I am Mongolian.
Which means a lot of questioning eyes and astonished faces when I tell people where I am from. “Wow, that is so cool!” is the usual first reaction followed by a lost look as they try to figure out where my country is or what it looks like on the map. Most people I talk to know about our greatest ‘pride’, the emperor Genghis Khan, who ruled almost half of the world in the 13th century. Sometimes there is a slight chance that they also know about the great emperor Shan yu, who you might know as the main villain in the Disney movie, Mulan. He was the first emperor who founded and ruled a great state that was centered in modern Mongolia.
Much to my dismay, the view people hold of Mongolia in the present day is limited to what National Geographic and other media outlets broadcast: nomadic people living in the country with horses in abounding numbers. You see them without any urbanization; raising cattle and riding horses pretty much sum up their day-to-day activities. I do not blame people for having this belief, for it is not their fault that we are being promoted in this way to the world. And that’s where I come in: I am here to write about the common misconceptions people have about Mongolia by providing answers to the questions I am often asked, and guide you to a better and deeper understanding of the great country.
Common Questions That a Mongolian Gets Asked:
Do you ride horses? Do you go to school on horses?
Does everyone have a horse?
This kind of question doesn’t really annoy me; it just shows me you’ve seen a lot of pictures of Mongolia and the horses were possibly a big part of them. Or you might be obsessed with horses, who knows. I remember my friend once asking me to show him pictures of Mongolia and, lazy as I am, I just put Mongolia in the Google image search and alas, there was the thing I feared the most: horses. I once saw a picture of a man riding a horse with an eagle on his hand on my Facebook wall with the caption: ‘You’ll never be cool as this horse-riding, wolf-hunting… Mongolian”. I thought it was pretty funny and flattering, but it is also important to understand that not everyone lives that way. While it is definitely true there are many horses in Mongolia (fun fact: the number of horses in the country is larger than our population), the notion that everyone has or rides horses is partly wrong. These days, only few people live the nomadic lifestyle due to the improving economy and the better educational system in the city. Other than Mongolians who own and train horses professionally for national horse races, not many people remain who preserve the old customs and traditions of horse riding. And sorry to ruin this perfect picture of us going to school on horses, but we do not do that.
Is Mongolia part of China? Do Mongolians speak Chinese?
Do Mongolians eat with chopsticks?
When people ask me where I am from, I make them guess to see which country they would think of when they first see me. I get China (and all the other Asian countries thereafter) a lot and, to me, it is very bothersome.
Mongolia has had a long history with China and it has not always been friendly due to territory issues and national security threats in the past. Despite our glory days of world domination in the 13th century, one of the lowest points Mongolia faced was when we were under Manchu rule for 220 years before becoming an independent country in 1911 after the revolution. During the period, a lot of people who share our nomadic culture and ancestry became Sinicized. To call a Mongolian person Chinese is considered very offensive because it invalidates our independent identity.
Here is the most common misconception debunked: Mongolians do not speak Chinese (cue GASP). We speak Mongolian and actually use Cyrillic, which is not even close to Chinese script. Our alphabet is more similar to Russian than Chinese, because we adapted Cyrillic during the Socialist period, a time when Mongolia was a satellite state under USSR. On top of that, Mongolian citizens are encouraged by the State to learn to read and write the Mongolian script, which is our very own script that has been used since the days of Genghis Khan. I remember my friend laughing when I told him it looks sort of like Arabic but that it goes from top to bottom rather than right to left. Also, Mongolians eat with forks, spoons and knives – no chopsticks unless we’re eating Chinese food like everyone else.
Is it true Mongolians eat only meat?
What kind of meat do you guys eat?
It is definitely true that Mongolians are ardent meat-eaters. I was born in Slovakia, so I did not grow up eating meat like other Mongolian kids. I’m used to getting a lot of judging looks when I refuse to eat meat sometimes. Even my dad forces me to eat meat on occasions. Our cuisine mainly consists of meat, flour, dairy and a limited variety of vegetables. We consume meat not only to keep ourselves warm during the harsh winters and dry climate that Mongolia has but also throughout the seasons. And when I say we eat every part of the animal, I mean it. We have a popular dish called ‘khorkhog’ which consists of chunks of mutton, including its insides, cooked in a metal container over fire.
However, people are diverging from the traditionalistic approach to food. Mongolia is becoming a more modern country with diverse cuisines that range from seafood, vegan to Mexican and Indian cuisine. Also, due to the rise in the price of red meat, there is no choice but to settle for chicken and other options. In fact, Mongolia got its first KFC and Pizza Hut and they exposed many people to fast food culture and allowed them to eat with more variety. But undoubtedly, there is nothing better than meat for Mongolians.
What is Mongolia’s capital city? Is it even a city? How big is it?
Doesn’t everyone live in the countryside with horses?
People don’t believe me when I tell them rich Mongolians live in villas and luxury apartments in the capital city. The common notion most people have is that Mongolians have a nomadic lifestyle, and they live in portable ‘ger’ (a portable round tent covered in sheep skin) and raise sheep and goats. In reality, out of the population of 3 million, 1.4 million live in the capital city while 0.6 million people live in other cities. That leaves about 1 million people living in the countryside, which is not a considerable number. Keep in mind that 3 million is the number of Mongolians living in Mongolia; there are a lot of Mongolians who live in Russian and Chinese regions and who share the same ancestry. If you ever wondered, our capital city is an actual city with tall buildings, roads and malls. It also has a name: Ulaanbaatar. It is not very big compared to big cities like New York or Los Angeles but it covers a large area where many people live in ‘ger’s around the center of the city. Ulaanbaatar is very nice, but having experienced the Mongolian countryside, with its beautiful nature, I have to say (and I speak for most people here) that the countryside is the place to go and see.
And now this is the end of my quick tour of Mongolia! I hope this article helped you clarify any misconceptions or misunderstandings you had about Mongolia. If not, don’t hesitate to contact me. I can teach you not only how to pronounce my last name but also other easy Mongolian words so you can brag about the time you almost talked in the language of Genghis Khan.
*This post was edited on 4/15/2015.
This is the first installment of Debunked, a new IWB series in which writers from different countries/cultures will ‘debunk’ common misconceptions about their nation and culture. If you’d like to contribute to this series, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!