Category Archives: Mongolia

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.

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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.

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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiMsI5ZZ-qg

International Women’s Day

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. I was aware that Mongolia celebrates the holiday, but not having heard much about it, I assumed it was a quiet affair much like Mother’s Day in the US. Work an ordinary day, then take Mom out to dinner and give her a present, that sort of thing.

I showed up to the teachers’ lounge on Monday to do tutoring for the national English Olympics. About halfway through the hour one of my teachers came over to inform me that the men at the school were throwing a party that night for the women, and that our afternoon meeting was canceled. I thanked her for the information with my usual spike of Oh god what do I wear how do I find the place how late should I show up? alarm, got directions to the third or fourth banquet hall I’ve partied at in this aimag, and resumed the lesson.

Toward the end of the lesson, a few students came in to chat with a tutee. One of them stole her Mongolian script reference sheet with a promise to return it the next day, at which point my student reminded her, “Ертең демалыс күн.” The other student shrugged and said she’d return it on Wednesday. With mingled alarm and reignation, I asked the girl in English, “No school tomorrow?” Half of my morning work was scheduled for Tuesday this week.

What I would give for advance knowledge about these events.

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I’m happy for all women to be celebrated, but women in Mongolia — oh, do they ever deserve a day all their own.

10 of my 11 CPs are women. Out of the 110 teachers at my school, I would guess that less than 20 are men. Women in Mongolia, barred from traditional careers in herding and from dangerous and lucrative jobs in the mines, tend to be highly educated and are encouraged to pursue their education from a young age. They have a huge advantage over women in many parts of the world[1]. In any given collection of ‘bright’ or ‘talented’ students selected by their teachers, at least in the English department, a solid 90% will be girls. I think I have 4 boys in a concourse class that started with over 60 students.

In the modern world, this means that Mongolian women are highly employable. In a lot of families the woman earns higher or more stable wages. This does not, however, extricate them from the demands of social and family life.

Women in Mongolia are expected to do most of the housework. When I lived with a host family, I became the oldest ‘girl’ in the family, and as such (and ostensibly as part of my training) I was assigned a lot of chores. I did most of the dishes every night. Older girls are expected to clean the house, help attend visitors, and babysit younger siblings and cousins. Women will marry; married women will have children; women with children will be their children’s primary caregivers, along with the grandparents. This is taken as a given.

And then there’s the familial structure of a Kazakh household, which is again a little different. Kazakh families follow Muslim inheritance rules, which state that the youngest man of the family will inherit the parents’ property in exchange for taking care of them in their old age. This means that the son will continue to live under his parents’ roof (or a new roof he builds for them) for the entirety of his life.

His wife is келін, kelin, which in Kazakh means both younger sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just as the youngest son of the family is responsible for seeing to his parents’ welfare, the келін is responsible for seeing their household run smoothly. They take on the lion’s shore of the chores and childcare, and might even be responsible for helping with their siblings-in-laws’ chores and children if their in-laws live on the same property.

A lot of PCVs in Mongolia get asked why they don’t have a Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend. My CPs tell me I should not marry a Kazakh man. I suspect I would not make a very good Kazakh wife.

And yet, despite all this work, my CPs are boundless in their enthusiasm for their work with me, their love for their families, their engagement with the life that they lead. I’ll be dragging and irritable in the afternoon as one of my CPs — who, aside from her teaching job, runs a cashmere business in the afternoons, does all the household chores, and manages a miniature kindergarten composed of her own children and her in-laws’ — cheerfully invites me home for lunch and an afternoon of lesson planning/Q&A. Or the department head, inundated with the projects assigned to her, will repeatedly ask for input about the latest competition assigned to her. The CPs who invite me to their homes, who make opportunities to work with me, who juggle their children and their careers and their holidays and the sudden appearance of in-laws from Kazakhstan, with not more than the occasional bit of snark at the dictates of their mothers-in-law…it amazes me. I don’t think I could do it.

#

I showed up an hour late to the Women’s Day party, expecting to be one of the first ones there, only to squeeze into a mostly-full table at which most of the food had been devoured. Shortly after my arrival, the men announced the official beginning of the night by serving milk tea. Only one cup per person: with a dozen or two men shelling out for eighty or a hundred women, funds didn’t stretch very far.

