Category Archives: Peace Corps

Shopping

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Photodump

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.
Beautiful...
Beautiful…
...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.”

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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.

#

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.

#

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?

#

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.