This is a narrative on the insanity that is my life.
I just came back yesterday after spending five days with Zaya in two of the most eastern Mongolian aimags (aimag is a state equivalent) collecting a survey on body image. I will write about that survey later (which is super interesting!), but this post is about me dealing with the absurdity of culture when I –a white, western woman- travel with Mongolians or alone through the Mongolian countryside.
The other side of the absolutely amazing experiences and time I have spent with some of the most remote people left on this earth is that I find myself very frequently incredibly irritated and/or confused by things these same people do. I know this has to do with culture; there are just some behaviors and tendencies that have been ingrained in me since birth that clash with Mongolian culture. Despite what the tomes of anthropological theory would have you think, no cultural adaptation can ever erase my white skin and my feminist, individualist (that each person’s rights are equal and should not be infringed upon – not in the neo-conservatism sense) leftism.
So, I decided I wanted to do a few posts on aspects of cultural particularities that either irritate me, fascinate me, or both (which is the most common).
Collectivism vs. Individualism
One of the more interesting for me, sometimes exciting, sometimes draining, aspects of Mongolian culture is its focus on the collective and the stipulation of putting your own personal needs and space second to the multitude.
Considering I have spent the majority of my life either in North America or Europe, the concept of individuality is one that has been rammed down my throat since day one. The foundations of Western society (I think I can safely generalize on this one) revolve around the idea that each person is in individual with independent thought, ability, and desire. So, what’s a girl to do when she lands in a collectivist society, where the thinking of her own needs first is not encouraged?
Even in the Mongolian language, a word for private space or sphere does not exist. The closest description in Mongolian is the phrase “хувиа хичээх,” (huvia hicheeh) which essential means egocentrism. Mongolian society is still largely a kinship-based, collectivist society (in the city it is less but still persistent) and that means most actions taken are enacted with the interests and repercussions on others, family, and not only the self in mind.
For me in my life in this country, this has cool aspects and bad aspects.
The extension of collectivist thinking is that there is no private sphere, which includes physical, mental, and emotional privacy. People historically lived in yurts/gers, where everything was done in a very very small space, so there was never any room for yours and mine. Physically, people touch each other, hold hands, bump into each other, sit practically on you in tight spaces and get crammed together frequently.
I have woken up on several occasions in the countryside, like this weekend, cuddled by countryside men, which always jolts me awake. After initially getting freaked out by these occurrences, I learned from others that these were very platonic attempts to keep warm. Beds exist but are hard to move and most people sleep on the floor, so these cuddle attacks are only people trying to make the shared space nicer and warmer. In busses, when packed like sardines for a long ride, my lap has been used as a pillow without my consent on a couple occasions, I have slept on other people, my shoulder is frequently up for grabs, and I have learned that I just have to abandon the idea that I have a private sphere around my body that is not encroached upon. But it still bewilders me sometimes.
Even in relationships with others the abstract idea of mental privacy is a shadowy area. The equivalent of “how are you” in Mongolian text messages is “yu hiij baina” (what are you doing?), which is quite innocuous until you start dating a Mongolian man who writes you seven times a day to ask you what you are doing (a tendency that has quickly ended most of my relationships with Mongolian men). Last week while in the countryside, Zaya’s boyfriend wrote her over 300 text messages one day (she didn’t even blink an eye at this… this would be a relationship killer for me). Simply the concept that everything you do is not shared with either your family or in your close personal relationships is not self-evident.
One of the cooler aspects of Mongolian collectivism is the openness to strangers (if you are Mongolian –this doesn’t always include foreigners) and sharing that results from it. Although this can occasionally irritate me – for example, yesterday morning when an old man in the bus was thirsty so he grabbed the closest bottle, mine, and drank half of it – I generally really enjoy the increased sharing of Mongolians. On long bus rides, frequently anything that is opened by anyone can be shared by anyone. The idea that mine is yours is really prevalent and can be traced back to the nomadic lifestyle.
Historically, Mongolians had to travel a lot (obviously, they are nomads) and very large distances on horseback. People were thus dependent on total strangers for yurts to sleep in and thus the tradition developed that any foreigner who entered a Mongolian household needed to be offered tea and food.
So, last week Zaya and I found a car from one aimag to another by standing at a gas station until we met a person who called a friend to drive us. When we arrived in the following aimag after the 6-hour drive, we discovered that all of the hotel rooms in the entire area were full because of a conference. So, the driver, who was distantly related to one hotel owner (of COURSE he is… oh the smallness of Mongolia) asked the hotel owner if we could sleep in his apartment. And so we spent the next two days in the hotel owners’ apartment who shared all of their food and drink with us… and we chased after their kids like we were members of the family. Mongolians are incredibly ready to open their home to any distant relative or friend of a friend traveling and feel obligated to give that person any food, drink or accommodation they require. Their home becomes yours and I do love that about the collectivist nature of Mongolia.
Even when Zaya and I had to hitchhike back from one nomadic camp a few months ago, we knew that if we didn’t get a ride, we would just sleep on the floor of the nearest yurt. <3
So, essentially, my getting pushed and pulled, sat on, my stuff being touched and used by strangers, me getting 20 texts a day from dates, NEVER being alone, living in tiny spaces with 10 people, having to share with everyone, and being quiet in certain situations because of the interests of others are all things that can potentially be very very very irritating to me. But traveling through Mongolia and having family after family open their home to me, give me a corner to sleep in and a cup of milk tea is super priceless.
OK, so I have practically finished writing another entry on shamanism (because the hotel owner’s sister was a shaman who shamanized while we there and effectively freaked me out). After that I wanted to write about gender and alcoholism…so… thanks for reading!