My biggest surprise since coming to Mongolia is this: many Mongolian people assume that I’m Mongolian. I find this surprising because most Asians can immediately tell that I’m not full Asian, and not a local in their country. Besides the shape and look of my face, I think that it’s fairly obvious with the way I walk, dress, and conduct myself. When I’m in South Korea and Japan, people always speak to me in English and stare at me because I look like a foreigner.
So naturally, I expected similar treatment from local Mongolians. But in the month that I’ve been here, I’ve had less stares and more random conversations with Mongolians. I’ve had people on buses, sidewalks, and stores try and strike up a conversation with me in Mongolian. The kicker is that even when I tell them that I can’t speak Mongolian well, they keep chattering away as if I’m deceiving them by “pretending” to be a foreigner! This unexpected finding has turned out to be a great personal learning experience- both with understanding my position in the world as a biracial person, and also with understanding how Mongolians expect other ethnicities to look like.
What I find most interesting is that Mongolians are always boasting that they can immediately tell if a person is not a Mongolian. I’ve asked at least two-dozen Mongolians if they can spot a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean on the street, and they always insist that they can! But when it comes to me, almost everyone is fooled. The only time that I get more stares and squints is when I wear my glasses. I’m guessing that it highlights the shape of my eyes or changes the shape of my face. Either way, it’s been an interesting experiment to see when people treat me as a foreigner or as a local.
I think that the main reason that people assume I’m Mongolian is because Mongolians are incredibly diverse in the way they look. I realize that all Asians are diverse in different ways, but Mongolians are at a whole different level. We’ve had Mongolian speakers on our program that could pass as Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian. There have been some that I assumed were also foreigners until they told us that they could only speak Mongolian and needed a translator.
Many Mongolians have told me that people are so diverse because of the multiple tribes that have historically existed in Mongolia. In fact, Mongolian and Turkish cultures have striking similarities because they coexisted in Mongolian territory for a long time. Although most Turkish tribes made their way to modern day Turkey, there were some that stayed. This has always been the explanation for the existence of Mongolian people with green, hazel, and light brown eyes who are otherwise “Mongolian”. The existence of these more Caucasian features explains why I can pass for Mongolian. Additionally, there is a large Kazakh minority that exists in Mongolia, diversifying the nation even more.
Even though I still find it strange to blend in, it’s been mostly positive. I feel safer walking in the streets because hardly anyone looks at me twice, or thinks that I’m rich. It’s great not to have people always staring at me or studying my face to try and box me in with a specific ethnicity. Also, an increasing number of people seem to distrust and dislike foreigners because they’re associated with the mining companies, and it’s nice to be separated from that stigma.
The only negative that I can say is that I feel pressure to adhere to the cultural norms that I haven’t quite figured out yet! I got a lot of strange looks when I ate in the streets until I finally figured out that it’s rude to eat while walking. Once I wrote something important on my hand, and someone yelled at me. I found out later that writing on the body is culturally inappropriate because they write prayers and messages on the bodies of the deceased. But at the end of the day, I get to understand the culture and embody it in a unique way. It makes me more observant and aware of how other Mongolians act, which helps me become even more engaged with the culture. Overall, I find that it enriches me in a way that I never would have expected when I first came here.