Belles of the Ball

Belles of the Ball

“Moving on to the next item on our agenda…”

I sighed. The Wednesday afternoon meeting looked set to overtake Thursday, and my caffeine level was dangerously low. But our new topic was surprisingly festive.

“…it’s time to discuss the dress code for our New Year party.”

“There’s a dress code?” pipped an incredulous voice from the back of the room.

“Yes. Last year it was semi-formal, but this—”

“Why do we need a dress code?” the voice butted in, prolonging the meeting and endearing herself to no one.

“So everyone knows what to wear,” was the inarguable response. “But we get to choose, so what would you guys like?”

The discussion brought people up from their surreptitious doodling and grocery lists. The Mongolian teachers sounded very excited to get dressed up. The foreigners expressed different levels of enthusiasm, with Unstoppable Mouth Jones at the back protesting that she didn’t own anything remotely formal, and wasn’t going to buy anything, and anyway, she thought this party was supposed to be fun and relaxing. This created a spin-off conversation about shopping venues, which the manager had to shout to overcome.

“So you want it to be formal?” he asked.

There were ambiguous murmurs. “Nope!” contributed a predictable source.

 “Maybe we could have it be ‘As dressy as you like,’” came a reasonably suggestion. “Anyone who wants to dress up can, but no one has to.”

“Well, I’m wearing jeans.” This announcement received an unexpected silence. About then, I realized I was being something of an asshole and should probably shut up.

Yes, the Scrooge at the back was me. It was terrible behavior for many reasons, not least that as the newest member of this team (and a generally decent human being), I should have been listening, not talking. But it had been a frustrating day, full of things I couldn’t understand mixed with things I couldn’t change. I was culture-shocked out, and for some inexplicable reason this was the stand I chose to take—stomping on other people’s party dresses.

You can see the measure of a person by how they treat a jerk. My Mongolian co-teacher is one classy individual, and she took me aside after the meeting.

“The New Year party is the biggest event of the year,” she explained with the same kindness and patience she showed with her primary school students. “It is the one night Mongolian women can really dress up.”

Christmas isn’t celebrated in Mongolia, but holiday trappings have leaked into the culture, like Christmas trees and office soirees. The parties (which officially celebrate New Year but can happen any time in December) are lavish affairs. Ours, for instance, involved a four-course dinner—two of them meat—with five forks and six kinds of alcohol. As the flatware indicates, these aren’t minor events. Women buy new gowns. Then they get their hair, nails, and makeup professionally done. Everyone gets to be Cinderella for the night. My Mongolian coworkers, all gorgeous workaholics, deserved a fairytale evening.

Thus chastened, I went dress shopping with some fellow foreigners. The malls and markets overflowed with New Year party gowns. Taffeta, silk, lace, beadwork, sequins, rhinestones: it looked like bridesmaid central. As my friends tried on glittery dresses, I felt more and more like a humbug. I was too stingy to buy a ball gown for a one-night event that my husband wouldn't attend. (He was in a different department so he got to stay home in sweatpants and order delivery, the lucky duck.) At the same time, now that I understood the importance of dressing up, I badly wanted to make amends. But what did I own that wasn't insultingly casual?

In the end, I went in a wedding dress—my own. A saucy red number that Sam loves. I wore it the morning of our big day and then left it in a box in my mother’s attic while we went galavanting off to Korea. But I’d found it again just before we left for Mongolia and threw it in the suitcase, because why not? You never know when you might be invited to a ball.

Being a foreigner can be hard, and I’m not always as gracious and open as I’d like to be. Thankfully, I have people to tell me, ever so gently, when I’m being a moron. And thankfully, I decided to pack my favorite dress.

The New Year party was a huge success. But now that everyone has seen my dress, I'll have to find a new one for next year. And maybe some glass slippers.