There were all the staples of a Kazakh party in Mongolia: singing, dancing, chatting with my table-mates. I marveled at how far I’ve come since the beginning of the year: I’m starting to catch bits and pieces of conversation, enough that I can piece together the gist of a discussion, and was proud to ward off a particularly insistent vodka server with, “Керек жоқ. Ішмеймін,”[2] which amused him enough that he left me alone. Dancing is fun instead of mildly terrifying, and I even attempted the Mongolian waltz with one of my CPs — who, not being especially good at it herself, agreed to give up halfway through. I also learned a new game, “Атым не?” (What’s my name?). You dance around until the music cuts off, at which point the announcer shouts out a number. Then you have to get into groups of that number. I just about had my belt yanked off by a teacher who was determined to keep me in our group, and was promptly disqualified with a dozen others when nobody else would let go either.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a rough couple of months. But that night, giggling at my coworkers as they about knocked each other over trying to stay in the game, being yanked into the center of a dance circle by the craziest dancer in the school, recognizing the dance songs enough to sing some of the words, having my teachers affectionately call me “little” and tell me I wasn’t eating enough, chat with me, pull me into the dancing, make sure to assign me a ride home before any of them left — I felt, at last, as if I belonged.

I thought: I am here. There are so many places in the world I could have ended up, but I am here. There are so many people who have left, or have been left behind; but I have not, and I am here. And this is exactly where I choose to be.


[1] I remain puzzled, along with many other people, as to why Mongolia is a Let Girls Learn country. If anything, Mongolia has the opposite problem than the one Let Girls Learn proposes to solve.
[2] “No need. I won’t drink/I don’t drink,” though I got the conjugation wrong — it’s actually either ішпеймін or ішкем жоқ.

Food in Mongolia

Most of the time, these days, I eat horse meat.

It’s quite tasty, actually — it looks, cooks and tastes a lot like lean beef. It’s also one of the cleanest cuts of meat you can find here: in Mongolia, fat is considered as valuable and edible as meat, and so most of the cuts of beef or mutton are marbled. Horse meat is readily available in in Bayan-Ulgii at all times of year,[1] and only marginally more expensive than other meats. I supplement with beans and peanut butter, which I buy in UB or have shipped to me in care packages, since a diet of straight red meat can get tiresome.

Because Bayan-Ulgii is so far from the major cities, most of the produce is imported, and its availability varies. When I first arrived in August, we had onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, in some дэлгүүрs (shops) cucumbers or tomatoes; apples, watermelons, and oranges. With regular shipments from China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, we are often able to find bell peppers, kiwis, and occasionally such gems as lemons, lettuce, and pomegranates.

I’m also a bit limited in prep methods. This is my kitchen:

[picture]

That’s fine by me, though, since I do most of my cooking on the stovetop anyway.

I have easy access to fresh dairy, and there are a lot of dry goods from Russia, China, and even western Europe in the aimag center — there’s even a Russian store with goodies like oatmeal and spices.

There’s a lot of overlap between Kazakh and Mongolian dishes. Here’s a quick primer on the foods I’ve eaten here:

Хурга (xurag) – a dish of chopped fried meat. Comes in будаатай (budaatai, with-rice) and ногоотай (nogootai, with-vegetable) varieties, among others.
Шөл (shul) or сопа (copa) – soup. Meat and bones are boiled together; the bones are removed, the meat left in. Also comes in будаатай and ногоотай, as well as гуралтай (guraltai, with-flour, i.e. noodle), versions.
Хушуур (xushuur) – meat or potatoes fried in flour pockets; sort of resembles a pasty.
Бууз (buuz) – meat dumplings steamed in flour pockets.
Цуйван (tsuivan) or құрдақ (kurdak) – a noodle dish! Steamed noodles, meat, and sometimes veggies. This is my favorite.
Сүүтэй будаа (suutei budaa) – rice cooked in milk to make a kind of soup; for upset stomachs. (My stomach was not too happy with the offering, considering how rich the dairy is here, but I appreciated the sentiment.) I ate this during PST, but haven’t seen it in Bayan-Ulgii.
Қазы (kaz/kazi) – Horse sausage. This is a Kazakh specialty I have yet to sample.

