Friday, March 17, 2017

Tsagaan Sar (Цааган Сар), Spring, and Reflections

In the end of February, Mongolia celebrated the Lunar New Year (Tsagaan Sar). This holiday is one of the biggest traditional holidays in Mongolia. During this time, families celebrate by greeting each other in the New Year and eating a lot of dumplings (buuz). The holiday is like a week-long Thanksgiving and Christmas celebration thrown together. To an outsider who doesn’t have to prepare the buuz or host guests, this holiday is awesome! Sally and I were invited to a number of our coworkers’ and friends’ homes where we were fed, toasted with vodka, and given gifts. For more information regarding the traditions of Tsagaan Sar and what they mean consult last year’s post titled Цагаан Сар, for now let me give you the week’s tally. Sally and I visited 8 homes over the course of four days. We drank between 3-5 shots of vodka at each home. (This is actually more moderate than last year.) My grand total was 70 buuz with one particular painful day of 28 buuz.

When we asked people if Tsagaan Sar was their favorite holiday the answer was almost always no if they were a woman, and only sometimes yes for men. The reason is because, like Thanksgiving, Tsagaan Sar is a lot of work. Families spend weeks preparing for the holiday. Sometimes families pre-make as many as two thousand buuz.  During the holiday when guests come to a home, men usually are responsible for entertaining the guests while women prepare the food.

At the heart of this celebration is respect for elders. Older couples are visited by their children and are constantly paid respect. Reverence toward age is valued.

Tsagaan Sar is also exceedingly expensive. Families can sometimes spend as much as a quarter of their yearly income on this holiday. In addition to buuz, families will have a large rack of meat that is left on the table during the celebrations. Older families use the chest plate of a cow. Younger families use the back of a sheep. As I sampled the meat at each house, I found myself sympathetic for the sheer number of livestock that went into this national celebration, but thankfully none of the meat goes to waste.

Tsagaan Sar directly translates into white moon or month, but this year’s Tsagaan Sar also ushered in Mongolian Spring. Temperatures throughout the month of March have risen to the thirties, and all of the snow has melted in the city. With the slight rise of temperatures, I decided to take up running on a dirt track behind Sally’s school. When I started I was still dealing with temperatures around zero degrees Fahrenheit, but it is not so bad now.

Spring also brings plenty of daydreams about returning to the states. Sally and I are constantly imagining what it will be like to return to America: the warmth, the food, the political climate. I was recently buying a loaf of bread at a small store near our home. As I selected a loaf of hardened bread off of the rack, I suddenly found myself picturing the bread aisle of a supermarket in America. For a moment the vast number of choices I might have overwhelmed me and I imagined myself just freezing in an American store unable to handle the shock. This of course is a dramatization of the mind, but it illustrates just one small change Sally and I have will face. For two years, I have had one choice of un-sliced bread. Earlier in our service I purchased a bread knife, because I figured it would pay for itself eventually by allowing me to get just a few more slices out of each loaf. I can’t be sure, but I’m almost positive it has.

Spring  brings a variety of new vegetables to Mongolia. Sally and I have been able to reliably have spinach and cilantro. Salads have become a bit of a norm for us, so food life is good. I recently even found small stocks of celery in the market. Celery is a vegetable that I have not had since America. It was amazing! Naturally this influx of food has led to new recipes and experiments. Here’s a pic of last night’s spinach and cream cheese stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon. Амар Амттай байнаа!

Spring is also the time for gender holidays in Mongolia. Last weekend, Mongolia celebrated International Women’s Day. Men throughout Mongolia were supposed to take on the household responsibilities and cook their wives meals so they could have a day to relax. Since most of the social life revolves around family or work, the various workplaces in the city did special things for their female employees. My school sent the female teachers to a lecture, followed by dinner, and a small party.

Tomorrow Saturday the 18th is Soldier’s day in Mongolia, but the day has become simply Men’s day. Today my school will be sending the men to a nice meal at our new Sky Lounge, followed by a party, the details of which have remained secret to my sex.

Soldier’s day is a hard one for me. I don’t believe that just because I am a man I should be lumped 
together with the men and women who fight to protect their country. I don’t think Mongolians have the same reverence towards their armed forces that Americans have. This is simply because we have had to use ours a lot more in recent times. To them, this holiday is less about armed forces and more about celebrating men, almost like father’s day. Mongolia completes its cycle of social role holidays with International Children’s day which is celebrated in the end of May. Last year Sally and I were in UB during this event, and a number of squares and parks were dedicated to fun activities and amusement rides for children.


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