Buut, a Mongolian girl with great English who often translates for foreigners, recently asked what shocked me when I first arrived in Mongolia. I remembered two things: the thick coal smoke choking the city in winter and the way people dress.
One image from my first week in Ulaanbaatar is still clear in my mind. A middle-aged woman had just descended from a minivan taxi and delicately crossed the icy sidewalk in a large fur coat and spike heeled boots. She leaned over the ground on the other side and blew hearty snot rockets from each nostril. This country is not like anything I'd seen before. In other words - just the kind of experience I was hoping for.
Eight hundred years ago, Chinggis Khan (sometimes known as Ghengis) conquered the largest empire in history, yet Mongolia now is rarely heard of. Liberated from China with Russia's help a century ago, the dealmakers split the country in two. Half of ethnic Mongolians live in China, in Inner Mongolia. Half have their own, independent country.
Before I came here to teach English in a private university, I labored over decisions about what clothes to bring. I'd learned Ulaanbaatar is the world's coldest capital city, but it's hot in the summer. It's a developing country, with a small population, lots of wide open spaces and a tradition of nomadic living. My bag was filling quickly with books and other necessities, and I could only bring a minimum of everything.
With Alaska as my reference point, I figured a couple of fleeces, my Dansko clogs and some nice corduroy pants should be both casual and professional enough. I didn't want to stand out too much as a rich foreigner in a developing, central Asian country. When I arrived, I realized how poorly I'd prepared.
Teachers and other people in jobs with any authority were dressed to the hilt. Male teachers wear full suits every day. Women wear heels, blazers and sparkly earrings. It's true. People in the countryside dress much more practically, especially herders and those working off the land. However, Ulaanbaatar holds half the country's population, and in the capital city, clothes, cars and nice cell phones are necessities for any self respecting citizen with the means.
People don't have much money. Prices for foods I'm used to are sometimes shockingly similar to those at home, while an enviable monthly wage is $400. Subtract $300 for rent on a small apartment, and supporting a family becomes a daunting task. My middle- to upper-class university students rarely buy lunch; a coffee and cookie or some milk tea is enough. They're used to living very simply to get by.
Yet the Mongolian students are devotees of fashion - sparkly, flashy, designer logo emblazoned, high-heeled fashion. Boys wear punky, painstakingly spiked hair or hip-hop baggy styles. Mongolians surmised to me that their priorities were likely influenced by 100 years of close association with Russia. Now young Mongolians analyze the styles on Japanese and Korean TV shows and the Internet. Everyone knew the show "America's Next Top Model." My co-worker from Hong Kong marveled at how our students, dressed in what she acknowledged was the cheapest of clothing from China, looked like models themselves.
Not surprisingly, Mongolians often comment on the casual dress of Westerners. Indeed, during the summer tourist season, I was a little chagrined to watch all of the adventurous westerners walking around in their dreadlocked hair, Chacko sandals and tie-died sun dresses. At home, these could be casually stylish. Here, among the hordes of designer sunglasses and summer heels, they looked as if their tour had been dropped off at the wrong stop. According to Buut, they make city dwellers uncomfortable, as if Westerners, with all their wealth, don't take Mongolia seriously enough to bring some nice clothes.
My confidence in my casual, individualistic style has changed here. Now, when I walk out the littered, dirt alleyway in front of my dormitory and across the street to school, I clean my shoes with a rag stashed in my desk drawer. Most of the teachers have full shoe polishing kits they touch up with in the morning. I've actually begun feeling that dusty shoes may reflect a slovenly character.
Perhaps I value my individual style because that's what I've been taught to value, not because I'm particularly individual. Here that side of me is fighting a battle with the side that just wants to get a pair of high heeled boots and some sparkly hair clips already.
Tamara Clover is a Juneau resident who recently returned home from a year of teaching English at a private university in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.