And some classically Kazakh/Mongolian foods that aren’t meals:

Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai, lit. tea with milk) or ақ шай (ak chai, white tea) – the infamous milk tea which both Kazakhs and Mongolians drink like water. Mongolian milk tea is made by boiling tea leaves in milk; Kazakhs boil a milk-water mixture then pour it over a strainerful of tea leaves. Some families add salt. Kazakh milk tea is made with tea leaves from Kazakhstan and has a stronger flavor than Mongolian tea.
Тараг (tarag) or айран (airan) – a thin, sour, drinkable yogurt. Delicious with sugar or made into a frozen juice popsicle. Also makes a good sour cream substitute.
Ааруул (arul) or құрд (curd) – dried milk curds. Sour, crumbly, and hard enough to break off your tooth, but as snack foods go it’s quite healthy, and my host sisters loved it.
Айраг (airag) or қымыз (kumis) – fermented mare’s milk. The taste varies depending on who’s making it, but it’s sour, thick, and slightly fizzy. Can be served hot or cold. Kazakh Muslims who abstain from alcohol sometimes drink this instead of wine or vodka at house parties.
Борцаага (bortsag) or бауырсақ (baursak) – nuggets of deep-fried dough, somwhere between donuts and funnel cakes in taste and texture. The борцаага bowl, along with candy and milk tea, is always on the table in a Mongolian household, though Kazakhs supplement or replace this with cookies and bread.


[1] Unlike Kazakhs, Mongolians aren’t fond of horse meat, and in many provinces it is only available in the winter.

Motivators

A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the internet store because my modem had stopped working. Again. I carefully prepared a few phrases to use with the customer service provider. At the store I ran into an English teacher friend, who was happy to translate the answer: I’d used up all my data because I hadn’t sent an SMS to the company to convert my units into gigabytes[1].

Great, I said, though I wasn’t excited to pay double for the month. I went home and popped the modem’s SIM card into my phone. I waited for a network to show up so I could text the company.

And waited.

And waited.

Nothing. A grey triangle where there should have been reception bars. After a week of cafe-hopping and buying lunch just so I could watch Facebook fail to load — after changing providers three months before for a network that actually loaded — after finally having a discussion with a provider where I understood what was going on, I still couldn’t get my stupid modem to work.

I threw the modem at the wall, threw myself on my bed, and cried for a while. And I asked myself: What am I even doing here?

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That anecdote probably sounds a little dramatic. It becomes all the more so if I mention that I considered plugging my modem in and using a few kilobytes to research why my phone and internet SIM were incompatible; that I considered going back to the provider and asking if he could fix it; that I considered knocking on my landlady’s door and asking to borrow her smartphone to send the SMS. But no. I threw my modem at the wall and cried for an hour.

Take a minute, though, and think about the last time you focused really hard on something mentally taxing for more than an hour. Maybe two hours or four. Think about the way you felt afterward: a little bit like your brain had turned to limp noodles, as if all the usefulness had been wrung out of it and you could no longer form a coherent thought. Right? Communicating in a foreign language when you have low proficiency starts to feel like that after the first half hour.

Now imagine the last time you had a really busy day at work. You had two or three meetings on top of your own projects. And your coworkers kept interrupting you because they needed your help, or your input, or you owed them something and you just hadn’t had the time to do it yet. You end the day not just exhausted from multitasking, but irritable about how little got done despite it. With a dozen CPs, over a thousand students, and almost daily requests for new projects or private tutoring, I have a lot of days that go like this.

And that’s not talking about cross-cultural problems. Or about limited food availability and no control over indoor temperatures. Or the half-hour daily walk to and from school. Or the immature snots in the schoolyard who mimic me in a falsetto every time I speak English. Or, or, or…

It’s not an easy job. It’s emotionally taxing. You need investment and you need some kind of motivator.

#

I didn’t throw a tantrum because I was frustrated with something as minor as a faulty SIM card. Not really. I threw a tantrum because I was exhausted, because everything felt difficult, and because in that moment the whole two-year exercise seemed meaningless.

Why am I even here?

After an hour or two I gave in to practicality, if not to reason, and decided I should probably eat lunch. I had just heated up leftovers and was sitting down with my meal when I heard a knock on my door.

