Saturday, February 23, 2008

some thoughts on culture

We are genuinely lucky to be able to visit Mongolia, to have friends and/or family here, to be of sound enough body (if not questionable mind) to come in the winter and not have to share Mongolia with too many other foreigners. Nevertheless, and especially after visiting the Tsaatan, it does make me think about what 'culture' is -- and how it can, could, or should adapt.

Now, as far as I know, tourism is still the largest industry in Scotland, so I am under no illusions about what ersatz or even kitsch culture can be. But to give several examples, we traveled 11hrs in a minivan on roads that could barely be called tracks to visit a group of indigenous herders who are fairly close to dying out - for example, there are so few of their deer that they can't either successfully reproduce or be a consistent food source for their human counterparts. Annie spent an hour or so helping a nineteen-year old Tsaatan woman with her English who hadn't even been as far as Mörön, her district (aimag) capital -- and so where or for whom was she likely to use it besides for foreigners coming to visit? I spent some time with a snotty-nosed five-year old boy who knew exactly how my digital camera worked despite not having one of his own. And while we were given an ortz to ourselves, we were hardly acknowledged as different. Even all my very un-Mongolian playing-with-dogs barely registered as being anything but the goofiness of a foreigner. Having said all that, and possibly sounded grimly cynical, children still appreciate gifts -- especially when they're whole sheets of stickers.

Do I feel disappointed that we didn't get a 'human zoo' experience up in the taiga? meaning that we went to see a rare ethnic group but they, for their part, didn't turn out to see the weird-looking foreigners? No. We definitely got the 'zoo' experience in eastern Mongolia, where my full beard of 2004 literally stopped conversation in the bazaar in Choibalsan -- and which a herder tugged on when we visited him and his family in the hoodoo. When differences like that are negotiated with curiosity and respect, even the relatively low-impact tourism that we've been lucky to enjoy here in Mongolia seems equitable somehow. I certainly don't want to sound ungrateful... to the Tsaatan who made room for us, for Rinchen and Baagi who got us there... but there was something quite banal about the whole experience.

Nevertheless, for as conventional as 'foreigner' seemed to be to the Tsaatan (and they have had visitors steadily coming to visit, aid, or study them for well over a decade), it was still refreshing to meet five-year old Uyenga (and eight-week old Simba, the puppy) however ironically at the relatively high-traffic Hovsgol Travel tourist camp on the lake. She had no idea how to work a digital camera, spoke no English, but was every bit as generous and engaging as the overwhelming majority of Mongolians have been to us.

This is not to say that in order to have a genuine, or jenkin experience, native peoples should somehow stay or act 'native' in some weird pre-contact state, but that what feels genuinely interesting about going to a country like Mongolia is about figuring out what you have in common. Or seeing how little bits of one culture have seeped into the other, or just sit on the surface like the oddities they are and should be... like cans of Heinz salsa verde or monster jugs of Mrs. Butterworths.


I shall quickly point out that Lael + Neil have a blog, too. They adopted Momo's mother, Makin, from Chris + Wendy after she had her last litter (of which Momo was one). It's really great to see Makin, who in some peculiar way stole my heart to make me want a pup of hers, having a great time training for agility competition. If you are looking for great ways besides hunting to keep your vizsla occupied, mentally and physically, then agility is a great way to go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on your adventures in Mongolia. I'm probably better off enjoying trip vicariously from the relatively tropical conditions here in Minnesota.

I've always wanted to visit that part of the world, just not sure I'm up to a winter visit!