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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ulaanbaatar: Deel Or No Deel

You could describe Ulaanbaatar as a polluted post-Soviet mining boomtown in the middle of a desert.  And you’d be pretty right.  You could also call it the capital of one of the most historically successful people in the world and the centre of what is currently the hottest economy on the planet.

I’ve been living and working here for just a fortnight.  Last week, the ex-President of the country was arrested on corruption charges and neo-Nazis showed up at my office, while Lady Gaga and Jessie J thumped from the open windows of massive SUVs.  There is no way of describing this town in terms that make sense to those of us who’ve always neatly presumed that nations are either “developed” or “developing”.  This week, I have crunched on dried camel curds with a man wearing a traditional deel (pronounced "dell"), and also dined on fresh-off-the-plane Australian seafood with a woman wearing an Alexander McQueen dress.

There was also an unexpected dinner with a former finance minister: a man whom the Soviets threw in prison for distributing hand-typed copies of Solzhenitsyn, who has since published the Encyclopedia Britannica in Mongolian and is now personally translating Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. He pointed out that Mongolia only has about 400 laws. His point was that that’s a whole lot more than the United States had when it was only 20 years old.

It’s a country in the midst of defining its modern self, and idiosyncratically making it up as it goes along.  How history fits with modernity is in flux.  It turns out, for example, that the neo-Nazis who dropped by my office are an officially registered NGO, albeit a heartily tattooed and leather-clad NGO.  The xenophobic politics are familiar, but the swastika is culturally nuanced in a place that was never touched by the Third Reich.  The only historic anti-Semitism in this country occurred when Russians were killing other (Jewish) Russians in the pogroms.  And then you have to go through the looking glass: The swastika is, of course, a revered Buddhist symbol when you turn the pinwheel the other way, and the oppressed minority in Mongolia were the Buddhists, whom the Soviets killed by the thousands. So the same symbol that makes us queasy in the west is a symbol of an oppressed minority, here.  And, um, also the symbol of the neo-Nazis.

As a result of this real-time sense-making – or, in some cases, nonsense-making – it’s a place of fast-forward cultural appropriation.  The signs are all in Cyrillic – so look Russian to ignorant foreigners like me -- Chinese goods dominate, French luxury products confer status, American and British culture are everywhere, and the most numerous restaurants are Korean.

But not everything is shifting.  If American identity harkens back to individualistic cowboys, and all Australians are, deep down, the Man From Snowy River, then this country isn’t that far distant from us.  It’s a vast, unfenced wilderness whose people, no matter how city-bound, all have nomadic hearts on horseback.  Just what that means I don’t yet know.

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