“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”
– Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”
I am deeply sorry that I can’t update this more, but I have been in the truest sense of the phrase “in the middle of nowhere.” My last update was from Dalanzadgad, where I was ecstatic to be in an area where they knew what internet was. But my experiences there quickly escalated and morphed to the point that I had to dump the NGO I had originally headed to the Gobi with. The Gobi is an area inundated with mining companies, and with that, a lot of distrust of foreigners. I can’t blame them; most of the white people the Gobi residents see are rich, white, male, and accompanied by one or two translators and guards, which even furthers the distance between them and the ‘common-folk.’ I decided that the hostility was a little too much to bear, dumped the NGO, and feel asleep on the top of a truck in the Gobi, only to awake in lush, green Ovarhangai, horse country.
I am someone who was born with one foot in multiple cultures, which I thought primed me extremely well to adapt to other cultural complexes. But the differences between Germany and the U.S. are minuscule compared to the vast differences between the West and Mongolia. I find myself feeling like I am suspended in a cultural web of complexity that I can’t escape. These are examples of the immense cultural difficulties I have encountered in the last few months, which have complicated my research:
1. We have been spending the last few days with a fairly rich family in the aimag (state) center, who gave us our own ger (yurt) as a sign of honor. They were preparing for a Western researcher with translator, but when I arrived they were a little shocked. I am young, only 25, and female. And in the very traditional countryside of Mongolia, patrilineality still reigns and honor is calculated according to age. The Mongolian language itself has two forms of ‘you:’ one honorable and one colloquial (like German). However, one uses ‘you’ honorably when talking to someone older than oneself (even family), and colloquially when younger. This semantic structure is a reflection of the enormous importance age plays in this culture (especially in the countryside) and my age was thus a shocker for the family. They expect an older, rich, balding, white man.
Resultingly, older people yell at us (well Zaya more than I ’cause I’m white) a lot. We are told, as we were by the former head of the NGO that I dropped, that we are young and thus should follow anything elder people tell us. Fulbright and the status as the head of an NGO (as Zaya is) play absolutely no role in this age and gender driven honor-based classification. So, I am young and female, which dictates the way every family has reacted to and interacted with me, including the following example.
2. Zaya and I semi left and were semi kicked out by the family we have been staying with the last few days. Yesterday morning, I was awoken by the bleating of an animal behind our yurt and went around to see a very cute and fat sheep. In Mongolia, mutton (adult sheep) are the highest and more prized form of meat, and the killing of one is a highly honorable act. To buy a freshly killed sheep costs the equivalent of around 80 thousand tougrigs (70 dollars, 60 euros), so it is only done on very special occasions. But the family we were staying with was planning a wedding for their son, and thus they were getting ready to slaughter three sheep.
So, after going out to pet the scared thing, I went out running, and returned to the yurt to find the carcass of a freshly slaughtered sheep hanging next to my bed. Before a wedding, the fresh meat has to be hung in a yurt, because of the round nature of the yurt, which molds the meat into a round shape (apparently this is customary). The fact that the blood was dripping down the carcass onto the ground and wall did not disturb the family in the slightest (who slept in a removed house), and I had to leave for several hours to prevent the stench of the dead sheep from making me throw up. Again, because I am young, foreign, and female, my opinions carry little weight with older, traditionalist Mongolians. So when I complained that we didn’t have a stove and thus had to close all the yurt openings at night, which would be horribly overwhelming with the drying sheep carcass in the yurt, my family got incredibly upset. To them, denying a sheep is a sign of dishonor, and I had committed a horrible, horrible crime by asking them to remove the sheep carcass. Thus, Zaya and I are now in a hotel.
3. If I had read a book on cultural do’s and don’ts before coming to Mongolia, I would still not have been prepared for the immense number of taboos and requirements stipulated by nomadic, traditionalist Mongolian culture. In the West, there are cultural differences, but these absolute derisive rules regarding conduct and hospitality don’t exist. Let’s list some of the cultural rules that I didn’t know before I arrived and have violated, thus unintentionally insulting my hosts:
– Every Mongolian drinks a lot of milk tea and milk products (they have tons of animals here!), which are regarding as sacred because they come from their animals, upon whom their livelihood is dependent. To swish ANY kind of milk product in your mouth is a huge sign of disrespect (which I have done accidentally a few times without knowing, because I like to TASTE what I drink), but it customarily means that you wish for the family’s milk products to run dry. The word for ‘swish’ or ‘swirl’ in your mouth in Mongolian is the same word said for someone to ‘get lost’ or ‘get out’: зайлах.
– Putting an empty bowl on the bed is a sign that I would like that family to be poor. oops, sorry.
– Two days ago, I was invited by one family to go to the river with them. It was Naadam (the biggest holiday in Mongolia, it’s like Christmas big), so there were lots of families there, and, as is customary, the family brought a sheep to fry. I was walking around taking pictures (’cause it was soooo pretty) and I hear calling in my direction. Another family was calling me over to drink fermented horse milk with them. I went over, ’cause I thought ignoring this nice offer would be rude. But when I went back to the first family, I had apparently insulted them, because going to one family while being the guest of another means that I think the food of the first family is of poor quality.
– One has to enter the yurt with the right foot first; entering with the left foot means you are about to ask the family for money or have bad intentions.
– Rejecting a sheep anything – heart, lung, liver, intestines, anything – is incredibly rude and has warranted lots of scowls in my direction. This one is really the worst for me.
So, the gist of the matter is I feel like I am bumbling through some radically different cultural landscape, replete with tons of cultural landmines that I keep unintentionally setting off. I feel trapped in Geertz’s web, with every movement raveling me more and more. Everyday I do something wrong or disrespectful, and my status as a young, 25 year-old woman causes people to be disrespectful in return. Thus, it feels as though Zaya and I have to constantly battle one person and then the next in our pursuit to show everyone that ‘modern’ women can be just as capable, if not more so, than any Mongolian man.
So, I will conclude this post with the saying that has been quoted to me one too many times and now hovers over my head like a glowering reprimand: Усыг нь уувал ёсыг нь даг (when you drink a country’s water, you have to follow their customs).