Mongolia’s foreign influences

It’s been fascinating to see how Mongolia’s neighbors impact its life and culture. I would have to say, after two weeks here, that the strongest two influences appear to be Russia/the former Soviet Union and South Korea. Although the country made a turn away from the (dissolving) USSR around 1989-1990 as did so many other countries, and its government no longer looks like a Soviet-modeled one, there are many things in place that still bear the influence of Russia. Of course, there’s the Cyrillic alphabet for one — Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet in 1915, so it’s easier for Russians to learn Mongolian and Mongolians to learn Russian. There are a significant number of Russian majors at the university, and many middle-aged Mongolians studied in Russian-speaking schools and visited the Soviet Union/Russia regularly. There are also lots of TV programs in Russian, with dramatic Russian performers regaling the crowd, and classical music concerts in the opera house with Russian themes. There are many Russian workers here and I’m told a number of marriages of Russian or Ukrainian men and Mongolian women. I’ve seen Russian men at every outpost we’ve visited – and, yes, they are having long talkative meals, and repeatedly toasting, and drinking vodka! (confirmed by Mongolians with us).

The Mongolian nationalistic movies on TV have the kinds of themes so famous in the days of the Soviet hegemony – rows of beaming Mongolian singers, in matching costumes, and even full orchestras, placed right in the middle of a wheat field, films of Mongolian children with red kerchiefs learning to use agricultural tools at summer camps, and sweeping vistas of hydroelectric plants and industrial projects with their proletariat managers. It’s all still in evidence. (However, three rooms of the National Museum, including those covering the 20th century, are closed for “remodeling,” and no doubt reframing of Mongolian history in the new context….).

One middle-aged Mongolian I asked about it said, “We’re glad the Russians were involved with Mongolia – they civilized us (his words) and took us out of isolation….but after many decades we had little to show for it – and we were being told so many lies about the country.” (or something to that effect) He also said that under the era of Soviet influence, they were required to visit museums and perform community service during their school breaks, and that at the time he hated it, but now he’s really glad he was forced to do it. It gave him the spirit of nation-building. He lamented that there was no such spirit in today’s Mongolian youth.

The second big influence is South Korea, which is everywhere on the street – Korean restaurants abound, Korean TV shows, subtitled in English, are on the national TV, and many Mongolians apparently go to S. Korea to work and earn money to bring back to Mongolia. There are Korean majors at the university, and there are apparently many intermarriages between Koreans and Mongolians. We noticed on the Korean TV shows that Korean women are portrayed as very fashionable, insecure, helpless, and needy, and wondered if this image is affecting Mongolian women (of course it’s “only” TV, but these images can be influential). She said that Mongolian women (who are taller, larger, with different cultural backgrounds) are drawn to the Korean female model in early adolescence, and young Mongolian guys tend to like to imitate Korean males’ hair styles and fashion….but not as “adult” models for Mongolians.

These are just superficial observations of course. But the lack of Chinese influence is somewhat noteworthy since it’s Mongolia’s large and influential neighbor to the south, containing a large Mongolian population within it. I know Mongolia does a great deal of trade with China – supplying both energy resources and great quantities of animal hides for leather goods, wool and cashmere — but there is little social/cultural influence apparent and, I think, no love lost there.

American influence? Pop music and fast food. There is a KFC in downtown UB, and American music is popular enough that the college students can all sing some songs. American movies are also enjoyed. And, importantly, a lot of Mongolians want to go to America — or have been there, as children of international students, or in exchange programs. They all have extremely positive feelings about the U.S. One former Fulbrighter told me, however, how hard her year had been as an exchange student in a small southern college, where everything was so car-oriented that there weren’t even any sidewalks to walk on! For international students without cars, that’s not good. She said the buses there were very slow and infrequent, but all of the international students had to take them everywhere, and the bus looked like a bus hired for them – it was so full of the international students.

Some Mongolian American kids who have “gone astray” also seem to be sent to Mongolia to “straighten up,” and they are in evidence at the university – they are quite worldly, somewhat impatient with it all, and both envied and resented by the students working so hard to learn English!

Mongolia was built on travel and trade, so these influences are nothing new to a country that has a huge land mass and rock-solid identity. Will the essence of Mongolia continue to absorb or withstand foreign influence? Stay tuned!

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