Buckle up, this one’s a long one.
One month, two performances, three concerts, four parties, and countless ‘Шинэ оны мэнд’s; the holidays were far from boring this year.
I was worried the holiday season would be very difficult for me. Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday and I love spending it with family and friends so I thought spending it in a new place without any of the old traditions might make me quite sad, but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I did miss home and I almost cried a few times, but I was filled mostly with a feeling of gratitude for a family that understands why I couldn’t come home and friends who made the holiday as great as it could be.
In Mongolia, Christmas isn’t really celebrated as its own thing. Most Mongolians think that it is the same thing as New Year or Шинэ Жил (Shine Jil). Christmas snuck up on me this year so when other volunteers started singing Christmas carols at IST (In Service Training) I was still thinking, ‘It’s too early for this.’ I think the main reason behind this was unlike in America, where tinsel and carols and cookies are shoved down your throat 24/7, Mongolia takes a much more subtle approach. Some decorations did go up around town – there was a huge Christmas tree in the government square here – but for the most part I wasn’t being reminded that there are only ‘12 days, 16 hours, and 25 minutes left until Christmas!’ Besides Christmas trees, which you can buy in the black market and decorate corners here and there, the only other Christmas tradition that Mongolians seem to have adopted is Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ (RIP George Michael).
On Christmas Eve my site mate Mary had some of her counterparts over for dinner. We made them pizza and had a great time getting to know them. Thankfully they knew some English, so with our limited Mongolian we were able to communicate and get to know them decently well in Monglish. One of her CPs, a young construction teacher, stunned us all with his crazy sleight-of-hand card tricks. I’ve never seen anything like them! After they left, we were originally planning on going dancing, but we got to talking and ended up staying in instead. After hours of great conversation we all fell asleep on Mary’s living room floor sometime in the early morning.
On Christmas day we took it pretty easy. Even though I slept in, I still woke up before the others. I talked with a few friends on the phone and got the coffee going. When Mary and Nik woke up we got started making some tater-tots. Kathy joined us a little later and cooked eggs for all of us. For most of the day we just lounged and listened to Christmas music. At some point we switched over to the hits of the early 2000s, an unorthodox choice, but I wouldn’t mind if it became a Bayanhugs tradition. Sometime in the evening we cooked dinner: chicken coated in mustard and panko, mashed potatoes, gravy, and vegetables. For dessert we ate the cinnamon rolls I had been lazily preparing throughout the day with some improvised frosting. Before parting ways for the night we remembered to take a few Christmas photos. The day involved none of my family traditions, but it was spent with loved ones and I couldn’t have asked for a better first Christmas away from home.
While Christmas may not be a big deal to Mongolians, New Year (шинэ жил) is. There are performances and parties. The teachers at my school participated in a contest. Each department came up with several performances which included singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reciting poetry. I was ‘voluntold’ to play my ukulele. I only bought the darn thing this year so I’d have something new to learn in my free time in Mongolia so I don’t consider myself quite solo performance ready yet. It was so difficult to convince them of this that I started practicing because I wasn’t sure whether learning a completely new song or convincing them that I’m not ready yet would be more successful. In the end I convinced them that they would be better off allowing me to participate in a group dance and promised that I would perform an English song on the ukulele next year.
With eight other teachers from the Social Sciences department I performed a Bollywood-ish dance. We brought in a local dance teacher to choreograph and teach us the dance and performed multiple times a day for a week to get it right. It was a ton of fun, but for all the work we put in we weren’t that well-coordinated. Thankfully, one of my CPs and I got a second chance to prove ourselves at a шинэ жил party we were invited to and crushed it.
The teachers weren’t the only ones who performed. The students from my school performed in two concerts which were held at the theater in town. There was traditional Mongolian dancing, singing, and instrument playing as well as some modern performances that resembled something like hip hop and group partner dances that liberally mixed different styles of Latin ballroom dancing. But it wasn’t just performances. Oh no, there was also an appearance by the Winter Grandpa. Dressed much like Santa Claus, but in blue, the Winter Grandpa is the patriarch of Mongolian New Year’s celebrations and much like Santa, he gives gifts. He arrived on stage in a convoy of little snow princesses and two mischievous elves to wish everyone a happy New Year and distribute awards and gifts to select students. I also attended the Disability Center’s Шинэ Жил concert. There were group and solo performances and the kids were dressed up in costumes or their fanciest clothing. Hanging out with the kids there has become one of the highlights of my week so it was great to see them showcase their talents.
Every school, company, and organization has a шинэ жил party. As Christmas parties in America are held before Christmas, so are шинэ жил parties in Mongolia. I was invited to three different parties: one for the English teachers in the aimag, one for the Disability Center, and my school’s party. I know, I’m really popular. They all follow a similar pattern: get handed a warm juice drink upon arrival, say Шинэ оны мэнд хургеэ to everyone and shake their hands, eat your starter, listen to the MCs, watch a few performances, open the first bottle of vodka, dance, vodka, dance, main course, dance, vodka, dance, beer, dance, vodka, dance, dessert, dance, champagne, dance, vodka, go home. The English teachers’ and Disability Center parties were both rather small, 32 and 18 attendees respectively, but they were a ton of fun. It was great to see the teachers outside of a work capacity. My school’s party was enormous by comparison.
