about is writing, which is why this blog is still chronicling my Mongolian adventures even now that I’m back on the other side of the world. The unexpected confluence of interesting and little-known things to write about, a place to write about them, and people who were actually interested in reading them was one of my favorite things about my time in Mongolia. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life writing about Mongolia, per se, but I do know that I want to spend my time writing about something. I’m particularly partial to essays that are part analysis and part personal experience – I’ve had a piece on my mental backburner about The Things They Carried and my fears for my military brother for some time, and another about the Gaelic Storm song “Raised on Black and Tans” and the superficiality of my understanding of my Irish heritage. I’m sure I could pull a number of such pieces out of my experiences in Mongolia, if only I knew where to look.

Or where to write for. I’ll be guest posting on A Girl and Her Travels later this month, and I mean to submit some entries for the Fulbright blog and, if I can come up with a creative approach to their not-very-inspiring prompt, Expats Blog, but I want to do more than just blog – I want be actually published. Unfortunately, I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to look for places to be published, and I could very much do with some suggestions as to where to try submitting pieces.

It feels stupid to expose this sort of vulnerability to the whole wide world, to complete strangers and even potential future employers who might happen to Google me and find that I haven’t always been passionate about whatever it is I’m applying/interviewing/auditioning for. It feels wrong to address my uncertainty in such a long-winded, rambling post, rather than boiling it down into a couple of simple, direct queries. But I’m willing to publicize my own version of what I’m sure is a very common crisis in hopes of crowdsourcing some suggestions from you, my dear readers. I don’t want to risk omitting the detail that will spark a useful suggestion simply to meet some self-imposed word limit. I know the people who read this blog come from many different walks of life, and I want to take advantage of that diversity. The choices and opportunities that seem obvious to you might be ones I’ve never heard of.

So if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this wandering account of my lack of direction, I thank you for listening. And if anything I’ve mentioned has sparked an idea of what applications my linguistics degree and international experience might have, or where I might try to submit my writing, I’ll be even more grateful. I’ve been wandering for a while now, and even if my next journey takes me someplace completely unexpected, it would be nice to start with a destination in mind.


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Enough About Me – What About You?

Through some form of unknown witchery, Internet connectivity here seems to be directly dependent on the weather; when the weather is bad, it’s all I can do to get WordPress to load, much less to upload complex content. Since Mongolia has chosen to overlook the minor detail that it is almost June and serve up this weather, today’s post will be rather brief.

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So instead of harping on about the snow again, I’d like to ask some questions of you, dear readers. In the past week, my blog has gotten about twice as many hits as it previously averaged, and I have no idea what caused that spike. WordPress continues to list Facebook as my top referrer, so I know that most of my readership is composed of friends and family following my blog from home. And a glance through the search terms reveals that to a certain extent, my blog has begun to fill a small part of the void in the Internet’s knowledge of Mongolia. Search terms like “mongol airag drink made,” “how to pleat mongolian buuz” and “khorgoo volcano” bring people here because there just isn’t that much out there on the subject (in English, anyway).

But in the past week alone, I’ve gotten hits from places like Morocco, Moldova, Japan, and Trinidad and Tobago, and I doubt people on tropical islands are that interested in the way people in the Land of Always Winter prepare steamed mutton dumplings.

So please, indulge my curiosity. If you’re reading this and I’ve never met you in real life, what brought you to my blog? How did this little project come to be read (or at least visited) by people on five continents?


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Failing NaNoWriMo

Today is (or was, as of when I penned this; I had neither power nor Internet yesterday) the last day of my first NaNoWriMo, and I stand here before you (metaphorically, of course) to declare that I have failed at it utterly. I’m not sure how many words I managed because most of them are handwritten, but I don’t think I made it anywhere near the halfway mark.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. I started doing some research on my story topic in mid-October and was eager to write, but by the time November rolled around, my enthusiasm had waned. Lesson learned: when inspiration knocks, grab it and run with it. Don’t wait for arbitrary dates. Also learned: trying to write a story set in Ireland while living in Mongolia is sort of a doomed endeavor. So my attempt at NaNoWriMo was pretty half-hearted to begin with. When I started falling significantly behind on the wordcount within the first few days, I grew quickly disheartened.

Part of the problem was that i wasn’t really feeling the story or my characters, but a bigger part was that I’m just plain out of practice when it comes to writing fiction. I took two creative writing classes in college, but neither required me to write more than a page or two of anything at a time. Creating a scene is easy; creating an entire storyline, not so much.

