Friday, February 12, 2016

My First Tsagaan Sar

On February 10th of 2015 I put Zorig on a plane home to Ulaanbaatar after our seven weeks together in the US. Those weeks determined our future--both of us making the necessary changes to make space for the other and to commit to a new future--choosing to become one another's family. In a world of 7 Billion people, we had found the ONE which we wanted above all others. 

Last year Zorig arrived home just in time for Tsagaan Sar. He sent me pictures of he and Enji with the rest of the extended family-- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I looked at the pictures and began to imagine what it would feel like to be a face in that crowd. While I would look different, would I feel like family?

Amazingly, a year has come and gone and I have experienced my first Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia. I will share my reflections and observations here, but first, for a nice overview of the event, please read this blog post by my friend and fellow American Wife, Michelle Borok. Her extended family has more roots in the countryside while my experience is more city-centered. Zorig's parents came to Ulaanbaatar as young children; he is a first generation city person, making Enji second generation. City folk celebrate Tsagaan Sar similarly, but with some adjustments here and there. 

We went first to Zorig's parents' apartment on the eve of Tsagaan Sar to share food and drink, and to toast the incoming new year as a nuclear family. Home just before midnight, we slept shortly and were up before 7 am to prepare and leave. Back to the in-laws by taxi, where we greeted the new year and received gifts. We piled into my father-in-law's Land Cruiser and made our way to the home of the eldest family member--Zorig's 91-year-old grandmother.  


Most of the family
The traditional spread was on the table and women were busy in the kitchen steaming buuz. We drank milk tea, nibbled on food, and drank airag from a silver bowl while everyone else arrived. During this time, the passing of the snuff bottles was also conducted. (Thankfully, I had first experienced this back in January on a short visit to Michelle and her family in Darkhan--therefore I knew what to do!) 

Shortly after 9 am, the family was assembled and the traditional greetings and offerings began. From oldest to youngest, family members pay respect to their elders. Younger members place their hands and arms underneath the elders and lean in to "sniff-kiss" one cheek and then the other. A monetary gift is also offered. As the elders are honored, the rest of the family continues to offer similar greetings and wishes for the new year all around, paying attention to rank in the family by age. 


Buuz fresh from the kitchen
With greetings complete, everyone sat to eat buuz fresh from the steamer. A vodka toast to happiness and good health in the new year followed. We ate and drank and visited--everyone catching up on one another's lives. My Mongolian language is yet limited, but I caught words here and there and continue to be amazed at how much one can glean from body language, context, and tone. While I am the only foreigner in the bunch, I have never felt strange or out of place when around Zorig's family. Their acceptance and love for me is present and full. His grandmother gets around very well--her mother lived to be 94 years old--and I am comforted to know that genes of a long life run in the family. 

By late morning, we departed. Most people have multiple homes to visit and there seems to be a rotation. After some brief down time at home, Zorig and I walked from our home to visit his mother's sisters. The first a sister by marriage, the other her older sister. Both of these apartments were within very short walking distance of our home. We spent 30-60 minutes at each home--long enough to drink milk tea, enjoy some of the salads, and to have a fresh round of buuz presented, all the while chatting and visiting. This was my first time to meet members from Zorig's mother's family and I very much enjoyed meeting them, seeing their homes, and having the opportunity to get acquainted. On Wednesday evening we visited one more home. 


Three different presentations of the Ul Boov
All in all, we visited just four homes for the holiday. This is small compared to most; one of the sisters said she would see perhaps a 100 people in the three days of visiting. You can see why there are hundreds of buuz made!! 

As a foreigner trying to explain this holiday to my countrymen at home in the U.S., I would say it feels like a blend of Thanksgiving and New Year's, plus a little something extra. Thanksgiving includes a host of traditional foods and is about family gathering together to offer thanks for their health, their good fortunes, for life. New Year's is about the hope and well wishes for good things in the year to come. Those two things, PLUS a ceremonial recognition  and respectful appreciation to one's elders is what Tsagaan Sar felt like to me. I couldn't think of anything we have in the U.S. that would be similar to this third element. Perhaps because we are a young country that lacks centuries old traditions? Perhaps because we are a melting pot of diverse cultures? 

Ultimately, Tsagaan Sar is about family--the blood that connects us and binds us to our pasts, as well as the new connections made through marriage that hold the future of our families in them. I feel honored to be warmly received into this new world, culture, home, and family. My first year of education and assimilation continues, but one thing remains the same--I've never been happier than I am now. Happy New Year to you all--may this Year of the Monkey hold health and happiness for each and every one of you. 

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