Our social life in Mongolia

I’ve really been struggling with a title for this post. But one of the things I’ve been wanting to write about is how my being an introvert has affected our lives here in Mongolia. It may be a bad idea to frame it this way, because these labels are not always so useful or clear, but I have characterized myself as an introvert since childhood, following others’ (mainly my parents) characterization of me. And to a great degree, it fits. I’m very happy with my own company, and while I enjoy the company of others as well, it often drains me. Sometimes I get energized by social situations, like when a class I teach goes particularly well. But usually, I need my time alone every day (and I mean alone, not with my kid) in order to feel remotely human.

I come from a society where it’s really not cool to be an introvert. You’re supposed to be social and outgoing and doing things with other people all the time. I was never like this. I am perfectly sociable, and I can make small talk with people, as well as have deep conversations (which I’m much better at), but most large gatherings of people (like parties) wear me out. Even in smaller groups of people, I find myself listening more than speaking. I learn more that way. Really large gatherings of people, like marches and rallies and Disneyland, fascinate me, because I am not trying to interact with people; I can just watch them. In fact, people-watching is one of my favorite pastimes, and I’ve been doing a lot of that here in Mongolia.

I have also learned that if you want a social life (as do most people, even introverts), you need to reach out to people. They will not come to you. Well, unless you are famous or wealthy or have something they need. But I have always found that if I don’t make first contact and suggest doing something with someone, I can go for weeks without hearing from another human being. People are busy; you need to remind them that you exist. But I am also a homebody. Especially in the evenings. I am great at meeting people for lunch or something during the day, but I am terrible at going out in the evening. Especially when it’s cold and dark, or (in California) it involves parking my car.

I’ve been way more socially active since I had Emma. When she was little, it was easy, because we lived in graduate student housing at my university. It was ideal for families; there were playgrounds and lots of outdoor space, and it was easy to drop by other people’s apartments to hang out. The university’s daycare center was located in the same area, which contributed to the ease of socializing. There was a playground right outside, so often we’d meet other people there and hang out for a bit before going home, or we’d walk home with other families. I still miss those days sometimes. I couldn’t imagine a better set-up for developing community.

Most of my socializing since then has been with the parents of Emma’s friends. After she started at Village Gate Children’s Academy, a small Montessori K-8 school about halfway between our house and the university where I taught in San Diego, we became part of a wonderful community of people who were easy to get to know and talk to, and there were lots of social activities to choose from. Emma has always been far more outgoing than I am, so I did my best to give her plenty of time with other kids, which gave me some time with their parents. As she’s gotten older, she prefers hanging out with her friends at our house or theirs, and I’m often dropping her off so I can get work done anyway, which means a bit less time with other adults for me.

I was curious about what all this would mean for our downtime in Mongolia. Especially since we’d be living in the dorm at Mongolia International University (MIU). One of the first things I heard when I came here was that I shouldn’t expect people to invite me over to their house. This has proven to be true. The flip side of that is that I haven’t invited many people over to our place, either. One of the advantages of teaching, though, is that you spend most of your day talking to people, so it’s nice to come home to a refuge and recharge. Emma feels the same way; she gets enough of people at school every day. While she gets together with friends on days off sometimes and has a friend over to our place for sleepovers about once a month, she has also been happy spending a lot of time pursuing her own interests, mainly drawing. In fact, once of the unintended consequences of coming to Mongolia has been a huge leap in her drawing skill, since she spends hours at it every day. This may not have happened in California, where there were many other things to take her attention. Here, our life is more streamlined, so she has more time to figure out what she really cares about, which I think is good.

Drawing on the sofa; her favorite way to spend her free time

There have been plenty of opportunities for socializing here, too, and there will be more to come, especially when the new semester gets underway at the end of February. One thing that people do a lot of, at least at MIU, is go to restaurants to mark special occasions. After we arrived in Mongolia, the university’s president, Dr. Oh-Moon Kwon, invited me out for lunch. Then, my department chair, Dr. Cho, wanted to have a welcome lunch for me and Emma. The first weekend didn’t work, because there was something at Emma’s school. But we were finally able to go to an excellent shabu shabu restaurant at the BlueMon Center downtown on September 15. We had a chance to have an interesting conversation, both at lunch and at dessert afterwards at the Tom N Toms coffee shop downstairs. Dr. Cho also invited me out for lunch to celebrate my birthday in November. Once again, it was interesting to hear her perspectives on life and education in Mongolia and the comparisons to her home country of South Korea.

