Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tsagaan Sar: The White Month

Tsagaan Sar is the celebration of the lunar new year on the Tibetan calendar. Since the dates are based on the moon and decided by monks, they change every year but usually fall sometime in February. This year, Tsagaan Sar Eve, or Bituun, fell on Tuesday, February 21st. For arguably one of the most important holidays of the year, I traveled back to Selenge to visit my host family.

Snowy, Frozen Orkhon River

I arrived in Orkhon Tuesday night after leaving my home in Baganuur at around 8 a.m. I was thrilled to be back in the home I spent my amazing summer in and back with the family I grew to love. I realized just how much my language skills have advanced as we sat around the kitchen table sharing stories and catching up on the past 6 months we’ve spent apart. My brother came home from school in UB for the holiday, but unfortunately my sister couldn’t come back from Russia. Still, I got to talk to her on the phone which was really nice. Bituun is traditionally spent with your family as you eat the last meal of the old year, which coincidentally, will be the same meal you eat for about a week as you visit friends and family. The typical Tsagaan Sar table spread is impressive and quite ubiquitous, reminiscent of the way many families' Thanksgiving tables yield the same foods year after year. Since Tsagaan Sar means white month, most of the food you’ll find on the table is also white. Massive towers of boov (fried pastry bricks made by hand and stamped with traditional symbols) are erected and hold an even larger, round boov on top covered with an assortment of white treats. My family’s tower was topped with aruul (homemade dried yogurt curds), sugar cubes, and white candy-covered peanuts. A variety of “salads” will also be present, the most common being niiclel salad, which is a mayonnaise-based spin off of potato salad. Next to the tower of boov, some sort of boiled animal carcass will be proudly displayed. My family had a sheep with the fatty tail bit still attached. As guests arrive, hot plates of buuz will appear (steamed, meat-filled dumplings) and served with suutei tsai (milk tea). Next, shots of vodka will circulate, usually accompanied by either airag (fermented mare’s milk) or a Mongolian weak milk vodka.
Eej heating homemade wax
Our Tsagaan Sar Spread
Making candles

So on Bituun, all of our food was already prepared and we sat down together to eat our traditional meal, before walking across the yard to Emee (our grandmother’s) house and celebrating again with her. The next morning, we went outside to greet the first sunrise of the new year. Then, our first meal was again with our family, and we exchanged the traditional holiday greetings with each other, starting with the oldest family member. My dad fetched his furry hat and sat down as each of us approached, placed our arms under his elbows (a sign of support and respect) and said the appropriate greetings: “Amar baina uu?” “Saihan shinelj baina uu?” A quick side-to-side sniff of the hair later, we greeted the next person. If you greet someone the same age as you are, (after an awkward moment where both of you try to put your arms on bottom) you each place one arm on top and the other on bottom. After our breakfast buuz, we went to Emee’s house and repeated the meal.

Uncle Otgoo, Emee, Me, Eej
Visiting is a central part of this holiday. The first day is (more-or-less) reserved for visiting your closest family members, the second for more distant relatives, and the last for friends. However, this is all relative since some people will be traveling very far to share these visits, making this holiday drag on for weeks. Since my Emee is 86 and probably the oldest living person in my town, she had an incredible amount of visitors of the first day. My mom and I helped her host as best we could.

At each home you visit, there is an unstated rule that anything you take should be in three’s. Eat at least three buuz, drink at least three shots of vodka. If I don’t eat buuz until next Tsagaan Sar, it will be too soon. Families prepare literally thousands of buuz ahead of time and freeze them outside in anticipation of the hordes of visitors they will receive. Also, families must give at least more than one gift to each visitor, making this holiday a little like Christmas in terms of gift-exchange, and a little like Halloween in terms of how much candy you’re sure to consume. Also, everyone gets dressed up in their fanciest new traditional clothes, and men pass around their prized snuff bottles to each greeted guest (and with this exchange, another complicated greeting and hand-off). I received all sorts of gifts, even from people I barely knew, including money, chocolates, cookies, phone units, a notebook, pens, aruul, boov, keychains, pencil cases, chopsticks, a scarf, lacy underwear, and a glittery black satin handbag. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. Accepting these gifts did feel a little odd since it is not customary for the visitor to return the gift. The typical gift-giving reciprocity does not apply here, and that was a strange adjustment for me.