I paused. Listened. Decided I must be imagining things. Nobody ever came and knocked on my door. It was always the landlady they were visiting.

The knock came again. I put my lunch down to see who it was.

“Surprise!” exclaimed two of my twelfth-grade students, and announced that they had come to take me to lunch. One girl’s favorite restaurant, surprise location, their treat.

Oh, I thought, blindsided. That’s why.

#

The work I’m doing here is important, and I care about it. I care about my fellow PCVs and the network we’ve built, tenuous with distance and made enduring by shared experience. I care about Peace Corps ideals, abstract as they are — building cross-cultural communities and professional skills. But none of those things are enough in to keep me here, not in a moment of distress.

I’m here for the half-dozen students who are always asking to visit my home, to make American food, to climb a mountain together or go shopping.

I’m here for the girl who monopolizes my open office hours to ask every question about English grammar known to humankind.

I’m here for the full-time professional who stops me after an evening class to show me her new vocabulary app or ask how I pronounce a list of words.

I’m here for the sixth-grade boys who crowd in awe around my ereader in the canteen, cheer when they realize I know some Kazakh, and tell me proudly, “Food! Ол аспаз. Дәмді ме[2]?”

I’m here for the non-English speaking teachers and friends who patiently and encouragingly repeat the same question in Kazakh, over and over, until something in my brain connects and I can stumble over an answer.

I’m here for the afternoon spent chatting about anthropological terminology and cross-cultural experiences with the English teacher who runs a side translation business.

I’m here for the teachers who, seeing me exhausted at the end of a Monday, play with my hair[3] and tell me I’m very young to have this much responsibility, and then jump on my supervisor to tell him he should cut back my schedule.

I’m here for holiday parties and weekend game nights with the other foreigners in the community and some young-adult Kazakh friends.

I’m here for the friends and counterparts who have opened their homes to me, fed me dinner, asked about my life, and encouraged me to practice Kazakh with their children.

I’m even here for the gaggle of ten-year-old boys who chant “Apple apple apple apple” when they see me in the courtyard — not because it’s particularly endearing to have a random word shouted at you, but because they switch languages when I shout “алма алма алма алма” back, and give me something to laugh about on the walk home.

#

I’m dedicated to my work. I enjoy it, I find it fulfilling, and I am invested in developing myself a professional adult. But at the end of the day, I can’t live for work alone.

It’s about the people, the community, the connections I make. And I’m lucky enough to have made some good ones.


[1] Side question for PCVs using Skytel: Does anyone else have this problem or is my local provider just stupid about it?
[2] “She’s a cook. Is it tasty?”
[3] This sounds really weird in an American context. Here it’s a normal gesture of affection/comfort between sisters and close female friends.

Happy holidays (part 2): Tsagaan Sar

In most of Mongolia, winter ends on the lunar new year. As the Year of the Monkey began last week, friends and familiy gathered together to celebrate Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the White Month, the biggest holiday in the country.

In most of Mongolia. In Bayan-Ulgii, the new year also begins in spring, and it is also the year’s biggest holiday. But for Kazakhs, as for Westerners, spring begins on the vernal equinox in March.

None of my CPs celebrated Tsagaan Sar in their own homes. Most Kazakhs I asked said they visited one or two Mongolian families — close friends, neighbors, coworkers — who kept the holiday. But where most of the country grinds to a halt for the first half of Februrary, my school and community charged full steam ahead until the nationally declared holiday (February 9-11) shut down all federal institutions (including schools) and Mongolian-owned businesses.

I had a nice week off, though.

#

When I was first introduced to the faculty at my school, one of my CPs pulled me aside to point out a teacher.

“That’s Tuul,” she said. “The Mongolian teacher.”

“There’s only one Mongolian teacher?” I asked, deeply puzzled as to how one teacher could manage two thousand students. Mongolian language is possibly an even more challenging subject for my students than English, given that most of them speak Kazakh at home, receive limited conversational exposure to Mongolian, and yet are expected to speak it fluently if they want to attend a Mongolian university.

“No,” the CP insisted, “the Mongolian teacher.”

Abruptly I realized she wasn’t talking about language. Of the entire hundred-something teaching faculty at my school, exactly one teacher is ethnically Mongolian.

