I thought that I would close my summer in a retrospective, but tastefully non-nostalgic post on 3 ideas that have I have been playing with regarding Mongolian culture, society, and language. These thoughts seem slightly underdeveloped, but I suspect that they will be thought provoking, nonetheless. I will not attempt to make my statements over diplomatic, and I trust, therefore, that this post will be read as a real-life experience, but not necessarily as an authoritative/definitive account.
Ever since I have first came to Mongolia, I have been asked by professors, colleagues, family, and, perhaps most important of all, myself: “So, what is it about Mongolia?” The simple answer is say simply that I research small state foreign policy and am interested in how small actors make decision on the international stage. Most of the time this is sufficient. Indeed, it is very true and is a great reason to be in Mongolia; however, it does ignore an important fact: I became interested in small state foreign policy through my time in Mongolia and then only towards the end of my second trip. Let there be no confusion, I am sincerely interested in small state foreign policy and security objectives, but that interest came rather late in my Mongolian adventures. In conversations with other visitors to Mongolia, long and short-term alike, the idea of a certain “pull”, “connection”, or “charm” has often come up. This summer, I think I may have gotten a step closer to understanding exactly what this charm might be.
Now, before I go any further let me say that I am not one of these well meaning theorists that talk of cultural differences as if only one type of personality exists in a given society. I certainly recognize that any attempt to say Mongolians come in any one type is highly problematic and invariably open to exceptions and critique. Still, I will venture to lay out here a casual- although still informed- observation.
Mongolians are on a foundational level from a nomadic culture, and this has a tendency to express itself in a variety ways- from the most charming to the most perplexing. While I have only spent a month with herders in various parts of the country, I do have at least some experience from which to say that the traditional Mongolian nomadic/herding lifestyle values an interesting combination of individualism and fearlessness coupled with fierce loyalty. On the steppe, Mongolians lived in small family units and loyalty to friends, allies, and the family were essential to survival. At the same time, herds were more or less the private property of individual herders, and one’s survival lay squarely in one’s own individual hands. Mongolian society is not defined by any strict code, such as one encounters in Confucian societies and it seems to me, at least, that Mongolians overall remain unencumbered by the rigors of societal obligation, duty, or guilty/shame. Imagine a herder on a horse in the middle of the steppe with nothing around for miles and you might begin to imagine the kind of freedom I perceive in Mongolia. There is also a level of fearlessness, as demonstrated by Mongolia’s history of Empire, but also in the way many people will cross a busy street with barely a glance in either direction. It is the ability to go with their immediate and short-term desires that I think I find particularly thrilling in Mongolia, be it Ulaanbaatar or the countryside.
Not to be too simple, let me problematize everything I just said. Obviously, Mongolians do not just do whatever, whenever they want. As herders they have to plan for winter, and in the city it is not an anarchic mess (although it certainly can look that way sometimes). Indeed, ask any LGBT Mongolian citizen if they have the freedom to express themselves however they wish in public and you will begin to understand the restrictions that exist. Furthermore, respect must be shown to elders in every situation, and loyalty to the family unit often means a certain level of self-sacrificing behavior.
So, returning to my original question I think that my personal curiosity about Mongolia and its people is the elusive intersection of fierce individualism coupled with moments of intense obligation and necessity. This illusive intersection continues to elude me, and I can imagine that it will continue to be part of my fascination with Mongolia for a while yet.
The Tension is UP
I cannot escape the feeling that anti-foreign sentiment is very much on the rise in Ulaanbaatar and presumably in the rest of the country. When I first came to Mongolia in 2008, I felt that the glances directed my way where based on curiosity; now these glances seem openly hostel and suspicious. To put it another way, the “Oh, I wonder what he is doing here?” has been replaced with a much more off-setting “Hmm! Another foreigner ruining my country.” I recognize, of course, that this is very much based on personal perception, but other researchers in the city have reported a similar feeling to me as well.
As I have reported previously, nationalist groups and public support to them has clearly been on the rise throughout Mongolia. This has been mainly in reaction to the perceived behavior of foreign mining companies operating in the country. On one end, Mongolians recognize the foreign investment is an important component in their economic growth. On the other end, Mongolians are well informed on the exploitation that other resource-rich countries have experienced at the hands of foreign nationals. The population at large remains worried about the possibility of exploitation. In fact, to many Mongolians the exploitation has already begun. Perceptions that Mongolia should own over 50% in any mining venture and that any large mining operation will build a permanent city for its work staff (as was the case with the joint Russian-Mongolian Erdenet opened in the 1970s) around which a new economic center would be sure to emerge. Naturally, when Russia opened Erdenet Mines, it was part of a larger operation and fell into the goals of the Soviet state; however, today’s mining companies clearly have different objectives.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on mining, neither in Mongolia nor anywhere else, and it remains unclear to me what the best course of action would be in regards to the Mongolian state’s dealings with multinational mining operations. What is clear is that there is a clear failing in Oyuu Tolgoi/Rio Tinto’s community relations and that the population is largely unimpressed with the current state of the game. While Rio Tinto might have hosted Mongolia’s Olympic team, paid for some infrastructure projects in South Gobi Province, paid for the Cultural Naadam festivities, and put up a series of billboards proclaiming themselves the pride of Mongolia (Монголын Бахархал) all these actions seem to be falling short. While I would be happy for any company operating in the US to do so much, public perception has been slow to move. As with anything in Mongolia, anti-Chinese sentiment plays a role in negating all the positive press that OT has tried to cultivate for itself. From my casual observations and conversations, it seems that the fact that OT employs any Chinese workers is extremely damning. The truth seems to lie more in the fact that Mongolia failed to produce enough trained work staff to make initial operations possible without a large, temporary foreign workforce.