Visiting Tumee with fellow PCV's
I stayed several days at my family’s house in Orkhon and was able to visit old friends and my Mongolian teacher from the summer. Then I went to the neighboring town, Khutul, to visit a fellow PCV’s family who were like a second family to my own this summer. However, I arrived before they returned from visiting family in Darkhan, an hour away, so I was taken in by their relatives whom I had never met. The ritualistic meal and visit ensued, and after just an hour and a half with this family, I was included in their family photo session and sent off with yet more gifts. Back at the apartment of my friend’s family, we caught up on each others lived over buuz, tea, and several very competitive games of khuzer (cards). The next day, my friend’s Eej made us tsuivan, a welcomed break from buuz, as we looked for a ride back home. His host brothers begged us to stay until Sunday, but not wanting to arrive home exhausted on Sunday before Monday’s lessons, we insisted that we had to leave Saturday. We finally found a ride and were forced to eat more buuz before we left. After several hugs and promises to visit in the summer, we set off for home in a meeker full of nine people and two babies. I turned around to wave goodbye as his mom flung milk from the apartment windows—a blessing upon our long journey.

Our Family Altar

Indeed we had no idea how long our journey was about to become. From Khutul, we were only about 4 ½ hours from UB, but after two hours had passed, our meeker started smoking uncontrollably, and we stopped along the road and waited, miles from the nearest town. What we were waiting for, I wasn’t sure. An hour passed and the sun was quickly ducking behind the mountains. Just a few hours ago, I was cursing the heater for being on full blast, suffocating me in my deel. Now, the windows had begun to ice from the inside. After two hours on the side of the road, the driver got the engine to turn over and we headed back towards Khutul with plans to stop in the first soum we encountered. About 20 minutes later, we arrived in the dark at a small town on the river. We waited at a closed gas station inside our meeker. The sheets of ice on the window were thickening, and I was assessing the situation, wondering what would happen next. Armed with all my Tsagaan Sar gifts, I knew I wouldn’t be hungry. And I had my sleeping bag with me if worst came to worst. My friend and I joked about rationing our Choco Pies and half-liter of water as the babies in the car became restless from the imminent cold. Five hours had passed, and I could see my breath as we waited for help. The driver was outside attempting to flag down cars in hopes of finding extra room for his passengers to join them en route to the city, but he had no luck. Eventually a bus came, and two lucky and fast women from our meeker boarded it before it zoomed away. I feared this would be the last bus for the night. However, after a little more time passed, another arrived and the driver successfully got it to stop and pick up me and my friend. We boarded the packed bus and quickly defrosted, balancing atop the buckets that had been placed in the aisle for us to sit on. Two and a half hours later, we were in UB just shy of midnight, and luckily found a hostel with vacancy where we could stay before the rest of our journey.

My first Tsagaan Sar seemed to last an eternity, while at the same time, was a whirlwind of activity. Even today at school, the festivities continue and deel-wearing teachers greet each other in the traditional manner. During this blog post alone, I have had to get up 11 times to greet my elders. I’m happy to be a part of a culture that is so hospitable and generous, and I am reminded that especially during this holiday. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Цасний Баяр: Snow Happiness Day

It’s another winter Saturday—a day that has become synonymous with sleeping in and watching television online. An ocean doesn’t change much. I had just gotten around to loading the first of surely several episodes of “Lost” that I would watch on my day off, when I received a text from my counterpart, Enkhjargal.
“Will you go snow day? Please come with my family.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what that is. What time is snow day?”
“Just stay outside.”

Confused and assuming someone might show up to my apartment at any moment, I got dressed in what I considered warm clothes for an ambiguous “snow day.” Moments later, my manager, Sarnai, called me and told me to go outside and get in Enkhjargal’s family car.

My school's tent
Waiting in the car were Enkhjargal, her husband, her three daughters, and several thermoses of what I assumed was hot milk tea. We drove out past the limits of Baganuur, about 15 minutes from the main road. The mountains greeted us on both sides as we coasted along the white steppe. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the glimmer of cars in the distance caught my eye. We turned off and took a snow path towards the idle row of machinery. Beyond the cars, more colors speckled the white snow. I saw the bright blue of tents being erected, smoke from fires rising, neon children dragging sleds. “Ah. Tsasnii Bayar.”

