Monday, February 16, 2015

The Twelve Animals of the Zodiac

Or, Camel vs. Mouse

It's almost time for the Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the old Mongolian New Year, so it's soon going to become the Модон Хонины Жил (Modon Honiny Jil), or the Year of the Wooden Sheep. In America the twelve-year cycle of animals is often called the Chinese Zodiac or Chinese Horoscope, but it is found far beyond China. The practice of twelve-year cycles with animals presiding over each of the years is found not only in Sinosphere nations like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, but also among the Thai, Tibetans, Kazakhs, ancient Persians, and even the ancient Bulgars.

These far-spread cultures use much the same assemblage of beasts, but here and there they swap one animal for another. Instead of the rabbit, the Vietnamese have the cat,1 and instead of the tiger, the Kazakhs have the snow leopard. More bizarrely, the Kazakhs also replaced the dragon with the snail.2

Of course, this system is used in Mongolia too. The cycle for the Mongolians is:
  1. хулгана (hulgana) - mouse
  2. үхэр (üher) - cattle
  3. бар (bar) - tiger
  4. туулай (tuulai) - rabbit
  5. луу (luu) - dragon
  6. могой (mogoi) - snake
  7. морь (mori) - horse
  8. хонь (honi) - sheep
  9. бич (bich) - ape
  10. тахиа (tahia) - chicken
  11. нохой (nohoi) - dog
  12. гахай (gahai) - pig
The practice of naming years after animals predates history. Throughout Chinese history, Chinese scholars have not even been sure that the practice is Chinese. In fact, some suggested that the practice was borrowed from the nomads to the north!3 While the actual origin of the practice is a mystery, it has not stopped people from coming up with their own stories about it - usually involving a god or Buddha judging animals. The Mongolians are no exception. The following little story is the explanation I heard in Mongolia.

The Mouse, the Camel, and the Twelve-Year Cycle

Once upon a time the Buddha decided to assign names to the years of the 12-year cycle and called a conference of animals. Thirteen species applied for the twelve positions available. After assigning animals to eleven years, it came down to the camel and the mouse. The Buddha couldn't decide between them, so he proposed a tie-breaker: Whoever saw the morning sunlight first would get a year named after him. The next day, the camel faced east and stretched his neck to see as far to the horizon as he could. The mouse, however, climbed on the camel's back and faced west. While the camel was still waiting for the sun, the mouse saw the sunlight strike the peaks of the western mountains and cried out.4 Thus the mouse won, and he got a place in the zodiac instead of the camel. However the Buddha decided to give the camel a consolation prize. He declared that the camel would have:
  1. a mouse's ears
  2. a cow's stomach
  3. a tiger's paws
  4. a rabbit's nose
  5. a dragon's body
  6. a snakes eyes
  7. a horse's mane (albeit underneath his neck)
  8. a sheep's wool
  9. an ape's hump
  10. a rooster's crest
  11. a dog's legs
  12. and a pig's tail
I don't personally see the resemblances, but who am I to question the Buddha? Anyway, the camel, so gifted with the attributes of all twelve of the other animals, thus represents the whole twelve-year cycle.

Happy Tsagaan Sar! Сайхан шинэлээрэй!

  1. “Year of the Cat,” Accessed Feb 16, 2015.
  2. Kazakh zodiac: “Architect tells story behind Almaty’s renowned fountain,” (Foster, Hal - Accessed Feb 16, 2015) and "The historical information of the architectural complex" ( Accessed Feb 16, 2015). Interestingly, the words for dragon or snail in several languages sound similar. Kazakh ұлу (ulw) and Kyrgyz  үлүл (ülül) mean "snail," while Chinese (Mandarin) lóng, Kyrgyz улу (ulu), and Mongolian луу (luu) mean "dragon." Mongolian has water spirits named лус (lus), and Tibetan has water spirits named klu which are snake-like (more info at James Alvarez's "The Klu: Their Roles Within the Shamanic and Buddhist Contexts," Note that Mongolian луу and лус must be borrowed because native words almost never begin with L. So there may be some secret connection between snails and dragons. Or maybe the snail took advantage of phonetic confusion to usurp the dragon. Those clever snails! (For your curiosity, the Mongolian word for snail is эмгэн хумс, "old woman fingernail.")
  3. I have read around the nets that Zhao Yi 赵翼 ascribed a nomadic origin to the zodiac, but I have not found anything that Mr. Zhao himself wrote.
  4. This, by the way, is true. If the sun rises over a plain, mountains to the west will light up before the sun itself appears, and conversely, at dusk mountains to the east will stay lit up after the sun itself is no longer visible.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Safety in the Art of Archery