Moreover, I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver lately, and I’ve found her nonfiction to be both inspiring and incredibly intimidating. For example:

The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write, and read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why it was that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly: I love it for what it tells me about life I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had socked me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

This baffling manifesto is a command that rules my writing life. It believe it means there are truths we all know, but can’t make ourselves feel: Slavery was horrible. Love thy neighbor as thyself, or we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket. These are things that cannot be said in words because they’re too familiar to move us, too big and bald and flat to penetrate our souls. The artist must craft missiles to deliver these truths so unerringly to the right place inside of us we are left panting, with no possibility of doubting they are true. The novelist must do this in story, image, and character. And make the reader believe. (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 233-334)

For example:

The fear of being perceived as idealogues runs so deep in writers of my generation it undoubtedly steers us away from certain subjects without our knowing it. The fear is that if you fall short of perfect exectution, you’ll be called “preachy.”

But falling short of perfection when you’ve plunched in to say what needs to be said–is that so much worse, really, than falling short when you’ve plunged in to say what didn’t need to be said? (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 230)

[apologies about the inability to cite properly – most Kindle books aren’t paginated]

That last one is what really gets me. I am good at saying things well; I’ve been told that for a long time. I know how to take words and shape them to be powerful, or persuasive, or beautiful. But these excerpts struck me to my core; they made me question why I was writing in the first place. Yes, I can say things well – but in the light of such conviction, I’m unsure whether anything I have to say is worth saying.

There’s nothing like that sort of uncertainty and lack of confidence to gum up the works, and my ability to work on my story grew more and more impaired as the month wore on. But my ability to write other things was unaffected. This is the most active my blog has ever been, and I have a lovely long list of future entries waiting to be written. A bout of anger and nostalgia, unintentionally coupled with the new Taylor Swift album, led to the beginnings of a poem that I won’t inflict upon the Internet. It’s bad, and it’s pretty standard post-breakup material, but even so, poetry is not usually the medium I reach for when the need for self-expression calls. For one to pour forth like that is a noteworthy event.

And I’ve written a lot of things that haven’t made it onto this blog (yet) – journal entries, responses to articles friends have posted, and so on. when presented with the choice between working on a story that has yet to come to life and recording and analyzing an event that actually pertains to my day-to-day life, or that I want to remember, I think I know which I’m going to choose. My estimated output for today is probably about 1800 words – they’re just not in my novel.

So maybe I failed at National Novel Writing Month. But if you take out the “Novel” bit, I think I did alright.


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Greetings and Annou- er, Messages

I still think twice about saying that word. Even on Wednesdays.

Anyway, hello from my new blog location! Trying to work with tumblr was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; I think WordPress should be much more suited to my needs. Anywho, I did promise I had things to announce.

Message the first: I will now be posting content on a regular schedule. This month, you can expect new posts on Mondays and Wednesdays – barring issues like internet unavailability, of course. That’s always a possibility here.

Message the second: I’m not promising long blog entries because I’ll have other things to work on. I’m going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month, and I’m posting that here so that I have to follow through with it. Ideally, of course, NaNoWriMo would have taken place in October, when I had tons of free time, instead of November, when I’ll actually be teaching, but oh well. This will still be the least busy November I’ve had for a long time, so that story that’s been bouncing around in my head for four years needs to make it onto paper, even if it’s virtual.

Message the third: I’ve got a few blog entries on Mongolian culture drafted for future posting, but be prepared for some filler from Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been reading (and loving) a lot of what she has to say about writing – and it’s good, so I’ll be sharing.

This week, as our warm-up activity, I taught the kids a song and then asked them to underline the verbs in the past simple tense. The song in question? “Би Уржигдар Баавгай Харсан” – “The Other Day I Saw a Bear.” I think that explains the dining hall nature of this post.


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When possible, make a legal U-turn.

Sat down to write tonight and ended up with a morose and self-pitying prose poem.

This is a dire situation, my friends. There’s a reason we fill our journals with poems of gloom and doom as teenagers, and a better one that leads us to look back at them with horror and pretend they don’t exist.

On tomorrow’s agenda: writing something cheerful, and taking myself less seriously. This is one path I have no wish to pursue.


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A Poem (Not Mine)

More not-written-by-me filler, I’m afraid. But I’ll post again this weekend, promise!

In the meantime, a poem of which I was recently reminded. Love this one.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

– Jack Gilbert