Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tsagaan Sar: We see a White Moon a risin'

The very important Lunar New Year celebration is upon us this coming week - Tsagaan Sar.

Though technically there's only a few days of formal celebration of the holiday, we're told the festivities can last much longer, even weeks, and that it's hard to accomplish much during that time. We look forward to experiencing our first Tsagaan Sar in Bayankhongor with friends and colleagues who have already extended invitations over three days, and then make a trip to the other side of the country to celebrate with our host families.

Unlike the Christmasy New Year celebrations Mongolians hold on January 1 as a Communist leftover, this holiday helps Mongolians re-tap their herder roots with traditional dress, food and greetings.

To help explain more about what and when it is, we have specially edited materials from our lovely and helpful Peace Corps language coordinator, Ganaa. Read on.

Part I. What is the Tsagaan Sar?

The new year according to the Oriental lunar calendar in Mongolia is called Tsagaan Sar, which translates as the "White Month" or "White Moon." There are many opinions about the origin of the name, but Mongolians use white to symbolize happiness, purity and an abundance of milk products.

Some researchers believe that the lunar calendar was invented by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and a number of Eastern and Central Asian countries, including Mongolia, have followed the lunar calendar since ancient times. The calendar consists of 12 years with 12 months in a year and 12 hours in a day. The years bear the names of animals, like the upcoming Year of the Cow, and Mongolians judge the coming year by the animal name it bears.

1. The Year of the Mouse promises good livestock productivity, especially in camels.
2. It snows heavily in the Year of the Cow and there is plenty of food and milk.
3. The Year of the Tiger is rather hard at the end.
4. The Year of the Hare is favorable at the beginning and spells disasters at the end.
5. The Year of the Dragon is rainy and floods may occur.
6. The Year of the Snake brings many disruptions and worries.
7. The Year of the Horse is also rather disturbing,
8. but the Year of the Sheep that follows it is favorable in all respects.
9. The Year of the Monkey, although cold and troublesome, brings in a bumper harvest.
10. The Year of the Cock is one of fertility and higher birth rate.
11. The Year of the Dog is severe at the beginning and kind towards the end.
12. The concluding Year of the Pig promises rich harvests, yet food shortages, should they occur, will hit hard.

Nowadays there is an argument among Mongolian astrologers about the celebration date of Tsagaan Sar because depending on the phases of the moon and the calendar used, it falls anywhere between the end of January and early March. Some say we should follow the lunar calendar invented by Tibetans, while others prefer to follow the one used by the Chinese. Either way, this year's Tsagaan Sar will be celebrated on the 25th or 26th of February. [Most people will celebrate on the 25th.]

New Year’s Eve in Mongolia is called “Bituun” - the last dinner of the old year. One must eat all the traditional dishes that evening: boiled lamb or beef, a huge variety of milk products, buuz or bansh (large or small meat and fat-filled steamed dumplings) and desserts. Many families have the tradition of placing coins inside the buuz/bansh and whoever bites into the one with the coins will have good luck. At the end of the evening, everyone’s stomach is fully satisfied.

The following morning everyone rises bright and early to walk outside of their house in the correct direction, which is indicated in their horoscope of the year. This symbolizes that the destiny of each person is directed correctly for the upcoming year. Then family members then gather around the eldest in the family and greet each other by wishing him a very happy new year.

Part II. Tsagaan Sar Celebration Customs

At sunrise of the new day, hosts and his guests dress in new dells and greet each other in a special manner. First, the youngest greets the eldest as the older person holding out his/her arms. The elder puts his hands palms down on the arms of the younger one and both pronounce traditional good wishes and rub cheeks while the older person sniffs on either side of the face, which is considered the Mongolian traditional “kiss”. Even if new year celebrations are over, friends and relatives meeting for the first time that year greet each other in this manner. [Nathan witnessed this in July when host family members visited from far away for the first time that year.]

In towns and cities, Tsagaan Sar is celebrated for 1-3 days and in the countryside villages, the reveling continues for about a week or more. Guests may come and go at any time of the day and families serve guests with plenty of meals: buuz/bansh, salads, vodka, etc. Families also give small gifts to their guests.