While I was impressed by the scrupulousness of American archers, other people fretted over their danger. But after hearing about a septuagenarian who had been shot with a gun in front of his own house, the threat of sportsmen accidentally shooting arrows backward at joggers seemed somewhat less.
Recently, there was a Pasadena city council meeting at which one of the issues was archery. The issue was whether or not the Pasadena Roving Archers could continue to practice in the Arroyo Seco. They had opposition from residents convinced of the danger of archery. People have totally different perceptions of risk though. I've tried archery in Mongolia and America, and from this perspective, the controversy seems almost bizarre.

Archery, or нум сум, is one of the three official sports of Наадам. I was hoping to try it as soon as I found out I was going to Mongolia. Unfortunately, archery wasn't very big in my town, and the equipment is not common or cheap. Luckily, two years into my stay, an archery demonstration was staged in my town, and another competition happened at the town's 90th anniversary celebration, so archery became more popular in my third year. A few people started practicing it, and I got some, but not many chances to try it.

Archery, cars, and nothing in between them.

The setup was very ad hoc. There was no actual range. The archers just put a target up outside town, walked far enough beyond that that they could shoot, and put their quivers on the ground to mark the line. Everyone crowded behind them to watch. Every so often one of the pros would hand off the bow to some kid, who would try to copy what he or she had seen the pros doing. There wasn't a whole lot of explanation. The only real rule, "Don't walk in front of the target when someone's shooting," was so obvious no one needed to say it. I think it's important to note, though, that the judges stand next to the target, so you are always shooting toward someone. After a while some of the adults would get bored and go home while their kids kept on running around the range. The little boys who weren't shooting were employed to run back and forth to the target to retrieve spent arrows, or to shoo cows that walked into the way, because there usually wasn't any boundary to the range.

I wanted to continue after I came back to America, so I joined the Pasadena Roving Archers. My first time there, I knew that it was way different, and not just because Western archers don't draw the bow with the thumb. We newbies were required to stand in a line, fill out information, and sign a release form. The club members tested our sightedness (left- or right-eyed?), measured our arms, fitted us with equipment, and put us in groups. The instructors made our groups do particular stretches, lectured on basics, and explained the rules of the range before we were allowed to string a single arrow. They drilled us on their system of whistles which told us when to go to the line, shoot, hang our quivers, and retrieve arrows. If we walked in front of the targets while people were shooting, we'd get kicked out, we were warned. There are even rules about walking around the target when nobody is shooting. Shooting itself was easier, because the American bows all had less draw weight. They even had little arrow-rests on the bows to keep the arrow from falling out while you aimed! Everything was prepackaged for your safety and convenience.

The gravest risked I encountered in Mongolia was temporary numbness in my thumb after drawing the string without wearing a thumbring.  No one got hurt, and nobody worried about anyone getting hurt, despite nobody taking precautions that nobody would get hurt. Don't be dumb - what else do you need to know? No fences, no rules, no worries, no injuries.

Archery in rural Mongolia. Notice all the people hanging around
the target, the residential dwellings right behind it, and the
lack of any clear boundary around the range that was just set up
that morning.

American archery rules and guidelines seemed like overkill compared to that. On the other hand, when they're this thorough, at least they've covered all possible ground and there's no way anyone can complain.

But of course someone did anyway.

I'd only been to the range a few times when they told us that there was a group, seemingly consisting of concerned mothers, who wanted archery out of the Arroyo Seco, and the matter would be taken up a city council meeting. Amazingly, while I was being impressed by how scrupulous American archers were, other people were fretting anxiously over the dangers of their squeaky-clean sportsmanship! How could it be so? The anti-archery activists were quite creative, it turned out, and imagined all kinds of strange things that might happen. Hikers and joggers would be forced out of the Arroyo, or they would get hit by stray arrows if they didn't get out, or someone would shoot an arrow into someone's lawn. Perhaps a child might even get struck by an arrow playing in their own front lawn!