The celebration translates to “snow happiness.” Sarnai told me that they had chosen to celebrate snow day today because it wasn’t very cold. It was about -13 F, which is cold, yes, but a considerable improvement from -30 F. As I looked around, I realized that most organizations from our town came out to make an appearance. The banks, the hospital, the schools, the government workers—everyone had a tent somewhere to recognize this official leave-town-to-play-in-the-snow day. I approached my school’s tent and was swiftly redirected to the steppe with several teachers on a snow block harvesting mission. There was a London 2012 Olympics-themed snow sculpture-building contest that was beginning and we needed materials. We were out beyond the city. This snow had never been trampled. It was pristine, and it stretched out for miles until greeted by the base of the neighboring mountains. My feet floated above it with each step for a half-second—an astoundingly simple effect of the unbroken surface tension—before being engulfed to the ankles. I retrieved my feet, step-by-step, and carried on. When we reached the spot where the “good snow” was, we began to chop away at it, saving giant, compact blocks to carry back to the tent.

Competitions, of course
After dropping off the blocks, I was coaxed into climbing to the top of the nearest mountain by another counterpart, Zolzaya. Although my hands and feet had still not yet warmed up after the previous mission, I went along. After reaching the top, we stopped to admire our surroundings. Excluding the festivities down below, everything was white in all directions. Kids zoomed down the mountain on homemade sleds, their screams becoming more distant and less distinct. Before I knew it, I was holding on to Zaya for my life as we shot down the hill, too.

My sitemate, Brian, and I

Enkhjargal pouring suutei tsai

Once at the bottom, I was considerably colder. I made it back to our tent where Enkhjargal gave me a bowl of hot aarts to drink. This thick, yogurt-like beverage is not my favorite, but it was warm and I was not, so I took it graciously. At this point, I wasn’t feeling very well. I’d been lightheaded most of the day, but had been ignoring it in order to have a good time at my first tsasnii bayar. Before long, my teachers began passing a lot of food around. Buuz, tsuivan, budaatai huurga, boov: all of the staples were there. I had a little and some milk tea to help warm me up. After lunch, my counterpart, Alta, dragged me back up the mountain to meet our friends, B. Saraa, Kh. Saraa, and Enkhtuya. Once at the top, I was winded and dizzy. After posing for a few pictures, I sat town to get my bearings while the girls wrestled in the snow. They were soon ready to walk back down, but I was too dizzy yet to trust in my ability to stand steady on the steep hill. “I’m going to rest. I don’t feel well,” I told them. So we waited a few minutes. Feeling slightly better, I was helped to my feet and we began out descent. After walking only a few feet down the slope, I felt immediately sick and fell down, unable to process exactly where I was. I started shivering from the cold that had permeated my shoes and gloves, removing all feeling but pain from my extremities. Two of my friends had run down the hill to get help, while Kh. Saraa stayed with me. I lied back on the snow and closed my eyes. Saraa told me that I looked white, that my blood was low. A couple minutes later, my friend Aagii lifted me up onto his back and carried me down to the base of the mountain, where I was quickly put into a warm car. They took off my gloves and gasped at the color of my hands, which was anything but natural. They tried to bend them out of their frozen state, but they were stiff and unyielding. I couldn’t grasp the bowl of hot tea that was handed to me, so instead, it was placed on top of my hands, and Zolzaya, who was sitting in the car next to me, wrapped her hands around mine, persuading them to thaw and bend.

Saraa, Saraa, Enkhtuya, Alta

I rode back to Baganuur with Enkhjargal’s family and Zolzaya, and my two counterparts helped me up to my apartment once we arrived. My boots were pried off, followed by the two pairs of socks I was wearing. My feet were blocks of ice, devoid of all color save for red splotches. I changed into warmer clothes, and my friends sat with me in bed as I thawed out. Regaining the feeling in my hands in feet was very painful. I was overcome by pins and needles. Enkhjargal filled a bottle with hot water and placed it at the foot of my bed, and while I know they hadn’t, I thought my feet had caught fire. I warmed up a while with the help of my friends and hot tea, and then they left me to rest. I have said this before, but I am so lucky to work with the people that I do who take such good care of me.

Tsasnii Ger!

