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Failing to Be a Man in Mongolia



…oh, and the stories shall now spew forth.

I haven’t touched much on the topic of Mongolia yet. Our stopover there was maybe 6 days in total; I feel as though it was an entire 3 weeks.

That’s what happens when it’s cold and you go on tour to remote Mongolia with questionable food, no showers, no toilets, and too many animals. It hits you hard.

Perhaps the most hard hit on that adventure was poor Patrick, and not because he had to suffer a short bout of food poisoning in the middle of it, but more because he realized, that in a Mongolian person’s eyes, he was not a man.

I’m sorry Pat for laughing at that comment. The man part, not the food poisoning — although your tales of the 3 am, goat-filled call in the night cracks me up.

Mongolian ger home

Our Mongolian ger homestay.

One of the gers we stayed in on our tour was the extra ger of a semi-nomadic family out near the semi-desert. When it came to meeting with people who most represented the wild nature of the country, these guys were tops in terms of what I expected in my head… especially the old man.

His skin was rugged and leathery, so much so from the harsh conditions that I couldn’t tell how old he actually was. When he stood, he was probably half a foot shorter in height than me; walking around in floppy big boots didn’t help the appearance of his short stature either.

In between pissing in the open in front of us to singing us a traditional Mongolian song while riding camels, I couldn’t really understand him, but I did know one thing…

He was a real Mongolian man.

old mongolian man on horse

Old Mongolian man leading us by horse.

One afternoon, Pat and I sat in our ger, maybe next to our poo fire (a fire made from burning dung), when both our translator/guide and the old man entered. The old man had heard that Paula purchased a snuff bottle earlier that day, and he wanted to see it. I’m pretty sure she bought the bottle because it looked pretty, but it turns out that the exchanging of snuff bottles is actually a part of the Mongolian greeting ritual.

At that moment, Tony and Paula were out using the “toilets” behind the rock piles, so we thought they would be back soon and invited the two to sit and wait.

“He would like to ask you some questions,” our guide told us.

poo fire

Mongolian poo fire — kept our get warm at night.

We made small talk about where we were from and if we liked Mongolia… the usual banter that one might expect between strangers. In the middle of it, he reached inside his boot and pulled out a giant smoking pipe.

And then the questions started — all of which were directed to Pat.

The old man offered the giant pipe to Pat, but Pat kindly declined. The translator/guide asked Pat if he smoked, to which he said that he didn’t. The guide translated back to the man.

He barely flinched at that one, but he paused, like he was tossing around a few thoughts in his head. Finally he said a few more words in Mongolian that were translated by our guide.

“Have you been in the army in Australia?”

Pat was quick to respond that he hadn’t because it isn’t that common to enlist. When that was translated to the man, the man then mentioned that all Mongolian men have to be in the army. It basically came down to this: You are not a man until you are in the army in Mongolia.

Ooooh. Pat’s eyes widened with the realization of his “failings”. Strike 2, we thought.

We sat there in pensive silence until the old man broke to ask another question.

I won’t lie. It started to feel like an awkwardly long wait at this moment.

“Are you two married?” was the translated question.

Eeee. No…

There was such apprehension in that response as we had been through the whole marriage must happen, and it must happen young, deal while in K-stan. To that translated response, he breathed in deeply. It was a heavy breath, and if his eyebrows could have moved through the leathery weight, they would have. It was that sort of sigh that says, “I can’t believe this Australian guy even has a girlfriend.”

Strike 3.

We saw that one coming from a mile away, but we still felt the need to add the whole, “but we’re recognized as married by the Australian government, just not officially married.” I’m not sure if he understood the message, but at least our guide did.

Regardless, the real answer was no. I peeked a look at Pat, caught his eye and chuckled at the lack of respect he was in the process of gaining from this old Mongolian man.

What else could there be to ask now?

“How old are you?”

Oh crap, and that’s it. You see, Pat is a little younger than me, and in most cultures this is not the norm. One would suspect the man to be older, and if you are as old as Patrick and I, we should damn well be married.

Whatever, old man, I don’t even believe in marriage… take that!

Strike 4.

I began to wonder just how long this whole “Pat failing to be a man” thing would go on. The atmosphere was building with an uncomfortable vibe. The wait accumulated. What else could we be doing in our lives that might be a very unmanly thing in the eyes of the Mongolians?

middle of nowhere mongolia

Where were Tony and Paula? We were in the middle of nowhere… nowhere to go.

Finally, Tony and Paula came back into the ger, just in time to get the same round of questions — and to save us from further hassles (and emasculation for Pat). The old man only put up with two, though. After he found out that Tony and Paula had been dating for 2 years but still not married, he probably had his mind made up about foreign men in general.


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25 Responses to Failing to Be a Man in Mongolia

  1. Lindsey August 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    Bahaha! Poor Pat! It’s so much easier to be female sometimes. No chest-beating rituals of manliness.

