By Neil Pederson
i kid not, the title doesn’t do justice to the depth of Mongolian generosity.
i have long known how generous Mongolians are. i’ve known it now for more than a decade. but, what happened yesterday still brings tears to my eyes.
on my first trip to Mongolia, i studied up on Mongolian culture via Lonely Planet. they said how if you showed up at a ger [also known by the Russian moniker, yurt] and the family fed you or let you spend the night and you tried to pay them, it was considered rude. this was really hard to take on the first trip. ‘mericans, in general, like to give as well and really like to give money as a gift. so, when you show up at someone’s home and they put on a big spread, and you can tell they obviously have little monetary assets [and you often see a couple of children running around], you really want to give back some how; to at least show your appreciation. it is hard not to do that.
it is hard not to do that when you show up at someone’s house and they drop what they are doing, no matter what, pour you a nice bowl of piping hot Mongolian tea [1/2 milk, black tea, perhaps some butter and salt in the west (little to no salt in the east)]. this offering is quickly followed up by a big bowl of hard candy and, often, a bowl of dried yogurt and cheese. if you stay for nearly an hr and it is August, airag [fermented mare’s milk] will be pulled out and a small drinking ceremony begins. airag is roughly 1.5%, so it isn’t overwhelming, alcohol-wise. if you stay longer, let’s say for 2-3 hrs, they will cook you a meal.
and here is the tricky thing: the longer you stay, the more they give. you don’t want to leave quickly for seeming rude. and, back in the 1990s when westerners were rare, they enjoyed the company and were very curious of us. more so, they wanted to share what they could share with their American guests. having an American in your home was seemingly a great thing – almost a thing of pride. we’d talk, ask questions back and forth, joke…etc.
in reflection, their generosity is an amazing thing, especially during the slightly ‘hunger years’ of the post-communism 1990s.
what we would often do during the 1990s was pull out the Polaroid and take pictures of the family with us and give them to them. these pictures immediately went up on the bureau that was full of family pictures from the past 30-50 years. we could often study family trees via this display. there were the parents of the grandparents in this home. there are the pix of the grandparents newly married or entering the military. there are the parents and their siblings and then some pictures of children.
and then there was our picture with them. right up there with the family pictures. it was an amazing thing to me.
ahh, but that was 11 yrs ago in rural, western Mongolia where few people lived and fewer westerners visited. what about today?
today, i can tell you, that among my colleagues, their families and friends, the generosity culture has not worn thin with rapid cultural change & westernization. our host sleeps very little when we are in town. he does EVERYTHING for us – everything to make our visit successful, enjoyable and comfortable. and, he is the head of his department in the #1 university in Mongolia. his students work just as hard.
so, what happened yesterday, however, just blew all of this experience and knowledge away.
i hosted a Mongolian student for about 3 months in the spring. on this trip she said many times that she wanted me to meet her parents. as time was short before i left, i suggested that next yr would be better. she didn’t give up [and heard through the grapevine she shed some tears when her supervisor suggested the same thing – it was that important]. so, as the August crew was headed through her parent’s town to conduct one more field trip, we decided to follow them out for lunch at the parent’s house.
lunch – HA!
it was Thanksgiving. out came the Mongolian tea [unfortunately for me, no salt – i like salty, Mongolian tea]. then the candy [hershey’s kisses, tootsie rolls & hard candy, no less]. then, khushuu [fried meat dumplings about 2.5″ wide X 4-5″ long X 0.5″ thick]. then, pickles. then, “Russian” salad [pickled carrots, peppers and some other veggies – kinda sweet, very nice]. then, orange juice. then fresh airag – the best airag i’ve had yet in my five visits. her father wasn’t eating much. when i asked why, he said he was waiting for the real food….i instinctively stopped eating. this was the warm up. out came nicely cooked mutton on a large platter. again, the best mutton i’ve had in Mongolia. the platter about about 18″ in diameter. the food was piled up about one foot. it also had carrots and potatoes. it was very fine. after a few minutes, the drinking ceremony started for real. first airag. then, suddenly, unexpectedly, out came Elijah Craig bourbon. she knew this was my favorite bourbon and somehow got it all the way to eastern Mongolia from Kentucky. all carry on….well, this really hit the spot. so, i partook more than usual to show appreciation.
though we cannot pay, we can show our appreciation by knowing the rituals and eating & drinking deeply. even if you are painfully shy and do not eat much, you can make this all up by draining a bowl of beverage in one slug. thus, i did this.
after about 30 minutes, a blue scarf came out. these blue scarves are sacred. you can find them on sacred trees and oovas. they wrapped the scarf around a copper drinking bowl filled with what i thought was airag, but turned out to be milk [whew! i knew i had to drink deeply again]. they gave the first one to our Mongolian host and then a second one to me.
well, i was touched and drank very deeply. i drank all of it.
but, the bowl, scarf and honor was not the real gift. as i was finishing, they informed me that my student’s parents bought each of us a horse. really. seriously. a horse. there is a horse in the country side that i ‘own’. seriously.
[her Mongolian teacher, our host, actualy has his choice between a cow or a horse]
“my” horse is only a young horse right now, apparently. when the student sees it, she will take a picture. i was/am stunned. it took about 10 minutes to understand what happened. the copper bowl, scarf and honor was enough. it was so hard to accept it. i made a crude joke to try to ease my feelings. i said that next yr i would eat it [horse really tastes good]. they said no, that it would live out its natural life on the Mongolian Steppe. so, i was then shamed again.
“of course i wouldn’t eat it!”, i clarified. they joked i could race in Nadaam next yr. while i am still young-looking for my age, i think they will notice that a) i am not Mongolian [that might be a close one. i might be able to sneak through] and b) i am a bit older than the other riders, who are typically 6-10 yrs old.
but, think about it. i hosted and trained their daughter. i taught her some field and lab methods. she created three chronologies for me and assisted my students. i only taught her a little bit. i’m actually kinda embarrassed at the host i was during her visit compared to how i am treated in Mongolia. it is embarrassing.
but really, think about it. what they essentially gave me was a car. the horse in Mongolia is the equivalent of a car in the U.S. they gave me a car for doing my job, a job i wish i had performed better before the horse.
i was stunned for the next three hrs [i still am when i think about it]. i cried, internally, for hrs.
last night over dinner my host said that when you are fed in Mongolia, you are supposed to feed those feeding you more than what you were fed next time you have the chance.
what do i do? any ideas?
yesterday was really an emotional day for me. the horse is obvious. after we parted from the August crew, however, my host and i headed back to Ulaanbaatar, we first stopped at the Kherlen Gol [gol = river]. i went to wash my face, hands and neck in Kherlen water. this is a river i had never seen before, but i am deeply connected to. see, this river was the main subject of my first, true scientific paper. it is a paper with a long personal history. it was initially & harshly rejected by reviewers on the DAY i was accepted into my phd program. it was a day when i wondered if the path i was now moving along was the right one for me.
eight years later i have to say yes. washing in the Kherlen brought full circle the real beginning of my scientific career and my initial ventures in Mongolia