Ways of Seeing: Politeness customs can differ
The first time I was in Mongolia twenty-five years ago, my friend Kathleen and I were riding on a red and white bus with standing room only. We were returning from a day at the black market where I had bought necessities like a light bulb and toilet seat.
The dilapidated bus lurched and when I looked up, a Mongolian woman was shaking hands with Kathleen. I thought someone was introducing herself, so I reached over to shake hands, too. The Mongolian looked at me a bit strangely. Later I learned the custom is to shake hands if you step on someone’s foot or touch their leg with your foot. That way you give the person’s soul back.
This was my introduction to Mongolia’s cultural expectations.
This past summer in Mongolia, our interpreter, who also works as a guide, was giving out a tiny booklet called, “Welcome to Taiga: The home of Reindeer herders.” Under Do’s and Don’ts, such as “Don’t refuse offered drink or food in the ger or home,” I also found this, “Don’t say thank you too much for small gestures.”
Why would tourists be advised to not say thank you? It sounds sacrilegious.
From early childhood, we learn the words “thank you.” How many times do we hear mothers or ourselves remind children, “What do you say?” when they receive a gift or kindness? Isn’t this true everywhere?
Reindeer herders live in a community of about one hundred. The settlement is made up of a little over twenty urts or Siberian tipis. Many of the inhabitants are related. They are together day and night for their whole lives. They know everything about each other, like a big family.
In Mongolia family members do not say “thank you” to each other because everything they have, they share. If one has money and another needs it, they give it. Clothes pass from one person to another. And of course, food — if someone slaughters a reindeer, the meat is split among all. So, if someone says “thank you,” it is as if they don’t trust the person as being part of the family. It gives a sense of distancing.
This summer when our film editor and back-up cameraperson Jennifer Schweppe heard on her first trip to Mongolia that she shouldn’t say those two words, her face glazed over, horrified. You might have thought she couldn’t use her right arm.
“What should I say?’ she asked our interpreter.
“Just say, ‘Za,’” said Anuka.
“Za? What does that mean?”
It means, “Okay.”
After that, I could hear Jen say, “Th… Za!”
Then Anuka, Jen, and I would laugh.
It is not just the two words or the handshake that are important. Respecting another’s culture honors that person’s life. We might feel insulted or disrespected if someone didn’t say those two little words to us and Mongolians might feel insulted if we do say them.
I must admit I need to pause before saying those words to be sure I get it right — depending on which culture I am in.
Sas Carey is the director of Nomadicare, a Vermont non-profit whose mission is to support and preserve Mongolian traditional nomadic culture through healthcare, stories, and films. Watch for the date for a pre-release screening of her new movie “Transition” at the Town Hall Theater this fall.
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