With anxious excitement my group of 8 Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) boarded a bus and headed north; only a few hours from the Russian border.
Training the previous week highlighted life with a host family. But nothing can prepare you for the immediate culture shock and that uncomfortable twinge of not being understood. Again I found myself in a situation where all I could do was grin and smile. And that’s exactly what I did. Why do I always desire to be in these situations? It’s a funny thing. For the 4th time I had signed up to live in a country where I didn’t know the language. But I felt ready for the challenge.
As we turned off the main road leading us farther away from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, I felt like I was back in Georgia again. The dry plains turned into a pine forest. As we crept further into the woods and then to our small school I saw a dozen or so grins from ear to ear. Our host families were waiting for us.
We were welcomed with a traditional Hadak, a similar look to a scarf but not worn in the same way. Then one by one we all drank from the same bowl of milk. All as a way of welcoming us to Mongolia. It was at this moment it felt real.
So. Mutton. What can I say about it other than a meat I eat 2 and even 3 times a day? It was the dish that welcomed me upon arrival to my host family’s хаша (hasha, a.k.a compound on which a home or yurt is built)
My host mother or ээж (pronounced ej) held out her hand and gestured “manay ger” or “Our house” and we pulled up to the place I would call home for 9 weeks.
She had prepared a delicious spread of traditional Mongolian foods and treats. Some were familiar- adopted from Russia. Mongolians love their food, and even more, their company. We smiled at each other. That’s all I could do aside from the occasional “thank you.”
Up until now mutton is what has brought us together. A staple meat among Mongolians and is used as a stuffing, in pasta, in soup and along any carb. Meal time has been those hours set aside for communication, however menial, but ever so important. Depending on the mood of the day or how tired we are we may just smile while I listen to their small chatter. Other days I practice what I am learning while my host dad encourages me on while also picking on my accent. We have an agreeable back and forth. If he doesn’t understand me he speaks to me in Russian. I answer back with the occasional “da” just for fun. Will I ever learn how to tell him I don’t know Russian all that well?
But what I’ve learned is this: Mongolians love their food and will share it with anyone. They are hospitable and would never let you leave without a full stomach and a pleasant conversation. I feel like I’m already part of the family.