Posts Tagged With: Cultural Dislocation

A Liebster Award!


The lively, interesting and, as I now know, kind blogger Czechsotans has nominated this blog for a Liebster Award! Many thanks for the support, and check out Czechsotans’ entry here

I admit that Liebster Awards were unfamiliar to me, and the gist is that the Liebsters are a way for smaller blogs to share and support each other’s work. The nominator asks each nominee to answer some questions, and then those nominees answer and pass on the award with new questions to their own set of nominees. The rules, loosely understood, are here.

Czechsotans asks the following  questions, and because Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: Mongolia is an expat blog, I’ll answer in terms of life in Mongolia:

1. If your blog was a song, what would it be and why?

I came of musical age in the late 1970’s, and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” captures my somewhat antagonistic affection for Mongolia.

2. What is one thing you reeeeally like about the town where you live?IMG_1204

For a city that is commonly described as unattractive, there are some lovely little parks and green, open spaces. The center of the city is easily walkable, as long as one is EXTREMELY vigilant when crossing the street, and walking is a great way to appreciate the parks and old architecture. At this time of year, flowers are planted along the sidewalks as well, which makes the street scene even nicer.

3. What are you doing this summer?

Staying in Mongolia to enjoy the warm weather and host some of our close friends who are visiting from Malaysia. It’s a huge treat to spend time with people we really miss, plus visitors give us a good excuse to sightsee outside Ulaanbaatar.

4. Name a place you’ve traveled that you’d recommend to others and why.

The Mongolian countryside is breathtaking. Ulaanbaatar has its charms and comforts, but travellers should come to Mongolia for the wild beauty of the landscape and the rigorous outdoor activities.

5. Who is someone you look up to?

I have been really fortunate through work in the NGO sector to meet some amazing women leaders. Some of them were among those who fought for democracy in the immediate post-socialist period, and some of them are advocating every day for law and policy reform. As I write this, the revised version of the Law on Domestic Violence has been at Parliament all week, and people are working hard to get that law passed.

6. What drives you crazy?

The food. Traditional Mongolian food is meaty, fatty and bland, and even as I appreciate the very good environmental and cultural reasons for this diet, I have a very hard time eating here. The local taste for meaty, fatty and bland affects the preparation of non-Mongolian food as well: where else would you find sausage nigiri sushi? On the positive side, my own cooking is improving as I learn to make more ingredients and dishes that I can’t find here.

7. Where do you do most of your blogging?

Each post starts as a conversation in my head with some hypothetical Interested Person. When the narrative flows and I have a semi-coherent idea of the beginning, middle and end of the post, I get on the computer to write and find images. The actual “where” depends on the time and energy I have for writing, sometimes at home, sometimes at work.

8. How do you spend your free time?

A lot of cooking, obviously! We eat all breakfasts and about five dinners a week at home, which takes time to prepare and hunt for ingredients. Now that the weather is warm, I love riding and wish I could do that every weekend. We have more of a social life now, too, so we have people over or meet somewhere to get together. All my other time is spent reading, both books and online.

9. What is something cool you’ve found?

Mongolian (Tuvan, specifically) throat singing — oh, my god! Listen to this.

10. If you could switch places with someone for a day, who would it be?

Honestly, I have no idea!

11. What gets your creative juices flowing?

One of the tags I just added recently is Cultural Dislocation. I’m just now calling it out specifically, but really, cultural dislocation is the feeling that inspires me to write and describe what we experience here. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of daily life in an unfamiliar culture: basic tasks can be very difficult because, well, how do you add money to your phone or find a shoe repair place, or or or or… One way I can tell how hard this is? When we’re in the US I am ridiculously excited by simple interactions IN WHICH I AM UNDERSTOOD. Such as asking where something is in a store, being told and finding the thing in that place. When so much is unfamiliar, we notice more, and that is what sparks creativity.

And my nominations for Liebster Awards go to:

If they want, and when they have time, I would love to know how they answer the following questions:

  1. What started this project?
  2. What’s your favorite part of blogging?
  3. What have you learned along the way, and would you give this advice to others?
  4. Do you have a particular audience in mind?
  5. How do you use structure in your blogging — a set of guidelines for posting, or as things arise?
  6. What particular image or memory best captures the spirit of your blog?
  7. If you could go anywhere in the world and share the experience through the blog, where would it be?
  8. Whom from your past would you go back to and thank?
  9. What about you might we not know from reading your blog?
  10. What makes you feel better after a hard day?
  11. Do you have an end in mind for your blog?

Moon rising over Ulaanbaatar

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A Mongolian Graduation


It began the way these things so often do, with me in a state of complete confusion about what we were about to do. The day before, I found out that one of our young colleagues was graduating and that we were going to the event at 11:00. I had also been told that we were to dress up, although that was complicated by the weather since it was snowing again.

11:00 came and went, and I was told we’d leave at 12:00. Ok.

