All posts by Renee


The website is back up! I had some hosting issues; sorry about the downtime. This post dates to June 8th.


My school’s English department had its final meeting at the beginning of May.

“We have finished with the new material and now we are just reviewing,” said my department head, eyeing my schedule as I waved it around for my CPs to fill in. “So if we need help with something we can tell you.”

I was sick with a head cold the next week and didn’t show up to any classes. No one appeared to notice. The week after that, every single one of my classes was canceled. “There is a meeting. “The students have an exam.” “I have to grade exams…”

The upshot is, although school formally finished last Friday, I haven’t had work for most of a month.


We had a really excellent spate of warm, mild weather that lasted about two weeks. There are flowers growing down by the river, and small groves of trees planted on private properties or along the paved road add green to the landscape for the first time since September.

But spring melted quickly into summer. The sun bakes you when the sky is always cloudless and most of the ground bare dirt. It’s cool inside my cement-block apartment, and I’ve taken to staying inside in the afternoons; there isn’t a comfortable, shady spot to lounge in my neighborhood of high-rise apartments and garage storage. When I get bored enough I will probably go on the hunt for some sort of nearby park.


I haven’t got a whole lot of plans for the summer. Some family is coming to visit, and I want to travel to some neighboring aimags. But because Mongolia is hosting the ASEM Summit in July, the capital will shut down for two and a half weeks — no one in, no one out. I’m hoping to visit an aimag-mate during this period or convince one of my CPs to take me to the countryside. Either way, I’ve got at least one quiet stretch ahead.


The website is back up! I had some hosting issues; sorry about the downtime. This post dates to June 1st.


I hate first drafts. Writing them feels like trying to bridge a canyon with telekinetics; you lay a plank down on thin air and step on it, willing it not to drop you into the river. Even if you make it to the other side, the whole non-structure might collapse when you look back.

The thing is — unlike with bridge-building — you can trample over a finished draft and fill in the missing structures. I finished the provisional draft for my Malice Years[1] novel about two and a half months ago, and last month I went back to start a major restructure.

I am having a wonderful time with it.

I take structure work in two parts: in-frame, or the events in the novel, their causes and effects, and how they shape into a coherent story arc (e.g. plot logistics and character arcs); and out-frame, or facts about the world that influence the shape and feel of the novel but don’t figure directly into the story (worldbuilding stuff like maps, economics, and demographics; character backstories; and cultural set dressing like language, clothes, and food). In-frame work drives the story and makes it stronger, but the out-frame stuff is necessary for verismilitude and to make sure the story has a sensible context.

I get bored with the minutia of worldbuilding, so I try to stick as close to the in-frame work as possible. But it’s fascinating how these things intersect. For example, a chain of questions I’ve been working to answer:

What causes the random rebellion in the later third of the novel? -> Well, first I need to know what government is being rebelled against.
What sort of government exists in the city? -> I know a few facts about it, most notably that it’s the remnant of a much-larger collapsed authoritarian empire. But,
What sort of government did the empire have, and how much territory did it encompass? I know it encompassed the entirety of the main character’s known world, which amounts to a single continent; but travel in this universe would allow for knowledge of other continents, which suggests Pangaea. Which led me to,
Is it feasible to have a stable pan-Pangaea nation? How big would it be? What would it look like? How would it have come about?

This resulted in a month-long sojourn in the geography, religion, ideology, and political history of the world. I got to learn a lot of things about how the Earth builds and breaks itself and about how authoritarian regimes function. Now that I’ve found my way back from the winding road, though, I’m happy to return to elaborating the missing bits of plot.

[1] Lookee, it has a title now! Sadly, it is a series/universe title for what is supposed to be a more-or-less standalone novel.

One year

The website is back up! I had some hosting issues; sorry about the downtime. This post dates to May 25th.


One year in Mongolia, this week. Should be an occasion, right? But I celebrated with my aimag-mates about a month ago; the anniversary doesn’t feel momentous. Too many milestones in between.

It is funny, though, looking back. I remember shivering annoyed in a hotel conference room because the central heating was turned off for the summer, and our excited exclamations as a cow wandered past the window cropping grass. How pastoral. Now I pass a Trash Cow[1] on the way to work without looking twice and, well, shiver annoyed in my apartment because the central heating is turned off for the summer.

I know I’ve changed a lot in the past year — not just in the shake hands when you bump feet under the table, pass the cashier money with your right hand concrete sort of way. But how do you measure a changed mind? How do you describe it?

Two New Languages

I suppose one way is to tally the things you’ve learned. For me, Kazakh and Mongolian top that list, as far as my limited mastery goes. I’ve also learned from talking with people in my community about their experiences as a foreign/marginal community in a mostly homogeneous nation — being “not from” Mongolia, but “no longer of” the Kazakhstan their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Foreignness is something you feel pretty hard when everyone around you is proud to belong, and I’ve valued the opportunity to meet people who experience it as their everyday, albeit in a majority-Kazakh community.