One thing does remain certain though: Mongolia desperately needs to find ways to control this xenophobic attitude and to ensure that crimes of hate against foreign nationalists are stopped immediately. Not only are investors being scared away by the violent actions of groups targeting foreigners, but tourists also seem to be on high alert. In my opinion the most prevalent problem is that of the population (as many countries certainly do) assumes that a crime committed by one foreigner means that the whole lot are criminals out to ruin Mongolia. This is best highlighted by a conversation with a language teacher, where I remarked on a some attacks against South Koreans and her reaction was that some South Koreans had trafficked Mongolian women and so the nationalist gang’s actions were justified. My pleading that the crimes of a few South Koreans does not mean that the every South Korean deserved punishment. Her reaction was that one bad seem ruins the whole crop. Yes, this is a common perception on an international level, but that does not make it any more just.
Монгол Хэл Сурцгаая (Let’s Learn Mongolian)
As many of my readers will already know, I am devoted to the study of the Mongolian language. I always make a point to take language lessons while in UB, and have achieved a nice level of what I will call “functional fluency”. By “functional fluency”, I mean that I have the ability to discuss topics from political oppression and elections down to the newest Lady Gaga song in an understandable way. I distinguish this from true fluency by the fact that much of what I write and say remains stylistically non-native and that I have a limited vocabulary. Generally my Mongolian has been compared to that of a 10-year-old child. I’ll take what I can get.
For anyone interested in studying Mongolian or already in the process of learning, I thought it might be interested to explain my problems as a native-English speaking student. I am thoroughly convinced that there is no harder language than Mongolian for the Anglophone mind to wrap around. People often say that Japanese is the hardest language, but I protest. Yes, the writing system in Japanese is anything but simple, but imagine all the grammatical complexity of Japanese compounded by much more difficult pronunciation and some words simply impossible to catch. Sorry Japanese speakers, no consonant-vowel-consonant, but rather a series of up to 5 consonants all right next to each other with vowels often reduced to little more than an after thought. Here is a small list of some of the complexities of Mongolian colloquial speech that I would cite as the most problematic for any speaker of an Indo-European language.
1. Word Order and Clauses: This whole business of subject-object-verb is easy enough when all you want to say is “I rice eat”, but just wait until you get multiple subjects with multiple verbs, with multiple objects, not to mention clauses that look nothing like their English equivalents. When I read, I am often not sure which clause refers to which subject; when I speak, I sometimes forget where I am in my thought and have to back up to the very beginning to find what I had left out.
2. Contractions: Speaking word by word in Mongolia is about as common as an albino camel. Lets take a couple of examples: “I am speaking” is written “Би ярьж байна» but pronounced “Би ярьжийн.» Step it up a notch as say “Are you speaking…?” and we have the written variation “Та...ярьж байгаа юм уу?” pronounces “Та...ярьжайгаамуу?”. And this is a pretty standardized example. Add native speech speed and a variety of far less predicable contractions and it is enough to make any student’s head spin.
3. “Airiness”: Almost every consonant in Mongolian is aspirated, plus a kh (German ch-like) and a guttural variation of “G” makes Mongolian often sound like a series of khtschshghk and so on and so forth. Add in some simple throat-clearing sounds that can express either agreement, lack of knowledge, or disagreement depending on the context and you have a language that sounds absolutely fantastic and yet completely unlearnable.
4. Lack of cognates: Mongolians have done a stellar job of updating their vocabulary and minimizing loan words. Russian scholars often accuse minority languages of being too simple to handle advanced technical and political terminology, thus necessitating the use of Russian in the Federation’s republics and in Central Asia. Of course this said using non-Russian words such as лингвистика, центральная азия, теория, and any of the other numerous loan words to be found in the Russian lexicon/лексикон. By contrast, Mongolian has used Mongolian-roots to express almost any modern word. For example university is big-school (их сургууль) and democracy is expressed by the root word for a community of people (ардчилсан/ардчилал). Still, this means that non-native speakers cannot rely on the usual set of cognates to get by, and will have to work that much harder at learning and remembering vocabulary.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me just say that my “functional fluency” hardly that means that I speak Mongolian with ease or that I don’t have constant pitfalls, the occasional unintelligible sentence, or any number of other communicative failures. Yes, Mongolian is certainly a difficult language. Still, I am completely perplexed by the fact that so many long-tern visitors, researchers, and any other category of ex-pat never get past a couple choice phrases, and even pronounce those rather ridiculously. As a student of Mongolian, I can tell you that life is so much easier in UB when you can speak even a little Mongolian. Even on the most practical, being able to clearly explain where you live and what you do in Mongolia can give your public image a boost, perhaps creating a slightly safer environment as people will be less likely to assume that you are an easily victimized foreigner who has no idea what they are doing in UB.
I knew almost instantly when I first came to Mongolia in 2008 that this was a place that I should consider devoting some time to. After 4 trips totaling 15 months in the country, I can also say that I know with equal certainty that that time has also come to branch out from Mongolia. No I am not going to stop studying the Mongolian language; no, I am not going to stop following Mongolian foreign and domestic developments. I am a long-term Mongolist and the country will remain a key part of any future research that I end up doing. At the same time, I cannot ignore that it is time for a break. My work demands a comparative perspective, and I have finally reached a level of understanding of Mongolian politics that I feel comfortable with leaving for a little while. I currently hope to return to Mongolia in about 3-4 years.
Stay tuned for more blog post about other issues outside of Mongolia.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.