Mongolian visitor hit with culture shock in Honolulu
When a person visits a foreign country, he or she might suffer from "culture shock,". As I am writing this, experiences of my own travels overseas where I had to deal with many unusual situations come to mind. Before my trip to Hawaii, I had also visited Russia and Canada. Here are some examples of culture shock: When a Russian woman marries, she will take her husband's name as her own and not, as in Mongolia, keep her maiden name for the rest of her life. Russian children also tend to address their parents in a casual manner, just as we would talk to good friends. In Mongolia, by contrast, we always show reverence toward our parents.
In Canada, too, I experienced cultural differences. Walking arm-in-arm along a tree-lined street, couples suddenly separated in order to walk to the left and to the right of the tree only to be re-united once the tree was behind them. That would not happen in Mongolia. I saw this happening in Canada many times, and each time I was surprised by this action as in my mind passing a tree in different directions means that a couple will be separated in the near future. That is why young Mongolian couples always walk together past a tree.
I also had opportunities to visit with Canadian families. Invariably, the Canadian hosts were friendly and served their guests well. The only negative aspect of their hospitality was that the hostess served me food with her left hand. In Mongolia it is considered polite to use one's right hand when giving out food or other items. When serving milk-tea (our famous drink) we even use both hands; a ritual passed down to us since ancient times. In the old days, hosts always served their friends - and even their enemies - using both hands. Using the left hand alone is considered disrespectful to one's guests.
A friend of mine related the following story to me about Bulgaria: Whenever Bulgarians agree with you, they shake their heads. When they have a different point of view from yours, they nod their heads. This Bulgarian custom was at the root of much confusion for my friend.
Now I would like to share an experience I had in Honolulu. Witnessing for the first time an authentic Pacific Island culture, I really came to like Hawaii and Hawaiian customs. I will never forget a night of enjoying traditional Hawaiian music and dance and the sight of removing a well-roasted pig from the fire pit, or "imu."
Walking through the streets of Honolulu, I always find something of interest to me. Here are many young people whose bodies are covered with pictures and ornaments. Once I saw a person's entire chest covered with one big design. Mongolians would regard such people as former prisoners, because in the old days, released prisoners were easily identified by their tattooed bodies.
People walking in the streets, drinking coffee from paper cups, are still a surprising sight for me. Mongolians drink liquids in their homes. Most adults I know prefer to sip their favorite milk tea while engaged in conversation with one another at home.
An unforgettable moment for me was my first view of the Pacific Ocean. In Mongolia we do not have large bodies of water, only a few lakes in the Northern and Western part of our country. Mongolia's Southern region is a vast expanse of steppe and desert where water is scarce and valued almost as highly as gold. When I return to my homeland, if I can manage, I will take along with me some water drawn from the Pacific Ocean.
Being exposed to traditions of other lands is not necessarily shocking. It is also a splendid opportunity to compare our cultural differences and to share the human bonds that unite us.
G. Nyamdorj, editor in chief of Soyombo, the Mongolian Armed Forces newspaper, is attending the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. He lives in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.