Traditions and customs are different from place to place and from family to family. Even for Mongolians, it is impossible to follow every tradition, but by observing and practicing you can learn a lot.

General tips during Tsagaan Sar:
  • When visiting, greet the oldest member of the family first
  • When you greet the eldest, give a small amount of 500-1000 tugriks to them depending on your site custom. Some places don’t do that.
  • Dress nicely. Mongolians like to greet the new year by making everything new, so many people buy or sew new dells (traditional long robes with a contrasting cloth or leather belts).
  • During Tsagaan Sar, people visit many families in one day. If you are going to many families, save room to eat 2-3 buuz with each family. It is polite to taste everything (start with white food), candy, cakes, meat, salads, whatever, but just a little bit. If you are a strict vegetarian, it is OK to say “Bi makh iddegui.” (I don’t eat meat at all).
  • When offered vodka or airag (fermented mare's milk) and you wish not to drink it, accept it and simply bring it to your lips then return it.
  • When you have visitors, the best thing to do is to keep your pot full of hot water and have tea ready. Candy/cookies are always good to offer. You do not need to prepare an elaborate meal; this should not be expected of you.
  • When someone gives a gift to you, receive it with both hands and DON’T put it on the floor.
We hope this gives you a good idea what we'll experience in the coming week. We look forward to reporting back on how it went.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who's On My Valentine?

On Thursday, just before Valentine's Day, we got a package from my mother filled with Hershey's Kisses, various small candy bars, heart-shaped candy and little Disney themed Valentines.

Thursday night, we wrote the names of our counterparts on the one side, our names on the other, and sealed them with a cute little heart sticker.

When I got to work on Friday, I took out the bag of Hershey's Kisses and began handing them out with the cards to my 6 counterparts, who wore general looks of interested confusion. My supervisors, who speak English, were in town from UB, so I said in English, "Do you guys celebrate Valentine's Day?"

Then the mood changed as the ones who speak English became giddy and quickly filled in the rest. Everyone who was busy clacking on computers and yacking on cell phones stopped what they were doing to get a better look at what was going on.

I explained to them that the cards I gave them generally used to end up in the homemade decorated shoe boxes, cylindrical cardboard oatmeal containers and modified bags of every elementary school child when I was growing up. Most of the fun of Valentine's Day was making the boxes and trying make sure I wrote down the names of every classmate, especially the cutest girls, so that everyone had a Valentine.

Though Mongolians know Mickey Mouse, my favorite part of giving the cards to my counterparts was explaining the Disney character, Minnie Mouse. It was no sweat in English, but in Mongolian, it was hysterical. The word for "my" in Mongolian is "minii", pronounced just like Mickey's tart, high-heeled love interest, but with the emphasis on the second syllable.

So, in our perfect Abbott and Costello, Who's On First banter, I asked one counterpart if she knew who the character.

"Your mouse? I thought you were giving it to me," my counterpart said.

"No, her name is Minnie Mouse."

"So, I can keep it. It's my card?"

"Yes, it's yours, but her name is Minnie," I insisted and so on until we agreed that it was not my mouse, her name is Enkhee, and the name of the character was Minnie.

Some other things I hadn't thought about were the sentiments on the cards and on the special edition Valentine's Kisses of "be mine", "I'm yours" and "I'm there for you", etc. They were really hard to translate because they're so corny and some of the meaning is lost, so I wasn't sure they really got the whole meaning, but they were appreciative nonetheless.

I learned that some Mongolians do celebrate Valentine's Day and almost everyone I talked to knew about it, but it's limited to a lover's evening sort of deal that some people celebrate with flowers and candy. It's not the forced, empty affection ritual we enjoyed as kids with little cards and chalky candies. Leslie and I personally didn't do anything special other than scarfing the chocolates with our friends and denting a huge bag of mixed nuts that also made its way into the care package.