After being handed a glass of hot juice and finding a seat, it was time to make the rounds. It is only polite to say ‘Шинэ оны мэнд хургеэ!’ to absolutely everyone. Once that Herculean task was complete I was free to take my seat and dig into the starter. The MCs kicked the party off by wishing everyone a Happy New Year and then introducing the party’s winter grandpa. I figured, like Santa Claus in America, that Mongolia’s winter grandpa was also mainly for the kids, but apparently not. Every year a different department hosts the party and this year it was the Science Department’s turn. They organized several performances, including little skits to demonstrate what Шинэ Жил was like in previous times, choreographed dances, and singing.
There was a competition between the departments. In groups of 10 we had to hold hands and pass a hula hoop all the way around the circle. Our department did it the fastest and won an extra bottle of Champagne for the table. They also handed out prizes for the teachers’ performances. Our department came in third of three or, as most people would call it, last, but we still got a certificate. Throughout the night the DJ would play Mongolian waltzes or disco music. In Mongolia disco music is anything you can dance in a circle to. And boy did we dance. For the waltzes it is not uncommon for women to dance together, which I’m thankful for. If it weren’t for women asking me to dance, I’d never get a chance because after the teachers’ retreat I guess the novelty of dancing with a taller woman wore off for all the men.
At one point while I was dancing I noticed some Mongolians waving in my general direction from the other side of the room. My eyesight isn’t terrible, but making out faces across a room is darn near impossible without my glasses and I simply figured they were there for someone else. After a quick game of charades with the teacher to my left they managed to get my full attention and I went over. They turned out to be some of my students from the class I teach at the Department of Agriculture surprising me with a cake and a bottle of wine. That unexpected gesture made me feel so appreciated.
The party ended around midnight because that’s when restaurants and bars close down here. Some of the teachers went to someone’s home I believe, but the only invitation for a ride I got was from someone whose balance was just a little more than a bit affected by all the vodka shots, beer, and Champagne he had consumed so I thought it would be safer to pass. One of my CPs lives just around the corner from me and her husband, fully sober, came to pick us up.
The day after my school’s шинэ жил party I travelled to my site mate Nik’s soum. Mary joined us the next day and we spent several days just hanging out in Nik’s ger to celebrate the New Year. This was my first time staying in a ger in the winter and while I’m thankful for the experience, I’m also thankful that I have a radiator at home. On New Year’s Eve we celebrated with Nik’s khashaa family. During the day we played a Mongolian game using dominos in which you gain ‘gers’ by having the best dominos of the turn and you accrue bets and exchange your good dominos for the winners bad ones if you fail to get two gers by the end of round. The game continues until one person has all of the extra domino tiles.
In the evening we made chicken tortillas for dinner and Nik’s khashaa family joined us in Nik’s ger. Not long after we finished we were invited into their home for a second dinner of buuz (Mongolian dumplings). Nik’s khashaa dad poured us shot glasses of Sangria which we sipped from, while Nik’s khashaa mom, Gerelee, poured us vodka drinks. Around 11:00 pm, Nik, Mary, Gerelee, and I walked to the culture center where there was a dance happening. We joined in the dancing for a few songs before everyone else returned to their homes to celebrate midnight with their families. However, Nik is friends with the director of the culture center and he agreed to play four more songs for just the four of us.
Even with the extra dancing we managed to return to Nik’s khashaa family’s home before midnight to watch the countdown from Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar on their TV. We toasted the New Year with champaign and moments later fireworks were being lit from the neighbor’s yard. After exchanging hugs with everyone and eating the cake Mary, Nik, and I returned to Nik’s ger where we stayed up until all hours of the morning just talking.
In the morning we had about half an hour after we woke up to scarf down a quick breakfast and pack our things before our ride came to pick us up. Mary and I bid Nik farewell and a Happy New Year before climbing in the back of the Soviet equivalent of a VW Type 2 for a bumpy two hour ride back to the aimag center. Now, I’m used to road conditions here by this point, but this one was not the most pleasant ride I’ve been on. We were seated in the far back where the ceiling curves down to meet the back door and I had to sit stooped for the two drive because I didn’t have enough head space to sit up straight.
That evening one of my CPs, Soyoloo, invited me to her home for dinner. Her family fed me buuz and salad and milky tea. She had other visitors for the New Year as well. The tradition for New Year’s Day in Mongolia is to host and visit you friends so most Mongolians spend the day frantically cooking dumplings and driving from house to house. How they manage to return home looking like anything other than Violet Beauregard after a piece of Everlasting Flavor Gum is incomprehensible to me, but it sounds like a great way to start off the New Year.