Anyone who has visited the range should realize how easy it is to get around without getting in the way, and how hard it would be for the archers to hit bystanders, even if they tried. If not, I suggest you refer to my diagram. Arrows that miss the target just hit the hillside behind it, and since it's steep and bushy, no one is going to be climbing there. To hit someone, they would have to turn away from the actual targets toward the trail, and hope someone stood still and waved their arms so they could aim clearly. In order to get an arrow into someone's yard, they would have to shoot across the trail, over the wash, up the canyon side, across the street, and finally into someone's yard. That's not easy. Most likely, the archer would just lose a perfectly good arrow in the wash.

Archery equipment, unlike guns, is not something you can ignorantly and accidentally set off. To hit anything with accuracy and force, you would have to be somewhat competent, by which time you would have figured out that aiming at people is bad. Anyone who might shoot you with arrows would have to really want to hit you. And if someone wants to shoot you, that's an entirely different problem which could not be prevented by an archery ban.

Danger: Kids with Weapons.

I was eager to help the Roving Archers, so I signed their petition, sent a letter to my district four representative, Gene Masuda, and attended the council meeting on Monday. The turnout was so great that that the majority of supporters, including myself, couldn't fit in the council rooms and had to stand outside watching the meeting on a screen. Immediately before the archery was considered, they heard about a crime wave in another neighborhood. In this case, the delay may have been fortunate, because the meeting itself put the issue in perspective. After hearing about a septuagenarian who had been maliciously shot with a gun in front of his own house, the threat posed by good-natured sportsmen potentially, accidentally, shooting arrows backward at joggers seemed somewhat less.

The council talked a long, long time, and didn't vote until 2:30 in the morning, and I had to leave only a short time after archery began to be discussed, so I had to wait until the next day to find out. Thankfully, the city council was reasonable and decided in favor of the archers. The Roving Archers work hard to make archery enjoyable, and safe, for everyone. I was truly bewildered how much some people worried about the Roving Archers after I had already done archery in an almost completely unregulated environment. Things are pretty safe here, but every time someone thinks archery is dangerous, or refuses to drink their tap water, or shave without cream, or lots of other things, I can't help but wonder if we're a bit too safe.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

MWW 56: Дэвтэр

How the history of "дэвтэр" reflects the history of writing

Cyrillic дэвтэр

Transcription devter
IPA [ˈteʍ.thɪr]
(or sort of like
"deaf tear")
Translation notebook
In Classical Mongolian it was debter.

In modern times, Mongolian has borrowed the English word "notebook" as нөүтбүк (nöütbük) to refer to a laptop computer. The word doesn't seem to appear in dictionaries yet, but a Google search turns up many pictures of laptops. Instead the Mongolians call their paper notebooks дэвтэр, which can also refer to a notepad, ledger, log, journal, or diary. There are зургийн дэвтэр (zurgiin devter, "sketchbook"), and I once had a Mongolian-Chinese ярианы дэвтэр (yariany devter, "phrase book"). But despite its mundaneness, дэвтэр has had quite an adventure getting to Mongolia.

The Notebook's Journey Around the World

Similar words for notebooks are found in Turkic languages: Kazakh дәптер (däpter), Kyrgyz дептер (depter), and Uzbek daftar. These words came from either Arabic دَفْتَر (daftar) or Persian دفتر (daftar). Arabic and Persian seem to have taken it from Aramaic דפתרא / ܕܦܬܪܐ(dptr), which in turn came from Greek διφθέρα. [1] My guess is that the direct ancestor to дэвтэр is Uyghur دەپتەر (depter), since the Mongolians also took their traditional script from Uyghurs. The Uyghur script was adapted from the Sogdian script, which was adapted from the Aramaic script - similar to дэвтэр itself. (The Uyghurs have abandoned this script in favor of the Arabic alphabet.)

Greece to Mongolia is a long way for дэвтэр to go, but it has gone much further than that. Under the combined influence of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, διφθέρα has spread across almost half the eastern hemisphere: Armenian դավթար (davtʿar / tavtar), Georgian დავთარი (davt’ari), Hebrew דִּפְתָּר (diftar), Turkish defter, Tajik дафтар (daftar), and in several South Slavic languages, тефтер (tefter), all of which mean something like "notebook," "ledger," or "register." In fact, the Greeks themselves re-borrowed the word from Turkish as τεφτέρι.

