Aloneness in Mongolia

Another month later…

My internet situation has been a little more questionable than I’d hoped for — I’ve only gotten public internet access as of this week.

This post and the next backdate to when I thought I would have internet within the week.

Written for August 26, 2015

As a general rule of thumb, people don’t live alone in Mongolia.

Family is super important to Mongolians. During training, my host mom — who was theoretically the only one living on her хашаа — was visited almost every day by her sons and grandchildren, whether to help around the хашаа or just to hang out. Her elder sister visited once every few weeks with her family, and other extended family and friends came by on a regular basis. Twice while I was living there we had family from the capital come and stay for a week.

And then there’s the хашаа system. In the хашаа districts of soums and aimag centers, a person buys a plot of land and builds a fence, or хашаа, around it. Then that person can build whatever he or she wants within the fence. Relative to American houses, gers are quick and easy to assemble and don’t take up much space, so it’s easy for a relative to set up for a while in an empty part of the yard. Smallish living spaces for nuclear families within a larger communal yard — especially combined with the Mongolian emphasis on hospitality — create a sense that all space is shared space, and everyone is welcome. It was not uncommon, when I was living with my host family, for visitors and host family friends to wander right into my ger, inspect my belongings and the cleanliness of my surroundings, and make small talk in Monglish.

The хашаа setup can be frustrating for Americans, who are used to privacy, but ultimately it helps with integration — if a Mongolian is liable to wander into your space at any moment, it behooves you to learn as much about the language and customs as you can (and to keep your ger clean).

At my new site, I’m living in an apartment, and the atmosphere is very different. I’ve only met a few neighbors on the stairwell, and everyone keeps their doors locked, even when they’re home. I share an entry hall with the sister of one of my coworkers, so I do have a neighbor who can wander in at will, but it’s still got a different feel from when I was on a хашаа — I don’t like to go into my neighbor’s apartment without an invitation.

Being alone is not a good thing in Mongolia. While short periods of solitude are recognized as valuable, a person who lives alone is believed to be isolated and unhappy. This isn’t usually the case for me — I relish my alone time — but here, after two months on a хашаа, moving to a place where I don’t speak the language and don’t have a teacher, where there’s only a few other Americans within two hours’ drive, where my only cultural contacts are my coworkers…well, it gets a little lonely.

As I meet my counterparts, I’m making it well known that I live alone and I’d like visitors, and that I’m very happy to trade English for Kazakh lessons with anybody who has the time to spare. My counterparts seem super excited to get to know me, and I’ve heard again and again that they specifically requested a female Volunteer so that they could spend time outside of work with her[1]. Hopefully I won’t be lonely long.

A lot of Volunteers in apartments — especially in the Kazakh region, because of the language barrier — move onto хашааs their second year. It’s certainly something to consider, but, well…I also like centralized heat and running water. We’ll see how this winter goes.


[1] In a later post, I’ll write more on relationships, cross-gender friendships (or the lack thereof), and the fun of being a single American in Mongolia.