#

I have a total half-dozen Mongolian contacts at site — Tuul, and about half of my students at the police station. Most of my fellow PCVs spent the last week visiting the homes of friends and family, being stuffed to the brim with бууз and vodka. I spent most of the week relaxing at home, because I didn’t know where any of the Mongolians lived and I was nervous to go alone[1].

I did, however, visit one family. At lunch with a Russian friend working at the local Teachers’ College, I mentioned that I wanted to experience the holiday somehow. It turned out that in a few hours she was going with some other teachers to visit a coworker, and they were happy to invite me along. We hitched a ride with the director of the college (a nominal CP of mine, though I’ve yet to work with him on any projects) and arrived to the family’s apartment around 4 in the afternoon.

The first thing you do, when you arrive at a house during Tsagaan Sar, is greet the members of the household from oldest to youngest. They are each holding a хадах (khadakh), or ceremonial scarf. You support their elbows (if they are older than you; if they are younger, they support yours) and kiss them on each cheek, saying “Амар байна уу?”[2]

Everyone sits at a table which is absolutely loaded with food. Notable elements are the боов (boov) tower, a pastry-and-candy centerpiece whose height signifies the age and status of the family; a great many different kinds of fruit and vegetable salads; and the meat plate, which (confusingly for me) features қазы, or horse sausage, usually considered a Kazakh specialty[3]. We were served milk tea, then hot айраг (airag, fermented mare’s milk, also known as қымыз or komis), and our hosts chatted with the other guests.

Then came the vodka. Theoretically, anyone who visits a house is supposed to take three shots of vodka. Thankfully, most households are aware that three shots is a lot for an hour-and-a-half visit that (elsewhere in Mongolia) may be directly followed by another visit to somebody else. We did one toast, after the eldest man in the family gave a speech; everybody sipped their vodka; one of the men refilled everyone’s shot glass; and we ate some more.

Out came the бууз. Бууз (buuz, pronounced ‘boats’) are steamed meat dumplings, a Mongolian staple, and the traditional Tsagaan Sar meal. It is considered polite to eat at least three бууз on a Tsagaan Sar visit. I ate five, because they were quite good бууз and I had eaten a light lunch in preparation for the visit. Everyone chatted, then the next-oldest man in the household gave a speech. Everyone had another sip of vodka. The ladies of the house refilled our айраг glasses and passed out wine to the women, which I was pleased with because it tasted slightly less like paint stripper[4].

The oldest man among the visitors gave a speech. We toasted. The director of the teacher’s college gave a monetary gift and a speech. We toasted. One of the teachers gave a speech, and another teacher sang a song. We toasted again. I observed that we were now well past the required three shots; but then again, no one was actually drinking a shot at a time.

Then the head of the household looked at me and asked the teacher’s college director who I was. I blinked and gave him my name in Mongolian. He told me to give a speech.

I asked, in Mongolian, if I could give it in English and have the director translate. They were excited to realize I knew a little Mongolian and told me to give it in Mongolian. I gave it a shot, but I haven’t spoken Mongolian in two months (and then only to taxi drivers in the capital). Finally the director told me to just speak English, I said a couple of sentences, and everyone toasted.

My Russian friend gave a speech in Russian, to which everyone but me nodded wisely, and then we wrapped up our visit with gifts from our host.

#

To learn about a more typical Tsagaan Sar experience, and see actual pictures, check out some posts by my fellow volunteers:

Tsagaan Sar: Year of the Monkey
Tsagaan Sar Pictures
Сар Шинэдээ Сайхан Шилээрэй
Цагаан Сар


[1] On Monday Tuul came up to me and apologized profusely, using as much English as she knew, for forgetting to invite me to her home like she had invited the other teachers. I felt a great deal less guilty for not calling her and asking if I could visit.
[2] A variation on the usual hello, “Сайн байна уу?”, this literally translates to “Are you resting?”
[3] One key way to distinguish between Kazakhs and Mongolians: Kazakhs like horse and eat it at most celebrations. Many Mongolians dislike the taste (which has the same consistency and flavor as beef, but is rather gamier) and consider it a winter-only meat.
[4] I don’t really drink, so all alcohol tastes at least a little bit like paint stripper to me.

