Thursday, April 21, 2011

Foul and Friendly Jolts

Somehow I always thought that culture shock would never affect me. I remember sitting in a session about it's dangers before I studied abroad in college and thinking that I was so much tougher than anyone who came down with the culture shock. It seemed like a disease and I was far too cosmopolitan to be susceptible. But I suppose I was wrong. Though it affectedly me heavily at first, I am over the big shocks of Mongolia now for sure. The sight of severed animal heads with tongues bulging don't freak me out and I am used to holding down my spot in an ATM line akin to a mosh pit. However, some things still manage to get under my skin as either really nice or wretched. I suppose these things are part of the ongoing learning process that is living in a foreign country. Perhaps they are still remnants of culture shock? They smack of both bewilderment and humble learning. And though I am getting ready to pack my bags and fly off to UB tomorrow morning for my Close of Service conference I can still  be affected by parts of life here that remain new and strange.

The thing that has stuck me as really wonderful of late is rampant sharing. Definitely a dessert vulcher myself, my friends would laugh and yell at me to get my own cheesecake as they watched me sneak rather unstealthy bites of theirs in our college cafeteria. This was also the attitude I had when I caught someone else sucking down my cocktail or eating my cheesecake. Go get your own! But here, it's completely different. If someone has something, it is implied and expected that they will share. Even when there are 20 people and four cookies, you can bet that everyone will get a bite. It's a really sweet attitude of being more attached to people than to things- sharing the joy of an ice cream is much better than having one all to yourself. Sometimes this gets taken a little too far. I dread transporting baked goods from my house to my class. Last time I walked across town with homemade cookies in an open container, I was constantly heaving sighs as random people walked up to me and snagged a cookie off my plate. I have now learned to make extra cookies. This has cascaded into my interactions with foreigners. I now make enough of anything I bring to share at campfires, as we have grown to take and give with ease amongst each other for the most part. It's a nice feeling, not being grasped by an urge to protect whatever you're enjoying but to relax because it actually belongs to the community and not to you. Frustrating at times, it is. But most often it leaves everyone with the sticky sweet taste of ubiquitous vanilla ice cream and a bright smile.

On the other hand, one thing I have noticed that still gives me a jolt of anger that often accompanies culture sock is yelling. Unfortunately, Mongolia is a yelling culture. I'm not quite sure of it's origins. Perhaps it was bred from the top-down way that Soviet life was run. Looking farther back, I'm pretty sure that Chinggus Khan didn't sit down for a round table chat before he barked orders at his subordinates. Wherever it's roots are, it is rather unpleasant. Evidence of this yelling is seen everywhere in a foreigner's life here. Whenever I have a package at the post office, the postmistress calls me and yells at me for not coming sooner. Whenever I go to collect said package, she yells at me once again for...something. Normally I just wait for the storm of spittle to subside and get on with my life. However, I was beyond infuriated when one of my students showed up at my home last week with tears in her eyes. The janitors had mercilessly ripped her a new one for being in the American Center after hours, even though I had given her permission to do so. My little film critic, the one from previous posts, was watching The Pianist. How could I deny her a chance to finish it? Even if it was after hours, she is more friend than student and I trust her completely. But apparently the janitors did not. After comforting her with some chamomile tea, I stormed to work. I tried to think of the most diplomatic way to broach the topic but as soon as I saw the janitor in question I summoned all the venom I had within me and flung it at her loudly in Mongolian so good that it surprised both of us. This is exactly what I didn't want to do: fall victim to the vicious cycle that is yelling. She nodded her head demurely and walked away; I instantly felt horrible. I'm not quite sure how to combat this. I know the first step is not to yell, but my inner tigress came out to defend my student and I couldn't help it. Perhaps next time I'll be better. Hopefully there won't be a next time.

These things still boggle my mind. I suppose that's a good thing. Maybe I'll never feel completely at ease here, which is okay. The thrills and pitfalls of being impressed on anew by a culture I have lived in for so long is a fascinating thing. On thing I know is that I'll try to continue to share my ice cream and speak softly for many years to come.

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