I’m still working through these ideas, so bear with me.
We learned pretty early on in Malaysia that the context within which everything — government, civil society, business — operates is post-colonial, Islamic (and very religious no matter what your faith) and about balancing the needs, rights and wants of three ethnic groups. For example, in my previous work, we always knew that while we didn’t have to have certain ethnicities in certain staff positions, it would behoove us to do so. Holidays are a careful mix to be sure each religion has its days, and each state also has its own day every year. And nearly three generations after colonial rule ended, I felt that the Malaysian government was still trying to work out what to keep from the British and what leftover bits undermined its credibility. Some of this was more noticeable, some less, but these issues were the context/atmosphere/underpinning/you name it for whatever work we were doing.
(Americans have a version of this with our stories of struggling for independence and exploring the frontier, as well as our idea of the country as a melting pot. These shared ideas explain a lot, for example, about the role of the individual in our culture, compared to the role of family or community.)
Already, Mongolia feels very different. For one thing, religion is much less present; I can’t tell how important Buddhism is to the Mongolians I know, and that lack of awareness says a lot. What people do reference is being post-socialist or post-Soviet, and that change has happened just in the past twenty years. Much of the architecture seems Soviet, much of the food seems eastern European, and I’ve had Mongolians tell me they identify more with Europe than Asia. (That’s a statue of Genghis Khan above, but it could have been Lenin in another era.) Go a bit deeper, and the ways that democracy is developing here have to do with moving away from centralised planning, rather than obedience to autocratic royalty. For both of us working here, one in government services and one in human rights, this is a very interesting difference from Malaysia.
We’re still brand-new here, so, really, I don’t know anything yet. But this is a powerful first impression that I’ll be checking again regularly as we go.