Shoe Polish is Magic

In Mongolia, when somebody doesn’t know what to make of you, they look at your shoes. Are they fashionable? Do they suit the season? Are they clean and polished, or covered in road dust? Dirty or worn-out shoes are a sign of slovenliness.

I’d never polished my shoes before coming here. Nor done a lot of other chores — washing carpets, handwashing clothes, bathing in a kiddie pool or carrying water[2]. And I’ve never been as presentation-conscious as now, among professionals accustomed to giving their coworkers a casual looking-over and commenting on the less-than-fashionable.

Taking it Easy

In America there’s this drive to be busy all the time. Work full-time and have a hobby and 3 or 4 social media accounts, raise a family and work out and eat healthy and be involved in the latest causes and politics and… If you’re not busy, if you’re not always working toward something, then you’re wasting precious time.

That’s not possible in Mongolia. There physically isn’t enough stuff for the hobbies people take up in the US — computers, free Internet access, money, craft or construction materials, variety of food. People spend a lot of time sitting in front of the TV or in the town square, and visiting family in the countryside — where there’s rarely Internet, sometimes no TV, and in areas between villages no cell service at all. Herding culture is still alive in the country, and herding, too, involves a lot of sitting and watching the clouds go by.

There’s no stigma here against sitting around. It’s relaxing; it’s what you do when you have nothing to keep you busy. I do keep busy, because I have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of hobbies, but I don’t feel guilty about taking a day to relax and let my brain settle. I think it’s healthy, and I hope it’s something I can maintain even when I go back to the States.

Bread is Simple

I’d never made dough before I came to Mongolia (cookie dough excepted). It was sort of magical to watch my host mom dump a few cups of flour into a big bowl, add a bit of water, and knead until it became something solid in its own right. I’d always assumed there was some magic ingredient or baking secret that made bread, well, bread. It never occurred to me that tortillas or flatbread could be as simple as two ingredients and a little time.

Ingredients and prep methods are a bit limited in my apartment; I have a two-burner electric stove and a rice cooker. Being stuck with the basics has been an enlightening experience. I’ve pan-fried biscuits and steamed a cake, and learned a lot about how ingredients can be substituted or omitted entirely. I think it’ll stand me in good stead, even as a relatively disinterested cook.

Card Games

Хөзөр (huzur) is the Mongolian word for “cards”, both the deck and the game Mongolians play.

I…still haven’t learned to play huzur properly, but a deck of cards costs less than a penny and my sitemate is a freaking card sharp. We play whenever we can get a group of 4 that’s more interested in a game than a movie.

Also, I’ve learned to cut and bridge a deck! Mongolians shuffle overhand and are kind of confused/impressed by this.


I like teaching. I enjoy being at the front of the room, and it’s an interesting challenge to convey a concept so that students will connect and make it their own. I could see myself sticking with education after I leave Mongolia.

More than that, though, I’ve valued the opportunity I’ve had to be a support, a role model, and a guide for some of my students. I mean, some of that’s glamour, is me being cool because I’m a foreigner; but I’ve also bonded with some of the older students, where the language barrier isn’t so severe. It’s the first chance I’ve really had to look at kids and see their enthusiasms and their fears from a distance, as an adult. To know that I’m seeing them in a transient moment from which they’ll grow and change, and that my influence on that growth is necessarily limited; but knowing, at the same time, that I am an influence, like it or not. I’ve realized that’s important to me — being aware of who I impact, and making sure the self I present is one I want others to emulate. I suspect I’ll continue to look for opportunities for mentorship.


If you want to see some other retrospectives, check out some posts by fellow M26s:

How I See Peace Corps: A One Year Reflection

[1] A phenomenon in which people’s dairy cows wander town eating trash because there’s no foliage to be had.
[2] I don’t have to do those last two in my apartment, but did last summer during my training.

Schedule changes

Hello, lovelies!

As I approach a year in Mongolia, and as the year winds down toward summer, there’s been a scarcity of events I’m motivated to blog about. Blogging shouldn’t feel like a chore (unless you’re being paid for it, and even then, dude, find work that interests you!).

To preserve my sense of engagement and to keep up the quality of these posts, beginning this month I’m going to (a) diversify my post material, and (b) space out my schedule a little bit.

Future postings will look like this:

  • 1st Wednesday of the month: writing- or reading-related ramble.
  • 2nd and 4th Wednesdays: Life in Mongolia/PCV Life posts.
  • 3rd (sometimes 5th) Wednesdays: no post, general life post, or occasional bonus writing/Mongolia post.

