Becoming The Oldest Daughter
From the distance Munkh and Gerlee’s home was but a speck in the seemingly endless Delgerkhaan horizon. About to begin my eight day home-stay with a Mongolian herder family, the anticipation of my arrival was beginning to set my nerves on edge. For herding families, the fall months are filled with pre-winter preparations, and I was afraid that my new family would be wasting precious pre-season hours and energy teaching a clumsy American how to live the way the Mongols have lived for centuries.
I was going to stay with Gerlee and Munkh who, like most Mongolian herder families, lived in a ger (or yurt)--a round, portable home that facilitates their migratory lifestyle. When the optimal grazing conditions for their animals declines, the family collects all their belongings, disassembles their ger, and moves to a new camp. Gerlee, Munkh, their two children, and approximately 200 animals move anywhere between three and 13 times a year.
There’s a Mongolian proverb that says, “Serve tea first, then ask the purpose of the visit.”
Munkh, a seemingly quiet and stern woman of 29, first met me at the fiery orange door of her home and waved me inside for a customary bowl of milk tea. She lifted a pink, plastic ladle above the pot several times, sending a frothy, white liquid cascading back into the pot as she mixed the tea. Then she pulled a ceramic bowl from the cupboard and filled it halfway. My rudimentary language abilities left us quietly sipping tea and casting blushing glances at each other. The hot, salty, thin tea was a warm welcome, but did little to calm my nerves.
When we finished our tea Munkh introduced me to her two children, Tsondmaa and Sumya. She explained that Gerlee was out tending to the horses and would return later. As if attached to Munkh's side, the kids shyly stared at the alien figure sitting across from them and hid their faces in Munkh's sleeve whenever I caught their eye. My Scandinavian genes made my attempts at blending in futile, and the low, sloping ceilings of their ger only made it worse. After I presented Tsondmaa and Sumya with the balloons I had brought them as a gift, they started to warm up to me.
I had interrupted Munkh's morning chores, but my arrival caused little delay. Munkh pulled a small, metal washtub from beneath the bed and filled it with boiling water. It was time for Tsondmaa's weekly bath.
Though Munkh was only eight years my senior, the differences between us were vast. I’ve identified as a student nearly my entire life; the biggest callous remains on my right hand from years of note-taking and highlighting. Munkh has lived in the Delgerkhaan countryside her entire life; her hands are strong and her forearms chiseled from years of milking and daily chores. Depsite this, or perhaps for this reason, I really wanted to impress Munkh and prove to her that I could adapt to the rural Mongolian lifestyle.
Tsondmaa stooped over the tub for Munkh to scrub her head clean. She occasionally wailed when some exceptionally hot water rolled down her neck, but Munkh only glanced up at me and modestly smiled, non-partial to Tsondmaa’s cries.
When Tsondmaa's bath had finished Munkh grabbed an orange stool and bucket and as she led me outside, said, “It's time to milk. Come.” After letting the calves milk for a few minutes, she set the orange stool down, handed me the yellow bucket, and said, “Like this,” imitating the milking motion in the air. I had accrued half a cup of milk by the time Munkh reached for the bucket and took over without saying anything. There were other chores to be done, and apparently my milking speed had not impressed her. My first failed attempt as her student. I'm not the only American who can't milk a cow, but I had still hoped to prove my mettle.
Gerlee and Munkh are primarily subsistence herders, raising their animals for milk, meat, and wool. When we returned to the ger Munkh turned to me and said, “It’s time for the goats and sheep to graze.” She pointed out to the sea of brown and white wool and simply instructed me to: “Say chu.” Eager for a second chance, I quickly ducked outside and began chaotically flapping my arms, chu-ing at the chattering herd. Running in circles and making more dust than progress, I became frustrated with the poor first impressions I must have been making with Munkh. Suddenly the herd began to split in a clean line and man approached me through the cloud of dust. It was Gerlee.
“Not chu, cha,” he told me and helped me push out the herd. I then remembered that Mongolians have a sound for each animal to get them to move. I must have misunderstood Munkh’s vowel emphasis when I rushed out, confusing the sheep's call with the horse's call.
Gerlee and I returned to the ger to find Munkh hanging the laundry to dry. She smiled, but declined my offer to help as she pinned shirts to the rope strung between their ger and solar panel.
“Tonight we make buudz. Do you know?” asked Munkh. When I told her that the steamed dumplings were among my favorite Mongolian dishes she sat me down beside the wooden board to roll the dough.
I had made buudz elsewhere in Mongolia, but I hadn't yet mastered the pinch fold to seal the dumplings shut. After a couple of failed attempts Munkh sat down next to me, dropped a spoonful of meat into a circle of dough and guided me through the fold step-by-step. “Like this,” she said, her nimble fingers moving quickly back and forth along the seam. After careful observation I soon became the designated buudz pincher for the evening. It would take more than a few evenings of buudz folding to be on par with Munkh, but I was starting to think that I had actually impressed her.
Munkh served herself last after all the prepared dumplings had been steamed. Conversation during dinner was muted by the family's well-earned hunger. Sumya gobbled down his dumplings, stopping to breathe only when he picked out the onions and dropped them on the floor. When I had finished my bowl, Munkh brought over a pot of milk tea to wash down my meal. Dinner meant that the daily chores were nearly complete.
"Temee, temee, temee! Camels, camels, camels!” the two kids shouted after dinner, running out the door.
Gerlee looked over at me and said, “We need to check the camels now, come.” Gerlee, the two kids and I bundled up in our deels (the traditional Mongolian robe) and sandwiched ourselves onto the family's crimson motorcycle. “They're at the river,” said Gerlee pointing at the distant horizon. Munkh pulled Sumya's red hat down over his ears and waved us away as we sped off into the sunset.
Gerlee and Munkh are among the few remaining families in the Delgerkhaan region to own camels, which they use for transporting their belongings when they migrate to a new camp.
Gerlee stopped the motorcycle a few yards from the herd and we all dismounted, Tsondmaa and Sumya running in circles with excitement. When Gerlee knelt down to roll a cigarette one of the camels slowly began to approach us. In the face of the giant creature, the two kids’ enthusiasm quickly turned to fear, and they hid behind their father for protection.
My first day was coming to an end. When we returned to the ger, Munkh was filling the stove with dried dung to fuel the fire for the night. Tsondmaa and Sumya laughed and ran in circles around the stove, buzzing with pre-sleep jitters. “Enough,” scolded Munkh.
When we all crawled into bed and the sole, solar-powered light bulb had been switched off, two young voices crossed the darkened ger: “Sleep well, sister.” I smiled to myself when I heard Munkh’s quiet voice: “Sleep well, Lindsay. Sleep well, daughter.”
In that moment my original concerns vanished. I no longer felt like Munkh's clumsy student. I had become her oldest daughter.