Uh What Is That
Tsagaan Sar, which means either “White Moon” or “White Month” depending on who you ask, is a pretty big holiday as far as these here Mongolian holidays go. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving, except it’s longer, and there’s a sheep butt instead of a turkey, and there are copious amounts of potato salad and mutton dumplings and vodka, and you visit a lot of households instead of just one, and there are specific, ritualized greetings involving scarves and cheek-sniffing. And you get presents. So maybe nothing like Thanksgiving? There is a fair amount of TV-watching with relatives, though.
Ryan and I were kind of worried about Tsagaan Sar. There was an ominous email from Peace Corps headquarters in UB, encouraging us to “be proactive” when it came to the holiday. Be proactive? Or else what? Jesus, did that mean “be proactive, otherwise nobody will include you in their Tsagaan Sar, you weird foreign person who nobody wants around on their special national holiday?” The possibility hadn’t occurred to us before, but we started wondering: What if we didn’t get any invitations? I mean, we probably would, but what if we didn’t? That would be so embarrassing. I started imagining the excuses we could make: But we live in a big city; it’s, you know, big city life; it’s alienating; it’s lonely; it’s hard to build relationships; we are fundamentally unlovable people and it’s not our fault that NO MONGOLIANS LIKE US (sobs into fists)
So I got proactive, in the form of asking leading questions and dropping enormous hints. I had the following conversation with about a half-dozen coworkers:
So what are you doing for Tsagaan Sar? Have you made a lot of buuz?
Oh yes. I’ve made 1,000 buuz.
Wow! That’s a lot. You must be having a lot of guests!
Uhhhh so what are you doing for the holiday?
Oooooh…I don’t knoooooooow…(wan smile)
As it turned out, all my eyelash-batting was somewhat unnecessary, since the second and third days of Tsagaan Sar are kind of a free-for-all and you can score invites at the last minute with some friendly texting. It was the first day — the day reserved for family and elders — that we needed to weasel ourselves into.
And weasel into it we did! One of my teachers, Erdenetsetseg, bless her heart, took pity on me during our Teachers’ Day party.
Oh wait shit I never posted about Teachers’ Day.
How about these Mongolian holidays, eh? Between Tsagaan Sar, Teachers’ Day and our school’s quarter break, I swear I did little to no meaningful work for at least three weeks. This probably explains my recent cravings for thrift stores. Nothing goes better with boredom and underemployment than a good thriftin’, am I right? Please don’t answer that.
But seriously I’ve been so understimulated that I spent like twelve hours the other day on Lonely Planet, googling heart-wrenching things like “Shanghai street food” and putting this together:
That’s right. What a great use of my time. Extremely Tentative, Possibly Imaginary End-of-Service Backpacking Trip, here we come! (in 18 months)(or maybe not ever)
Anyway, Teachers’ Day. It was a lot like Shin Jil — fancy restaurant, sit-down meal, drinking, dancing, dozens and dozens of awards and medals and certificates, plus the usual thousands of posed photos.
Let’s talk about Sexy Work Party Games. We were warned during training this summer that sometimes, at big coworker parties, there are games that wouldn’t exactly get played in the 21st Century American Workplace. But our Shin Jil party came and went without so much as a round of Suck and Blow. As you can imagine, I was pretty disappointed by this. Where were the boozy, titillating games that I was promised? I wanted them.
And Teachers’ Day gave them to me! There was one game where men — men high up on the totem pole, no less, like our director and our head training manager — were blindfolded, led to a line of silent female teachers, and told to find a certain teacher. There was much awkward face-cupping and hair-stroking.
And then there was the other sexy game, where men and women were paired up, given a balloon, and told to pop it as fast as possible. Except they had to do it with the guy partner bent over, and the lady partner humping away at him. I have photographic evidence for this, too, but I’ll let you use your imagination.
Oh also my team won the dance competition, and I have a prize mug to prove it.
Hooray for Teachers’ Day!
I started telling you all this because it was during the Teachers’ Day party that I nabbed an invite for the first day of Tsagaan Sar from Erdenetsetseg. It was towards the end of the evening, and I wasn’t sure she would remember come the following week. But lo, when Tsagaan Sar Eve rolled around she sent me some all-caps texts: “WILL YOU COME WITH MY FAMILY TOMORROW MORNING” and “WILL YOU BRING YOUR CAMERA.” You know it, girlfriend.