I am giving myself a break this week because I am cranky and spring-cold-ridden. That means the next substantive post will be on May 25th.

I shall miss your frequent viewings and comments, but cheers for quality wordsmithing!


A teacher sat at the blue table in the lounge, her wares spread in front of her.

“Мынау қанша?” My CP broke away from our conversation to point at a glass baking dish.

“Жирма бес,” said the other teacher.

I glanced up from my locker and made a beeline for the table. “Жирма бес па?” 25,000 tugriks?

“Жирма бес.”

“Ертең алғам бола ма?”

“You can take it today,” said my CP, “and pay her tomorrow.”

I snatched up the dish and carefully, reverently, stored it in my locker. We sat down at a different table.

My CP asked, “What is that for?”


Bayan-Ulgii sits on a trade route between Russia and China. A fair number of odds and ends find their way to stores here — Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Kazakh, even the occasional ware from Lithuania, Poland, or Germany. But you never know when those things will appear. Right now we have chicken thighs and mozzerella in the supermarket. Last month, only one store in town had garlic.

There are two big supermarkets in Ulgii. I do the majority of my shopping at these; by and large, I know what’s available in each of them. Small дэлгүүрs carrying a fraction as much sit on every street corner.

If you want cheap and unusual, though, you go to the market. Ulgii has an open-air bazaar open six days a week. Individuals buy (or grow) goods and sell them — some from stalls, some from small stores, and some from tables they’ve brought in the back of their van to set up before the market proper. Because the wares are locally grown or bought for an individual’s profit, they tend to be cheaper than stuff brought in by major stores.

About once a week, you can walk into the teacher’s lounge and find one of the tables turned into a minimarket. I’ve seen food, beauty products, household goods, dresses and skirts, and even children’s clothing on sale. Teachers work this the same way as market-sellers: they buy or order out-of-town goods, sell them cheaper than shop (or even market) prices, and turn a nice profit on the stuff that can’t be found locally.

Some sellers get their goods by mail order; Faberlic, for example, is a popular Russian beauty catalog. Some have family in business and take advantage of a seasonal trip to Seoul or Beijing. But most people go to Kosagash. Kosagash is a Russian border town a few hours out from Ulgii. The salespeople-to-be split the cost of gas, make the hour trip, and spend the day wandering from shop to shop looking for appealing things to sell.


Last weekend my site celebrated one year in Mongolia — a month early on account of scheduling difficulties. We’d been planning the menu for weeks, with every intention of making the most of my sitemate’s oven

But there was been the problem of a baking dish. They’re available in the capital, but hard to find, and expensive. We had seen nothing when we’d looked around town.

In Kosagash, apparently, people use ovens. Maybe they even make casseroles. And that means last weekend, we got to eat a Buffalo chicken bake.

A Month in the Life

The past couple of weeks have been a little bit crazy for me — professionally and socially. It’s been a little bit difficult to gather the reflectiveness necessary for a collected blog post, so this week I’m just going to ramble a bit on recent events.


April has been the month of Administration-Ordained Events for the English department at my school.

Every year, the director of our school requires each department to put on a certain number of extracurricular events, as outlined by a curriculum plan the teachers create at the beginning of the year. One of the events my teachers decided on this year was “Ten Days of English” — two weeks of daily extracurricular events for all English students.

The department head had suggested scheduling this event every term this year; but because it would require a lot of time input (even with 11 teachers in the department!) it was repeatedly tabled. This is the last term of the year, however, and there’s no time left to put it off. Why not kick off term proper this way?

Theoretically, each teacher (myself included) was supposed to volunteer for two events, one of which was for the grade they taught. Because I function as everyone’s auxiliary, I was volunteered for 4 or 5 events in the first ten minutes of the discussion, had to repeatedly inquire after the schedule and firmly absent myself from things, and still got pulled into several activities so that teachers could have pictures with the American in them. I officially particpated in the seventh grade speaking competition as a judge, and borrowed three board/card games from a friend to host an ‘American’ games day[1]. The games day was so successful I decided to ask my father to bring some board games for me when he comes to visit this summer.

That ended last week. This week, the Foreign Language Methodologist (aimag representative for the national education department) is coming to visit our school with 20 foreign language teachers. My teachers are understandably quite stressed; the visit has prompted a complete redesign of our English cabinet[2] and a quest for the Best-Ever Open Lesson. I was volunteered as Open Lesson Auxiliary Planner and to host a half-hour methodology presentation — the latter of which I declined because I’m burnt out from the last two weeks and don’t have time to research new activities. Here’s hoping the visit goes well, anyway.


I’ve also picked up a few evening activities this month, which are tons of fun but make my evenings a bit crowded.

