There isn't ‘one way’ of doing things.
Doha in the 90s was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and truly diverse environment.
Born to South Asian expat parents in the Middle East, I was fortunate enough to see multiple cultures and ways of living all around me. The parents of my Russian friend, Dmitri, were nothing like the parents of my Egyptian friend, Ahmed. Similarly, the parents of my Ethiopian friend, Meles, had nothing in common with my Pakistani parents.
Everyday, everywhere, from souks to offices, people spoke Arabic, Hindi, English, French, Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, Bangali or Swahilli. I grew up with a sense of never fully knowing everything that is going on around me. There was an underlying trust amongst people. A trust that provided comfort. People were comfortable not knowing everything about all that is happening around them. This, I believe, conditioned many around me (including me) to learn to focus on things that are ‘mission critical’ and forget about the details. I took solace in intellectually understanding the underlying values, despite knowing that everything around me is different - a giant unknown. I didn’t understand everything and still don’t claim to. I merely observed and understood that the fundamental human values that brought so many different people together were universal.
Values, such as the desire to give your family the best, attempting to achieve the most with the hand you were dealt, and wanting to succeed at life – whatever the definition of success may be. People, as I understood them, generally wanted the same things and held similar values. It’s the way they go about expressing their values that’s drastically different and sometimes at odds with our own. While on the surface, behaviours and values may seem polar opposites from ours, it has been my experience that they need to be understood from the other person’s perspective. It has therefore been a goal of mine to challenge myself to understand things regardless of how different or ‘out-there’ they might appear to be at first glance.
The odder it is – the more intrigued I am
For there is logic in chaos, reason in unusual behaviour, and usually a pattern in chaos (mandelbrot set anyone?) With this understanding in mind, I decided to travel to one of the most remote and secluded countries around – Mongolia. The land of blue skies, wandering nomads, endless steppe, and extreme weather.
It’s a country where I can find wi-fi enabled public parks in the capital and drive two hours and ride horses into the endless vastness amongst nomads going about their daily lives. It’s a country that has 2/3rd of its population in and around the capital– Ulaanbaatar (UB). I anticipated Mongolian culture to be drastically different from anything I am used to and it has delivered spectacularly. For example, if you accidentally step on or even touch someone’s foot in Mongolia – you immediately stop what you are doing and shake their hand (or hold their hand) as a informal gesture of apology and good will. This takes some getting used to, until it becomes second nature.
Another thing that takes some time to adjust to is Mongolian directness. I have found English to be an overly flowery, polite, and careful language. When speaking, native English speakers litter it with “please, sorry’s, would you mind, could you please, if that’s okay, I was wondering if, I would like you to,” etcetera. Here, speaking on the phone is the ultimate illustration of Mongolian directness. A conversation would go something like this:
Caller: Waqas Yousafzai?
Me: Good morning. Yes, this is Waqas.
Caller: I want to know if you’re coming to the meeting at 11:00 and need parking?
Me: Yes, I will be there and yes, thank you – I do need parking.
Caller 1: Ok #hangup#
While mortifying at first – it’s also something you get used to very quick.
In person, Mongolians are also very direct. They ask point blank questions and don’t feel the need to explain their intent when doing so. I have been greeted with a, “Hello. Where were you this week?” which threw me off entirely. My gut reaction to such a flippant inquiry is ‘it’s none of your business!’ In fact, “how about a good morning? How are you today?” Of course that is not what I want to say or think – it’s my own understanding of how English works and how Canadian social interaction should take place. In retrospect, doing a phased 3-5 minute conversation ending with “What did you end up doing this week?” seems a bit silly when all someone wants to know is what you did that week. All of this is an integral part of learning and exploring your own biases and understanding another culture’s worldview and perspective.
Mongolia is a culture and country, like any other, chock-full of idiosyncrasies. An example of this is that Mongolians have two writing scripts! There’s the modern Cyrillic script introduced in the 1940s by the Mongolian People's Republic under Soviet influence and the traditional Mongolian script which dates back to 13th century - both can be seen side by side today. The Cyrillic script is written left to right horizontally and looks like Russian but has two extra alphabets and is pronounced differently. The traditional script looks curvaceous when it’s stylized and is written vertically and looks like nothing else I have seen before. It’s beautiful.
How about the fact that Mongolia’s worldview is completely reverse compared to the Euro-centric worldview? Most westerners would say East is to the right and West is to the left and will anchor themselves facing North. In Mongolia, Mongolians will say ‘right’ when they mean ‘west’ and ‘left’ when they mean east and anchor themselves facing South.
Let’s just say getting directions on the phone can be comical. One reason for this could be that in Mongolia, many people live in yurts, called gers, which are always setup with the door facing south. These dwellings are well constructed and take less than two hours to take down. To enter one, you must step over the threshold and not on it and once inside, you walk clockwise and go left/west around the inside. This system has been in place for centuries and the worldview is similarly etched into the psyche of the people.
Lastly, I have noticed that city dwelling Mongolians don’t stare at foreigners very often. Most of them don’t care if people look and act differently than them and are not fazed by my presence amongst them. Mongolia so far has confirmed for me that while people can have dramatically different cultures and ways of being – they’re still guided by the same underlying human values.
Mongolians aren’t a people I’ll be able to understand anytime soon – nor is their culture something I can understand overnight. Just like growing up in Doha, all I can do is take solace in intellectually understanding that the underlying values are universal and similar. That, despite acknowledging that everything around me is different and unknown to me - I don’t have to understand it all. I merely have to observe and enjoy it.
Thank you for reading and thank you Mongolia.