To me the most interesting detour of this global lexical journey is Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Διφθέρα is the source of ደብተር (dabtar) "notebook, register," but also ደብተርራ (dabtarā) "tabernacle, tent." By extension, ደብተርራ has also come to refer to an "unordained member of the clergy who is well-versed in traditional church learning and who performs the hymns and sacred dances during the Mass."[2]

Διφθέρα originally meant "prepared hide" or "piece of leather," but it was also extended to refer to all kinds of leather goods, such as "drum skin," "wallet," "tent," (remember Ge'ez?) and more. [3] Herodotus used the word to refer to boats made in Armenia from animal hides. [4] Its sense of "notebook" comes from the practice of writing on dried animal skins. For comparison, think of the history of "paper" in English. Paper now refers not only to sheets of dry wood pulp, but also whatever is written on pulp, like an "academic paper." In fact, nowadays an academic paper could be published online without ever showing up on wood pulp, and "paper" refers only to the content, not the material.

Διφθέρα may have made a different journey westward. According to Calvert Watkins, διφθέρα comes from an Indo-European root *deph- "to stamp," though he admits it is an "uncertain root form." He also believes Latin littera "letter" derives from *deph-, or from διφθέρα itself, via Etruscan. [5] Of course, littera is also the source of English letter, literacy, literal, alliteration, literature, and numerous words in other European languages: Dutch letter, French lettre, Spanish and Portuguese letra, Italian lettera, Irish litir, Albanian letër, Polish litera, Romanian literă, Russian литера, and so on. In a sense, the history of дэвтэр resembles the history of writing: starting out as a word for skins, it became the words written on skins, and from the Near East spread outward across Asia, Africa, and Europe on the wings of empires and religious movements.

There's one more twist to the story. In 1826, French doctor Pierre Bretonneau was studying a disease which caused "leathery" patches inside the mouth and throat, so he named the disease diphtérite. English speakers know this disease as diphtheria, one of the diseases targeted by the DPT vaccine given to American children. Strange to think that there's a connection among Mongolian notebooks, Ethiopian priests, and a notorious childhood disease. What other cognates might you know?

Διφθέρα's conquest of the Old World


  1. Most of the examples (and more that I didn't use) were found on Wiktionary in the entries for διφθέρα and littera.
  2. Leslau, Wolf. Comparative Dictionary of Geʻez (Classical Ethiopic): Geʻez-English, English-Geʻez, with an Index of the Semitic Roots.
  3. Liddell, Henry George, and Scott, Robert. A Greek–English Lexicon. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1940.
  4. Herodotus. Cited in A Greek–English Lexicon:,0016,001:1:194&lang=original.
  5. Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Second edition.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse in Mongolia

Амилсан хүүрийн сүйрлээс Монгол улсад амьд гарах нь

The Ancient Mayan Prophecy of (Maybe) Doom

Two years ago there was a big fuss about the world ending with the end of the Maya calendar on December 21, 2012. The fuss was not confined to America. I heard about it all December from Mongolians, although the nature of the concern was different. They weren't quite sure what exactly was supposed to happen, just that it would get cold. Really cold. And dark. It does anyway at that time of year, because it happens to be the winter solstice, but this time it was supposed to be much colder and darker than usual. Consequently, the herders were "buying lots of candles" and "making lots of buuz," according to one of the teachers. Sure enough, there were no candles left at the market. But so far, it sounded as if the Maya had prophesied nothing more malevolent than an electrical outage.

On the day of the winter solstice (which was indeed very cold), however, there were only ten students in class. When I asked where the other fifteen were, the class leader reported that they had stayed home because of "дэлхийн сүүлд (the end of the world)." I asked if they were worried about the end of the world, and she replied, "No, Mongolians are not afraid of anything." (At least, the ones who dared come to school.) But then she added,

"The Americans are afraid."

"How do you know?"

"I saw it on TV. They were running and yelling."

I assured her that I, at least, was not afraid.

End-of-the-World Time Lags, in Cincinnati and Mongolia

Of course, the world didn't end that day, and I recalled a quote from Mark Twain, which put things in perspective a bit:

"When the world ends, I would like to be in Cincinnati, because everything happens to Cincinnati ten years later than the rest of the world.1

I confided to some friends that this is sort of how I felt about living in my village. Given the glacial pace of communication, the world might well have ended without me realizing it yet. As we talked, we thought how lucky we were, because if civilization collapsed, due to, say, a zombie apocalypse, Mongolia would be the best place to be, as I explain below.