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.

Happy Holidays! (Part 1)

This week marks the end of the American holiday season and the beginning of Mongolia’s, as both sides of the world celebrate the calendar new year. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me.

I came back to site from the capital on the 23rd. Bayan-Ulgii has a surprisingly large Western volunteer/expat community — the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, the English Language Institute, and Nova Lingua operate here year-round, in addition to long-term tourists, short-term teachers, and at least one expat family — and all of us were invited to Little Christmas Eve, hosted by the Norwegians. We had traditional porridge and marzipan and sang Christmas carols. I’d met about half the Westerners before, but it was fun to meet the rest and celebrate a holiday we have in common.

Porridge is cool. Photo cred goes to Hope of ELI.

I had originally planned to go to school on Christmas Eve and Christmas, since I’d been away for so long, but homesickness hit me pretty hard on the 24th. I stayed home, caught up with errands, and then in the evening those of us without families to celebrate with got together for a traditional Norwegian dinner. We ate cured sheep rib, mashed potatoes and turnips, sour cabbage, and lingonberry sauce, and finished off the meal with a delicious rice pudding made from last night’s porridge. I hung out and played board games for an hour or two, then went to bed.

P1010992Hanging out on Little Christmas Eve. Also Hope’s picture.

It was interesting — Karen and David’s pre-Christmas celebrations are much more familiar to me than Mongolian Шинэ Жил, but the food and traditions are still very different. Among other things, my family celebrates Christmas in the commercial-agnostic way common in America, and so an overtly religious discussion of Christmas and Norwegian traditions (provided for the kids on the 23rd) took me aback. After a moment, of course, I had to laugh at myself — Christmas is a fundamentally religious holiday, even if it’s not always celebrated as such in the States.

All four Bayan-Ulgii PCVs originally planned to work on Christmas. But when Tess and Alex’s work got canceled at the last minute, Jake and I decided to take off and celebrate with them. All of us were a little bit homesick at this time of year, and I don’t think it helped that we’d all been away from site for a significant portion of the month. We had a Holiday Turkey donated to us by Peace Corps staff, so we cooked an awesome dinner that kept us fed through the weekend. We followed it up with drinks (for the other three) and card games, those being a “weekends together in Ulgii” staple, then hung out and relaxed on Saturday. I also had the chance to talk to everyone in my family, and to open a care package that had been waiting at the post office most of the month.

[turkey]

Usually, on Christmas Eve, I hang out with my dad and wrap a few last presents. Our neighborhood does a luminaria, and so around noon we go to our neighbor’s house to put candles in white paper bags. A few people drop the candles off up and down the street. After that, we go home and cook dinner — usually ham, veggies, mashed potatoes, crescent rolls, cranberry sauce, and baked apples, with French silk pie for dessert. As soon as it gets dark (by 5pm), we light the candles in front of our house, as well as any neighbors who haven’t got to theirs yet. Our house is at the top of a hill on a straight dead-end street, so you can see the whole street lit up and down.

[picture]

After dinner, we bring our presents down and deposit them under the tree. When we were kids, we’d watch those classic Christmas claymation videos before bed — Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy — but for the last few years we’ve foregone that to sit around and chat.

On Christmas Day, we open presents with my dad and eat a big breakfast (cinnamon rolls are usually a staple). Around midmorning we head over to my mom’s, have another round of presents, and relax for the afternoon by the fire with Christmas songs on TV. My mom and stepdad make a delicious Christmas dinner (I missed barbeque ribs this year!) and we stuff ourselves silly to round off the holiday.

I finally went back to work on Monday. I learned that I’d missed the school’s Шинэ Жил (Shin Jil, or New Year’s) celebration, which had taken place the 23-25. Шинэ Жил is a Western import from the Soviet Union era, rather than a native new year’s tradition, and is celebrated by Kazakhs and Mongolians alike (though Kazakhs call it Жаңа Жыл – Janga Jil). I’m told that the school party features Father Winter — the Russian analogue to Santa Claus — with dancing, costumes, and skits. The adult parties, however, happen in banquet halls and restaurants, and almost every professional organization books one. They started while I was in UB (the conference rooms in our training venue were booked almost every evening), and my school had theirs Monday night.