At 12:30 we left the office, and I internally shushed my anxieties about being on time, finding seats, arriving in the middle of a ceremony…all that. Our first stop was across the street into what turned out to be a jewelry shop (Many places have double doorways to keep out the weather, which also make it hard to see in. This, plus the Mongolian signage, make it hard for foreigners to know what kind of business is done inside.) to look for a present. No luck. One of the coworkers left, as she’d been sick. I followed passively, waiting outside as another coworker went into another shop.IMG_1109

At 1:00 three of us got in a taxi and ended up in a nondescript neighborhood where there was a party going on in front of one of the buildings. Out we got — this was the university graduation. A crowd of people, festive bunting, amplified speaking underway, and a vendor selling bouquets and sparkling wine at the entry. There was a big circle of people listening to the proceedings, which included poetry reading, speeches and a Mongolian graduation song that all the people around me joined in singing. The graduates, a mix of social work and literature students, stayed throughout, and their families and friends came by to congratulate them. While the event felt very celebratory, of course, a lot of what was translated for me had to do with the melancholy of leaving classmates and teachers.

After the degrees are awarded, the graduates and close family members go out for lunch. And finally I understood why dressing for the weather was an issue and that there was no particular rush for us to get there: the whole thing is outside, and well-wishers are free to show up, take photos, chat and leave when they want.


(And I realized that I’d again miscalculated about what to wear, as the graduates were very dressed up, and the guests wore pretty much anything. I had on one of my better work outfits, which was A) not like what other people had on, and B) invisible anyway under the coat I didn’t take off.)

Here are some of the graduates. It’s hard to see, but these women take their stilettos seriously, even in daytime. Five- and six-inch heels were typical.

And here’s “our” graduate, such a cutie:IMG_1111

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View From the Expat Window


The view from my office

Expat life involves so much learning about your host country. All kinds of basic things that we take for granted at home seem unfamiliar here. I was reminded this morning of how off balance we were our first year in Malaysia, how we never knew when the holidays were. I was working in a round-the-clock NGO, and the husband was working from home, so neither of us was in a 9-to-5 world. Add to that our complete ignorance of Muslim and Hindu holidays, and, well, we were always the losers at the expat parties who had no idea there was a three day weekend coming up. I thought about that this morning when Himself texted to say there was no one in his office and he had no idea why. Oh, here we go again…

In Mongolia we both are in offices with mostly regular schedules, but because of our work, we get quite particular views of the country. The husband is working in local government to improve city services. He knows all about garbage collection, the city’s centralized heating system and how people get water — stuff that most expats and plenty of locals never think about. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR to its friends), and I’ve learned that one of the biggest obstacles for people is that this is a small country. Not small geographically, because another obstacle is having to travel a long way to a clinic, but small-town small. As in: you go in for birth control or some kind of checkup, and the doctor is an old friend of your granny’s and the receptionist dated your brother. It’s VERY awkward for people, especially teenagers. And I find this a fascinating little cultural nugget.

On the other hand, taking taxis is still really stressful for me because I can’t always describe where we live. I’m going to an NGO fundraising event tomorrow night and was actually discouraged from making a donation — huh? Daily office life is full of little surprises because I don’t understand what’s being said around me. And the husband’s office was mysteriously empty this morning.

What we do know is weird stuff.

Here’s another example from working in children’s rights in Malaysia: There’s a Malaysian island called Pulau Ketam (“Crab Island”) that I heard about early on as a notorious drop-off point for human traffickers and as a site where dogs were abandoned. Horrifying, right? It was at least a year later that I found out the island actually is famous as a day excursion for the food — crab, duh. You’d think I’d have picked up the food connection, but I had no idea that normal people just go there to eat.


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Lost in the Mongolian Grocery Store



We’ve spent A LOT of time as new expats exploring the grocery stores of Ulaanbaatar. For me, food shopping is one of the most interesting ways to learn about a new culture. What do people eat and how do they get it? More immediately, what will we eat besides Mongolian food? And where do we find it?

The good news is a lot more vegetables & fruits than I’d expected. IMG_0631Even durian, once! Relatively few vegetables are grown in Mongolia, so what’s here is mostly from China and easily-transported. IMG_0796Leafy greens, such as lettuce, aren’t so good, but there are plenty of root vegetables, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. Root vegetables are sold unwashed, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between, say, beets and turnips in bins. At left is what we brought home one day — see those nice chilies and the ginger?

Meat is sold both in the butcher sections of larger stores and pre-packaged frozen. There are lots of options: cut pieces, pre-ground meats, sausages, and dumplings. IMG_0817(As far as I can tell from the dumpling packages, they’re all stuffed with mutton. Whatever differences there are between red, blue and green labels, it’s not the filling.) Frozen fish also is available. Though I miss eating fish more often, it doesn’t look that good so we rarely buy it.

Dairy is the other staple of the Mongolian diet. The trick is to figure out what, exactly, is inside the package — early on I bought sweetened yogurt instead of cream. Milk comes in different versions: UHT (Ultra High Temperature, meaning no refrigeration is needed) packs, “regular” and reconstituted from powder, with fat levels of 4% or 3.2%. I don’t care about the fat content but I do NOT prefer powdered milk. Other packages…are they butter? Cheese? Flavored yogurt? Some other thing? And there’s ahruul, the dried yogurt described by To Mongolia with Love:


Ahruul is everywhere!