Thanks to my mom for a fun little culture exchange.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Random Mongolian Lessons of the Day

How do you run a Mongolian New Year's Party? What's the perfect background music for a Teacher's Day Toast? What's still considered an OK amount of time to wait in your theater seat before the show starts?

Check out this page for answers to those questions and more. You never know what you might learn.

We've been texting our friend Travis, a soft-spoken, Southern gentleman who trained with Leslie. He's a health volunteer who lives on the other side of the country now. It was his idea to headline a text message "RMLD:" then tell of some crazy new story or situation we could all relate to. We've we've been enjoying these messages back-and-forth since August and some are lost to history now, but Travis recently put up a Web page so we keep better track of our lessons.

Periodically check out this link for new lessons a laugh.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Oyuntugs Leads Us to New Heights (and one low caught on video)

Our friend Oyuntugs [pr. Oy-un-toogs], the English teacher counterpart of our site mate Tysen, is from Bayankhongor but has a degree in tourism from a university in UB. She's in her early to mid-twenties and moved back to Bayankhongor last summer to look after her aging parents - as is her duty as the youngest child, though other siblings lived in Bayankhongor already.

To stretch her tour guide legs while she's out of the game, she started a class at the business school where she and Tysen teach. Part of that class was to a hike up the mountain shaped like a sleeping tiger. It's a stretch, but if you look just right, you can see it. It's the same mountain Tysen and I took our infamous smog pictures from not long ago.

We met at the business school for the estimated departure time of 11:00 am. Tysen, Leslie, our friend Leila who was in from her nearby village, and I met Oyuntugs at about 10 after the hour. We waited for the students to arrive and soon after 11:30, when no one else did arrive, the five of us happily headed across the frozen ground toward our sleeping beast.

Along the way, the shallow, delta-like winding river was mostly frozen but slushy and wet in points as the sun warmed it with temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit.

It was even a little colder than we thought it would be since the weather here in the afternoons recently had felt like jacket weather. Without the sun and with a stiff breeze, most of us were a few layers short, even though we were layered up. Luckily as the ground below us began to tilt up with the topography, and we got as warm as we wanted.

As we approached the peak of one part of the mountain (after some thought of turning back because they didn't think they could do it), we did have to leave Leila and her dress shoes to fend for themselves among the slippery, snowy terrain. In her defense, she didn't know beforehand that we'd be hiking and she managed to get almost all the way to the top.

Those of us who did make it, were treated to a fantastic view on a clear, crisp day as we enjoyed some much-earned snacks. Check out Leslie texting her brother Chris in the middle of the night about her triumphant ascent.

Interestingly, after we sat on the top for a about 15 minutes, a slew of students who'd chosen a different path joined us at the top. They apparently left about a half hour after we did, and I'm glad we weren't walking with them because we never could have kept up their pace. We shared our snacks and some laughs, and then they took off for another peak while we headed back down.

The hardest part was over, but we still had to get down the mountain and over the ice. The ice was still thick in parts, especially toward the mountain where the sun had been blocked the longest.

The farther we got from the moutain, the path we'd taken over the ice a few hours previous was too wet now to traverse, so we choose another route, which happily took us toward a group of children playing on the ice. Oyuntugs taught us a game where the players slide smaller pieces of ice to knock away bigger pieces of ice set in a row a few meters away. Think bowling with ice.

Fortunately, I switched our camera to video at the perfect time just after a demonstration to catch a rogue piece of ice as it came to our direction. Watch Tysen try his best David Beckam balance on the ice. (Sorry, Tysen.)

Toward the end of our return, we ran into some sheep and goats, and Leila was tickled she got to pet one. We were almost back, when out of nowhere, Oyuntugs' husband picked us up in his car not far from the business school. We trolled around for a while trying eat some lunch, but the power was out all over town. Eventually we found a place to enjoy our much awaited (but cold) huushuur.

Oyuntugs proved to be quite the tour guide to the top of the mountain and all points between. We're hoping to tackle the Bayankhongor museum soon. Hopefully she's a good indoor guide too.