A Kazakh friend of mine hosts a ‘women’s fitness club’ on weeknight evenings, which is to say she puts on zumba/aerobics videos and provides water and encouragement. A few fellow foreigners go once a week, and I’ve taken to joining in; some of the videos are kind of silly, but it’s a good opportunity to check in with the rest of the volunteer community and enjoy myself in English.

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve also found a taekwondo club in town. They meet three times a week at the sports center. I heard about it because the head instructor’s wife is close friends with a friend of mine; when I met the instructor, he told me he also taught the PCV who worked at my school before I did. So that’s a nice bit of continuity. I’ve missed the hell out of being in a dojo, and the club should be good for my language and social life as well as my body. The only difficulty is that the class begins immediately after my workday ends, so I can only attend on days when I work downtown (near both my home and the sports center).


And to round off a crazy month, I’ve made some new friends. We have a new volunteer in town, a German working at the local private school. She’s officially the youngest (adult) foreigner in Bayan-Ulgii and lives with a host family; there are only a handful of people from her organization in all of Mongolia, none of them in the west. I have decided that the Ulgii PCVs will adopt her.

I also met one of my sitemate’s CPs, a teacher at the Turkish college, who offered real Turkish food in exchange for help with his TEFL certification project[3]. His wife is studying English at the teacher’s college and speaks about as well as he does; they have a one-year-old child, just mobile enough to be a danger to himself, and so the CP’s wife is pretty much stuck at home these days[4]. I have decided to adopt her too, though we’ll see how that goes — I’m usually stuck at work when she’s stuck home alone.

Finally, during Nauriz I was invited to a student’s home and met her father’s best friend, who is a driver. This guy has taken to offering me a lift whenever he happens to drive past me, and has been insisting for the last week that I need to visit his home. I’ve met his son, who is studying at the teachers’ college, as well as his wife, briefly. I fully intend to make the visit eventually, but I’m a little cautious because it’s not usual for men to extend invitations to women here; I’m waiting until my schedule calms down and I have the attention to muddle through my limited language and cultural understanding. Being Kazakh, though, this guy has been calling me every day to re-invite me.


All in all, to call my month eventful is to approach serious understatement. Most of the happenings have been enjoyable, but unforunately busy days = stress = anxiety for me, and I’m ready to settle down for a quiet rest of the year.

Well, I can dream.

[1] The friend in question is Norwegian. But hey, we have Jenga and Uno in America, too.
[2] a.k.a. the room where all the English supplies are housed.
[3] As a rule, I refuse to help with English lessons outside of my work hours. But Turkish food, guys. Real Turkish food. Including coffee and dessert. Totally a fair trade, even if 8pm coffee at the end of a stressful week did set off a three-day-long anxiety attack.
[4] Kazakh conceptions of childcare being much less intensive than Turkish (or American) ones, she can’t really find him a babysitter.

Language learning

During PST, I received something like 40 hours of Mongolian language training.

At the end of PST, I received rather less than 12 hours of Kazakh language training, the bulk of it in one single eight-hour session.

I remain somewhat puzzled by this, since for 90% of the people at my site, Kazakh is the everyday language. Mongolian is only used in formal professional situations or with somebody who doesn’t speak any Kazakh. I’m sincerely hoping that this year, the training staff will do better by the PCVs going to majority-Kazakh regions.


Arriving in Bayan-Ulgii, securing language training was one of my major concerns. Because scheduling is somewhat — laid-back — in Mongolia, acquiring a tutor can be really difficult. You arrange to meet with a tutor; you set a time; you have one, maybe two lessons; then the tutor gets busy and has to cancel, and somehow the lessons never pick back up.

I got lucky. Early in the year I was talking to my supervisor about finding a teacher when one of my CPs cut in. Did I really want to learn from a Kazakh language teacher, or could anybody teach me? I answered no — I’d actually prefer to learn from somebody who spoke a little English. My CP immediately volunteered herself in exchange for equal hours of English tutoring. Even better, because she’s a junior teacher, her schedule is all over the place — she’ll have one lesson at 8am and then nothing else until 2pm, and in the meantime she’ll hang out in the teacher’s room. It means that she’s really easy to track down for a lesson.

I also experimented with a few paid lessons downtown; there’s a company near where I live that offers both English and Kazakh lessons. But the lessons turned out to be rather by-the-book in a way that failed to catch my interest, and my HCA is way on the other side of town, so scheduling was too much hassle.