Tsagaan Sar Cometh
So that first day, Erdenetsetseg and her husband picked us up in the morning. They had their two adorable kids with them, one of whom (Zoregt, the boy) is my shy but eager little student and I want to squeeze him all the time:
We drove out to a wooden house in the massive ger district, where Erdenetsetseg’s in-laws live. Here they are in their front yard, and no I don’t know what that hat is all about:
We were the first ones to arrive, but soon enough a bunch of other children and grandchildren showed up, and the drinking and eating and conversing commenced. Gramps took a shine to Ryan. He insisted that Ryan sit next to him, so that he could make gleeful and intermittently translated conversation with him the entire time. Topics included, but were not limited to:
- Gramps’ fake eye
- How Gramps’ dad was killed in the purges of the 1930s
- Whether we were communists
- Whether there are any communists in America
- Angela Davis*
- Our feelings about Mongolia
- When we would come back to their home to visit
- How many buuz we were required to eat
- How much booze we were required to drink
- Hillary Clinton
Well, um, there aren’t many communists in the United States.
I know one!
Yes! Angela Davis! (mimes afro)
So the rest of the day was spent bouncing around from one relative’s house to the next. After a couple hours at one place, a few people would sneak off early and go prepare their home, and then the rest of us would follow 30 minutes or so later. I managed to make myself useful exactly once (in Erdenetsetseg’s kitchen, slicing spam and pickles for the potato salad). Otherwise, we spent the entire day sitting around tables of food, laughing and eavesdropping and joking around and stuffing ourselves. Two houses in, one of Erdenetsetseg’s sisters-in-law started addressing us as “Michael Jackson” and “Mariah Carey.” Did I mention how the day started off with tequila shots at 9:30?
Anyway. I felt physically ill when we got home that night (my tolerance for vodka and meat dumplings is lower than I thought it was), but to have been included in that day! Imagine! Seriously, imagine inviting your weird, foreign, barely conversant coworkers over for Thanksgiving, and then imagine everybody paying attention to them and speaking slowly for them and explaining things to them and asking them questions and listening to the answers and bullshitting around with them and making them feel at home. All day long. Just lovely. They are a solid bunch, that family.
We took it easy for the rest of the holiday, visiting one of Ryan’s coworkers on the second day, and another one of mine on the third. And then the last person we visited was Togtokh, a university student who comes to our weekly conversation classes at World Vision. He lives in the city with his girlfriend Purevsuren, who works at a local electronics store. We’d never been to their apartment before. It was pretty bare (only three chairs) and their Tsagaan Sar table was small: They had the traditional tower of cakes and candy, plus milk tea, vodka and buuz. No potato salad, no gigantic sheep butt, no fruit, no juice, no fermented mare’s milk.
We sat around, talking and eating and looking at their photo albums. There they were, high school sweethearts in their little Zavkhan Province hometown. There was Purevsuren, graduating from university in Ulaanbaatar. There was Togtokh’s brother in Korea, working in a factory in Busan. There was Togtogkh in his sheepskin del, standing in front of his family’s ger at last year’s Tsagaan Sar. So they went home for Tsagaan Sar last year, we asked? Yes, they said. Had they gone home to Zavkhan for the first part of Tsagaan Sar this year? No, they said. Did any of their family members live in Erdenet? No, they said. Had they visited anybody else that day? No. Had anybody else visited them? No.
Later, back at home, Ryan and I started putting things together: The way Togtokh had invited us over and sent persistent follow-up texts; the way he was waiting for us outside his building when we showed up; how they were so far from home on Tsagaan Sar, possibly for the first time; how their spread of food was kind of small; how they didn’t seem to be very busy, making visits or receiving other guests. I mean, it doesn’t necessarily all add up, but still, we’ve been wondering if the two of them maybe, possibly…put everything together for just us?
Oh god, and when we left they even gave me a jar of pickles! And Togtokh said to Ryan, with an embarrassed look on his face, that he was sorry they didn’t have another gift for him! Jesus jesus jesus I can’t think about this anymore, my heart is breaking into a million pieces.
We should probably hang out with them more.
This brings us to our final section. I got a jar of pickles from Togtokh and Purevsuren because that it what you do during Tsagaan Sar: You invite people over, feed them, entertain them, and then give them presents when they leave. I found this to be awesome, all the more so because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to said presents. They can be anything. Anything. In addition to the jar of pickles, I received:
- Decorative plastic jars
- A shirt
- A little doll-sized del
- A bag of anklebones
- A DVD of my coworker’s husband singing about the Erdenet copper mine (more on this to come)
- A piece of fabric with blue beaded flowers sewn on it
- A pack of Always sanitary pads, with the type of “So You’re Becoming A Woman” booklet you’d give a 12-year-old girl
And then there was this, the pièce de résistance:
I got this at the last home we visited on the first day. As we were leaving, the hostess (the one who had been calling me “Mariah Carey” for six hours at that point) pressed it into my hands, leaned in, and stage whispered, “This is a very nice present for women.”
What do you think it is? Guess! Guess! Guess!
I’m not telling you until you guess goddamnit.