While accompanying Anthony to his shin jil (New Year’s) party, a revelation hit me. It’s not that these parties are all the same. It’s just that they are so fundamentally different from the way Americans celebrate. Where we come from, when you visit a party, you pretty much get to be the boss of your own decision-making. But here, while there is room for some interpretation, Mongolian parties share common denominators that follow a predetermined pattern of events. Which actually kind of makes it easier. You can predict what’s coming.
So I chose a spot and sat down at the party for Anthony’s co-workers. Even me being there was out of the ordinary, as most spouses aren’t invited and attendance is reserved exclusively for the staff. But as I’ve worked quite a bit with Anthony’s HCA this past year, it was almost as if I was one of the gang. And also, we’re foreigners, so we can get away with pretty much anything. The table is set with bowls of candy, bottles of champagne and vodka, a beautiful bowl of fruit, and of course, the fanciest cake you ever did see. Originally, there were 4 separate tables set up, but to make it more inclusive for everyone, people quickly started moving and rearranging tables so that we formed one massive, long table. The vodka shots started at the head of the table and everyone stood up to join in on the toasts. Then one by one we went down the line and took our shot and weren’t allowed to sit down until we finished it. It was unacceptable to just sit down and not take the shot, and the pressure you felt as everyone stared at you to finish your shot was extreme. And quickly, you silly American, you’re holding up the party. Repeat 3+ times. As I saw the vodka disappearing for my eyes as if evaporating I whispered to Anthony, ‘we miiiiight run out.’ He replied you don’t run out of vodka. Today’s the one day of the year you never run out of vodka. True.
... look how fancy
From here, it’s on to the dance floor we go. And create a giant circle. Circles are inclusive. No one is left out. And we dance. The bold ones make their way into the middle of the circle to be put on display as they bust out a few moves. Usually another unwilling accomplice is dragged in to do this, as the awkwardness becomes diluted if there is more than one person making the leap of faith.
Back to sitting.
First course is served, and it’s always some version of a mayo-based salad. As you nibble on the salad, you’re periodically asked to waltz by a man or woman no matter. Then prizes and awards and games take place. And even through there are less than 30 people present, a microphone is still necessary. And the games, Mongolians LOVE games. And the lure of winning makes them do just about anything for a coveted prize that may or may not even be awarded. Including a mad dash for the first person that could locate, remove, and wave around someone else’s bra. Yea, you heard that right, even though this is a formal event (think prom night complete with up-do’s and add to that copious amounts of glitter,) I was still flashed by 2 people.
So we made our way through more shots, dancing, and eating until the party fizzled out (okay, they kicked us out of the restaurant.) So we drove back to Anth’s work for a few more rounds of rounds at the table where meetings are usually held. By this point we’re sloppy. Everyone is feeling fuzzy in the tip of their brain stems and speeches and toasts are happening. In front of us lies a mangled cake and we are all literally just clawing at it with our fingers in hopes that our trajectory lands it in or around our mouths.
When Anthony stood up to say a few words, I found myself overcome with emotion. When we signed up for this crazy adventure, 27 months seemed like a long time. It sounded long. It felt long. But now that I’m actually living it, I’m realizing we are only afforded the opportunity to do everything a first and then a last time. And being on the ‘last’ cycle of things is sad. I won’t get to celebrate with these people next year. This year is all we have left.
So I cried.
And the harder I tried not to cry, the more people around me joined in on the crying. It was a very real moment. I felt the love in that moment. And these relationships I’ve formed have become so much more than just work relationships. Sure these are my co-workers, but they are also my community, my teachers who help me to navigate my way through a culture, and most importantly they are my friends. I’m going to be a mess when I have to leave this place…
Oh, and Anth won a water boiler. SCORE!