It was your usual Kazakh party: We sat, chatted, and ate snacks (candy, fruit, cold salads, and the ubiquitous ham-cucumber-tomato plate); circle danced for a while; had an awards ceremony; danced more; ate cake; danced; ate meat; danced. Our school had hired famous singers from Khovd for one set of dances, and somebody dressed up as Santa Father Winter to hand out goodie bags with sweetbread, juice, and oranges to all the teachers. I’ve been having lung trouble since my stay in UB, so I couldn’t dance for long without coughing; parties aren’t much fun when you can neither dance nor make extended small talk, so I headed home before midnight.

Tonight, families will gather together and stay up til midnight to welcome the new year. While I would be welcome to spend another evening with any of the Westerners, I haven’t seen much of my CPs since I came back into town, and this is one tradition that I want to experience the Kazakh way. I’m super grateful to be invited to a CP’s house to celebrate.

See you all in 2016!

Fairness, passion, and persistence

It’s Usage Olympics season in Bayan-Ulgii.

In Mongolia, the English Usage Olympics are designed as a demonstration of each school’s linguistic prowess. The school’s top students are chosen to participate in a series of events — for instance, introduction, roleplay, English-language song and dance, spelling bee, or debate — and each team is graded on a point scale.

I have been closely involved in the competitions this year. My school relied on me to help the students prepare, and I was asked to judge one of them. (We have two — the Usage Olympics, begun by a former PCV and run by a different school every year, and the English Extravaganza, run by our aimag’s Foreign Language Methodologist.) Between one thing and another, my schedule has been pretty much consumed by Olympics for the last two weeks.

To place in these competitions is a huge deal. Reputation is a major currency for Mongolian schools — if you work or study at a high-achieving school, you carry yourself with pride — and a school’s reputation is very much determined by its Olympics rank and concourse scores.

On the Saturday afternoon I was judging, the auditorium was packed with students who’d come to cheer on their classmates. The other judge and I cringed as groups from two private schools shouted, trying to drown each other out. “You’d think they were at a high school football match,” I said in some exasperation, trying to parse the haphazardly-micced performance on stage.

“You know,” the other judge said thoughtfully, “there aren’t organized sports here. So this kind of is their football.”

Foreign volunteers are usually sought as judges for the English Olympics, partly because of their mastery of the language, partly because as foreigners they are supposedly distanced from the rivalries and biases natural to a long-running annual competition. This is, to say the least, a bit of an awkward position: all of the American volunteers (Peace Corps and otherwise) currently working in Bayan-Ulgii are directly affiliated with a school. I’d helped the kids in my school put their presentation together, and I knew they’d worked hard and were very proud of their performance; I wanted very much for them to win. And it didn’t much help that, before the competition, both of my teachers texted me to think well of my school while I was judging.

I’ve had moments, out here in Mongolia, where some of my most fundamental values prove themselves to be cultural artifacts, and they’re some of the most difficult moments I’ve had to face. You find yourself at an unexpected communicative barrier that has nothing to do with language, and see your own incomprehension reflected in the eyes of somebody you care very much about. This was one of those times. In Mongolian and Kazakh culture, it’s seen as a good deed to grant the people you care about a few extra points; but here I was asked to judge specifically because I was American, and Americans take particular and vehement offense at that kind of favoritism.

“You’re a judge?” one of my tenth grade students asked in shock when we entered the auditorium, and then grinned. “You can give lots of points.”

“I will be a fair judge,” I told him, because at the end of the day, I had to stand by my principles. As much as I wanted my kids to win, I wanted them to win honestly.

My school didn’t place. I later joked halfheartedly that my job that week was to make the students cry: several of them had stressed themselves to the point of tears during preparation, and all of them were damp-eyed in the hallway after the scores were announced. If you don’t place, in these competitions, it doesn’t matter how hard you practiced or much fun you had on stage; you still lost. It tore at me, because I had seen these kids work incredibly hard over the past few days.

The rest of this post, then, is for the kids I’ve worked with over the past few weeks.