Мммм, тархи!

Mongolia is Cold /  Zombicicles

First, assuming that our zombies are created by something like a virus (i.e., not magic), they should conform to what we know about the world scientifically.

This means that zombies, like living, non-un-dead humans, freeze. Initially, zombies may be a bit less ruffled by hypothermia than humans, because symptoms like cognitive and motor impairment don't make much difference to zombies. But if they stay out in sub-zero weather, they will lose heat until they reach the ambient temperature. Frozen muscles, no muscle contractions, no movement.

Mongolia is cold. Usually by late November, the daily high temperature dips below zero (Celsius) and stays there until March or so. Outdoor zombies will be rigid zombicicles for at least three months of the year, immobile and defenseless. An enterprising zombie killer could just walk right up to zombies and shatter their heads with a sledgehammer. He could work at a leisurely pace too.

Frost begins in September and ends in May, punctuated by thaws during the day. This is just as dangerous. The expansion of water and formation of ice crystals ruptures cells, causing frostbite. Every time this repeats, the damage is worse, which is why doctors advise that frostbitten tissue should be kept frozen until it can be thawed once and correctly.2 Zombies blown in the shifting whims of weather will freeze and thaw often, suffering massive tissue damage even before they become true zombicicles.

Once they freeze completely, ice crystals will form inside the deepest tissues of the body. The brain will thus be ripped apart by millions of tiny crystals. Everything I've seen about zombies agrees that destroying the central nervous system kills them. So Nature will kill the zombies even without human intervention.

Humans survive by adding layers of clothing, building gers, and starting fires in them. Zombies lack the intelligence and dexterity to do these (and most other) self-preserving actions. It's interesting that every time I see zombies on the screen, it's someplace warm, or during the summer. I guess if they froze, there would be no story.

Son, today I'm going to teach you how to kill zombies.

Mongolia is Remote

The Mongolian climate means that zombies will be a threat only in summer, but even then, there won't be many zombies. Since they will all be killed in winter, they have to build their numbers all over again each summer, probably by immigration from warmer places. They won't be able to accumulate.

Mongolia also has the lowest population density of any sovereign country,3 so the zombies there will be few and sparsely distributed. A dumb corpse could stumble around the steppe for days before running into a living person, so infection would spread slowly. Anyone who did run into a zombie would likely encounter lone zombies rather than flocks.

Mongolia is far away from large population centers. Much of the country is mountain and desert, and mountains and deserts surround it on several sides, creating natural barriers. Since zombies like to throng in cities, where the food is, it's unlikely that they would leave Beijing or Moscow for Mongolia, but if they did, they would freeze or be desiccated while crossing the Gobi, the Taklamakan, the Altai mountains...and so on. For added protection, the Great Wall could be given a makeover. Instead of keeping nomads out of China, it could keep zombies out of Mongolia.

Unless the outbreak started in Ulaanbaatar itself, zombies are unlikely to threaten Mongolia.

Mongolia has Mongols

Then there's the people. Mongolians in the countryside deal with extreme conditions on a daily basis and are good at it. They know how to live without running water, electricity, and many other for-granteds of the modern world. They can ride horses, find fuel, make fires, cook, fix all kinds of things, and more. They frequently wield axes, which can be used to destroy zombie brains. If they're herders, they're also nearly self-sufficient with food (they may need flour imported). So if the infrastructure collapses, they'll manage. And if we're talking about medieval Mongolia, then we're also talking about Mongol hordes - probably the best mounted archers the world has seen. A Mongol warrior could gallop through a gaggle of the undead and hit them with skull-piercing arrows without even getting close.

As far as I know, Cincinnati doesn't have all these advantages.

