Somehow between birthdays, Easter dinners, hot showers and reading a wonderful book, I have been trying to find time to reflect on what has happened in UB. It's only been two days but each hour is so packed with floods of emotions and overwhelming sensations that it feels like I've absorbed so much in a very little amount of time. One thing that has occupied my mind within the last few days is the dynamic between expats and the rest of Mongolia. Within a mere two days I have been hit on by older expat men not once, but twice. It happens in a strange manner. Both times I was sitting with girlfriends chatting, completely absorbed in our own conversation and nursing some sort of drink. For some reason these men, who tend to flock in twos to fours, think it is perfectly acceptable to come join our table though they have received absolutely no invitation whatsoever. Please tell me, what part of sitting at a coffee shop and chitchatting with friends screams 'please hit on me creepily, rich third-generation sausage maker from Austria!'? The audacity of assuming we are both available and interested in talking to them is mildly entertaining. Neither is true for me. These bizarre rituals proceed like Animal Planet suggests they should, with an offering of goods: the older men without fail buy drinks for us. What does one do? Tell the poor local server, who is already boggled by the idea of one group of people ordering drinks for another, that you won't accept them? We tried that once, only to reap playful heckles from our suitors. Also, it is really appropriate to assume that these gifts are somehow maliciously motivated? There's nothing wrong with a friendly conversation, after all. I know there are implicitly strings attached to the icy beverages, but there haven't been any remotely acted upon. We manage to keep the conversations platonic and the men end up leaving before we do, realizing that their shot in the dark has been to no avail and bidding us farewell with good nature and no ill will. So are these little presents merely to win the chance to banter with a table full of blonds? Seems like a silly exercise to me.
Honestly, if you can't tell, this whole thing makes me rather uncomfortable and bewildered. I know with full certainty that there is no such thing as a free anything, much less a free cocktail. However, there are some women here who face these transactions with ease and many who welcome it. A Peace Corps Volunteer recently went on an all expenses paid vacation to Southeast Asia, courtesy of her much older, wealthy English...boyfriend? And many of the Mongolian ladies at the clubs are just as on the prowl as the foreign men, willing to reach into a lonely gent's pockets for drinks and more. (Ironically, the club at which we this regularly takes place is called Strings; a venue that builds relationships based on the attachment of its namesake.) But then again, what is so wrong with this sort of interaction? If both parties are frank, and no one is feeling used beyond what is normal in a goods-for-services exchange, then it's perfectly okay. Right? Moreover, these relationships are ubiquitous and by virtue of their frequency they are somewhat legitimized. They are just not for me. On the other side of the table, the men who approach us seem very well aware of what they are proposing and the absurdity therein. At one awkward juncture, my friend commented on her father's upcoming 60th birthday. Our senior suitor fell silent and then sheepishly confessed that he was even older than that. Taking the hint, he didn't hang around long after.
Part of the reason I think there are so many of these kinds of guys here is because of the mines. Mongolia is currently the new Wild West, bursting at the seams with workers, hangers-on and prospectors seeking desperately to capitalize on the wealth buried beneath the Gobi's sands. This yields a large population of Western men who come and go frequently and are unsupervised by their wives. Coupled with the great amount of money these miners are amassing hourly and the titillation that many of them find in Asian women, this city has now become a minefield of a different sort. But thus far no explosions today and I hope to keep it that way. No amount of free alcohol can ever justify and older man's hand on your thigh and that's the way it will say- at least for me.