Materials have been a bit of a pain, as well. Bayan-Ulgii Kazakh takes a lot of influence from Mongolian. It borrows names for official people and places from Mongolian, and some colloquialisms have shifted to mirror Mongolian ones (e.g. Не бар?, “What’s up?” is cognate to Mongolian Юу байна? and is more common in Ulgii than the native Қал қалай?). Additionally, some verb conjugations are much more common in Ulgii than Kazakhstan and markers of the dialect; and in case of two synonymous vocabulary words, the very common Kazakhstan-dialect word will produce a long, blank stare from my tutor, followed by a discussion with the entire teacher’s lounge about what the word means and what word Ulgii Kazakhs use instead.

My resources tend to fall into two categories: locally and non-professionally compiled (e.g. an early edition of somebody’s minidictionary and a phrasebook created in Darkhan), containing local colloquialisms but also contradictory information, mistakes, and confusing layouts; or from Kazakhstan, well-designed and technically correct but full of language people in Ulgii don’t use. There are some dictionaries and basic readers in a shop near my home which might be more useful, but I haven’t yet delved into my language-learning budget to check them out.

Right now I’m working through the 2008 Peace Corps/Kazakhstan textbook with my tutor, which is useful insofar as it has basic grammar and provides a jumping-off point for local vocabulary. I’m about halfway through it, though, and realizing it’s quite basic and rather repetitive. Once we’ve finished that, if my tutor doesn’t have any suggestions, I’m going to check out the bookstore down the street.


Outside of lessons, there are a few things I do to try and build my language.

First, I use a flash card program called Anki, which is tremendously helpful for building vocabulary. I recommend it to everyone trying to learn a new language. I use my phrasebooks to create flash cards that are Kazakh on one side and Mongolian on the other, and every day the program provides 10 new cards. After a card is ‘learned’ for the first time, Anki tracks how often and how easily you remember it, and gradually grows the interval at whih the card appears.

I also keep a little notebook and a pen on me whenever I go around town. When I come across a new word or need one and can’t remember it, I write it down to ask my tutor later. This is my ‘practical’ dictionary and my best source for vocabulary.

But the most important thing — and the most difficult, for me — is practice. I’m a shy person. It’s not easy for me to initiate conversations, and often when other people approach me they start in English, because they assume that as a white person I’m either Russian or American. Moreover, they usually approach me because they assume I’m American, and they want to practice their English. In my capacity as an English teacher (and a fundamentally efficient person who prefers to speak in the easiest language possible) I usually stick with English and only switch to Kazakh when we slam headfirst into a language barrier.

The easiest way around this is to make friends with little kids, who haven’t started to study English and have no real interest in practicing it. They are often really excited to play teacher to the teacher and to help me learn new words. I have one CP in particular I love to visit because there are about a half-dozen tremendously rambunctious kids in the extended family, all of whom are eager to teach me. It’s difficult, though, because I live in the city center, about an hour’s walk from her.

More recently, I’ve joined a local taekwondo studio. After only two lessons I can see it’s going to help my language tremendously. The head instructor speaks a little bit of English — words like “jump”, “kick”, “come”, and “stop” that are very useful when he’s showing me the fundamentals — but of course the class itself is in Kazakh. I have to listen for the handful of words I know and keep an eye on what the other students are doing. I’m a fellow student there, not a teacher, not a privileged foreigner; the instructions, banter and rapport existed before I came along, and it’s my responsibility to fit myself into them. The class laugh and echo the instructor’s shouted, “Long! Think!” when I miss a kick, but when they ask who I am and what I’m doing there, when they try to explain what it means to kick long, it all happens in Kazakh.


If you follow this blog with any regularity at all, you’ve noticed I don’t post a lot of pictures.

The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t take a lot of pictures. I’m not a photographer. I don’t carry a camera with me unless I’m doing something specifically for photo-taking purposes. Most of the pictures I do take are of landscapes and pretty places, not people or cultural items or other things of interest to this blog. And I like to experience things firsthand — with my own eyes, not through a camera lens — so unless it’s a spectator event, with me sitting in the stands watching quietly, I’m not likely to snap a photo.

That said, I have collected some pictures here and there. Without further ado:

My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.
My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.

Traveling to our training site in June
Traveling to our training site in June
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
the demon goat.
the demon goat.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
No comment.
No comment.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
The Mongolian flag and my training site's sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
The Mongolian flag and my training site’s sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom's friend made mine for me.
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom’s friend made mine for me.
The cutest host дүү ever
The cutest host дүү ever
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
The view from my window at site.
The view from my window at site.
...isn't it?
…isn’t it?
The first snow in the mountains.
The first snow in the mountains.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone's front fender
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone’s front fender
The Khovd River in February.
The Khovd River in February.

Happy holidays, part 3: Nauriz

Nauriz (properly Наурыз, also Nauryz or Nowruz) is the Kazakh new year celebration, observed around the week of March 20. Most of Bayan-Ulgii celebrated March 22-23, although there are stragglers on both ends extending the holiday from the 20th to the 25th.