  2. Christy August 21, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    Great post! You had me intrigued all the way to the end. Have you ever thought about lying when traveling and just telling people you are married? But then you wouldn’t have these great stories, I guess. πŸ™‚

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:37 am #

      I know I always tell myself to lie! But when it comes down to it, I find it very hard to do! And the entire trip we had a young and modern translator/guide and it didn’t seem like we had to hide or lie, so we were just used to it. Glad you enjoyed the read πŸ™‚

  3. Petra August 22, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Hilarious, Brooke! πŸ™‚ It makes you think of the cultural gap and take it more seriously…

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      It made us really wish the other two in our group were there to break the awkwardness! πŸ˜‰

  4. Melissa - The Mellyboo Project August 22, 2012 at 5:52 am #

    Awww poor Pat! He may not be a man in the old Mongolian’s sense of the word… but the boy knows a good laksa and for that we can forgive him for not being manly enough for the Mongolians!! πŸ˜›

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:34 am #

      Hehe, he got over it πŸ˜‰ Speaking of laksa, he is very behind on his blog. I’ll need to give him a good kick.

  5. Sheryl Alvernaz August 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    What a great post. It is amazing to see thing through the eyes of another culture… then again, in America, we say the “army will make a man outa you” and, parents put a lot of pressure at times on kids not to “live” together so, I’m thinking his disdain for Pat wasn’t so different… I’m guessing the younger guys were High fivin it out by the toilet – just sayin’ lol

  6. Robert Best August 23, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Great post. I really chuckled at the squirming going on here. LOL. My newly married wife & I tried to register in a hotel in Italy, I think it was L’Aquilla on the east coast, but had to prove we were married before they would let us in. Fortunately, we were visiting our best man’s town near-by and he was available to translate and got us settled in with out too much bs. Of course this was 1973 and a lot of things have changed in the meantime.

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      Wow interesting story πŸ™‚ So I’m guessing your wife didn’t have her name changed yet on her ID and such?

      • Robert Best August 30, 2012 at 11:25 am #

        No name change on her passport or driver’s licence, but we were lucky enough to have our marriage certificate with us. BTW, we had been in Tangiers and Spain the previous summer and never had any problems with pensions or hotels. Spain was very up tight under the dictatorship and we had an old woman in a Spanish park put my wife’s bra strap under blouse so that it couldn’t be seen. Oh well.

  7. Angela August 24, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Funny post, despite the hardship, it sounds like you’ve had a great adventure in Mongolia.

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      Great adventure… nothing less than that πŸ™‚ Met some really amazing locals, but also had some difficult moments = adventure at its best. Ever been to Mongolia?

  8. Alex August 25, 2012 at 3:32 am #

    Mongolians certainly will humble the best of us. I met a guy who couldn’t have been more than 4 feet 10 and to saddle a horse, tackled it and brought it to the ground first. Also met an 80+ year old woman on a public van from Tsotsensengal who took all my leg space for 16 hours… I couldn’t for the life of me get her legs to move… that made me feel like less of a man too!

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:27 am #

      Haha hilarious! Those women there are super tough — I wouldn’t want to mess with ’em πŸ™‚

  9. Ali August 25, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Hilarious! It’s always awkward when people from other cultures don’t understand how you choose to live your life and think less of you because of it. I remember talking to a couple men in Laos who not only thought it was insane that I was a female traveling on my own, but they also had trouble understanding the concept of traveling for such a long time. They earned less in one year than I did in a month at my last job, so they just couldn’t relate when I told them I was traveling for 5 months. I’m sure that man in Mongolia just couldn’t understand how ideas of marriage and “being a man” are so different in other parts of the world.

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:25 am #

      Oh Ali, he really was a bit sheltered if I say so myself. It’s interesting to see what other people value so much in life… but I guess that comes from having such a simple life. We’re out focusing on ourselves and fulfilling dreams that marriage and other ideas are of less importance. Really interesting all around. I feel you on the solo female travel thing, too!

  10. Abby August 26, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    That is so funny! He sounds like quite a character. Just staying in the ger would be a huge culture shock for me. Poor boyfriend. πŸ™ I hope he’s not sensitive on top of not being a real man lol

    • Brooke August 27, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      Ha yeah I’m not outdoorsy at all, so it was an overall “trying” experience πŸ™‚ I think my bf is doing OK, but he did say it got to be very awkward

  11. Sarah Shaw September 6, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    This is a great story! I’m very intrigued by varying perceptions of gender throughout the world. Currently, I’m living in Korea, and I can relate to some of your experiences.

    I love your blog by the way–I recently started following it, and will definitely refer to it more often if I decide to travel in central Asia.

  12. Erik Smith (@eriksmithdotcom) September 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Great read… and poor Pat.

    Not only does he have to go through that there, he now has to relive it through the storytelling (which was great, BTW).

    I still think he’s a man, but that’s coming from a soft American who never joined the army, has no kids, and didn’t get married until 35….

    • Brooke September 10, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

      Haha luckily Pat doesn’t read my blog πŸ˜‰


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