1. Or maybe Twain didn't say it. Variations of the joke have been around for a long time in various places, according to Quote Investigator (

2. For example, see the National Institute of Health ( or the Mayo Clinic (

3. Not counting Greenland, or Western Sahara, or a bunch of tiny islands which aren't actually independent. Check the World Bank ( or World Atlas (, or Index Mundi (

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Address Doesn't Want Me to Get a Job

I spend a lot of time now filling out online forms for job applications and employment-site profiles, and I've noticed that some of them seem oblivious to certain kinds of work backgrounds - for example, work abroad - just judging by the structure of their data fields. In particular, many times I get stuck at the beginning of an application because I can only input U.S. addresses. Getting around this was easy on paper forms - less so on internet forms where the "state" field is marked "required," with a drop-down list of never more than 52 options. Good luck if your most valuable experience is outside the U.S.! Without Mongolia and Japan, my resume would end up nearly empty. Eventually I figured out how to work around this by listing "Peace Corps Mongolia" with the Peace Corps' headquarter's Washington DC address, and my Japanese university with the Illinois address of the U.S. university it was partnered with in the exchange program. But it's not a great solution. It's frustrating to feel like the address field is blocking you from advancement. In a society where tons of employers drool over international and intercultural qualifications, how many good candidates are prevented from connecting with them because those same employers' forms can't handle a tiny bit of non-standard information? And what other kinds of unintentional stumbling blocks are out there on applications that we haven't noticed?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mongolian Weddings

Autumn, especially October, is Mongolian wedding season. I actually went to a wedding for another teacher exactly a year ago today (October 25). This blog is turning into a “This Day in History” for my life, so I’ll write about weddings today. I’ve got some wedding pictures to share, and I’ll describe what generally happens at the Mongolian weddings I’ve been to.

Prior to the wedding, there are a lot of arrangements to be made. I don’t know much about them, because I’m not a family member of anyone who got married. But a date is chosen - maybe astrologically, and on the advice of a Buddhist priest. After that, the priest doesn’t have anything to do with the wedding, unless he’s a relative. Weddings are not religious in the same sense as most American weddings. An announcement will be posted. Some times, though, I have just been told, “So-and-so is getting married tonight. You should go.” People will usually be expecting "So-and-so" to get married soon anyway, because the wife has probably given birth, or at least gotten pregnant. Notice that I said “wife”; Mongolian couples get called “husband” and “wife” long before the wedding happens.

Weddings are especially common on Friday nights, but plenty of them happen on weekdays too - in the late afternoon after everyone gets off work. So around 5:00 we go to the new ger (or house). The ger has been erected for the occasion. After the wedding is all over the new husband and wife will move into it as their new home. Up until now they’ve probably been living with their parents. But before they can have the home entirely themselves, the whole town, practically, will have to go through it. Their coworkers may arrive in a huge block. This is how I got to go to so many weddings: someone who works at the school (or that person’s cousin) would get married, and the entire faculty and staff of the school would show up, and they would bring me. Being related to a school teacher is a surefire way to get a huge party. Mongolian parties are very space efficient too. I’ve seen 40 people packed into a ger no bigger than mine. Another advantage of being affiliated with the school is that you can borrow school benches to seat your guests. But people will sit on just about everything solid and level in the ger anyway. If the couple gets a house instead of a ger, there may be more room for the guests to move.

Mongolian parties have a T-shaped table arrangement. The head of the table (top bar of the T) is near the back of the room (the north side of a ger), and it is laid out with the most important food items. These may include a tower made of stacked боов, a boiled sheep’s back, and a large vat of айраг (kumiss). The couple sit at the head of the table. The oldest guests are usually seated in the back too on the sides of the couple. From there, the guests get younger as they get closer toward the door. However, many times I was told to sit near the head of the table, which I should probably take as an honor. The system quickly breaks down though as more guests arrive in a crowded ger, and it’s impossible to reorganize everyone by age.

T-shaped table in a house. You can see bowls of tea in the front, bowls of ааруул, a vat of kumiss, several bottles of vodka, two stacks of боов ...
Before the couple can sit down though, they serve the guests. First you get to pick a piece of candy or ааруул off a huge dish, then you get a bowl of сүүтэй цай. Then the alcohol - айраг and vodka - come out. Americans each get their own glass of wine or beer and then start drinking at the same time. Mongolians drink in sequence. The groom will pour a shot of vodka and give it to one guest. That guest will drink it (or some of it) and hand it back. Then the groom refills it and hands it to the next guy. He keeps moving clockwise, refilling the glass, until he gets back to the first guest. Usually a couple of people make the rounds at the same time, so you don’t have to wait half an hour for your vodka. The same goes for айраг - the server fills a bowl, then refills it for the next guy.

