As I finish my second rotation in Mongolia I’ve finally got round to updating this neglected blog! The topic I’d like to focus on this time is Mongolian culture which I knew very little of when I first left London in January, but have grown to respect over the last few months.
There are four themes I’m going to focus on the first is the importance of respect for elders, you will often see wizened old men and women pottering around the city in their traditional Mongolian dress of long robes, a big fur hat and traditional pointy ugg boots (I’ll have to post a photo!) These elderly people are often accompanied by youngsters, or at least helped onto the bus by the nearest young person. The new year celebration is also focused round a formal greeting which involves the younger person holding the elder persons forearms as a sign of respect. The language also instils this value as younger people are expected to address anyone older than them with a suffix to their name which roughly translates as brother/sister. I doubt there is an geriatric home in the entire country! This respect for elders especially within the family is somewhat lacking within western culture. Whilst I’m all for meritocracy within the work place I think life experience has become a sorely undervalued currency in our culture, and it’s great to experience a culture where it isn’t. It makes getting old something to look forward to!!
The second cultural topic is that of national pride and pride in heritage. This is a topic close to my heart and I touched on it in my previous blog when in Brazil (I’m sure all my loyal readers will remember that hahaha!) but I’d say national pride is even stronger here in Mongolia which is perhaps surprising for a country that gets little attention abroad. Mongolians are fiercely proud, and if there is one thing that makes them most proud it is Chiggis Khan (Gengis for western readers). I’ve not come across a Mongolian who doesn’t have their own interesting fact about the warrior leader. Be it that all Mongolians can directly trace their lineage back to him, or that he set up the greatest empire of all time (more of an opinion than a fact). Almost everything is named after him, from the airport and hotels to beer and vodka. National pride is certainly something Britain struggles with perhaps because of our diversity, but hopefully the Olympics will help the country gel and celebrate Britishness!
The third cultural topic I want to touch on is superstition. My Mongolian friends are all graduates and well educated and well travelled, but that hasn’t stopped them being superstitious. My favourite Mongolian superstition is the belief that if you set on someone’s foot you are both likely to be heading for a fight. In order to prevent that calamity Mongolians will immediately shake the other person’s hand. This takes some getting used to, especially when it happens with a stranger. If you’re sitting at a table it’s not uncommon for someone to just grab your hand and shake it because your feet collided! Mongolians, whatever their religious beliefs all practice a form of nature worship, believing in the power of specific rock outcrops and performing rituals outside their houses to celebrate Mongolian lunar new year. They’ll also aim to give birth in certain auspicious years, the next one being two years away. Some superstitions do have some scientific background such as the practice of drinking water that has been left in a copper cup overnight, this apparently is the secret to Mongolians apparently legendary good health!
The final cultural aspect I’d like to discuss is the celebration of masculinity and femininity. Whilst in the west International Women’s day mostly seems to be the preserve of big corporations trying to tick boxes, here in Mongolia it’s a celebration of womanhood more closely related to Valentines Day. Men buy gifts and roses for the important women in their life, including all the women in their office and just generally spoil and compliment them. However the most interesting fact is that it’s not a celebration of equality and how women can be powerful and successful, which is what western women’s day seems to be about. It is more a celebration of femininity, of beauty and what makes women so specially and wonderful. I think that makes it a much more powerful celebration, than trying to prove women are the same as men or is some way ‘better’. It is good to embrace the differences and celebrate them. A sign of the true equality in Mongolia, that I think the west could learn from is the celebration of men’s day which falls about a month later. When I raise this idea in the UK it is laughed at, ‘every day is men’s day’ is the common retort. What nonsense, if you believe that the we are a long way from equality. Mongolian men’s day originated as Soldiers Day, but has now broadened to include all men. Again the day is a celebration of masculinity in our office the women used the morning safety meeting to tells us about the healing qualities of drinking water from copper cups. They then gave all the men copper cups with the engraving ‘From the Training Department Girls’ and said how lucky the were to have the most handsome men in the company in their office (and even made it sound sincere!) They also put on a pizza lunch (as the boys had for women’s day) and topped it off by making a sideshow in which they’d super imposed our faces onto photos of Mongolian warriors, wrestlers and herders. Mongolian men have a lot of respect for their women, and often the women are better educated and paid, however they still remains an expectation that women should marry and have children in their early twenties, so there’s still room for improvement!
As you can probably tell I have a lot of affection for Mongolian culture and people, it has been an honour to live and work in Mongolia and experience
their culture. My Mongolian friends have been very welcoming and I hope one day to welcome some of them to London. But for now I’m off to experience the delights of Hong Kong and the islands of Thailand with Vanessa, bring on the good times! :)