NOTE: Some parts of this post are graphic and may be disturbing to some readers. Details have been retained to highlight the daily experience of this study abroad student and cultural norms in Mongolia, and a thoughtful cultural reflection on the topic rounds out this post.
One of my favorite memories in the countryside was what I call the “cashmere party” that my host family threw. At first, it started as a regular day. But then, we herded some animals into the pen that we usually only use at night. Tsetseg and my host uncle immediately went in to drag out some specific goats. Of course, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I was supposed to smack the rumps of the stubborn goats. As we brought out each goat, we tied them head-to-head on a rope next to the pen.
When we had around 15 goats all tied-up, they brought out the metal combs to begin brushing. When a comb was full of cashmere, we would drop it into a giant bucket and resume our work. There were a lot of ticks in the bucket by the end. Each goat took 2 people about 20 minutes to brush. It was hard labor! The coats turned out to be thicker than I expected, and with each tug, the whole body of the goat would rock to the rhythm.
The reason why I call this the “cashmere party” is because 15 minutes into the process, a jeep pulled up and dropped off about 10 members of their extended family. They each grabbed a goat and went at it. It was kind of hilarious. You could tell that they were just making some small talk while vigorously brushing 6 or 7 goats at a time. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “family reunion.”
The arrival of the family members also meant that they expected to get some fresh meat to bring back to town. So I saw a sheep get slaughtered. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe that I’m 20 years old and have never seen an animal die before! Technically, women aren’t supposed to see the process because an old wives tale states that we’ll become infertile. But I got to see it anyway.
I can’t explain the fear I felt when I saw them drag it up to the ger, and my host mother made a throat-slashing motion. I knew that I had to watch it – both because I was morbidly curious, and also because I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t handle it. It turned out to be less worse than I’d anticipated. They slaughtered it the traditional way, which meant they laid it on its back, sliced its stomach open, and pinched an artery. After it was over, they brought out multiple buckets for the organs. They only threw away a couple of parts, and put everything else into small buckets to take home. I was going to offer to help, but I just couldn’t! Maybe if I was able to wash my hands within the next week of being there.
Still, it was a process that I was “glad” to witness. Not surprisingly, no one, not even the toddlers, gave the process a second glance. I’m guessing it’s normal to have a sheep slaughtered in front of your ger.
I think that the most important lesson I learned from both witnessing this process and my nomadic homestay experience as a whole is that for many Mongolians, their animals are their lives. They rely on them for everything. Their animals’ meat and milk are their main source of food; their skins are for their clothing and home, and their animal products generate their whole income. As you may imagine, there is nothing that goes to waste. Every part of the animals is used as a precious resource, and I say from personal experience that their lives are not taken in vain.
Even with my host family in the city, we’ve eaten every part of the animal because this mentality seems to have continued into the lives of some urban Mongolians. I find this to be an interesting mentality that is different from the culture of most Americans. When I think of mainstream meat at home, I think of miserable animals laced with antibiotics, confined to a factory, and hidden from the public eye. As a society, I think that we often disrespect the lives of animals, and view them as only living to be eaten by us. Even when they are slaughtered, only certain meats are publicly displayed in stores, and we are often disgusted by the thought of eating most parts of the animal like the heart, intestines, and brains. But here in Mongolia, these parts are not thrown away, but used and even cherished in some ways.
Perhaps this is tied to the fact that they are often eating their own herd animals. They watched many of them be born, cared for them as babies, and protected them as adults. And then, they watched them continue the cycle by giving birth as adults. My host family knew each of their animals by heart, and cared for them like their lives depended on them, which they did. I think that because of their reliance on their animals, Mongolians have come to respect their lives in ways that I never could have imagined. I learned from conversations with my host family that because many Mongolians are Buddhist, they believe in the full circle and the connection of all life. A beautiful practice I learned about was how Mongolians traditionally slaughter a goat. Before they begin to cut, they lay a single blade of grass onto its stomach to symbolize that the goat is being returned to nature.
Interestingly, I have met some foreigners who practice vegetarianism everywhere except in Mongolia because of the way animals are raised here. They are often against the cruel treatment of animals in the west, and they tell me they find peace in knowing that the animal is free in nomadic life and is respected with a less painful death. But sometimes I wonder, are the animals really “free”? I personally still struggle with the question of whether or not the relationship between the herders and the animals is symbiotic, or if the animals are not gaining anything substantial in return. After all, at the end of the day, they are being raised to be killed. We explored this topic in a class discussion, and I still wonder about who is benefiting more. Clearly, the herder relies on their animals for everything, but the animals are also gaining protection from predators, guidance to the best rivers and pastures, and even medicine.
I can’t say that I’ve had all of my questions about this topic answered, but I have come to view the lives of animals differently. There is something incredibly special about this historical and relationship, but I personally fear that the trend of globalization will one day reach Mongolia and disturb this way of living. The number of Mongolians moving to the city is increasing every month, and the nation itself is starting to become less flexible for herders. Even seemingly innocent changes, like the development of private property, is making life increasingly difficult for nomadic families. I can only hope that the demand for the animal products they produce will become higher, and will encourage families to continue this ancient lifestyle. I hope that I will never need to wryly tell my grandchildren that I was able to witness nomadic lifestyles before they disappeared from earth.