I was really bummed that I had to leave snow day early. I place the blame on the migraine medicine I took that morning which affects my blood pressure. But I’ve included pictures so hopefully you’ll see what a good day I was having despite the episode. I never had snow days to enjoy in Texas. I’m already looking forward to next year’s celebration.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Teachers' Day

In addition to being my 8th month anniversary from leaving home, this Tuesday was Teachers’ Day here in Mongolia. Notorious for finding things to celebrate, my counterparts had been assuring me for weeks that for this party we would spare no expense (Jurassic Park, anyone?). The celebration began in the morning, when 11th graders taught the classes instead of the teachers, a method to whose efficacy I cannot accurately speak. It was all in good fun. Classes ended early at noon and I assume everyone went home to get fancy, something I was unaware of when I showed up at 2 to Baganuur’s Culture Center entirely underdressed (while probably wearing the nicest thing I own). I found a seat in the crowded auditorium and sat for hours as an awards ceremony progressed, accompanied by a looped Casio track—some amalgamation of “Pomp and Circumstance” and “Hail to the Chief.” They sure love their Casio. The Governor gave a speech, highlighting all the improvements his cabinet has made around town this term (clever man, since it’s an election year). I cheered for my teachers who were chosen to receive awards that they proudly wore the entire night. As aforementioned, awards are a big deal. After the ceremony had finished, various performers took the stage. Traditional Mongolian instruments were (unfortunately) paired in duet with the Casio that made an encore appearance. Ladies and gentlemen in fancy costumes sang really loudly, struggling to be heard over the Casio’s drumkit. Brass instruments (the first I’ve seen in Mongolia) even competed for a moment in the spotlight against the synth of the keys. Finally, all of that stopped and a man with a single murin khuur (horse head fiddle) came out and played a beautiful arrangement. Next, some students did a strange pop-and-lock dance to some sort of dub-step remix while wearing matching outfits and sunglasses. It was all very entertaining. Out of nowhere, the concert was over and teachers restlessly shuffled from the auditorium. “Bayariin mend” “Bayar khuurgii” Congratulations were awarded all around (the traditional greeting on holidays for the most part) and my friend, Alta, hooked her arm in mine while another buttoned my coat and escorted me to the door. “Now we leave.” “Where are we going?” “Party.”

It was 5 p.m. The awards ceremony was for the entire district, but my school’s party was not supposed to start until 7. I asked what we would do until then. My teachers said we would go somewhere and sit. We went to a bar/restaurant and had a beer (miraculously, a stout—Happy Teachers’ Day, indeed) and, strangely, a single boiled egg. After sitting around for a while, we left for the fancy restaurant where our party would be. Our department (foreign language) commandeered an entire corner of the room away from others, which was probably for the best since we can get rowdy. There was a band formed of miners (again, playing brass instruments). They played for a while and we sat around and talked and drank juice. This party, I was told, was going to be dry. That’s right. A Mongolian party without alcohol. None at all.

So we were sitting at our table, hanging out, when another awards ceremony started. Several of my teachers received awards. And then, my shining moment of glory: our volleyball team was called up to receive our winnings from the tournament held a few weeks earlier. Hand in hand, we ran forward cheering. Our stoic school director shook my hand and told me congratulations. We took a picture and carried our prize back to our table. And then it was over, and I was hungry. The food hadn’t come yet, so everyone decided to dance.

Dancing in Mongolia is a funny thing. First, it is not usually your choice to start. Second, you may only dance in one way: a circle. “Sara, you will dance now.” “No, I think I will sit here and drink this aloe juice. Mmm.” “No. Dance now.” So I was grabbed by the wrist and inserted into the circle. Knees were bending in rhythm to some Jennifer Lopez song, I’m sure. The circle dance: everyone moves the same, and everyone watches each other. If you’re lucky, you are under the bright, romantic fluorescent lights of a restaurant like we were. At about that time, one of our female gym teachers, Buya, dances up to me and puts her jacket around me, enticing me into a strange mirror dance. Thankful that the song ended, I sneak back to my seat.

Our food finally came. We had chicken. What a treat! While everyone was seated for dinner, gifts were given to the teachers who were given awards. They received a variety of presents: money, chocolates, vodka. Hello, loophole. So that is how our dry party became very vodka-infused, very fast. Bottle after bottle of Chingiss Gold was finished. We danced again. The shot glasses followed us to the dance floor (literally, glasses). We sang terrible English music really loudly. I pretended to know the words to Mongolian songs. When the chorus to “Zaya” came, I sang “Zaya, zaya, zaya” as loud as my counterparts did, arms resting on each other’s shoulders. “Forever, forever, forever” and we swayed back and forth. Buya came back and grabbed me, dragging me rather forcefully away from my friends who held on to me and yelled at her to stop and let me go. I felt protected. I taught my teachers to swing dance. Then I taught my manager. An 11th grader showed up to sing a Michael Buble love song as congratulations to his teacher who won an award. I was asked why I didn’t know the words to this English song.

