Hello my loves, this post is long in order to make up for the weeks of silence.
This post is called the ups and downs of being foreign, because traveling and living in radically different contexts is a roller coaster ride.
Case in point: two encounters I’ve had with Mongolians recently that have left me with very different aftertastes in my mouth.
First for the up:
Last week, I had a meeting with the Steps Without Borders NGO, which is helping me go to the Gobi in June. Upon asking regarding preparations and timing, I was startled to see the NGO director exasperatedly look at me, “15th of June?? I told you the 5th of June! I’ve already made preparations!!” OK, so my last translator translated wrong and told me we are leaving on the 15th of June. And the exasperated look was a result of the fact that my first home-stay family in the Gobi had already come to Ulaanbaatar to pick me up….
Thus, my plans changed from having a month to prepare to having two weeks, and my translator and I promptly went the next day to meet my new home-stay family! Now, an unfortunate thing about being a white, leftist anthropologist is that I am constantly aware of the legacy of colonialism. Images in my head of white, middle-aged men crouching and scribbling into notebooks about the peculiarities and barbarian nature of ‘primitive’ peoples haunt my own dealings with nomads and research subjects.
So, my translator (and research companion), Zaya, and I were sitting in a little café in the middle of town last weekend, waiting for our new family to arrive. As is usual for Mongolians from the country, they were late (since who has appointments amongst nomads? You get there when you get there) and my city-girl of a companion sat, fidgeting and starring at her watch ever 2 minutes. Finally, 45 minutes after our scheduled appointment, a very cute couple with sun-streaked faces and fancy attire walks in.
The couple, a man and a woman around the same age as me, had been late because, as they told us, they had taken a shower. 🙂 They are a couple living in the largest city in the Gobi desert, Dalanzadgag, where Zaya and I are to arrive first before heading out into the desert with nomads. The woman is a beauty teacher (yes, that’s right) at a local school and was eager to introduce me to local beauty pageant contestants.
When they entered, looking a bit odd with their very tanned and lined skin, draped in very fancy clothes, I became keenly aware of my role in this constellation of people. The couple almost couldn’t look at me and seemed incredibly nervous. The husband frequently stared at the table and chuckled frequently when I asked him questions about his life in my accented Mongolian. They were adorable, but I realized that they had showered, gotten dressed-up and were nervous, because they were about to meet me! And they thought me worthy of help, because I was a foreigner. As a white researcher on the other side of the world, I was going to have to work hard to integrate well, but also must accept that I unfortunately can never -on account of my skin and background- integrate completely.
This experience did leave me feeling very pumped and happy though, as both people were incredibly cute and nice. The husband is going to come pick us up at the beginning of June and drive us to the desert. And I am so excited and humbled by the willingness of everyone to help me in my research…
That was an up. Now for a down.
I needed new riding boots for the Gobi. And UB has a huge market where you can buy everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, for very cheap. The downside is that there are lots of pickpockets there with an eye out for foreigners, so you have to be super careful when you go. I went with my friend, Brandt, just as we had done five-years ago on our first trip to Mongolia.
Also, one of the topics that has been fascinating me a lot recently, is the Mongolian interpretation of the swastika (since it is everywhere) and I was told there were lots of Nazi trinkets at the market. And because I was not going alone, I thought it safe to bring my camera to see if I could photograph some of them.
As is my weakness, I found myself at the bike gears section. I pulled out my camera to take pictures of the bicycles and looked up to see I was being watched. A short Mongolian man who reeked of alcohol stumbled over to me and slurred out ‘hiiiiiii.’ I walked quickly away to other stalls to find Brandt, and was shocked when I turned around to see the man stumbling after me.
When he saw Brandt, he started making fists and punching motions in his direction, and we decided to bolt. We wanted to lose him in the hustle and bustle of the market and started racing and turning through all sorts of different stalls and booths. But, as soon as we thought we had lost him in the rows of Chinese-made clothing, we saw him running through the stalls behind us in our direction.
We bolted for the entrance to the market. I thought he wouldn’t come out, so I bought some bananas, and turned just in time to see him stumbling out of the market entrance. And we left.
It sucks to be driven from a place because you feel unsafe due to how you look or how you are perceived. And it also sucks that your skin and appearance completely dictate how everyone around you acts towards you. But I also believe it is an telling experience that everyone should have at least once. But hopefully, once is enough.