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.
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.