Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Letters from Mongolia: Different Cultures, Different Languages, Common Lives

May 19, 1999

My 21-year-old daughter Tawny has collaborated with me on a couple of columns in the past, "Getting along with College Roommates," and, "How to Play the Dating Game."

Last November she began serving a church mission in Mongolia. She has been a faithful letter writer about her experiences there. Here are some of her insights about learning to live in a different culture.

Landscape. "Mongolia looks just like South Dakota, with it's rolling hills and grassy plains. I remember Dad saying that Mongolia might look like Northwestern S.D. as we were driving from Rapid City to Fargo. You're right! Except for the fact that SD has nice roads.

Language barriers. After two months in the country Tawny and a Mongolian missionary D. Oyun were assigned to each other. This is what the the two of them say about the experience.

"Our communication is funny to watch. We do a lot of charades and a lot of repeating. Every once in a while I'll start talking to her in English accidently. I don't catch myself until I see her totally bewildered expression. The other American missionary sisters warned me that I would get lonely being with a Mongolian companion, but we get along so well. We use a lot of patience. I don't think I'll get lonely.

"I get along very well with the Mongolian people. I think it's because we're a lot alike personality-wise. They're laid back, pretty straight-forward and like to joke around. Sister Oyen and I laugh quite a bit."

Her companion's letter as written. "How do you do? Family Farmer. My name is Oyun. I born Ulaanbaatar Mongolia. I'm Mongolian. I'm greatful for the opportunity to (dear my) letter writing before you. We doing this greatful work in Mongolia. God help us. I can't speak and write English but one day I will can. Sister Farmer help always me. We are new missionary.

"I beging this work 04/November 1998. My first American companion sister Farmer. Her first mongolian companion I. So we are very happy and cheerful because I don't can speak English. She doesn't can speak mongolia. You this letter read don't make fun of me I can't write English. Her mongolian language very good becoming. You very nice daughter she is my best friend. I will help her all things."

Fitting in. "I asked my companion yesterday what I could do to fit into the culture better. I thought her response was kind of cute. She said I needed to wear slippers around the apartment, not just my socks. She said her mother would be appalled to see me walking around in my socks. Keeping your feet warm really is important to Mongolians. She said I needed to wear a black hat instead of my purple and navy ski cap, so I now have one. She also said I shouldn't sit down just anywhere. In public, Mongolians never sit anywhere but in a chair.

I guess a while back, while waiting in a hallway, I knelt down to get something out of my backpack. She was surprised. Also I'm learning never to put anything on the ground, like a backpack or a bag. Instead you hold it in your lap or put it on a table. I'm trying to fit in as much as I can, but sometimes you just have to learn through doing the "wrong way," and seeing the response of the people around you.

Foreign tongues do not mean foreign thoughts. "At first, Mongolia seemed so different and foreign, but now it seems completely normal. They just wear different clothes, live in different homes, and speak a different language.

"I think I am finally coming to the conclusion that even though the language sounds so foreign to our ears, they are actually speaking about normal, every day things. This may not seem that profound of a revelation, but it's something that has taken me almost 4 months of listening to finally figure out. I think I unconsciously thought since it sounded strange to my ears, they must not talk about normal things. But they really do talk about the weather, their health, work, school, other people, etc. just like we do!

"I made chili last night, and Sister Oyun thought it was pretty disgusting. It was strange to be on the flip side of the coin. I don't think Mongolians eat 'tomatoey' things very often. At first, I couldn't understand why she wouldn't like something as "normal" as chili, but then I remembered the first time I ate 'aartz'. I didn't like it that much because it was so different from food I regularly ate. It just grows on you, I suppose.

"It's been a week full of learning, not just the language and missionary skills, but about life and cultures. We're not really that different."

Love and service. "The Mongolian people are so wonderful. They will give you anything even though they don't have much. They are so at peace, and accepting of each other. They are very slow to anger - not easily provoked. The more I see of their culture and customs, the more I love these people.

"Truly some of God's purest people are found in this nation! I love serving them."