A white Toyota pulled over beside my outstretched mitten. I opened the back door and plopped in, greeting the driver gratefully. “Sain bain yy, hello,” I puffed, yanking off my enormous hat. “Dunjingarav Market?” “Dunjingarav. Za.” The young man behind the wheel confirmed my destination and rejoined the stagnant river of weekend traffic. I settled into the backseat and watched our neighborhood drift away through the window.
Many taxi drivers become chatty upon finding a foreigner in their backseat, and I spend those rides combining my rudimentary Mongolian with their (always far better) English to express what the heck I’m doing in their city. I’m shown pictures of their kids and we compare ages and professions and spousal arrangements. It’s fun, but my brain can’t always spin fast enough to keep up, and I end the ride as breathless as if I’d walked. So I was pleased that today’s driver seemed content to drive quietly, though his eyes kept finding me in the rearview mirror.
I’m a funny-looking lady, if my students’ appraisals are anything to go by, so I didn’t think much of it. Until he drove past our turn.
“Uh, Dunjingarav?” I said, pointing through the window to the road he was gliding past.
“Tiim, tiim.” Yes, yes. He pointed straight ahead and repeated, “Dunjingarav.”
UB’s streets are about as straight and passable as the innards of a constipated yak. The street we’d passed was the most direct route, but it was also stationary with traffic. It was likely the driver knew another, faster way to the market. There was no need to stress, I told myself, so long as we took the next right.
As I started to get fidgety, I noticed the seat covers of his car were embroidered with blazing red swastikas. Oh shit.
Mongolia is an awfully safe place, so long as you discount the hypothermia, pollution levels, and bubonic plague. It’s so safe that the taxis everyone rides in are just private cars—whoever felt like stopping to make a few bucks. The going rate is 800 tugrik per kilometer, about 30 cents USD. You just stick out a paw at waist height and wait for someone to pull over. Trusting random strangers is just a matter of course, though nearly every foreigner seems to have a thrilling taxi tale involving pants-soaking driving tactics or guns in open glove compartments. (I haven’t heard one take that didn’t end with the passenger being safely deposited at their destination.)
There is one foreigner-specific danger in Ulaanbaatar: harassment from the uber-nationalists. The past few years have seen a rising tide of nationalism among Mongolians, and as recent world events show, it’s easy for such movements to surge too far. The thing is, I can understand it. Even though nearly half the country’s population lives in UB, it feels like the city caters to foreigners. The skyscrapers, the luxury hotels, the glossy, half-empty malls – who are they catering to? Folks like us. The average Mongolian rakes in a cool $355 bucks a month. The unemployment rate went up nearly 7% last year. The tugrik is skidding downhill like a hapless ski student, with pinwheeling arms and a fervent desire hit bottom and get it over with.
Yet there’s money to be made in Mongolia, especially for in the mining industry. I’ve heard stories of foreign engineers getting $10 grand a month (contracted in USD), plus housing—Mongolia is considered a hardship post, which raises benefits considerably. I can also report that international teachers are doing ok. My monthly salary is nowhere near a mining engineer’s, but it ain’t $355 either. We are, however unintentionally, living the high life in Ulaanbaatar.
It’s not surprising that some Mongolians might resent this.
“Dun-jin-ga-rav.” I pointed urgently in the direction I wanted to go. The driver said nothing, but took the next right turn onto a street that was essentially one long parking lot. We sat in still silence. I was fairly certain that the road would eventually take us past the backside of the market. The question was, should I get out now? It was impossible to know how much I should read into this navigational mix-up. The doors were unlocked; in this gridlock it would have been impossible for me to not outrun the car. Traffic stalled for so long that the driver ahead of us got out of her truck to play with her baby.
I was zero immediate danger. But who knew when traffic would suddenly unclog and move forward? How seriously did I want to take those swastikas?
The US State Department website warns travelers in Mongolia against “unprovoked xenophobic attacks.” The rise of extreme nationalism, especially among young men, is coupled with anti-foreigner sentiments. Nationalists have been known to hassle foreigners, mostly late at night, mostly when drunk. A foreign man with a Mongolian woman on his arm is an especial target, as racial purity is a hot-button issue. Some uber-nationalists have adopted the Nazi swastika as a symbol of these beliefs.
After four years in Asia, we’re used to living among swastikas. As a traditional Buddhist symbol, they’re scattered all over Korea: worked into temple carvings, displayed on vegetarian restaurants or traditional medicine stops. The Buddhist swastika as we know is it oriented in a square, with the arms pointing counter-clockwise. This is opposed to the Nazi symbol, which is flipped clockwise and tipped into a diamond shape. There’s a clear difference, easy to spot, right?
No, actually. There are many iterations of the swastika in Mongolia. It’s connected to Buddhism, it’s connected to Shamanism, it’s flipped to the right, it’s flipped to the left, it’s a diamond, it’s a square… all peaceful and venerable symbols.
The menace of the swastika depends on the intensions behind it. This can be hard for foreigners to gauge. Which in itself can lead to altercations.
So my taxi conundrum boiled down to determining the young driver’s intentions. Was the livid swastika inches from my face an expression of his cultural and religious beliefs, quite possibly a gift from his devout mother? Or a symbol of his hatred of the supposed foreign blight upon his country? If the latter, this car ride was becoming ominous indeed.
As the orange backside of Dunjingarav crept into view, I sank back in the car seat with relief. Once again, my imagination had run off with my good sense. After four years as a guest in other people’s countries, you’d think I’d have learned something about trust and goodwill. Really, I chided myself as traffic cleared and we moved toward the market intersection, when did I become so paranoid?
The driver didn’t take the turn.
He blew straight past it, driving into a zone of shipping containers, where rough men in cold weather gear stood smoking cigarettes.
“Stop!” I exclaimed, asserting myself at last. “Here, za, this is good! Just let me out here.”
The driver immediately pulled over, stopped the car, and turned to me in confusion.
“Dunjingarav,” I pointed at the sliver of orange visible beyond the shipping containers. I swung open the door and hopped out, fumbling for cash.
He answered in Mongolian, the gist of which seemed to be that this market wasn’t called Dunjingarav. Dunjingarav was another market straight ahead.
“Oh really? Ha ha, silly me. Well, thanks so much, bayarlalaa, thank you!” I overpaid him and slammed the door. He hesitated, perhaps over leaving me on such a rough-looking corner, then peeled away into the endless flow of cars.
I tromped past the shipping containers and across the railroad tracks to the market’s ice rink of a parking lot, berating myself all the way. The poor guy was just trying to take me where I asked to go, it was my mistake, it was totally unfair of me to brand him a Bad Guy just for the pattern on his car seat…
I turned the corner to the front of the market. The parking lot was full of happy, skidding shoppers. The main doorway zipped constantly open and closed beneath an enormous, block-letter sign: Дүнжингарав.
What do I think? I think he was a nice guy who doesn’t know the markets on this side of town. Maybe he’s not much of a shopper. Maybe it’s his uncle’s car. Maybe he got those seat covers for his birthday. There are a dozen innocent ways to interpret the ride, and only one nefarious one. I think he gave a foreigner a lift to make a few bucks. Not that I’ll ever know.
A symbol that expresses several different meanings can be interpreted an equal different ways. Who’s at fault? The person who assumes he will be understood or the person who assumes she understands?
And while I sensed this was a question of import, I shelved it. Someone smarter than me would have to answer that one. I was just pleased to have reached my destination.