Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Cultural identity slipping away

At the beginning of the millennium, I watched modernization take over the traditional nomadic culture in Mongolia at a fast rate and feared that the culture might be lost.
In Vermont, we have had time to come to terms with industrialization, electronic technology, and globalization. We have had many decades to do this. We observed the rest of the country and often decided not to be glitzed by the newness that others adopted. We took our time becoming a state, the 14th one, not one of the colonies, so we have a tradition of independence. Because of this we have a character that other states do not have.
Mongolia switched from socialism to market economy in 1990. Seven years later I was invited by some architects to visit a restaurant they had just completed. When I walked in, nothing told me that I was in Mongolia. Every view held pastel walls, smooth tables and unremarkable pictures. Mongolians were letting go of their culture as fast as they could. At that time, they thought the old and the new were mutually exclusive.
When the welcome center in Brattleboro opened a couple of decades ago, my father, visiting from Connecticut, told me to be sure and visit it. “It will make you proud to live in Vermont,” he said. And when I did visit, I slowly drove past the rusting farm equipment, sculptures in the field, to a natural wood hip-roofed barn. The essence of Vermont is not lost there. Inside are displays of our activities and products along with modern, clean rest rooms and automatic bathroom fixtures. The uniqueness and history of Vermont blends with modern convenience.
Outside the restaurant in Mongolia every ger (yurt) area had a fence painted with the ulzii, the eternal knot. It didn’t matter what material the fence was made of — rusted metal or painted wood or something else — tradition was alive. Roof rafters of the ger as well as the table and chairs were painted orange with traditional geometric designs of gold, blue, pink and green. Nomads visiting the city and even the city dwellers on special occasions wore a bright silk deel, or gown, buttoned on the right side.
Yet, the lilting music, the throat singing, and the sounds of vast nature were disappearing into rap and disco. Shoes had recently changed from black boots under the deel to sneakers under jeans. City people were buying cell phones, the Internet, flat screen televisions, and cars while ignoring their traditions. It was as if modern Mongolians wanted to take a giant wiper and remove any sight, sound, or smell of their country’s culture.
In Vermont we have people who care about the land, the animals, the farms, trees, forests, and the unbroken snow. We are preserving these while at the same time enjoying modern life.
Why do I care about traditional Mongolian nomadic culture? Nomadic herders have knowledge that most of us have forgotten. Mongolian herders live off their livestock. They eat their own meat and make white food — milk, cheese, yogurt (the best I’ve tasted), cream, and curds. In Mongolia, nomads know how to subsist on the land.
Today, the Dukha reindeer herders have added chain saws, solar panels, satellite dishes, television, and even cell phones and yet they keep their nomadic lifestyle. At least four times a year, they transport these modern items on their reindeer along with their wood stove, teakettle, bedding, and clothing to the new settlement. The modern items support their traditional life. They have found a way to live on the land with their reindeer as their ancestors did. Maybe it’s a little easier with their modern tools.
Today Mongolians are finding ways to preserve their culture, even as they modernize. I’m glad they have discovered that the old and the new are not mutually exclusive.
Sas Carey has just finished her fourth documentary on traditional Mongolian life and is working on her memoir at the Vermont Studio Center for the month of January.

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