As a white male living in Mongolia, I stand out in a crowd. My pasty skin, dark reddish beard, and long, prominent nose clearly set me apart from the ethnic Mongols who make up nearly 95% of all Mongolians. As an obvious outsider, I receive a wide range of reactions when I’m in public.
“Hello teacher!” “Hi teacher!” “How are you, teacher?” Female students swarm around me in my university lobby, blocking the hallway back to the office. After spotting me taking photos of the “New Year’s Tree” in the main entryway, a dozen teenagers quickly corner me. Grabbing me by the arm they position me in front of the evergreen. “Here, teacher!” FLASH! The tinsel-covered pine behind us illuminates the entire foyer. I can’t even see the green needles beneath all the metallic streamers. After my solo portrait, the students take individual iPhone photos with me. I feel as much of a prop as the balloons and streamers hanging down from the ceiling. Next, they snap pictures with two or three students on either side of me and, finally, several group shots. I smile and wait patiently for the photo shoot to finish so I can escape my unwanted celebrity. Meanwhile, the security guard chuckles at the spectacle. He jabs his coworker peering out the window. The second man turns around and begins laughing too.
Later, I prepare for the thirty-minute walk to my friend’s apartment across Ulaanbaatar. Long underwear. Check. Wool socks and dress pants. Check. Flannel shirt. Check. Leather gloves. Check. Fur-lined boots, parka, and neoprene pollution mask. Check, check, check. Carrying two large bags full of groceries for dinner; I prep myself mentally for the grueling walk. Open manhole covers, sidewalks piled high with sand and rubble, live wires, hidden patches of black ice, and reckless drivers stand between me and my destination. Walking across the city is always an obstacle course! After twenty minutes my arms are burning and I’m getting tired from navigating the uneven and slick footing. The condensation from my breath is freezing on the outside of my pollution mask. My eyelids stick together as my frosty lashes latch like Velcro. I bat my eyes quickly to free them. Grunting, I pick up the pace. I squint against the wind as a group of students walks towards me, five abreast. As I step aside to let them pass on the narrow sidewalk a teenager leaps at me. He yells something in Mongolian and swings an open hand inches from my face, turning and smiling to his friends at his demonstration of bravado. I continue walking without a word.
Whatever response I elicit as I go about my daily life, I try to not take things too personally. Most of the behaviors directed towards me are surface ripples of deeper social undercurrents. In the United States, racial stereotypes still influence behavior. In my experience in Mongolia, misinformed overgeneralizations are even stronger and more pervasive. Many stereotypes are treated as fact by large portions of the populace, especially in regards to foreigners.
For example, many Mongolians assume that all white males are incredibly rich. When I eat with my Mongolian friends at local restaurants other patrons are sometimes shocked to see me. “They’re saying how poor you must be to eat here” my Mongolian companion told me, interpreting the flurry of conversations around us. Yet I believe that Mongolians are not racist. I think it’s simplistic, counterproductive, and even more racist to frame the issue in terms so terse. In seeking to make sense of my daily experiences I’ve turned to many sources, including history books.
In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his progeny conquered most of Eurasia and, unbeknownst to most Westerners, established a rich multicultural trading network and largely peaceful empire. Occupying cities across Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, Mongolian forces fostered religious tolerance at a time when the infamous Inquisition was occurring in parts of Europe. In the ensuing centuries, Mongolia retreated from the world stage and returned to its historical roots as homogenous herders on the steppe.
In the early 20th century, a Soviet-backed coup established Mongolia as a de-facto satellite state of the USSR, which greatly limited Mongolia’s interactions with nations outside the Soviet bloc. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Mongolia underwent a peaceful revolution, abandoning its socialist political institutions in favor of democratic ones. Mongolia’s economy has been in transition since then, shifting from a state-controlled to a free-market economic system.
Today, globalizing forces are influencing Mongolian society and culture at an unprecedented rate. Given Mongolia’s limited recent participation in contemporary world affairs it’s not surprising that widely held and poorly informed beliefs exist about people of different racial backgrounds. The majority of Mongolians haven’t interacted with foreigners from the diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds to which they’re suddenly being exposed.
So, how do I cope with being an outsider? How do I deal with constantly feeling like I’m being judged entirely by my appearance or interacted with based on superficial stereotypes? It’s tempting at times to try to keep my distance and create a comfort zone removed from unnecessary interactions with Mongolians. However, my experiences with locals have been the most rewarding and educational ones during my time here! Withdrawing from the culture is not a healthy or productive option. Engagement is the only viable way forward!
Based on my experiences so far, here are three tips for engagement for those entering or currently in service abroad, regardless of where you are:
Find a language exchange partner!
While learning a new language can be daunting, it’s essential to interacting with locals and at the very least demonstrates a degree of respect for the native culture and language. My Mongolian proficiency after nearly six months is extremely low, but coordinating informal Mongolian lessons with a friend interested in improving his English has been very fruitful. Besides learning greetings, numbers, directions, etc. these meetings can be great ways to network and find out about opportunities to go hiking, play ping pong, cook regional delicacies and more.
Get involved in extracurricular activities!
Seeking activities that require little or no language comprehension to communicate or express yourself can be very rewarding. In my free time I’ve played volleyball, billiards, and sung karaoke with Mongolians with varying levels of English proficiency. Team sports are great because they offer good chances to bond with co-workers or peers in an environment where conversation or dialogue isn’t necessary. Take a chance and don’t be afraid to look awkward. You probably already do in the eyes of your hosts and you may show off some hidden talents you didn’t know you had!
Try to be patient, flexible, and adaptable!
Many unexpected surprises lie ahead during your service term! Try to embrace these opportunities when they present themselves, even if people “voluntell you” to do things you otherwise wouldn’t seek out. The day before my school’s New Year’s party, my supervisor approached me with a grave look on her face. “Tomorrow, singing competition. Represent department. You have song?” “Excuse me? There’s a singing competition at the party?” “Yes.” “And I’m representing the entire department?” “Yes. Are you ready?” “No, not yet! You just told me about it… But I can come up with something.” 36 hours later I was performing Mariah Carey’s “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” on stage to well over a hundred people. Terrifying! But it helped me get more comfortable on stage, as well as gain recognition for my department and status for my co-teachers, which is very important here culturally. You never know what form chances for engagement will take!