Амар байна уу? (Are you rested/peaceful?)
This past week has been wonderful, not least because it’s been a weeklong school holiday. Admittedly, I was becoming pretty worn out. Teaching, especially in another language, is exhausting.
The lunar New Year is a big celebration in most Asian cultures. I remember going to a friend’s family’s Chinese New Year party back when I was in high school. Mongolians celebrate Tsaagan Sar, or “White Month/Moon”—the Mongolian word sar means both month and moon, pretty clever, right?
The title of the post is the traditional greeting at each house you visit. Mongolians approach each other with arms outstretched (sometimes with a blue khadag drapped across their arms), and the younger person places their arms underneath the arms of the older person, as if they were supporting them, and greets them with the traditional Амар байна уу? (amar baina uu?)
The celebration has a few facets as far as significance is concerned. It’s the beginning of a new year according to the traditional calendar, but it also marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. We can all rest a little easier knowing I’ve made it through the worst of the Mongolian winter. Things have actually started to warm up around here; mid-day is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty degrees, which feels downright tropical after walking to school all through January with negative thirty biting you in the face.
The first day of it all was February 3rd, and Mongolians spend most of their time in the week leading up to it preparing: preparing their homes for guests, and making truly epic numbers of buuz—a steamed dumpling usually filled with onions and minced mutton or goat. Gers are immaculate, swept clean, and everything in the home is polished to perfection, so the holiday is as much spring-cleaning as it is feast. Accompanying the buuz are plates of potato salad (seriously, just like we’re used to at home), egg salad, fruit salad, boiled mutton back (not at all like we’re used to at home), and a candy pyramid made from large foot-shaped cookies all topped with sugar cubes and sweet dried milk curds called aruul. Bon appetit.
Of course drinking is big too, with beverages ranging from the ridiculously traditional to the extremely untraditional. The former category includes, but is not limited to, suutei tsai (milk tea), airag (which has previously been described as fermented mare’s milk, but is traditionally fermented camel’s milk down here in the Gobi), and baraashig (something akin to beer, made from some kind of sweet berry). Airag is probably an acquired taste, but to be honest, I think I like the camel version down here more than I did the horse milk I tried over the summer. Suutei tsai is wonderful and nourishing, and I particularly enjoyed the baraashig–tasted like a summery-sweet and yeasty beer. The major non-traditional beverage of choice is of course vodka, yet another heirloom of the Russian era. It’s offered generously anywhere you go, but as I’ve seen in most houses, rarely does anyone drink the entire glass offered. It’s polite to take a small sip and then pass the glass back to the host to be topped off and passed to the next person.
The last event of each house visit is the presentation of gifts by the host. Usually all visitors receive a gift, size and expense go according to stature/age. Being the new guy has its benefits though too, and I was remembered at almost every house I visited. Gifts are usually along the lines of candy, tobacco, and bottles of vodka–the last, I noticed, tends to be re-gifted several times before actually being consumed. Traditional clothing is, again, the Mongolian deel, which both I and the little guy are wearing in the pictures below.