Sumpteretc's Blog

What's on my mind at the moment

Month: July, 2009

Mongolian customs

Here are a few Mongolian customs we have studied in the past couple days at language school. This is my rough translation for Mongolian, so there are bound to be some errors, but I think I’m generally pretty close.

1. The best food and drink is given to the head of the house. If the head of the house is gone, his plate is traditionally filled with the best food.
2. If you are offered tea or snacks and don’t want to eat them, don’t say so. You begin by tasting some of the cream from the white foods plate.
3. Don’t leave dregs in your cup; drink everything.
4. Don’t eat with one chopstick.
5. Before you go out, sit and eat your tea and food.
6. Don’t give a knife, fork or other sharp object with the pointed part facing out.
7. Don’t put water on top of milk. You can put milk on top of water.
8. Don’t throw things from the whetstone. Give things with the right hand.
9. Put meat, fat, oil, cream, and butter in the fire. Don’t put milk, water or soup. Old people say these will blind the fire’s eye. Don’t put bad things in the fire.
10. Men don’t dump the dirty water or trash.
11. When you enter a house, the lady of the house should fling the best tea upwards.
12. Don’t enter a ger with a gun, whip or shovel. Put them on top of the ger.
13. When you enter a ger, step with your right foot first. Sit where the head of the house tells you to sit. Stand up when older people enter the ger.
14. The older person should enter the ger first. The younger person should sit to the lower side of them. In western Mongolia, the people entering the ger traditionally bow to each of the people in the ger.
15. Listen to people first; don’t interrupt.
16. Don’t put your hands behind your back in the ger.
17. Don’t grab or lean on the support poles in a ger.
18. Don’t sing or cry in your bed. If you’re happy, don’t sing in your bed. If you’re sad, don’t cry in your bed.
19. Don’t point at people with one finger; use your right hand palm up to point.
20. Don’t kiss babies too much. Kiss babies on top of the foot. Don’t praise babies as “beautiful,” “smart” or “nice.” If you praise them, they will have a “white tongue and mouth.” When children play outside at night, put soot on their nose. When children don’t say “thank you,” say “Grow up.”
21. Don’t walk in front of a pregnant person. You need to respect her child.
22. When you are going on a trip, if you meet a wolf, it’s a good omen. If you meet a fox, it’s a bad omen. You need to go back and start again.
23. When you go to the countryside, if you encounter an ovoo, place 3 rocks and walk around it clockwise three times. While you are walking, say “The ovoo becomes big, and I become lucky. The ovoo becomes tall, and I become lucky.”
24. Don’t let your shadow fall on a bird’s egg.
25. When you give a gift to someone, say, “We’ll hold one thing for you.” Say, “Let’s hold one small gift. Give cups, shoes, pants, etc., because something that has an opening to the top is a good omen.
26. When you step on someone’s foot, say “Please forgive me” and take their hand.
27. Mongolians say that 7 is an unlucky number; 9 is a lucky number.
28. Don’t block the door. Don’t step on the threshold.
29. When people go to a far place, kiss them on the right cheek. Stroke them gently on the left cheek and say, “When you come back, I’ll kiss you.”
30. In the daytime, walk behind teachers and older people. Don’t go ahead of them or walk beside them. At night, you must walk in front of them.


This morning, I was riding the microbus to school when a soldier sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation in English. Talking to strangers on the microbus at all is rather strange, but I gave it a shot. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. Then he said, “Whenever I hear Christian, I think you are a CIA agent.” I assured him that I wasn’t and that I didn’t imagine the US had too many spies here. He then proceeded to try to tell me the plot line of some movie called “Bridge,” which is apparently about CIA and KGB agents. It was all rather surreal!


We received a couple pieces of mail today. It’s a rare occasion, but a happy one. However, our mail seems to take a roundabout journey and a long time to get here. My mother-in-law sent Elijah some candy from Arkansas on May 20; it arrived today. Stamped on the label (and marked out) was “missent to Malaysia.” A friend sent me a birthday card with $50 cash in it from the Cayman Islands on May 27; it arrived today. Stamped on the envelope was “missent to Philippines.” Apparently all mail coming to Mongolia gets to visit a few other tourist spots along the way.

at the tea house and Independence Day

It’s been so long since I blogged that I hardly know what to write about. I think I’ll give a little snapshot of an experience I had earlier this week. I have language classes every morning from 9:00 to 12:15. One day this week, though, my 9:00 teacher asked if I could move my first morning lesson to 1:30. Rather than going home between my morning lesson and my afternoon lesson, I decided to dive into a local guanz for lunch. A guanz is roughly the equivalent of a “greasy spoon” restaurant in the US. It’s not fast food, exactly, but you can get Mongolian fare relatively quickly there.

I slid into a seat at an empty table, took a quick glance at the menu and hollered to the waitress/cashier/bartender/owner that I would like a plate of tsuivan and a cup of Lipton tea (to distinguish it from milk tea). She brought me a beer stein of hot water, a tea bag and two sugar cubes. While I waited for my meal and for my tea to brew, I had nothing to do but look at the other patrons. Directly in front of me were two men at a table. They were enjoying a liquid lunch, literally. They had their beer steins on their plates and kept refilling them from bottles on the table. One man was wearing dress clothes with sandals. The other man had his t-shirt pulled up above his belly and his pants unsnapped and completely unzipped. Eventually, he zipped his pants up, they finished off their beers and left the premises.

Then all I had to look at was the mirrored wall behind their table. In the mirror, I could see the owner behind me. She was sitting at a table with a handful of paper napkins and a pair of scissors. I didn’t have to look too closely to see what she was doing; I’ve seen it before at other restaurants. She was cutting single-fold, 1-ply napkins in half. The napkins are almost useless to begin with, but we must economize. I glanced back at my table and noticed the two cloth napkins lying there and wondered why on earth they were even using paper napkins. I looked back up at the mirror; the owner’s husband had joined her and was folding the paper napkins into triangles.

Finally, my meal was ready and the owner brought it out to me, along with two paper napkins. Yes, that’s right. They took a napkin, cut it in half, folded each half and then gave me both. Mystifying!

Anyway… a belated Independence Day to my American readers. We had an Independence Day celebration yesterday with the other American expats. It was, in fact, a strange gathering. I would guess that there were about 400 people present. Maybe 300 of them were Mormons. This gathering had a restriction that each person could bring one and only one non-American with them if they liked. I think all the American Mormons brought Mongolian Mormons with them. I don’t know why Mongolian Mormons would want to celebrate American Independence, but they seemed to be having a good time. The rest of the crowd was made up of diplomats, missionaries, tourists, mining company workers, etc. They served hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade bratwurst, roasted pigs, potato salad and baked beans. It was quite a feast.