The idea behind Nauriz is much the same as Mongolian Tsagaan Sar: celebrate the spring’s coming prosperity by cooking a lot of food and sharing it with family, neighbors and friends. In practice, however, it’s a little bit different. With this in mind I present —

How to Have a Successful Nauriz

1. Brush up on your Kazakh language ahead of time. This is one of those occasions where everyone is constantly speaking Kazakh and everyone’s father-in-law who never met you wants to see how much Kazakh you know. At minimum learn the holiday greetings: Улыс оң болсын, ақ мол болсын, and, if you want to get to the point, құтты наурыз.

2. If you are lucky enough to own Kazakh traditional clothes, wear them. This is the only time of year anyone who is not a small child or a bride wears traditional clothing. If you don’t have any, that’s fine — a lot of Kazakh people don’t, these days — but do wear a nice outfit and clean shoes.

3. Don’t eat breakfast.

4. Tuck a bit of toilet paper into your pocket before you leave home; you’re going to be drinking a lot of tea and a lot of soup. But also make sure your water filter is full. Both the tea and the soup are salty, and қазы is addictive for the same reason potato chips are addictive: it tastes like pure salt.

5. Under no circumstances should you agree to work Nauriz morning. Even if your CP is stuck at school until she finishes grading the national English Olympics exam. Even if all the other PCVs bailed on helping her grade. The city parade is supposed to happen at 10:00, which means it starts at 11:00 just when you are supposed to start grading — and you definitely don’t want to miss the chance to see people from every institution in town wearing their finest Kazakh clothes. In the square, where the parade takes place, there are also food gers and kiddie attractions like photos on a pony and roller skating.

6. Theoretically, you are supposed to visit 40 homes in the first day of Nauriz. This might happen for the school kids, who wander into a home, gulp down a half-bowl of қоже, and tell the host their name before they wander on to the next house. (“I think he is in my daughter’s class,” said my CP. “She said she invited some of her classmates.”) But for an adult, a bare minimum of 20 minutes is polite — enough time for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup — and a particularly hospitable host may occupy you for an hour and a half with different foods and topics of conversation. To visit three houses outside of your immediate neighbors is minimally satisfactory; five, admirable; seven, probably not possible before it gets dark (and anyway your stomach might explode).

7. While it’s socially acceptable to visit both days of the holiday, you might want to do most of your visits the first day, when the food is fresh and hasn’t been picked over by a dozen visitors. Most of your invitations will be on Day 1, anyway.

8. Don’t make a schedule. Resist the urge. Even if you have eleven invitations and you’re determined to fulfill all of them. Your schedule will be in tatters as soon as your host says a mutual acquaintance is coming in twenty minutes and they are visiting the same person as you next and you should definitely wait for them. Do, however, find out where everyone lives and decide when you want to visit which district. You don’t want to spend the day shuttling from the Turkish college to the over-the-bridge ger district and back (an hour-and-a-half walk one way or up to 5000T taxi fare).

9. Do call your prospective host before you make a visit. Usually, families manage the sheer number of invitations they receive by leaving one family member at home and sending the rest off on separate visits. If you know the whole family or if you’re visiting the mom of the family, odds are good you can visit any time, and strictly speaking you can walk right in without any invitation at all; but even so, it’s polite to call in advance and make sure the people you want to see are home.

10. When entering a house, there aren’t as many formalities as here were at Tsagaan Sar. Take off your shoes; wash your hands if you’ve just used the restroom; wish your host a happy Nauriz, and take a seat in the living room. Guests should sit facing the door near the head of the table (designated by the nearness of the meat plate if there are chairs at both ends).

11. Staples of the Nauriz table: the meat plate, with a goat’s head, sheep meat, and қазы (salty horse sausage); женте, a kind of crumbled sugar-and-dry-dairy dish with raisins; curd and red cheese; some bread and cold salad plates; cookies and candy; a fruit plate. First, you’ll be served a bowl of milk tea (some houses also have seabuckthorn juice) and urged to help yourself to the side dishes. Then your host will slice up some of the meat plate. Finally, қоже, the classic Nauriz soup: millet or rice served in meat broth mixed with a special kind of yogurt, which gives it a slightly sour taste. In some homes you will be able to mix in your own yogurt, while in others the broth is cooked with the yogurt or your host will mix it for you. As a bare minimum, drink one cup of tea, eat one bowl of soup, and sample anything your host points you to when they notice your mouth isn’t full.

12. If you’re midway through an extended visit and a large group troops in — perhaps your host’s homeroom class or half her husband’s coworkers — it may be a good idea to vacate the table, so they have enough seats, and relax in the back of the room or wherever your host indicates. The bigger group probably won’t stay long, and you can take advantage of the break to do a bit of digesting.