What has struck my about our social invitations is how they have always included both of us; Emma is always invited and welcome. In fact, when she was busy in November and December with rehearsals for the school musical she was in and wasn’t able to attend a lot of the social events I was invited to, people seemed genuinely disappointed. Feeling like my child is welcome definitely makes it easier to be a solo parent, since I don’t have to think about what to do with Emma. Though she’s been able to stay home by herself for a couple of years now, it’s still much nicer when I can take her along.

Another social opportunity we had early on in the year was a dinner out organized by MIU’s new faculty care program. This program was created with the idea of helping new faculty feel at home and find their way around Ulaanbaatar more easily. Ultimately, it’s meant to improve faculty retention, since MIU has a fairly high turnover rate. We had a new faculty orientation at the beginning of the year, and the university’s counselor explained that there would be opportunities for socializing and getting out throughout the year. It’s a really great idea, and sure enough, a few weeks into the semester, I received an invitation to a dinner at a place called Coffee and Kebab in the X Apartments across the street from MIU. (The X Apartments is a large, X-shaped apartment building with several shops and restaurants on the ground floor). We met up in M-Building, which is the building my department office is in and right next to the dorm where we live, and a small group of us headed out across the street for dinner. It was nice to have a chance to talk with the others who attended, though, ironically, we were the only ones new to Ulaanbaatar.

Our social life took a definite upswing when MIU’s Vice President, Professor Won, arrived from South Korea in October. In fact, it felt like we were going out every other day. We had a welcome lunch with Gerelee, the department secretary, at the California Restaurant on Seoul Street shortly after he arrived. Then he organized a dinner with the Media and Communication Department juniors, whom he had taught in several classes since he founded our department. He also invited me and Emma to a Sunday lunch with some of the Korean faculty and their families at the Sunjin Grand Hotel, a Korean hotel right next door to MIU. That was an interesting experience! One thing Emma keeps observing is that Koreans and Mongolians seem to eat a LOT of food. At this lunch, much was made about our being vegetarian and how difficult it was. But there were vegetarian items on the menu, and I was able to have bibimbap, which is one of my all-time favorite dishes. We also ordered tofu, and Emma at her own bowl of bibimbap as well. I was perfectly happy with what we had, as was Emma, but the others there had many, many different dishes of food, so I think our participation in the meal was inadequate. We’re just not used to eating that much at one time. As soon as we were done eating, Professor Won insisted that we leave. He escorted us out of the restaurant, indeed out of the hotel, and as we walked home, I felt like I had let him down somehow.

Sunday lunch at the Sunjin Grand Hotel

This is what I often talk about in my Cross-Cultural Communication course, the ambiguity of intercultural relationships and the role that power plays in them as well. I’ve had plenty of examples from my own experience to draw on in my discussion with my students, that’s for sure. When we went out to dinner on another occasion with Professor Won, along with the President of MIU and several of the Korean faculty and staff, to a buffet restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel, we once again were blown away by how much people could eat. I am not great at buffets; I get overwhelmed and end up picking out just a few things. Also, finding food for Emma is not always easy, because she still has a fairly limited range. So we just got what I considered a normal amount of food and ate it. After she was done, Emma pulled out a book and started reading, while I chatted with the people sitting around me, including the president and vice president. But Emma and I both felt growing astonishment as everyone kept going back for plate after plate after plate of food.

I could definitely understand the allure of the buffet; the food looked wonderful, and I went back for seconds from the salad bar, which had some delicious options. And the people we were with probably didn’t eat there very often, so it was a chance for them to indulge. Which is kind of the whole point of a buffet. But it was still extraordinary to see how much they could tuck away, when I was completely full after two trips, plus dessert. To pass the time, I had a couple of cups of tea. Once again, I had the feeling I was an inadequate guest because I wasn’t able to consume enough (in fact, a few people commented on it), but Emma and I were both really full.

