‘Oh you can’t help that’, said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Jim was onto something with that, but I think he only had it half right. Sure, when you’re on the outside looking in, what you see can seem quite odd. But when you’re on the inside looking out? That face peeping in from the other side of the window can be just as startling.
We often write about things we have seen in Mongolia that we find interesting and unusual. Sometimes they seem weird simply because we just don’t yet understand the reasons behind them. Case in point—we were amused about the odd shoe off/shoe on procedures that we had to go through just to enter the gym. It seemed a bizarre waste of time. Until we got to winter, and observed the constant battle waged against snow, ice and mud trekked in from the outside. Of course you take your outside shoes off. It makes perfect sense.
What we haven’t written about is what is weird about us. I don’t intend to list everything. I’m sure you haven’t got all night. But here are the top reasons our Mongolian friends and colleagues assure us on a semi-regular basis that we are weird.
1. The eyebrow raising fact that comes up most often is our diet. No meat? But it’s not a real meal without meat! Despite the fact that there is a small population of Mongolian Buddhists and a range of vegan restaurants in UB, махгүй хоол still seems to be seen as an oddity. Our vegetable-heavy plates are blamed for every cough and sneeze.
2. Our dress sense, or lack thereof. Matt insists on wearing his sneakers to walk to work, despite the temperatures outside. His friends think he will freeze to death, or at least catch a cold. He tells them it’s too hot in the office to wear fleece-lined winter boots all day. He doesn’t mention that it’s also because he has since decided he owns the ugliest winter boots ever made.
I also fail in the sartorial stakes. One day at work I am told by the lovely Ariunzaya: ‘You have very strange fashion sense.’
‘Why?’ I ask, surprised.
At the time I am wearing a pair of culottes, ballet flats and a sleeveless shirt. It’s what I might wear to work in Australia on a court and client-free day. Neat, comfortable, but not exactly pushing fashion boundaries.
‘You only wear black’, she says. Ah. True that.
‘That’s because I’m from Melbourne’, I explain.
She raises a carefully penciled brow as if to say that’s no explanation at all. She later also declares me odd for not wearing make-up to work, but confesses that if she felt she had a choice, she wouldn’t bother with it either.
3. We are still studying Mongolian, despite being native speakers of what is apparently the most useful language in the world. ‘Why do you bother?’ I am often asked. (It is possible that this is as much a reflection on my mangled vowels as it is on the actual usefulness of the language.) I bother because it’s a challenge, because I want to keep up with my multi-lingual husband, and because I don’t want to presume others will speak English for me. There are plenty of people here who I would love to be able to converse freely with. I’d love to sit down with cycling coach Baata and have a fluent conversation, not just a jumble of word fragments punctuated by mime and hieroglyphics scratched into the dust on the back of his car. I wouldn’t tell him things like ‘my dog makes bike wheels’. This was met with a confused response. I tried ‘my dog used to make bike wheels’, ‘my dog is presently making a bike wheel’ and ‘my dog can make bike wheels’ before realising that it was not the verb/tense but the noun that was the issue. By then, the hole I’d dug was far too deep—students of Mongolian, add the нохой/нөхөр trap to your list.
4. Possibly the weirdest thing of all is our child-free status. As a thirty something woman, I ought by rights to have popped out four children, earned a national service medal for my contribution to genetics and be on my way to an early retirement. I’m not sure Matt gets the social welfare benefits, but he’d get to cart around a child so swaddled in winter clothes that its limbs stuck out like a starfish.
We are both often asked whether we have kids. For me, the exchange usually begins like this.
‘Do you have any children?’
‘Ah, not yet.’
Occasionally the ‘not yet’ statement is followed by ‘but when?’ Sometimes I say, in my best Mongolian, that I have a daughter but she is a black and white dog. This sometimes gets a laugh but more often the response is just a deeply concerned shake of the head.
Many Mongolians start families in their early twenties. Although I’m not entirely sure of the accuracy of this, older Mongolian friends have said that under communism people tended to have children later, while the age has come down in recent years.
Spend ten hours watching Mongolian video clips, as I did recently on a bus between Dalanzagdad and Ulaanbaatar, and you’ll see how prominently the concept of ‘family’ features. With the exception of one pop song named ‘Superman’, an epic demonstration of misogyny in pop, the remaining 9 hours and 57 minutes alternated between horses dashing across the steppe and multi-generational families doing domestic tasks or walking in the forest together.
People seem genuinely puzzled by the fact that we haven’t yet popped out a poppet or made plans to do so in the immediate future. Does it mean we hate children? Don’t we see it as our duty? Could we possibly be happy without them? (Answers: Nope, Nope, and So far so good). Are you insane?!
I don’t know—they may be right. We may be crazy.