Diving into the Mongolian youth

The author and her friends in Ulaanbaatar

By Apolline Beucher

When I asked my friends in France what they thought were the characteristics of our generation, right before leaving for the “Land of the Blue Sky”, what first came to mind was that we are permanently connected.

Wherever we go, our phones are always around, ready to make a call to ask what bar we’re meeting at that night, or to catch up with a person we met over the summer break who lives on the opposite side of the planet. I, a French 18-year-old politics student, genuinely cannot picture my life without my smartphone today, even just to get the news headlines when I wake up in the morning. The second thing that popped up was our endless afternoons and evenings, sitting at the same terrace, discussing everything and nothing, simply savoring each other’s company.

Curiously enough, I assumed the Mongolian youth would be much different. In French schools, we are taught about this land as being a developing country, backwars in the technological and sociological fields. Therefore, I was fairly surprised to arrive in UB and observe the streets with my European eyes. What I saw were teenagers on the sidewalk disconnected from reality, their eyes glued to screens, music replacing the sounds of the city in their ears; similar to the French youth.

Chatting with my host sister, with whom I spent five weeks, I found out she had the exact same rituals as me, the same kind of bars she is loyal to, the same need to go out and gather with friends. Stating that I had noticed a lot of women in the street wearing high heels and elegant dresses, she responded,  “There are all types of people in UB. They dress like they want: punk, hippie, or more classic, like in Europe. UB is a very European city!”

Speaking about the use of tobacco, we shared the same views, “What I don’t like is when I see teens of fourteen or fifteen outside, smoking their cigarettes as if they need it to be cool kids. I don’t mind the fact that they smoke, it is enjoyable, but why are they acting like they are older?” This is apparently a rather new phenomenon here, whereas it has been this way for a pretty long while back in France. It only reminded me that “Western culture”, as we like to call it, is not always the best influence.

In terms of religion, there is a clear difference between my parent’s generation and my own, which is also visible in Mongolia. I, personally, do not believe in anything, even though I technically am a Christian considering my baptism at four. My host sister declares, “I am a Buddhist because my parents are Buddhists themselves, but honestly, devoting yourself to gods when you see what is going on in the world… Young people believe in other things, like fashion or beer!” she laughs.

She told me one thing that caught my attention though, “We have to remember where we come from, even if we live in the city center, and keep up with our main cultural values. This is why I love going to the countryside and sleeping in a ger some weekends.” The cultural values she talks about are obvious to foreigners who visit Mongolia. The very well-known sense of hospitality in the Mongolian countryside is particularly reflected in UB by the taxis who are, in fact, regular residents, stopping if they see someone in need of a ride, in exchange for a bit of money.

The Mongolian diet is also derived from nomadic roots. Indeed, UB is the coldest national capital on Earth, with an average annual temperature of -13 degrees Celsius in winter. It gets much colder in the northern provinces of the country. Thus, survival depends on the consumption of a great amount of meat and flour, and I must say I struggled being a vegan here!

Moreover, it seems like globalization and foreign investment play a crucial role in the development of Mongolia’s youth. Like the French youth, Mongolia’s young people learn English, Chinese, or Korean in order to study abroad and eventually be able to work for international companies. But ultimately, many end up coming back to their country. “We have to provide our families, otherwise, we are just selfish. I can’t imagine abandoning my parents, and most people here, they continue living with their parents even when they are married, because family is what counts the most in Mongolia.” explains my host sister.

Even though today’s young people in Mongolia are growing up in a very different world from the socialist one their parents grew up in, remains from the Soviet era are flagrant when it comes to the divide between individuality and the sense of community. I would definitely not say that France’s young people make abstractions of their families, but when thinking about their future, their personal success comes first, no matter where in the world they have to go, and how many times a year they get to see their family. More and more, most of them never even come back to live in France. I am one of these examples, studying in England, with a year abroad in Germany, and planning to do my masters in South Africa, never to come back “home”. I believe the divergence is that I know I can always rely on my family, and they can always rely on me, but, contrary to my host sister, I do not feel the need to physically be with them.

Another aspect, and maybe the last one, of how our two cultures differ, is the way kids are raised at home. I have a brother who is two years younger than I am, we have been raised in a very similar way; our parents have imparted the same values to both of us, and we both have the same rights, the same duties, and the same freedom in the domestic arena. My brother has never played with toy cars, nor has he ever practiced any sports, and when he was in his first years, he liked to try on my princess costumes. That was absolutely fine with my parents, while here I get the feeling that things are different.

From my French perspective, each individual has a role to play, attributed to them by society. Here, a son will go out at night with his male friends to play basketball and practice boxing. A father will watch television and ask his daughter to bring him his food when the refrigerator is right behind the sofa. A mother will go grocery shopping and cook, and a daughter will wash the whole family’s clothes. This scheme is followed on a daily basis, and thus, the youth takes over this organization, which is how families were structured in France a few decades ago.

The principal thing I have learned here is that, throughout the world, our generation is similar in a lot of ways, and its primary attributes are its interconnectedness and its will for freedom that has the power to change the world. Clearly, we all do not share the same culture, and some values are in total opposition from one side of the globe to the other. But for most of us, the desire to discover new horizons is deeply engrained, and each individual is a mix of diverse influences, bringing about a whole new kind of unity.