At the Shangri-La Hotel

This brings me to something I’ve noticed at MIU as well. Parties here are very different from what I’m used to. For example, before Professor Won returned to Korea in early December, our department had an end-of-semester and farewell party for him. The juniors and the department chair organized the party, which involved lots of food, including pizza, selections from the Korean superstore e-Mart, and some homemade fried rice offered by Victor bagsh, colored blue with some butterfly-pea flowers he had brought with him from Malaysia. There was even a separate table with food for me and Emma, as the sole vegetarians in the group, which was extremely thoughtful. The party culminated in a beautiful sheet cake with white frosting and the MIU logo on it in blue.

But first, before the food, there were the speeches. This is another thing I forgot to mention earlier. Many of the social gatherings seem to involve speeches, either before (in the case of the party) or after the meal, or both. I think this might be more of a Korean thing. But at the year-end party, Professor Won, as guest of honor, gave an extended speech to the students and faculty about what it meant to be a global leader. It was an interesting speech, but looking at the students, you could tell they were mainly there for the food, and it was true. Once the speech was over, they descended on the tables of food like starved creatures and ate as much as they could. Emma and I were unable to eat everything that had been set aside for us, but we were looking forward to taking it home for leftovers. We especially loved the blue Malaysian fried rice.

I expected the party to last for a little while, as parties often do, but Emma and I were still eating when I saw that the students were already dividing the food into portions to take home with them. Before the meal, a couple of students had asked me if they could have the containers our salads had come in, and now I understood why. In short order, the food had been divided up and cleared away, and less than an hour after the start of the party, the room was cleaned up and nearly empty. Emma and I were among the last to go. I had been hoping for the chance to talk to some of the students, but that doesn’t seem to be the purpose of parties here. It’s pretty much eat and run.

In general, our life here has been pretty quiet, partly because of my introvert leanings. I am not constantly seeking social opportunities. Instead, I tend to take what comes my way. What I’ve noticed about myself when I am living overseas is that I also don’t tend to seek out the company of other foreigners very much. Some people do that; it’s clear at Emma’s school that there’s a strong expat community here. People know each other and hang out together. So far, though, I have tended to prefer the company of my students, and Gerelee, my department secretary, who I enjoy talking with; she is my main source of information and help here. The other MIU faculty are also very interesting to talk to, especially the ones who have been here a while and have a longer-term perspective on things, so I do have a built-in international community as well.

I would like the chance to meet more Mongolians outside the university, but it’s difficult to figure out how. There’s also the language barrier, unfortunately. I’ve been studying Mongolian, but between my aging brain and speaking English too much, I haven’t made enough progress to have more than a very rudimentary conversation. Very, very rudimentary. I feel genuinely sorry for my Mongolian teacher. I just love her face when she asks me a question, and I take a pathetic stab at an answer. She just looks at me, closes her eyes, and shakes her head slightly. No. Just…no. She tries again more slowly, and I usually get it then. If not, she writes it on the board, and then I get it.

I’ve definitely met some interesting people here, and there are a few that I want to spend some more time with while I have the chance. (I’ll be writing about them, too, when they come up in my writing process.) I can’t help but feel a bit of pressure to “take advantage of” being in Mongolia, though I am still figuring out what exactly that means. January was a quieter month than I thought it would be, but I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing. In fact, I don’t think it will take too much effort to finish my book over the summer. I know that once classes start up again, the writing will slow down, but I’ve been loving my daily practice and hope to continue it. It reminds me of my favorite time in graduate school, the last five months of dissertation writing when that was all I was doing every day. And I think it’s important for me to take the time to do this here and now, so I don’t forget everything. So, January didn’t look exactly like I thought it would, but it has been an extremely productive month.

3 thoughts on “Our social life in Mongolia

  1. I know what you mean about buffet overwhelm. Soren’s cafeteria at Stanford is amazing, all organic, with much of it grown in their gardens. I get so excited to go there and then, when I’m there, it’s almost a let-down to be limited by what my stomach can take in. haha

    I’ll be interested to hear if you find ways to meet more local Mongolians. That does seem challenging. It would probably be fascinating if you could gather groups in the yurt camps outside the city, with an interpreter, to talk about their experiences. But that’s not exactly socializing.

    I love the part about your Mongolian lessons. Just…no.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should add, I eat so sporadically that after my first bites have quieted my hunger, most anything is less exciting than it first looked. Maybe that’s universal.


    2. Hi Marie! I meet a lot of Mongolians. Most of my students are local, as well as the university staff. So most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are Mongolian.


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