I miss the slower pace of life in Mongolia. In fact, it’s one of the things I miss the most. I can still picture the two older gentlemen, hands clasped behind their bent backs, strolling slowly side by side—more concerned with their conversation than with the pace of their feet. Even in the larger cities, this was a common sight.
Mongolians take their time, and they celebrate simple things. A momentous occasion for many families is the day a child first learns the alphabet. They throw a big party to celebrate the achievement, and when Mongolians party, they sing! I was delighted to see my colleagues taking turns singing folk songs at one of these parties.
But I wasn’t prepared for the expectation that I would sing too! I caught my team leader’s eye in a moment of panic. He reassured me that in Mongolia, everyone sings, even the foreigners, and any song would do. One stunning rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star later (you try remembering anything else when you have to perform for strangers at the drop of a hat), I was glad to pass the spotlight off to my teammate! But the sense of community as we sang that day is a memory I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Shared music played a part in many of my memories of this beautiful country. I saw how it connected my friends to their roots and to each other and drew the foreigners in, as well. People from all over the globe were brought together in song. Like when I wanted to hike a nearby mountain with some teammates and local friends for my birthday—I invited everyone, reminding them to bring plenty of water for the trip. Of course, I didn’t actually say water; I mixed it up with the word for milk. My friends were confused, but I guess they just assumed it was a weird American thing because they brought it anyway. But not only that! They brought horse sausage, dumplings, and a big birthday cake in a cardboard box. None of this was particularly convenient to carry up a mountain, but that wasn’t the point! Good food and cake were essentials for a birthday party! The frosting wasn’t in the best shape by the time we reached the top, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a cake more. Once the mountain was conquered and the food was gone, my friends and I all stood on the top of that mountain and sang together—songs they had known since childhood ringing out over land that has carried the echoes of generations.
For the younger generations, life is changing. Mongolia is rapidly becoming more urban, and with that shift, a new music scene has begun to grow. Bands that blend popular genres from other parts of the world with their own traditional sounds and instruments are gaining influence. Here is one of my favorite examples from a band called The HU! This kind of music not only connects younger people with their history, but it is also one of the ways they are carrying their traditions into the future, reflecting the culture as it is and as it changes.
Music may look very different in the States, but it does what music always does. It brings us together and reflects our culture. The culture here just has a different pace! We are always on the move. We’re more likely to be rocking out in the car with a friend than stopping to sing together after a shared meal. We fill the edges of our experience with background music, listening while we work, drive, and sometimes even while we sleep. How awkward is a quiet restaurant with no music playing? And how often do you find yourself humming along to the tune that lingers just at the edge of consciousness as you buy groceries?
We have so much variety to explore, and the constant melody gives texture and rhythm to our lives. But sometimes, I miss the silence, the slowness, and then the beautifully imperfect voices of the friends and strangers that drew me into a community in Mongolia.