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). Since I’m in California now but still writing about Mongolia, this blog is going to become 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, or sometimes the news travels just by word of mouth. I’ve gone to several weddings where I was just told, basically, “So-and-so is getting married tonight. You should go.” However, 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 are usually 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 is specially 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.

Seating is a big deal too because you often can’t sit just anywhere. The couple sit at the head of the table, near the back of the room (the north side of a ger). 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 ...
Mongolian parties have a T-shaped table arrangement. The top bar of the T is near the back of the ger. The most important people sit here. It also has 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).

Before the couple can sit down though, they may have to 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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MWW 54: 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.