After you get buzzed, you’ll get some more appetizers - especially a plate with pickles and sliced хиам. Unlike the vodka, the guests can pass this around themselves.

Mongolian bride and groom - in this case, a math teacher and a Mongolian language teacher. Marriages between teachers are common.
Our chemistry teacher and her husband. Notice the bride and groom wear matching дээл.

I’m often full from appetizers and drinks before the actual dinner (usually soup) is served. It’s hard to stay hungry for dinner, because Mongolians always provide a lot of food and are very insistent that guests eat. And eat. And eat.

When everyone is served, the couple go to the proper place at the head of the table. Someone gets up and gives a speech, and presents them with a хадаг, a bowl of айраг, and some wedding gifts. The first notice I get of a coming wedding is sometimes when the school takes up a collection from me for wedding gifts.

Song kumiss
By the time the party has been going on for several hours and several bottles of vodka have been drunk, it’s so hot in a tiny ger that the windows in the top have to be opened in order to let the heat out, even if the temperature outside is below freezing. Another thing that usually happens is singing. Eventually someone will decide to serve дууны айраг - “song kumiss.” The person who gets a bowl has to stand up and sing a song before they can drink. It’s not as hard as it sounds, because as soon as you start to sing, everyone else begins to sing along too. This singing and drinking will continue until everyone is about to fall asleep, and they go home - often late at night.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MWW 55: Гэрлэх


to marry
In Genghis Khan’s time it was gerlekü.

It’s October now, and that means it’s time to get married! Fall, especially October, is peak season for weddings in Mongolia. In honor of that, this week’s (year’s?) word is the word for “marry.”

Before talking about the word of the week itself, I’d like to introduce you to a neat little suffix, -ла/-лэ/-ло/-лө (depending on vowel harmony), which is Mongolian’s all-purpose verb-forming suffix. This highly versatile and productive morpheme turns nouns or adjectives into verbs. You’ve already encountered this, actually, in the words баярлалаа and овоолох. In many cases the meaning is fairly obvious from the root.

ажил, “job” à ажиллах, “to work”
найз, “friend” à найзлах, “to make friends”
хайр, “love” à хайрлах, “to love”
цэвэр, “clean, pure” à цэвэрлэх, “to clean”

In some cases, it’s less obvious. For example,

баяр, “joy, party, holiday” à баярлалаа, “to rejoice à баярлалаа, “thank you

Literally, баярлалаа means “I have just rejoiced,” with the suffix -лаа/-лээ/-лоо/-лөө indicating the immediate past - but most of the time it’s just a polite phrase. Another example is the verb for marrying.

гэр, “home” à гэрлэх, “to get married”

This is not strange if you know Spanish. In Spanish casarse “to marry” is clearly related to casa “house.” But for the English speakers, it may not be obvious. In Khashaat, couples generally got their own ger or house when they got married, and had the wedding in the house. So “home” and “marry” are very closely linked.

Another term for marriage is гэр бүл болох (ger bül boloh), literally “become a family.” You all should already know гэр “ger,” which refers to a yurt, and more generally, any “home.” Бүл (bül) means a “relative” or “family member.” However, I don’t hear бүл by itself much. Usually I only see it as part of гэр бүл, which means “family.” In fact, this expression matches the American idea of a nuclear family very well: a husband and wife and their children, who all live together in one home.

Another expression I hear a lot is хүнтэй суух (hüntei suuh). Хүн is “person,” and -тай/-тэй/-той is the comitative case suffix, meaning “with.” Суух is “sit,” but in a more general sense “settle” or “be established.” Literally the phrase is “to sit with a person,” and figuratively it means “marry somebody.”

A common question that Mongolians ask when they meet people is, Та гэрлэсэн үү, “Are you married?” This could also be Чи гэрлэсэн үү if they’re talking to someone younger than them. The ending -сан/-сэн/-сон/-сөн corresponds to the English past tense or present perfect tense. There are also gender-specific expressions. You can ask a man, Эхнэртэй болсон уу, literally “Have you become with a wife?” or Эхнэр авсан уу, literally “Have you gotten / taken a wife?” Эхнэр means wife. For a woman, you can ask, Нөхөртэй болсон уу, “Have you become with a husband?” Нөхөр means husband.