To the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who participated in the Olympics two weeks ago:

After the Olympics, I told you I was proud of you. This is true. You only had three or four days to prepare, and I saw you work very hard every day. It is a little different for Americans: We think it is important to win, but it is even more important to work hard. We value the person who has very difficult circumstances and works very hard more than we value the person who wins easily. Because of this, I think you did very well, even though you didn’t place.

And you had so much fun and creativity when you were planning! If we judged based on fun, I think you would have gotten many points.

To the students participating this week:

I think you are going to do very well, and I am so proud of you! You spent many hours preparing with me last week, and the last time I saw you, your performance was great. I am especially proud of how hard you have worked on your debate, and that you can debate for ten minutes and make new sentences by yourself. Good luck on Friday!

To all of the students I have worked with these last two weeks:

I don’t have many opportunities to work with very active students, because we don’t have an English club this year. Preparing with you has been so much fun for me. I saw your creativity and your love of language, which I can’t always see teaching normal classes. You are incredibly passionate and motivated students, and that is so important. Your passion motivates me to be a better teacher. Keep working hard for the things you are passionate about: this will help you so much in university and in your adult life.

Love,
Renee teacher

Winter

This post actually backdates to November 18th; for some reason it decided not to autopost.

In Mongolia, it’s said that the year of the monkey — this year — is often especially cold. I think this explains a lot about the geography of my life. I was born in the year of the monkey, and while I haven’t got any especial affection for winter, I always seem to end up in places where the season is particularly infamous.

In Buffalo, winter is marked by a change in color and in scent. Autumn brilliance falls away from the trees, leaving a bare, grey tracery in the sky; the sweet brown smell of fallen leaves fades as the weather grows colder, and the air turns crisp with snow. Then the first storms blow in and cover everything in white.

In Mongolia, the transition is not so marked. It’s dry out here, so it doesn’t snow often; the dangers of winter lie not with storms, but with the intense cold. (In Ulaanbaatar, winter temperatures reach -40 degrees. Out in my aimag it’s a little bit less frigid.) Nor are there enough trees to make fallen leaves a notable phenomenon. Winter this year, for me, has come as a gradual adding of layers to keep the half-hour walk to school pleasant, and in watching the river vanish under layers of snow and ice.

Today I spent half the walk contemplating the wisdom of taking a cab because it simply was not possible to cover the skin around my eyes, and observed that someone set up a skating rink in the middle of the river. I think it’s safe to say winter is here.

As I said, snow isn’t a common event in my part of Mongolia. It’s only snowed twice this year — once in mid-October and once last week — and my counterparts say it’s not likely to happen again. Kids are as excited to play in the snow as they are anywhere, though, and they do the same things as kids in the States: snowball fights, snowmen, snow drawings, sliding around on icy surfaces and down hills.

Last week, after it snowed, the entire school ran outside during the ten-minute midday break to have a giant snowball fight, and after fifteen minutes the training manager (sort of like a vice principal) had to go outside to shepherd the kids to their classes. Apparently it’s a thing here for boys to dump snow on girls and stuff it down the backs of their shirts. I’m not sure whether it’s a badly executed gesture of repressed affection or a socially acceptable outlet for the innate urge to be a hormonal ass that overcomes most adolescents at some point or another. Most of the girls ran outside to join the fight anyway, though.

One snow-related difficulty has to do with Mongolian urban geography. That is to say, most roads aren’t paved, and there aren’t really things like trees or gardens or even grassy lawns to get in the way of walking, so pretty much any space that is not inhabited by a building is fair game to be traversed. It simply isn’t possible to clear the snow from all those roads and plazas. A few very major paved roads are salted, but other than that, people just seem to drive/walk slowly and entrust themselves to fate. Having driven in snow for the last five or so winters, and knowing that I cannot count on most Mongolian cars to have snow tires or even tires that would pass inspection in the US, I have zero intention of being in a car on any road that has turned mostly to ice.

Fortunately, the walkways seem to progress from packed snow to ice to ground right back down to bare dirt and safe, in contrast to New York, where icy paths just get snowed on again and add another layer of impossible-to-remove slipperiness.

While all the trappings of winter have arrived, we’re not yet caught in its grip. I’m not really looking forward to February — when early darkness and frigid cold have long ceased to be a novelty, and everyone holes up in their separate homes waiting for winter to end — but I’m curious to see how it compares to my previous experiences.