13. Once you have gossiped and digested sufficiently, tell your host it’s time to be on your way. They may inveigle you to try one more dish or suggest you wait for a companion for your next visit. Stop at the outhouse; call ahead for your next visit; and go on to the next stop!

14. You may collapse at home once it gets dark, as by then it’s not really polite to visit without being explicitly asked to.

cosmic musings

“Do you believe in God?”

I blinked. Four seventeen-year-old faces blinked back at me, waiting with earnest curiosity for a response they understood.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a…complicated question.”

It was four-thirty on the Friday before the third-term holiday. The twelfth-grade concourse class had assembled, four-sevenths of them, for a listening lesson that ran short. At this point — three-quarters of the way through the year — they had exhausted all of the grammar points their exam book had to offer, and so my co-teacher announced that we would practice dialogues for the remainder of the class. This question had come from the aspiring lawyer, who was shy to speak but revealed a surprising fluency when pressed to do so.

Do you believe in God?

It’s a red-button question, in the States, where a single community will hold Jews, Muslims, and a half-dozen Christian denominations, all of whom profess to believe in one God but differ widely about what that means. Where a significant portion of the community is agnostic, or atheist, or of a non-Abrahamic tradition, and may be offended by the question’s inherent assumption. It’s a missionary question, after all, in the evangelical Christian tradition: not, What is your faith? but Do you follow mine?

But of course these girls were coming from a different angle, and had no knowledge of the context that makes that question so loaded in my home country. Religious diversity, among Kazakhs, exists mostly along a scale from the strict Muslim, who wears a head scarf and prays five times a day, to the citizen of Muslim tradition, who goes about her day without thinking too much about God but attends funerals, weddings, and holiday celebrations. I know there is a small Christian population here, and no doubt a few quiet atheists; there may even be some Kazakhs who have adopted Mongolian Buddhist tradition[1]. But the majority by far is at least nominally Muslim, and I would be surprised if my students knew more than one or two non-Muslim community members. For them, there really only was one way to conceive of God.

I didn’t want to answer with a simple yes or no. I know my students are sharp. I will give simplified answers to certain delicate questions (“Would you date a Kazakh?” they asked later, and I replied, “I want to go back to America”) but I think, as a matter of respect, I should attempt for most questions to convey as complete an answer as possible.

The girls murmured a question in Kazakh to their teacher. I caught the word ‘Крист’ and thought, yes, well, there’s a place to start. “My family is Christian.” My students nodded, satisfied by this answer; but I forged on anyway. “But there’s a — a ceremony — for Catholics, my mother’s family is Catholic Christian –” oh, what was the word, un-thought-of for the last six or eight years? ” — a sacrament, it’s called, a ritual called Confirmation — when you’re sixteen, you, um, you become an adult in the church. But I didn’t do that.” I was losing them, I could see, drawing away from them into a world of incomprehensibly foreign experience as their texbooks so often did. “I wanted to…oh, to see different religions first. There are so many religions in the world, and how to know which is right…”

Their faces had withdrawn into polite incomprehension, complete with raised eyebrows. I surrendered. “I believe in something. But I don’t know exactly what.”


It’s been a while since I’d given serious thought to the religious question.

It’s always been a question for me, for some reason, even during childhood CCD class and Masses (I recall being bribed, sulking and whining, into regular Sunday attendance with the promise of Sunday donuts afterward). Sometimes, hearing a hymn or following a Bible passage during church, I remember a sense of awe: This taps into something profound. I would feel, for the briefest moment, my insignificance in a timeline that stretched far beyond my birth and death; but it was always accompanied by a kind of sadness. This house is not my home. I was certain, even as a sulky preteen, that the natural laws laid down by the church did not align with my understanding of the world. At sixteen, I took one look at the list of requirements I had to for Confirmation and told my mother flatly that I did not want to be Christian. The ensuing argument started out stormy, but I was eventually permitted to drop out of my final year of religious ed.

I’ve known people who have become their best selves by following their faith; I’ve seen the strength that a religious community can confer on an individual. I admire that. I’m glad that it exists in the world. And on some level I do want it for myself. But it isn’t something I can do halfway; if I am going to commit to a belief, I am going to commit to it fully. And so, at sixteen, I put the question of religion — What do I believe in? — aside, figuring that someday I would find my way to the answer.

I’m wondering now if it’s time to think seriously about it again. What do I believe in? It seems to have been relevant, lately. I suppose in some ways it’s fundamental to being a PCV — positive belief, that is, not religion per se; you’ve got to have some kind of ethical guide given this unbelievable opportunity to choose what you do every single day, and it takes a kind of willful faith in circumstance to hold out hope for some of the projects we attempt. But it’s not just that. I’m in my mid-twenties now, and while I know that’s quite young to some of my readers (“little Renee,” my CPs say affectionately) I am certainly an adult. At some point in the near future — five, eight, ten years from now — I’m going to look up and find myself settled into a worldview and a lifestyle I may not have consciously chosen. Now is as good a time as any to examine my beliefs.

