Mongolian Emily Post
The Mongolian home-entertaining circuit is an interesting thing. I’ve spoken at length about the culture of hospitality and the unwritten expectation for food and shelter that every Mongolian carries with them while traveling. It’s not easy to adjust to, but I’m beginning to get used to the open door policy and the invitations to share in “sheep head” when it comes along.
At the far end of the spectrum is the Lunar New Year celebration, which (according to my Peace Corps cross-cultural training) sees Mongolian households making between 500-1000 buuz (steamed dumplings) in expectation of guests. It’s traditional to eat three buuz at each house you visit, so that gives you a rough estimation of just how many people the average home expects to see over the period of a few weeks. This last break in school has seen my first steps into the tradition of hosting guests, though nothing quite so ostentatious as the New Year.
Towards the end of a particularly good hour last Monday with my adult students at the mine, the class sort of dissolved into an informal conversation between all of us. And, it came up that my students were extremely curious to see how it is that an American lives in the traditional Mongolian fashion—i.e. in a ger, with a stove for heat, and no running water. I talked myself into holding our next class at my home instead of the mine, figuring that with the time off from school this past week was as good a time as any to be ready to entertain about ten people in my ger.
Ten people in my 4-wall ger is cramped and seating arrangements were difficult to draw up considering that I’ve only got four chairs and a bed to my name at the moment, but I think we muddled through splendidly. I spent the preceding day cleaning my home, and trying to arrange my desk and table to appear somewhat organized. The biggest job was the food though. I decided a mix of exotic (i.e. American) and familiar would be best, and I was limited serving dishes so I settled on popcorn and garlic-mashed-potato huushur. If buuz is one of two signature Mongolian dishes, huushur is the other. Traditionally it’s made with a mix of mutton and onions wrapped in dough, pinched together at the top, flattened into a dumpling about the size of your hand, and fried in oil. I’m not terribly fond of mutton anyway, so I’ve really gravitated more to the seasoned mashed potato huushur. I spent a good three hours making about thirty, and spent another hour artfully arranging dried fruit and candy on a plate and also making a large pot of popcorn the old fashioned way—in a pot over a fire with oil and dry kernels. Despite the unorthodox combination, I think I avoided culinary redundancy to the best of my ability given the circumstances.
They loved it. As I’ve said before, Mongolians love watching a foreigner do Mongolian things, and watching an American serving traditional food in the traditional way in a traditional ger was highly entertaining. For me though, the best part was the way the veneer of circus-act strangeness seemed to be stripped away as the evening went on. Eventually, it became less about how funny it was that I was doing all of these things, and much more about sharing my home and my life with a group of people that have become friends as much as students. It’s sort of the breakthrough I experienced with my co-workers at school, but this time I was in control; I was the one entertaining and serving and supplying the medium for all of us to meet on familiar turf. It’s arguably the most “in control” I’ve felt in any cultural situation since coming to Mongolia, and all it took was an afternoon of frying huushur to do it.
We spent the evening eating, talking, laughing, and looking at pictures of my family and friends. Mongolians love games, and I even taught them to play, “Bullshit” (pardon my Mongolian), and they loved it—I consider it largely educational as it gave them the chance to learn a fun card game and the nuances of a highly versatile word. I think, or at least I hope, everyone left having enjoyed themselves thoroughly. I submit the photos below as evidence.
A note to my readers: I’m beginning the long trek back to Ulaanbaatar on Tuesday evening of this week to spend Thanksgiving with my fellow volunteers in the capital and also to participate in more Peace Corps training seminars called “In-Service Training” (IST). E-mail and skype access might be more readily available over the next two weeks or so, so I might just be able to catch up with you that way! I look forward to hearing from you.