Customs, Culture, and a Few Non Sequiturs

The frazzled admin assistant bustled through my classroom door with a foot-high stack of paperwork. She needed me to look at some documents. "And I need you to sign up for the continuing ed course," she added just a little breathlessly.

"Okay. How do I do that?"

She frowned, stepping around the desk so she could see my computer screen. "I sent a link to your email."

"Ah," I said, tapping the mouse to bring up my inbox. "Here it is."

"Once you follow it-" she leaned a little closer, accidentally stepping on my foot.

She abruptly dropped her papers on my desk, reached down, and gave me a firm handshake.

As she began picking up the stack once more, she pointed at the monitor, "Yes, just click on the link in the email and go to their website. And when you get there you need to..." she trailed off, catching my expression. Then she smiled nervously. "You're wondering why I just shook your hand, aren't you?"

"A little."

"Mongolian customs. If you step on someone's foot, you have to shake their hand."

I frowned. "Anyone? Friend, neighbor, random stranger I pass in the street?"

She nodded.

"Good to know," I said.

It was my first lesson in Mongolian customs, but definitely not my last.

The other day I was running late, slipping off my boots to swap them for more work appropriate footwear. The only storage cubby was on a high shelf. I had class in a few minutes and I wasn't choosey. So I started to shove my boots inside. A Mongolian coworker hurried over looking like a parent catching a toddler heading for an electrical outlet with a handful of cutlery.

"No, no! Shoes can't be stored that high. Not above the head. Very bad luck. Always store shoes near the floor. Otherwise it is unhealthy."

I blinked, slowly lowering my boots. "Sorry."

"It's okay." She found a lower spot and waved me over. I put my boots in and she smiled. "See? So much better."

I wasn't going to argue.

Most of my cultural encounters have gone that way, unfortunately. I'm like a six-foot faux pas generator.

But thankfully I'm not always that unprepared for new customs. Like the other day, when a coworker offered me some refreshments. This was something I'd actually read about.

In Mongolia, if a host offers something to eat or drink, it is the height of rudeness to turn it down. Guests must at least try the (hopefully) tasty comestible, whatever it is. The only exception is alcohol, in which case dipping a finger into the glass and touching it to the forehead in a symbolic gesture of thanks is perfectly acceptable.

I felt like a student at a pop quiz who's just figured out he studied the right chapters. So when she held out a glass of milk and a mason jar of what looked like blueberries, I was confident I had this covered. I started to raise the milk to my mouth.

And then the smell hit me.

It was dense, a sour animal musk, like cat urine and cream. My nose-hairs tried to crawl back into my skull.

But the coworker was smiling and nodding encouragement. I took a cautious sip. The taste was best described as fermented. Powerfully fermented. But I managed to maintain composure long enough to swallow.

Then she held up the mason jar. Grateful for something fruity, I shoved a heaping spoonful into my mouth. At which point I discovered not blueberries, but acai berries. These are distinguishable from blueberries by the pits that fill 80% of their volume.

So I now had a mouthful of rocks.

I smiled and pretended to chew thoughtfully until my Mongolian host gave a satisfied nod. Which I took as permission to make a polite exit. The remains of the acai berries went into the nearest bin. Compared to the milk, they were actually quite tasty... if I overlooked the hidden surprise.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll learn more Mongolian customs as time passes. And I hope this doesn't create more predicaments than it solves.