Earlier in the year, The Mongolian Immigration Agency announced that a total of 23,737 foreigners from 122 countries are living in Mongolia with official residency permission. Of the foreigners, 8707 are from China, 2568 from South Korea, 2724 from Russia and the rest from other various countries. Many of which are working in the financial sector, the press, embassies and NGO’s are contributing to the Mongolian community in positive ways.
There are over 5000 NGO’s operating in Mongolia, including Asia Foundation, UNICEF, Red Cross Mercy Corps and World Vision International. The NGO’s seek to improve living standards, the education system, health care, women’s rights and other social issues. Visa exemptions have increased in the recent years, allowing Canadian, Russian passport holders up to 30 days and Kazakhstan and US passport holders up to 90 days. Perhaps you are one among these respected visitors, or perhaps you have been living in Mongolia for some time now- regardless, have you ever wondered how you might be impacting the local culture and community simply by visiting it or by assimilating into it? The positive material effects are evident- tourism significantly stimulates the economy, and foreign investors or volunteers are needed for Mongolian prosperity. However, the underlying social interactions that influence the psychological sphere of the community are often overlooked.
Not only does the economy and private enterprises shift with the growing tourism industry, but also the local culture and their collective consciousness. The culture starts to adapt in order to cater foreigners, and the people change to become hosts. In what follows, the role of foreigners in Mongolia will be analyzed on the social level- specifically the ways in which how foreigners may negatively interact with locals.
From all the foreigners that are working, living or visiting, there are generally three groups worth analyzing- the enchanted, the critics and the superior.
The enchanted celebrate the local culture with zealous excitement and praise. “I am so overwhelmed by how hospitable Mongolians are- I feel almost jealous that my country is far too individualistic compared to Mongolia. They are willing to host you, feed you and share everything that is theirs and ask nothing in return!” exclaims a 32-year old Israeli touring Mongolia. She is one of many who are enchanted by Mongolia and celebrate the culture in a genuine and positive light.
However there are those who glorify and romanticize Mongolian culture to an extent where it is almost encapsulating and distilling to the culture. “This is how a society should be! So raw and really human!” bellows a 26 year-old American volunteering in Mongolia. Although he does not intentionally mean it, he is unaware that he might be glorifying Mongolia’s underdevelopment. There is an underlying implication here that Mongolia should stay as is- raw and “really” human; there is an implication that first world countries are so developed that they have diverged from “humanness”. Henceforth, those who glorify Mongolia’s struggle towards development, or romanticize its “rawness” should be wary of the fact that Mongolia is rapidly changing.
The critics are those who constantly complain about the lack of efficiency, advanced technology, and bureaucracy. This is not only in Mongolia- those who are from a first world country visiting an “underdeveloped” country often get caught up in the lack of comfort and advancement they were conditioned to. Nomin, a 22 year-old local waitress at a café that attracts many foreigners reports, “I hear many foreigners come in and sit around criticizing Mongolia- “The drivers are crazy here!” “There really is not much variety of food here.” “They’re so rude!” “I had to visit the clinic and it was a traumatic experience.” and so on. Sometimes I just want to ask, “What were you expecting? And of all places why did you choose Mongolia if you are so high maintenance.”
Nomin is one among many who are negatively affected by foreigners. The critics do not intentionally affect the locals in such ways; after all it is natural to criticize. But some critics take on the role of the superior- the superior are those who are not conscious of the fact that, in the perspective of the locals, there might be an air of privilege and superiority around them. Through such a disposition, it is considerate and respectful to not impose your judgments and criticisms onto locals who are not responsible for the fact that Mongolia does not meet your standards.
Some NGO workers portray an attitude not of genuine servitude, but as if they stoically took on the burden of helping the unfortunate. One must reflect on what they are gaining by coming to a third world country to volunteer- however much you feel like you are here to genuinely help, you only do so because it makes you feel good in one way or another. A Eurocentric attitude manifests from people’s unconscious behavior, and so it is your personal responsibility to become considerate and conscious of how you make others feel, and the ways in which you shape the cultures you visit.
Now let us review how Mongolians are responding to foreigners. Generally, there are two types of Mongolians in respect to interacting with foreigners- the open-minded and the extremists.
The open-minded are mostly the millennials, who have travelled, or have been exposed to western culture through media/internet, or wish to move abroad. Among the open-minded are also those in the middle or upper class who have travelled, or have been trained through a western education system. The open-minded understand that Mongolian culture is rapidly changing with development, and that the increase in tourism or foreign influence is a by-product of our conventional understanding of progress.
The extremists are patriots who see foreign influence as a threat to Mongolian culture, and Mongolian “pure blood”. Deutsche Welle released an article about an extremist group in Mongolia called “Dayar Mongol” who seek to “save Mongolians from the threat of foreigners”. The leader, Tserenchunt, then 25 year-old, believed the Chinese and the Koreans are conspiring against Mongolia, “The Koreans flood us with their soap operas. They use them to make Korea seem attractive, so that our men will go over there to work. They try to convince our women that Korean men are good catches.” He also believes that the Chinese send government officials to destroy Mongolia.
Foreign men are often warned about romantically mingling with locals because some Mongolian men see that as a threat. This is mostly rooted in the demographic insecurity Mongolia has, as well as the threat of loss of culture through development. “Our greatest threat is blood-mixing. Our women going out with foreign men for their money – that is unacceptable. There is a saying that goes, ‘If your women are impure, your country is done for,” Tserenchunt exclaims.
Evidently, this broad analysis of the foreign influence in Mongolia is a partial view. Most do not fall under the groups mentioned above- the enchanted, the critics, the superior, the open-minded and the extremists. This is simply a general overview of how foreigners and Mongolians interact, with a focus on the extreme predispositions that tend to manifest. Categorizing those who fall in certain common behavioral patterns allows us to evaluate our own interactions and become more aware of the impacts it has on society as a whole to make changes where it is necessary.