It’s been surprisingly hard to find fresh herbs, which I miss a lot. IMG_0814Cilantro is the only one that’s relatively common and cheap. I’ve substituted celery leaves for parsley and bought mint when we’ve found it, but mostly it’s dried herbs in envelopes. And again, it’s a matter of figuring out the labels in Mongolian. (Time to start growing our own.)

A few other interesting things:

  • Every store, no matter how small, has a very large candy section, full of chocolates, wrapped hard candies, gift boxes, kids’ treats, you name it.
  • Mongolian food traditionally is not very seasoned. The default seasonings and condiments seem to be Eastern European: pickles everywhere, jars and cans of beets, sauerkraut, and preserved meats. There is lots of oil and what I finally identified as mayonnaise, but very little vinegar — salad is far more likely dressed with mayonnaise than vinaigrette.
  • Korean ingredients also seem very popular, including a wide range of sauces, seasoning mixes, misos, instant noodles, and kim chee.
  • Besides the big supermarkets, there are lots of little neighborhood markets that sell the basics: milk, bread, toilet paper, candy, cigarettes, and, because this is Mongolia, there’s also often a freezer case with big chunks of meat in it.

One of my favorite places is the big indoor market where individual vendors sell meat, produce, dairy and pantry items. This is where we find the widest range of produce and the freshest, sawed-off-the-haunch meat, but what’s fascinating are the little stalls of random packaged things. I’m not sure what the import process is for, say, US cake mixes or jars of peppercorns, but these vendors have just different enough stock that I wonder if a lot of it is hand-carried in from other countries. I went looking for horseradish several times with no luck. Pretty much all the stands looked as if they *might* have it, because they had mustard and paprika and ketchup, but no one did. Then, one day, someone had it. It’s like that.

Another category is the American stores that sellIMG_0800 US brands in big quantities, like a Costco, but in small spaces. Again, it’s hard to predict what you’ll find in one of these, but it’s stuff like paper towels, cereal, baby things, and huge institutional (hospitals, dormitories, prisons) food service-size jars of, say, peanut butter. Mongolian people shop there to be sure they’re getting authentic products. I was in a taxi with a colleague and the driver asked her where a nearby American store was, because his wife wanted to buy real US candy for a holiday party. Snickers are at every checkout counter, and it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d be counterfeit, but who knows?

IMG_0818Finally, what about that other household stuff? Some of it is easy to recognise, and the local labelling is kind of adorable, like this toilet paper at left. But some things are completely incomprehensible. IMG_0957We bought this bag of whatever back in October, hoping it was laundry detergent but not sure. Laundry detergent? Fabric softener? Dishwashing liquid? Bird shampoo? We tried looking online, then emailed a photo to a Korean-speaking friend in the US. The label turned out to be too euphemistic for her non-resident Korean language skills — the label and product name, “Gentle Pigeon” or some such, didn’t actually explain what it does, so our friend had to forward the photo to a cousin in Korea for further explanation. Turns out to be a very popular, heavily advertised … laundry detergent.

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It’s a Funny Thing, Being an “Advisor”

I’m working on a grant proposal this week, but more of my time is spent being on call for questions that come up. Now is the time that the UN agencies here are setting up their plans for 2014, and the organization I work for does a lot with UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, so my colleagues are setting up projects and budgets for next year. It’s easiest to submit these in Mongolian, so I can’t help directly, but I answer lots of questions about how to present information. We’ve also spent a big chunk of time this week talking about how to improve the work habits of two of the junior staff. (Another time I will vent about how “capacity building” should mean more than just getting people to show up for work, but this is where things are.)

When I came back from lunch today — IMG_0832 they worry that I’m not finding enough to eat nearby, so I took a picture of my sandwich to show them — there was a young woman talking to my colleague/interpreter, and I was asked to sit with them. The visitor is a former tv journalist, now finishing her Masters and wanting to do a series of tv programs about this NGO; can we provide funding for that? Weeellll, I said, not sure we could/would/should fund that ourselves…but then the conversation went on to the idea that she develop her idea for a short series of episodes on gender-based violence in Mongolia. I talked a bit about how to structure a proposal and who might fund the project, and we all got pretty excited. No idea what will come of it, but it would be really fun to watch and help something like this take shape.

THEN they called me in to show me a picture of a perfume box on someone’s phone. Apparently her husband’s got a friend who’s offering to sell this for about USD 80.00, and she wasn’t sure it was real Chanel. (Just for the record: they have no idea I have an insane perfume collection; I think it’s just that I’m a westerner who might know.) My — strong — guess was no, because the box wasn’t right, and since I’m going through duty-free this week, I offered to get her some of the real stuff. Yes, please! At which point I made a poorly-recontextualized and hard to translate joke about drug mules – perfume mules – camels – perfume camels and thought maybe I’d better shut up and go back to my grant proposal.

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