Last semester I taught Cross-Cultural Communication to the junior class at MIU (Mongolia International University, for new readers). One of the topics was monochronic versus polychronic societies: Societies that live by the clock and a single time-stream, and societies that don’t. According to the textbook I was using (Judith Martin and Thomas Nakayama’s Intercultural Communication in Contexts, 7th ed.), monochronic societies value punctuality and procedure over relationships, while polychronic societies are more willing just to let it go because stuff happens. We discussed how it’s not always an either/or; people may value punctuality but have trouble being on time. People may see time as linear but be multi-tasking up the wazoo (hello, working parents!). But my students agreed that Mongolia was generally a polychronic society.
It is. I can vouch for that. Time has a different meaning here than it did in my life in the USA. I like it better here, not because I am polychronic (I’m not), but because people adapt gracefully to local conditions and don’t let things get to them. I’ve lived/worked in other places where time is more fluid (Mexico, Egypt, Ethiopia), so I know the drill. You agree to meet someone at a particular place at a particular time, but you bring along some work to do because who knows when they will be there. You don’t show up early (or even on time) for things because they will never start on time. When someone is late, you understand. When everyone is late, you adjust your schedule. People are more important than timetables, anyway.
A lot of it here in Ulaanbaatar is the traffic. My students come from all over the city. The freshman class (mostly) live in the dorm, which is at most a 5-minute walk from any classroom. But they are freshmen. They are just trying to figure out how to live without parental figures managing their daily lives. They oversleep. They forget things. Other classes live off campus. That’s more of a challenge. They are dealing with taking one or more buses for at least an hour or so across the city. Anything can happen. My 7:40 am class this semester is slightly better, because the students are beating early morning rush hour. (This is why my daughter Emma goes to school at 7:15 am for an 8:10 start, even though it’s a 15-20-minute drive from here. Before 7:30). When the juniors’ first class is at 9:20, they have a hard time making it.
The traffic is bonkers because there are just way too many cars for the space available. And people drive impressionistically, which doesn’t help. They block intersections like they are parking lots, they cut other people off to sit in front of them, they try to squeeze their cars in to spaces as if the laws of physics don’t apply. The result is a mess. People may get one car ahead, but nobody wins. Buses are slightly better off, because they have bus lanes on a couple of the main streets, though people sometimes park in them. When they aren’t parking on the sidewalk.
With traffic like that, you have to let time go. You get there when you get there. And everybody understands. You don’t take it personally. You don’t let it ruin your day.
I go with the flow, as much as I can. There are things that are more important than the clock. Like people. And I try not to pack my schedule too full, because it’s futile. My university has a pretty strict attendance and late policy for the students, but I try to be compassionate with them. But sometimes I do reach my limits. I’ve been informally helping a high school student with his English at the request of a colleague who is helping the kid’s family out, and we are supposed to meet on Thursday afternoons. I asked him what a good time was, and he said 3:00. He comes here, which is not easy for him. Yesterday, I went to the friend’s apartment at 3:00, but no one was there. So I went home and waited. At 4:00, the woman who had arranged the English lessons knocked on my door and said he was on his way, and she would text me when he arrived. Normally Emma and I would be going for our daily walk at that time, but I waited. I was also exhausted, because it was the end of the week, I have not been getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been sick as well. So I was willing to spend an hour teaching the boy the verb “to have,” but as time drew out, I wanted more and more to just stay home. I finally texted the woman at 5:40 to say it was too late for me. At that point, I needed to start making dinner, anyway.
I’m not sure if he ever came or not, but for me, that sort of thing is difficult. I want to help, but I also need my own time, and I do like having some semblance of a schedule. I’m also trying to help out some of the sophomores who have a lot of difficulty with English by meeting with them for half an hour or so on Fridays in the Gligal Café (MIU’s coffee shop), before or after my Mongolian lessons, which are at 11 and 1 on Friday. I should be using the time for my own work, but I like these students and I want their English to improve. But so far, either I’ve been sick or they’ve forgotten to show up, so we’ve only met a couple of times this semester. It’s hard for me not to be annoyed, because I also have things I would like to do with the time. Like recover from teaching (I’m an introvert, so teaching is quite draining for me), and work on the research I am supposed to be doing here.
My parents were not fanatics about punctuality, but my mother was Swiss—you know, the country where you can set your watch by the trains? And my dad was an early bird. In fact, when the family had to go somewhere, it was usually my dad and I sitting in the car waiting for my mom and my brother to get out of the house. And later, when my brother went to college, it was me and my dad waiting on my mom. As a child, I didn’t get it. She’s Swiss, right? Why can’t she be on time? And it drove my dad nuts. Now, as a parent, I totally get it. I wish I could tell her and apologize for not staying in the house and helping her do what needed doing before we could leave (though really, my dad should have been doing that). It’s not easy leaving a house, even for a few hours, much less a day. She was probably doing all sorts of things, like making my brother get out of the house, checking to see if the cats had food and water, and making sure she had everything she needed as well. All this stuff takes time.
I’m like my dad. Or I used to be. If I’m on my own and have to be somewhere, I’m usually about 10 minutes early. I worry a lot about being late, and I really don’t like making other people wait. For me, it’s a sign of disrespect. I also get really antsy when other people are late. But since I’ve had Emma, I feel like I myself am always running late. First, it was the challenge of getting a baby out of the house, which I thought was hard until I had a toddler. A toddler who refused to wear clothes and shoes at home, and really didn’t like to put them on. Then, as a young child, Emma had no understanding of time. I would have thought it was normal, until I met other kids who were more like me. Emma was more like my brother, starting to get ready to go about 10 minutes after we were supposed to have left, with me in the background trying hard not to push her, because that would only make it worse. If I even made a peep, she could dig her heels in and take 20 minutes to put on a t-shirt. We got to the point where we just left her shoes (and even a set of clothes) in the car, so she didn’t have to have them when she left the house.
Even now, Emma doesn’t seem at all bothered about making other people wait, and it can be really hard to get her out of the house. I resort to all sorts of tricks, like lying about when things start, just to get her going. I wish I could be as lackadaisical about time as she is. But then, when we finally do get going, I am the one who slows things down because I have been putting all my energy into getting her together to go out, and suddenly I’m the one who doesn’t have her shit together or her shoes on. It’s so frustrating, though it does get better as she gets older.
But coming to Mongolia has done me good as well, because I’ve gotten more relaxed about time here. (Though I think Emma would laugh if I told her that.) I always plan to wait, and I am less stressed about trying to be on time for everything myself. People here get it. They get how hard it is to get around this city. How hard it is to make your movements correspond to the abstraction of clock-time, when physical barriers are in your way. How, if you don’t get something done on time, it’s not the end of the world, or even the end of your world. Because there are things in life that matter more than time.