Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Collectivism - Cultural Differences #3

During our orientation days which seem ages ago (it’s been over 6 months!!!), we were told that Mongolia is a collectivist culture, which is common in many Asian countries. Our facilitators asked us a series of questions and we arranged ourselves on a scale to see where we fell on ideas of individualism or collectivism. The majority of us were on the individualism side, naturally, since that’s what America’s all about.


What do you think of when you hear the word collectivism? I think most of us turn to extremes. Oh, in that culture, each person must not care about themselves at all. Or, they must not be very independent. Or, they must be really selfless to care about everyone else more than themselves. But there’s a scale. Not everything is black and white, and Mongolia definitely falls into the gray in this category, leaning more towards the collectivist side.


In terms of individualism, Caleb and I have posted a lot about teachers competitions. Competitions for teachers seem to never end. There’s always another competition around the corner if there’s not one going on at the moment. For example, last week, all the teachers at my school had a teaching competition. They teach one 40 minute lesson and are observed by training managers (who act sort of as vice principals). They first compete against other teachers in their department (foreign languages, math, science, etc.) and then all the department winners compete against each other. Then (I think) those winners will compete against other schools’ winners. There is a lot of focus on doing your best and winning these competitions.

Academic Olympics is also a huge deal here, although this won’t be in full swing until the spring. Teachers will work with one or two of the best students in a subject to develop them as best as possible to compete in these competitions. Again, this starts at the city level, then aimag (province), then country. The teachers also compete in Olympics in their field. I have already felt pressure on having my counterparts win the English Olympics for our city. Part of what I’m doing at my school is working with my CPs who will be participating to get them to winning standards. It’s a big deal.

Outside of competitions, Mongolians have a lot of pride for their professions. Teachers, police officers, government workers, etc. are all looked upon with prestige. These types of professions receive individual awards or recognition all the time. Mongolians are also very confident in their ability to work, no matter what the work. There is a lot of emphasis on exceeding as an individual.


On the other side of things, Mongolians do exhibit a collectivist life style. I know many of my fellow PCVs have been asked by their counterparts, neighbors, or coworkers if they are afraid to live alone. Mongolians don’t live alone. And they don’t do things alone. Generally, from what I’ve seen, alone time for Mongolians is not appreciated as it is in America. Whenever my counterparts’ husbands go out of town, they always go stay with their parents or in-laws. They never just chill at the house. Once, my counterpart told me her husband had to work one night unexpectedly, and she had to scramble to figure out where she would go to stay that night.

During PST, I found that all the family members sleep together. With the houses I saw, this made sense. There were only a few rooms in each house. But I imagine that even if there were many rooms, the whole family would still sleep together in one room. It’s just what they do. It’s a slumber party every night! With your entire family…

A few weeks ago, I attended a teachers meeting at my school. It lasted about an hour and a half, and the first 45 minutes were dedicated to people asking for money for whatever reason. The first person wasn’t someone who worked at our school, but she was asking for money to help pay for her child’s surgery. The next person was a worker at our school, and her child was also having a surgery. Our social worker also announced, reading off of an email, that a construction worker who was working on a new building in our city, fell from the scaffolding and was seriously injured. Someone was also asking for money for his multiple surgeries.

What would we do in America if this happened? Most likely, tell ourselves that everyone has problems, and maybe give a couple dollars or nothing to each cause. But this isn’t how they roll here. The teachers took a good amount of time hashing out each situation, and every teacher agreed to give some amount from their paycheck for each person. Can you imagine? If every teacher from our city did this (there are 5 schools here), that would pay for a good chunk of the surgery. It feels like America does this in a sense, but the cause usually has to be something really meaningful to the person. This whole situation seemed very collectivist to me and is one of the bigger differences I’ve noticed between American and Mongolian culture.


I know this is a little late, but Giving Tuesday is December 1st this year. Being as it is the holiday season, perhaps you will consider giving a little donation to a cause that means something to you. If nothing comes to mind, please consider one of these, which all have personal significance to me:

I’ve been reading a book of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. It’s good stuff. Here’s a couple quotes that seem relevant to this post:

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
― Dalai Lama XIV


Happy holidays!!!


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