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Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.

Camp Days

So much for the new posting schedule, eh? My free time and internet access this summer have been a bit…unevenly distributed.

Last week I was assisting with Bayan-Ulgii’s first iteration of the Bro for GLOW Diversity camp, a weeklong gender and diversity camp for teenagers living in Mongolia. The idea is to expose kids who live in mostly-Khalkh[1] areas of Mongolia to some of their country’s ethnic diversity, and to encourage tolerance and mutual learning instead of discrimination.

This first camp was run by my sitemate and two other PCVs from different aimags, each of whom brought five teenage students and a counterpart teacher. The remaining twenty students were sourced from Bayan-Ulgii’s aimag center and more accessible soums based on their proficiency in Mongolian and eligibility for WorldVision funding[2]. The PCVs and their counterparts taught some 101 sessions on gender, diversity and leadership, interspersed with hikes, games, and nightly dance parties.

My aimag-mate and I went along in the capacity of assistant runners-around and Kazakh language support — the latter of which proved mostly unnecessary, because the kids had been selected with the knowledge that the camp would run in Mongolian. This meant we didn’t get a very representative sample of Ulgii’s ethnic distribution (about half the kids were Mongolian[3], and most of the remainder were either from private schools or the public school that teaches exclusively in Mongolian), but that issues of comprehension or discrimination due to a language barrier were few and far between.

The upshot being, I spent most of my time sitting in the back of the room whispering to the lead PCV, “What’s happening now?”[4]

That said — as far as I could follow — the lessons seemed to go over really well, considering it was the first time any of the kids had had a sit-down talk on the subject. They had fun in the classroom (though, like kids on summer break everywhere, they complained that the classroom existed at all). They showed understanding of the material. Inter-aimag friendships were made and some really awesome cultural presentations were given.

I had a lot of fun and I’m hoping this camp becomes an annual thing. Next year the organizers are hoping to expand with more kids and more aimags — which means I might be able to bring a counterpart teacher and do some lessons myself.

(Renee teaching something other than English? Preposterous, and yet I live in hope.)

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[1] There are two divisions of ethnicity in Mongolia: first, by whether or not someone is ‘ethnically Mongolian’ (so, for example, Kazakhs and Tuvans are of Turkic ethnicity), and then by Mongolian subgroup or tribe (Khalkh, Durvud, Buryat, Uriankhai, etc). Khalkh Mongolians account for about 85% of Mongolia’s population, and (except in regions like Bayan-Ulgii where a single minority forms the bulk of the community) their dialect and cultural conventions dominate both institutionally and socially.
[2] WorldVision being a major humanitarian organization in Mongolia and one of the funding sources for the camp.
[3] Bayan-Ulgii is over 90% Kazakh.
[4] Shoutout to Trenton for running his sessions entirely in Mongolian, by the way. And to Jake, whose lessons I didn’t sit in on, but who speaks to his CPs in Kazakh two-thirds of the time even though they speak English. I need to up my language game.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.