A funny thing happened on the way to the хөдөө (countryside). It was the day after my school’s шинэ жил party so I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic and my Mongolian wasn’t flowing as nicely as it should be for having lived here seven months now. The driver, a happy and outgoing fellow, asked me a rapid fire question as we waited for other passengers to arrive. Understanding nothing of the question besides ‘Nik’ and ‘friend’, I mustered all my energy to try to match his enthusiasm and responded in the affirmative. I realized I had misunderstood him when he turned to the other passengers and started informing them that I was indeed Nik’s girlfriend. At the time I just couldn’t be bothered to correct him. The driver seemed so happy about it; no point in crushing his dreams. ‘I can’t wait to tell Nik about this,’ I thought to myself.
I didn’t think much of it when he handed me his phone with Nik on the other end of the line as we sat in the parking lot of the bus station waiting to leave. I laughed when he gave Nik a hard time for coming out to greet me at his khashaa gate in his fleece robe. I shrugged it off the next night when I went out to greet Mary as she got off the same bus and I saw the same driver turn to the passenger next to him and start gossiping about me. When Nik’s six year old Mongolian sister drew me a picture of Nik and me with a Christmas tree and hearts I accepted it with profuse thanks and a hug because, well, how could I not? It was too darn cute. The whole situation was funny. We laughed about it. It wasn’t a big deal. I figured, ‘his family knows we’re not dating, this will probably sort itself out when the gossip reaches them.’ And then, I was sitting in the school’s café after returning to site and some teachers started asking me questions about my New Year. ‘When did you go to Galuut?’ ‘Do you know Batgerel?’ ‘You were visiting your boyfriend, right?’
There were two reasons why this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. First, I’d heard about it before; the speed at which news travels in Mongolia. While this country is vast, its population is only about three million people. The Six Degrees of Separation theory in Mongolia would be more aptly named Three Degrees of Separation. We’ve been warned to watch what we say about other volunteers because chances are the Mongolian you’re speaking to – or who’s eavesdropping on your conversation – is the cousin of the neighbor of that very volunteer’s khashaa family. Maybe this lesson should have hit home when my host mom from PST in Selenge called to let me know that she knows one of the students in my class at the Department of Agriculture. However, I figured that, living in a fairly large aimag center where the sight of me still seems to surprise some people after four months, I wouldn’t really be affected by gossip, but this funny little misunderstanding proved me wrong. It reminded me that as a foreigner I do still live under the microscope.
Of course that isn’t to say that Americans aren’t just as gossip hungry. A friend called the other day from several aimags away to catch up and started asking questions about my ‘relationship’ with Nik. Another volunteer had reported to him that we seemed to be clicking pretty well. PCVs definitely like their gossip too!
The second reason it shouldn’t have come as a surprise is Mongolians tend to settle down, get married, and start families here much earlier than they do in America. Most people my age at site are already married with at least one child. Often times when I’m talking with someone new here they’ll ask me a string of questions that goes something like this: Do you have children? (No.) Are you married? (No.) Do you have boyfriend? (No.) Do you have problem? (NO!) So I can’t exactly blame anyone for assuming Nik and I are together when they see me traveling by myself to visit him or walking around town with him.