Monday, July 20, 2015

Experiencing a Different Culture in Mongolia

By Midshipman 2nd Class Audrey Channell

As the most sparsely populated country on the planet, Mongolia’s vast steppe and overwhelming immensity has intrigued the outside world for centuries. Heavily influenced by both the Soviets and Chinese, Mongolia is now a melting pot for democracy as it continues to develop and identify itself in the world stage.

Led by Dr. Joe Thomas, six midshipmen were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Mongolian culture firsthand on a two-week Language Proficiency, Regional Expertise, and Cultural Awarenss (LREC) trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. With an emphasis on the idea of “cross-cultural competency,” activities revolved around exploring traditional nomadic elements, the widely diverse landscape, the religious history, and the rise of the Mongolian empire.

While canoeing down the Terelj River for three days, two aspects of Mongolian culture became clear: the importance of family and the importance of simplicity in being truly happy. Camped on the side of the river were dozens of families, celebrating the warm weather and being together. While the children splashed and played in the river either naked or in a ratty old t-shirt, their joy was infectious. Unlike much of the Western world, the Mongolians don’t take a family vacation to a fancy resort or an exotic destination. They set up a few tents by the river and have an absolute blast with what they have.

This trend continued as the expedition continued to the steppe North of the Gobi Desert, visiting local towns and nomadic families. Living in a ger (a small, portable, tent-like home used by a majority of the Mongolian population), privacy isn’t an option. Families are forced to live in close quarters, owning just what is necessary to run a household. Although these conditions sound like a recipe for disaster to a typical Westerner, it seemed that the Mongolians couldn’t be happier or more grateful for their way of life.

A continual challenge encountered on the expedition was the obvious language barrier between the Mongols and Americans. Although verbal communication was limited on both ends, we soon learned that the power of body language, facial expressions, and hand gestures transcends all cultures and languages. It became clear that the simple act of saying “hello” or “thank you” - in broken Mongolian - was a path into their life, and a way into discovering the hospitality and warmth of the Mongolian people.

Although all midshipmen take history courses on different cultures as well as leadership courses examining the development of society, these lessons are never fully learned until experienced. This LREC  was the ultimate test into converting the abstract ideas learned in class into concrete experience and reflection. This is how learning truly occurs.

Find more photos on the Naval Academy Flickr page.

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