(I wanted to post this last weekend but didn’t finish it. I only have time for writing on the weekends right now, so I have a backlog of post ideas that are just going to have to wait their turn to get written.)
Monday, September 17, marked the day we’d been in Mongolia for a month. We are getting the hang of things. We have a daily routine. Emma uses a taxi to get to and from school, and once her schedule stabilizes, I’ll be able to order it by the week. (She’s going to be in the school production of Shrek, with rehearsals after school, but so far they’re not fixed.) I am getting my work schedule established – mainly preparing for four entirely new courses (three after October 27, when the co-teacher for one of them returns from Korea).
I’m studying Mongolian, but it’s still really limited. (I know how to say “three thousand,” for example, but when I was in a shop yesterday, I was completely unable to come up with the word for three. Now it’s there, no problem, but on the spot it was nowhere to be found. Old brain.) So the language barrier is making itself felt, because hardly anyone speaks English. Sign language and good humor go a long way, and agreeing good naturedly when people seem to be saying I should learn Mongolian (I’m trying!). I think by the end of the semester I’ll know enough to manage better, but in the meanwhile people can write notes in Mongolian for me when I need to do something specific.
A big thing happened this week on the daily life front: I got a bank account. This was a bit more challenging than it should have been because the branch that had an office for foreigners was closed for remodeling or something, so I had to go to another branch. Gerelee, the department secretary came with me to help translate. I filled out the applications, chuckling over the choice of “herder” under profession, and submitted them to the woman at the counter, along with my passport and residence card, fresh from Immigration. The bank teller had never processed an account application from a foreigner before, so she had to ask a manager or two about the process. She told us she had to fax it to the head office, and we would know in about 20 minutes if the application was approved. I really thought it would be that simple.
Gerelee and I decided to go for coffee. There was a Tom N Toms down the street, the Korean version of Starbucks. It was a warm day, so I had a peach iced tea. It came on a tray, carefully arranged with a napkin and straw. The cup was just like a Starbucks one, but the straw was burgundy instead of green, and the logo a simple capital T, at an angle, inside a burgundy circle. Otherwise, pretty much Starbucks.
While we were there, Gerelee got a call from the bank that I needed to submit another form I could get online, but she didn’t understand what it was. It was something for Americans only. We decided to go back to the university so I could ask another American teacher if they knew. It turned out to be a W-9 form, which I might have thought of if I ever had needed one for opening a foreign bank account before, but I never had a bank account in Ethiopia, and my Egyptian bank hadn’t asked for one.
At that point, it was too late to go back to the bank, so we decided to go the following afternoon, after my classes. I printed out a W-9, and off we went. It was even more crowded than last time, but we saw the same woman who had helped us the day before, so after waiting a while in the back of the line, Gerelee went up and handed her my W-9. She recognized us immediately, pulled out my paperwork, and faxed everything again, telling Gerelee to come back in 20 minutes. This time, we waited in the outer lobby, where we could sit down.
After 20 minutes, we went back in to ask about the application. The bank teller squinted at her computer screen, and suddenly without a word grabbed my application and started going to a series of different offices, and eventually upstairs. Gerelee was as confused as I was. In the meanwhile, there was some commotion among the people who had been waiting, because one of the two people who’d been working was now gone. She came back after about five minutes, shoved everything back in the fax machine, and said something to Gerelee. It turned out my application had needed a stamp from the top manager of the branch, so she had had to re-send it, and we had to wait another 20 minutes.
We went back out into the outer lobby, and a few minutes later saw her leaving with a bag of food. It was her lunch break, and we’d have to wait until she came back to find out if my account would be approved or not. Me being me, I sat there for half an hour worrying about my account not being approved on some technicality, and thinking I could function without a bank account for a year since my housing was being handled by the university and I had no other regular bills. When we saw her come back in, we went back inside, and Gerelee asked her if she knew anything. She squinted at her computer screen again, for a while, while the voice in my head told me my application was doomed. Gerelee told me I might as well have a seat in the chair.
Suddenly, after I sat down, there was more commotion behind us. A woman came up and started yelling—not at me, but at Gerelee and the bank teller. Gerelee said something to her, and she started yelling even more. The bank teller then said something to her, as did the other one, and a security guard hovered in the background. She continued to yell for a while; it was clear that she was mad that I had seemed to cut the line, because we’d been waiting outside and she hadn’t seen us. I was sympathetic, but since this was my second day trying to open my account, I wasn’t about to go back to the end of the line every time there was a setback. Eventually there was a crowd around us, most people just watching, but some people joining in on one side or the other. I sat transfixed, waiting for my first Mongolian bank brawl.
Being yelled at in Mongolian is a lot like being yelled at in Klingon, but without the vowels. The thing about Mongolian is that it doesn’t sound like any other language I’ve heard (at least not recently). It’s one of the Mongolic languages of East-Central Asia, and it doesn’t seem to be closely related to any other living languages. Some linguists group it in a family they call Altaic with Japanese and Korean, but it doesn’t sound like either of those, and that language family is contested. Mongolian has a LOT of consonants (there are vowels, but they kind of get swallowed when you’re speaking), and every sentence sounds like it ends in ts-k-tskkkkk. In a normal conversational tone, it’s pleasant, but Emma has observed that it can make people sound angry when they probably really aren’t. But this woman was really angry, so it was intense.
Finally, though, the woman stopped yelling, the teller got the approval for my account, and about 10 minutes after that, I was walking out the door with a copy of my paperwork and a receipt for my initial deposit of 1000 MTN (about 40 cents) in my hand. The more amazing thing was that two days later, someone hand-delivered my ATM card to my office. My Mongolian financial life was up and running.