If you wanted to marry a Mongolian, you would ask Надтай гэрлэх үү, “Will you marry me?” Remember the comitative case? Надтай “with me” is the comitative case for the first-person singular (‘I, me’) pronoun. In Mongolia, you get married “with” somebody, not “to” somebody.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Returning - Mundane Weirdness

It’s been three months since I came back from Mongolia, and I’m adjusting fine - mostly. At least I no longer fall asleep at 9 AM, or random points throughout the day.

For the most part, living in vastly different places has convinced me that people are pretty much people everywhere. But some stuff is always different. I never had an experience that was dramatic enough that I would call it culture “shock” - a feeling that overpowers you rapidly when contemplating all the vast differences between countries simultaneously and makes your sweat gush and lungs gulp and heart explode. For me at least, the feeling upon going from place to place, especially moving back to an old place, is what I would call “mundane weirdness.”

When you go to a strange country, you will probably check every book about that country out of the library, practice greetings (with terrible pronunciation, because you’ve never heard the language spoken before), look on Youtube for their folk (or pop) songs, and become instant friends with everyone from that country and ask them a million questions. Soon you will know so much that you could probably write the Wikipedia article on that country, but you actually don’t know much at all. Despite your worthy preparation, when you arrive, all you can reasonably expect is that it won’t be like what you expect. That’s practically a law. You are like the blind man in the Mozi, who can say that black is the darkest color, but couldn’t recognize a giant black ball right in front of him.

Most people know that, but nevertheless forget that it works the other way too: when you go home, home is not what you think it is. PCVs should know better, since Peace Corps spends most of COS conference prophesying reverse culture shock, and exhorting them to be ready. Repent sinners, the end of service is near! In all likelihood, you will ignore them, because you’re thinking of a million and two other things, and you won’t read about the numbered stages of culture shock or make a list of your expectations and think critically about it. Even if you are expecting to feel weird though, you will be shocked to find that there is another shock you have not foreseen: you can’t be sure what will be weird, or when.

Instead of happening when you get off the plane and see McDonald’s, palm trees, bald eagles, Abraham Lincoln, and your mom, it happens when you realize that all the pens come in packs of five and the guy at the checkout counter won’t open a pack and sell you just one. You half expect him to, until you suddenly think, “Oh, that’s right.” Once I went to buy "a" blank CD, and ended up buying a ten-pack. Until I saw the ten-pack I had not once thought that it was absolutely certain that I would have to buy a prepackaged quantity. I seriously believed I was just going to walk in and walk out with a single blank CD. It was very mundane and very weird.

(Incidentally, six years ago when I went to Japan, I had an encounter with mundane weirdness when tried to replenish my three-ring binder. I found lined paper with two holes, and four holes, but not three holes, no matter where I looked. When I finally asked a Japanese salesman where the three-hole-punched paper was, he stared at me and told me such a thing doesn’t exist.)

It also happened when I stepped on my mom’s heel and stuck my hand out reflexively. I had to squint to make sure that she actually kept walking without turning around to shake my hand or even slowing down. (In Mongolia, if you step on someone accidentally, you should shake their hand.)

It’s like the confusion when your car keys are not on the table where you put them, until you remember where you actually put them. Furthermore, you know that you will misplace your keys or wallet or something sometime, but you never know when you will misplace it, so you can’t prepare for it, even though you know it will happen. The subtle, odd feeling, the persistent low-grade strangeness hides behind everyday things. You may “get used to the weirdness” and forget about it while it lurks, until it seeps out in some trivial occurrence. Mundane weirdness appears less and less often over time, but it’s probably just sleeping.

Apparently, I can’t post on time even when I do have internet access. Some things don't change.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Deel Day

Today I had the opportunity to take, not a shower, but a full immersive bath. I thought I saw bruises on my leg, which turned out to be just dirt coming off. When I was finally finished, the water was brownish grey and there was a ring around the tub.

Anyway, last week my school had National Costume Day. It's had an entire deel week before, but the past two years we only had one day. Everyone had to wear to wear a deel, and any other traditional hats, boots, and other things if they had them. Since I wear a deel almost every day anyway, this wasn't too different for me personally. However, in the afternoon we had a ceremony for all the teachers, staff, and students to parade around in their best Mongolian wear.

As a bonus, I present this diagram of a deel, courtesy of our school's технологийн багш.