During pre-service training I lived with a host family for three months. I observed their actions carefully, studying their habits to learn what was viewed as acceptable in Mongolian culture. I learned that blowing your nose loudly on a handkerchief is okay, but sticking your tongue out is not. Washing your body, hair, and car in the river was a must, and that one throws trash in the stove.
Last month I had a horrible cold. Coughing up neon phlegm and blowing my nose filled my hours at home and at work. Thank god this is acceptable here, I thought. Two weeks ago I met up with all Mongolian Peace Corps TEFL volunteers for an in-service-training in UB. We had seminars on teaching English, working on secondary projects, and intercultural dialogue between the PCVs and our Mongolian counterparts. During a cross-culture meeting, one volunteer shared that her teachers thought it was disgusting when she blew her nose. Other Mongolians spoke up, explaining that in Mongolian culture it was impolite to use a tissue in public. You either held it in, or went outside and snot rocketed. Nothing else was acceptable.
This week, I taught the modal verb “should”. One exercise in the textbook had students check off whether they should or shouldn’t do certain activities, including washing a car in the river, drinking from a cracked cup, and throwing trash in the fire. In case you’re not catching on to the theme of this story, students responded to all three of these activities with a vehement “you shouldn’t!”. Confused, I questioned my co teacher. She looked at me, the silly American, who didn’t know basic etiquette. “Washing your car in the river angers the water gods, and throwing trash in the fire angers the fire gods, Mongolians don’t do these things.”
So here’s what I’ve really learned. Like Americans, Mongolians differ in their knowledge of polite “etiquette”, and even if aware, some really just couldn’t give a fig. Living with one host family did not give me the all-encompassing guide to living life like a Mongolian, especially since this specific family would be considered by many Mongolians to be country side bumpkins. Yet, Mongolian my family most definitely was. From them I still learned the vital tasks of washing my clothes, body and hair in a big bowl and starting a fire, activities that have kept me alive and slightly less gross this whole year.
Plus, the sticking the tongue out thing? They were absolutely right about that.
Written January, 2015