And it comes up in discussion. Not just with my well-meaning students, either. A fair number of people in Bayan-Ulgii’s expat/volunteer community are Christian, outspokenly so[2], and have found their way here partly because of their faith. It comes up with my fellow PCVs, who are, like me, somewhat of an intellectual bent: What would you do if you had no obligations — to anyone or anything? What do you think about organized religion? Even from the counselor: This week, consider this idea of a universal force that keeps coming up, and how it affects your thinking.


What do I believe in?

I don’t believe in an ordered universe, or at least, in a universe that behaves in a way that the human mind is capable of comprehending in full. The universe I believe in is, I suppose, a bit like the one Derrida[3] philosophizes: fundamentally chaotic, nonsensical, made comprehensible only by careful application of a constantly-shifting contextual target; gleeful in its chaos, studded with gems of cognizance and beauty, offering a choice, in all things, between joyful engagement and cynical denial. A world of infinite opportunity and constant, irreconcilable limitations.

I suspend judgment on the idea of a god, or an afterlife, on karmic balance or cosmic rule. No way to know for sure, I told myself as a teenager; no need to worry about it. I’m still not sure if that was a cop-out. I don’t believe these are things we can ever achieve certainty in, and while I think they’re ideas I ought to put more consideration into, I believe I would derive benefit from them only insofar as they gave me comfort and a sense of direction.

I believe that narrative is the way we make sense of our small part in a vast and confusing experience. I believe — as a writer — that narrative is one of the most powerful cognitive tools we have. It gives us the power to shape to our days and reconcile ourselves to the incomprehensible. I believe in the possibility that the narratives we shape for ourselves may, on our deathbeds, be the one real and poignant cumulation of a lifetime’s experiences. Even the tangible artifacts of memory are incomplete without the story that created them[4].

I am not convinced of the possibility of a universal ethical system (or any kind of universal philosophy, come to it), but I do believe in the positive power of a personal system of ethics. Consistently behave in a way that you find laudable, and at the very least you will feel fulfilled by your life. If your ethics are good, if good ethics exist, and you might benefit the world at large, if it is possible to place the world on a positive trajectory. But, not being convinced of universality, I am a fundamentally selfish creature, and I figure leading a fulfilling life (whatever that means) ought to be enough for most people.

I believe, most of all, that we retain the power to choose much about our lives. Everyone at some point faces choices that might change their life’s trajectory. But more than that, we are able to choose the way we conceive of that trajectory. We can engage with the circumstances we find ourselves in; we can create meaning in fundamentally arbitrary occurrences; we can name ourselves principled, and give ourselves principles to fulfill that name, and make further choices based on those principles. Deliberately or not, consciously or not, we choose every day whether our lives are rooted in hope or in fear. I am trying to be more aware of making that choice.

I don’t know, at the end of the day, if all that adds up to something approximating direction-giving organized belief. I suspect not, or else that I’m not applying it consistently — otherwise I wouldn’t be musing about it, would I? I do rather doubt that it aligns with the practices of most upstanding religious organizations. And while it makes me a bit sad, a self-exile, standing outside peering into the circle of light — I’m all right with it. I’m rather a contrary soul at the bottom, and doubt I would do terribly well as either sheep or shepherd.


Since religion is a hot issue in America, and since the practices of both Islam and Christianity are tangentially relevant to this post, a couple of ground rules for the comments section:
– No proselytizing.
– Be open-minded in your comments if you can, even if the discussion runs counter to your beliefs; at the very minimum be civil.
– Reactionary Islamophobia and hate speech will be immediately deleted and the poster’s IP and email blacklisted. Keep in mind that I am living in a Muslim community and have a great deal of respect for many of the people here.

[1] Though Kazakhs are proud of their minority status and their differing cultural traditions, among which religion is foremost. It seems more likely to me — as an outsider, mind, who hasn’t talked much about religion in my community — for a Kazakh to adopt a new minority faith like Christianity than to switch to something as quintessentially Mongolian as Buddhism/shamanism.
[2] But, do note, they are not missionaries: the Mongolian government is firmly against proselytizing as the country tries to reclaim its cultural roots from communist-era disavowal. We are not, for example, permitted to receive religious books by mail.
[3] A somewhat eccentric philosopher of the twentieth century, of much renown in literary theory. In case you can’t tell, I am rather fond of his work, which is not to say I understand it entirely.
[4] Relevant: