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Letter from Mongolia: Content in context

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 23, 2010 - Let's backtrack a little and go over some fundamentals. Here's an illustration.

Soon after we first came to China, my wife blithely went to the market to buy eggs. Not too complicated, right? Just wait.

She found a woman who sold eggs and parked in front of her. Said she wanted eggs. The seller asked, how many? My wife replied, seven (we were a small household). In affirmation the seller repeated, seven, and began piling eggs upon eggs on her scales for the transaction.

My wife, properly horrified, said "No, no. Seven!" The seller, secure in the knowledge that she was about to make a big sale smilingly repeated, "Yes. Seven!" and continued adding eggs. This exchange repeated through several iterations.

This is a true story. So what exactly was going on here?

Each party was secure in her knowledge that she properly and fully understood the situation, yet clearly something was amiss. And finally it came out: Where my wife grew up eggs are sold by the egg, whereas in China eggs are sold by the half-kilo unit of weight. My wife was expecting the purchase to involve seven individual eggs whereas the seller was expecting the total to reach about eight pounds, a far larger quantity.

Culture is like that: It's not the stuff you know about that gets you, it's the stuff we all assume everyone knows and is invariably true throughout all the universe -- So invariably true that nobody ever thinks about it or talks about it. In other words, these are our assumptions, and assumptions work on an unconscious level. Culture is normally invisible to us until we step out of our own. We take our assumptions for granted. This makes a potentially explosive combination and we should be properly aware, cautious and prudent.

I've lived in Asia for 11 years and know something about some Asian culture - but that doesn't mean I know Mongolian culture. And indeed I did find some differences and (I hope) learned some things. Let's start with courtesy and politeness. A Mongolian friend said, "Mongolians don't say 'Please' or 'Thank you'." And in three weeks there among many people I never saw or heard a Mongolian saying those things to another Mongolian; sometimes in situations where they were used to working with foreigners I heard them (used with foreigners), but that doesn't count.

In those three weeks I experienced an overwhelming feeling of general politeness, courtesy, friendliness, helpfulness and so on among the people. And this was Ulan Bator - where those qualities are supposed to be diminished - not in the countryside, where they are supposed to be so strong as to be almost legendary!

What's going on? I interpret this to mean that Mongolians don't express their natural courtesy and politeness in saying things like "Please" and "Thank you." They express themselves in their general way of being, of life, of example; but not in the words familiar to us.

Not everything struck me that way. I found crossing the street a bit more challenging than at home in Dalian, though not much. Good advice for the inexperienced might be to stick to a savvy Mongolian person (crossing the street) like glue.

Then there was the ticket-buying situation at the train station just after I crossed the border into Mongolia. It happened to be a busy and hectic time and I simply wasn't able to buy a ticket - I wasn't even "in the running" so to speak. So I waited it out, went down to the platform and watched the train leave, then returned to the ticket window. The same agent, now relaxed, kindly suggested a later train at a cheaper price that arrived at about the same time. In the end I spent less money to arrive at the same place at the same time so I can't really consider the situation a loss. Maybe a learning experience.

Lack of courtesy? I'm inclined to say "no" in the light of (1) historical context - scarcity has played a very real part in this area's history and (2) how unfailingly kind and friendly I found people to be in general. When I see this kind of action (and I do occasionally) here at home, where I have a much better understanding of context, I understand it as a holdover from when it was very necessary behavior if one was going to be successful in getting on the bus or train. This applies to the old people of course.

Context. Content-based vs context-based cultures. That's a biggie. Context is what gives content its meaning. I see this as true in both types. The U.S. is supposed to be a content-based culture where the importance of context is minimized or ignored. Eastern countries are supposed to be context-based cultures where the importance of content is minimized or ignored.

I began my journey through this landscape about 23 years ago when I moved from Arkansas to the Canary Islands, Spain: Seven plus years there, five back in the U.S. and now 11 running in China. I feel that becoming more context-oriented during this time has resulted in my being better able to relate to and to deal with what I encounter on return visits to the U.S. as well as helping me in my life in the East.

Pickpocketing in Ulan Bator. I talked to several people who had been targeted by pickpockets and had also read about it. It's a valid concern. After listening to the stories and thinking it over, here's what I did. Is an ounce of prevention really worth a pound of cure? Certainly worth a try, so I always wore a jacket tied around my waist by the sleeves. This covered all my pants pockets and I hoped was sending a message to all interested parties saying, "not the best choice for a target." As a second line of defense I tied a piece of parachute cord to my belt the other end around my wallet with something like a barrel hitch so even if someone got my wallet out of my pocket they could not (1) run away with it or (2) open it quickly.

Darkness in Ulan Bator. Any time I was out after dark a Mongolian friend or two walked me back to the guesthouse. They noticed dark areas near said guesthouse and counseled, "Don't go out at night." Except for when I'd be with them, I didn't.

Having mentioned those things, let me say that I did not find Ulan Bator to be at all like I was led to believe from my Internet reading. I expected to feel uncomfortable and somewhat apprehensive while being there and hoped to spend almost all my time away. I was not uncomfortable, not apprehensive the three weeks I was in Ulan Bator.

I love to be out among normal people, and I passed many pleasant hours just walking (the best way to experience), wandering through shops in crowded markets, trying different ways to reach the same destination; always indulging in a favorite pastime - unobtrusive people-watching - and at the same time being very aware of who was around me, where, where they had come from and how quickly, etc. This is second nature now from long practice.

Situational awareness - applying part of your attention to knowing what is going on around you - is a skill that, like any other, develops with concern and practice. Playing pingpong everyday, I am with people who are oblivious to a stray ball near them. But some of us make it a point of pride not only to notice and return a stray ball to its players but to do so without missing a beat in our own play (and to show our admiration when someone else does that). When we played shuttlecock, everyone had a high degree of awareness of who or what was right behind them at a given moment. We played in a crowded area at the entrance to a small department store; and people were constantly coming and going, lingering, dancing, watching.

Situational awareness can help you in many ways and is doubly important in an unfamiliar place. I highly recommend it as a life (and travel, of course) skill. Ditto for deriving meaning from context.

Oh, shuttlecocks to Mongolia? Didn't happen this time; when I was packing, there simply wasn't a place to carry them well. I had an idea for packing them after I was in Ulan Bator so, maybe next time.

P.S.: When I went to buy eggs in Mongolia for the first time I pointedly asked the seller, is this the price per egg? The answer was, "Yes."