Sometimes history repeats itself in funny ways. I have this memory of when I was about 10, where my mother and I are traipsing around another non-descript German city on the search for cultural relics and castles. When my mother traveled she never particularly dressed up and had this habit of packing everything, really EVERYthing – food, clothes, extra shoes, drinks, hats, rain gear- into separate plastic bags. While schlepping around 10 plastic bags, she sometimes resembled more of a vagabond than a traveler; something that always left me a little antsy. So, while on another of our ventures, a homeless woman stumbles up to her and asks her for money. And instead of just shooing her away or answering her entreaties, my mother quickly turns perturbed in her direction and barks out: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you see I’m homeless too!” The woman -herself carrying around 5 plastic bags- stops stunned and looks me mother analytically up and down. After a minute of mustering, she concluded that my mother was indeed telling the truth, and quickly scuttles away, mumbling profuse apologies under her breath.
Now, as a child this left me horrified and I refused to talk to my mother for a few hours afterwards. I don’t know if it was the thought that everyone thought my mother was homeless that bothered me. Or maybe I hated how she had the tendency to bend the truth for personal use. Or maybe because she really did have the money to help that woman and didn’t feel like it…
So, the point is that today I found myself in another taxi cab. And is generally the case, I talk to the cabbies and ask them all sort of random questions, “How many kids do you have? Isn’t the Mongolian weather changeable? What’s your favorite sport?”, in an attempt to make it more likely for them to like me and less likely for them to try and rip me off. And this time, after telling the cabbie about moving house recently, he offers me a place to sleep. After politely refusing, he proceeds to charge me 20,000 Tugriks or 18 Euros for a one Euro cab ride.
Ok. So what do I do? I, of course, get really angry. But I also start yelling at him about how I grew up poor and had to work to get there and how, just because I am white, it doesn’t mean I am rich…
OK, so before I knew it, the string of lies just popped out and I found myself replicating my mother of 10 years ago trying to convince others of my poverty. In this case, it was me reacting to cultural clichés about white people being all filthy rich, but it left me feeling uncomfortable about whiteness and wealth in general. I AM filthy rich compared to the cabby who earns maybe eight euros (10 dollars) a day and when people try and rip me off, or I hear of another story of a friend getting attacked, it leaves me with a rift internally. Call it corruption or racism or unbalanced economic development or third world economies or market-based colonialism or hurt masculinities or what have you, but I HATE this situation of extreme economic disparities that leave 30 percent of Mongolian men jobless and lashing out at foreigners in sheer desperation.
Speaking of which, I saw the guy who chased me today while walking down the street, and he didn’t recognize me. So, I think he had just been belligerently drunk.
But, I didn’t have to pay 20,000 Tugriks after the dude, freaked out by the really angry woman in the backseat, told me he was “just joking.” And then he cut the price to 10,000. And then seeing I was still pissed off he cut it to 5,000. I gave him 4,000. Ha!
On another note: I am leaving for the Gobi in 3 days to start my first intensive phase of research. The woman who is living in my apartment for the summer has come, so I have moved into my teacher’s apartment for a few days. It reminds me a lot of living with my home-stay family five years ago, since most homely Mongolian apartments have the same brightly colored nomad-dedicated alters, socialist styled family portraitures (where they all don’t smile), smells of cooked mutton, crap-loads of candy and Chinese-made pictures of food that make me now feel right at home.
My teacher’s apartment is also situated right on the edge of the ger districts. “Ger” means yurt in Mongolian and according to this article, one fourth of the population of this country now lives in the shantytown districts surrounding Ulaanbaatar right outside my window.
I am planning to update my blog while I am in the countryside, since the head of the NGO wants me to translate local NGO resources into English, which require a computer and occasional internet access. I will probably update once more before setting out, but in case I don’t, I will leave you with beautiful pictures of the countryside I took on my excursion with the Young Women’s Club (and Mareike) last weekend.