The night was winding down. It must have been close to midnight and time to leave. I was looking around pathetically for full bottles of juice to take home. One of my teachers brought me an apple to put in my pocket, knowing they are expensive. We picked up our coats from the front room and headed into the cold. Arm in arm, we stumbled together through the streets, planning which teachers to take home first, gossiping along the way. My department was the last to leave. Alta and I, living in the same building, split from the group and took a shortcut through a park home. I got home about 12 hours after I had originally left for this Teachers’ Day Celebration. It was a lot of fun to take time to celebrate all the educators in my town. Special recognition was given to all of the great accomplishments made by those who have worked so hard, and I think that recognition for teachers can sometimes be overlooked. I am lucky to be living here in a culture that values and respects teachers so much.

I had a great first Mongolian Teachers’ Day, even though I forgot to bring my camera to document it. Tuesday was also a very special day in my life back home. My brother and his wife had their first son only about an hour before I had to leave for the awards ceremony. I got to Skype home to them while they were still at the hospital. I feel so blessed to have been able to be a part of such an important day. So here’s a picture of my brand new nephew! Isn't he perfect? Congratulations, y’all!
Carson Dean

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mongol Chuud Sportond Ikh Durtai

I grew up with a healthy dose of competitiveness. I was always in sports. I had two older brothers who never let me win. Like my Mongolian counterparts, if something is made into a competition, I am around 80% more likely to participate. Which is why I bundled up in layers of clothing, headed out in to -30 degree weather, and arrived at my school’s gym for what would be a seemingly never-ending sports-off.

My training manager told me the event would start at 9 am, adding “You are a foreigner and always on time. Please don’t come at 9.” The first game began at 11. As frustrating as it can be at times, I am growing accustomed to “Mongol Time:” life does not need to be rushed. There is nowhere you need to be so urgently that you should pass up what you might see on the journey. I think it’s a good lesson. Anyway, we gathered in our tiny foreign language office to change into our “game shirts” (pink t-shirts boldly stating “Roca Wear: sexy since 1999”) and then added sticky numbers to the back while hot milk tea and bread was passed around. We were ready.
Lunch Break

Second Dinner
There were 8 teams in the volleyball tournament. Meanwhile, chess and ping pong tournaments were being held in different rooms. The teachers who were not playing brought us home-cooked food to eat between games. I was reminded of the Team Moms from my youth who always supplied orange slices, fruit snacks, and Gatorade to be quickly devoured by hungry children who had just finished a softball game before running off to play on the playground. Our game fuel was a little different though. After a bready breakfast, huushuur was brought for lunch: fried dough pockets of meat and onions. I was handed a filling bowl of milk tea instead of tart and fruity sports drink. A few games later, the ritual was replicated, this time with bansh (steamed meat-filled dumplings), milk tea, and boov (sweet pastries, this type was fried like a donut). I was trying to avoid greasing up my sweet jersey with all of the savory treats, but with dinner completed, we had play-off games to start. A huge crowd gathered in the gym. Students appeared out of nowhere to cheer on their teachers. Hecklers from other departments were shouting their best attempts. We finished the tournament as champions, undefeated in every match, at around 10 pm, at which time I was summoned to come eat dinner in one of the classrooms. Confused and still full, I was thrusted a heaping plate of tsuivan (an oh so delicious noodle dish) with a side of budaatai huurag (a rice and meat mixture). More milk tea was poured and congratulatory chocolates were devoured. In just one day, I consumed all three of Mongolia’s national foods between rounds of intense volleyball matches. I found myself aching in that classroom with joy, despite the incredibly bruised knees I had gotten diving for balls on the ancient wooden gym floor, proud of the team I was a part of and lucky to call so my friends.

Exhausted, I got up to leave and get some rest from a long day. I was stopped at the door and begged to play in the basketball tournament, which was starting at 11 pm. I tried to wrap my head around this impossibility. “Ta nar onoo oroin surguuliin dotor untax uu?” “Are you going to sleep in the school tonight?” I asked with a laugh. I explained that they would not want me on their team, even if I wasn’t falling asleep, and retreated back home after retiring my jersey and suiting up for the cold, smiling from a Saturday spent at school.