Students reflects on experience in Mongolia

Commentary by
Jason Palauskas

“You’re going to Mongolia.” I remember my first thoughts being: Where is that? What am I going to do there? Little did I know the experience that awaited me.

Being selected for a CULP (Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency) mission was truly an honor and one of the best experiences of my life thus far. The goal of the mission was to work with the Mongolian military on improving their English conversational skills while also learning part of their culture. I would personally say the mission was a success.

The first week I found myself forming friendships with soldiers from the National Defense University. The most rewarding part of week one for me occurred on the last day. Munkhbat, one soldier with whom I worked closely, came up to me, smiled, shook my hand and thanked me for being patient with him while helping him. He then pleaded with me to follow him to his car.

Hesitant at first, I followed him. He pulled a black suitcase from his backseat and began to dig through it. He pulled out a snuff bottle at first, a delicacy to Mogolian culture, and offered it to me to keep. Although he invested a good amount of money into it, there was no hesitation in offering it to me. He then pulled patches out that were cut from his uniform. He told me that I should have something nice to take home with me for the help I had given him over five days. The part that may have amazed me the most was that he expected nothing in return. He simply smiled and walked away after. He even tried to refuse the gift I had for him, which was patches from my own uniform.

The nomadic Mongolian lifestyle is truly something special. It is something we, as Americans, can take strong lessons from. After speaking with many individuals and visiting a few families, I began to notice trends. First, Mongolians are proud of who they are and where they come from. I did not go a day the first week without someone being eager to tell me about Mongolian history, in particular Chinggis Khan who was a great Mongolian ruler. The simplicity of the nomadic lifestyle stood out the most for me.

Nobody was worried about the new iPhone or what type of car they drove. They did not spend hours in front of a television eating junk food and their attention was never focused on Facebook or Twitter feeds. Family relationships are strong. Families all work together to maintain their land and animals. They live off the land, consuming no processed foods from what I could see.

This allowed for minimal waste, which seems to be an ever-growing problem in the U.S.
As we walked into one family’s Ger, which is a traditional Mongolian home, we were all immediately given milk tea that was freshly prepared. There was also a table in the center filled with bread, assorted cheeses and butter, all of which was prepared by the family just for us. I learned that this was standard for when Mongolians had visitors. We began to finish the milktea only for our cups to be immediately refilled. This hospitality is hard to come by in the U.S. I heard stories of individuals hitchhiking rides.

Many individuals would not think twice to divert their daily plans and completely go out of their way to get someone where they needed to go.

City streets were often flooded with cars, three to four lanes full. Many cars cut in front of each other and traffic signals were not always closely followed. I noticed there was no road rage though. Individuals did not get angry or anxious. They did not throw out hand signals and did not chase each other down, which is unfortunately too common in the U.S.

It is crazy to think of the impact you can have on another’s life in such a short time. It only took me a few minutes to start improving Munkhbat’s English, which meant a great deal more to him than I had originally thought. My trip to Mongolia brought me experiences and lessons I will cherish for the rest of my life. Who knows when I will be able to ride a camel, drink fresh horse milk or shoot a traditional Mongolian bow and arrow again? I plan to implement the aspects of their culture into my life.

I want to focus more on putting others first and distancing myself from my phone and social media. I found there is much more enjoyment and satisfaction in life when you lift your head up from that screen. Happiness can be found within the simple things in life.

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