Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

of buuz and blackjack

buuzA couple of posts ago, I wrote about how many things I’m unable to do in Mongolia, chief among them making buuz and khuushuur, the steamed and fried dumplings that together with all manner of dairy and mutton product form the cornerstone of the Mongolian diet. No matter how much I watch and practice—and believe me I’ve practiced for hours at a time—I just can’t seem to master the ‘pinch-and-seal’ technique they use to form these beautiful creations. My khashaa family’s been incredibly patient, but after so many deformities they finally gave up on letting me work on food we’ll actually eat. Instead, while they busy themselves preparing our meals, I sit with them at the kitchen table with a hunk of practice dough, trying my best. Every so often, they look at me with a sad expression on their faces, and come over to show me—once more—how it’s done. ‘In-ged (Like this)’ they’ll say, again and again, pinching and turning the dough as they go: ‘In-ged, in-ged, in-ged, in-ged,’ until magically, the perfect dumpling appears. (If you want a close approximation of what it looks like, stand outside the window at Din Tai Fung sometime and watch those guys who do it for hours). Then they’ll hand the dough back to me with an expectant look, as if to say, ‘Now your turn.’ As if this is finally the moment when it’ll all come together and I’ll achieve some sort of breakthrough. But each time, their hopes are dashed. They’re bewildered by the fact that I can’t master something so simple.

I’ve made a couple of attempts to explain that my inability has nothing to do with a lack of close observation. It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention or that I can’t see what they’re doing. It’s simply that my brain, as yet, cannot translate what I see into what my fingers actually do. While they’ve been making buuz and khuushuur all their lives, I haven’t yet acquired the muscle memory for this precise and delicate work.

Of course the phrases ‘muscle memory’ and ‘I really can do many things, I just haven’t practiced this long enough,’ were included in the first set of survival Mongolian vocabulary we learned. (They were not). So, the explanations I’ve cobbled together have never really landed. I’ve had to just suck it up and resign myself to the fact that they probably think I’m a moron. All this changed recently, however, and I owe it all to a game of blackjack. Yes, blackjack. Here’s how it happened:

Right before Naadam, my khashaa father, Batsuur, returned to Sukhbaatar. He’s a driver and had been working in Ulaanbaatar, so it’d been just me and the girls for the month of June. Once back, he was eager to find out what we’d been doing, and wanted to jump in to help with my cultural immersion. The Peace Corps gives every trainee a list of suggested activities, and my father was very happy to see that I was not only supposed to learn huzur (Mongolian cards) but that I was also to teach the family an American game.

It was about 9 AM on a Saturday and we were having our morning tea. So, you know, the perfect time to play some Las Vegas-style cards. My dad taught me to play blackjack when I was eight or nine years old, and I thought it would be only fitting to pass along the tradition. (Also, a couple of weeks earlier I’d tried to teach my khashaa sister solitaire, but it had proven way too difficult to explain in Mong-lish).

I got my pack of cards and got ready to deal. As I’ve done since I was a child, I started by shuffling the cards, bridge-style. But that’s when everything stopped. Apparently, no one in my Mongolian family has ever seen the bridge before. Batsuur’s eyes got wide and he called both Aruna and Boloroo into the room. ‘Do it again,’ he mimed, and I obliged. I’m not kidding when I say I heard both Aruna and Boloroo suck in their breath. Suddenly, all three of them were smiling and asking me to repeat my ‘trick,’ while their faces drew closer and closer to my hands to see what magic I was creating. (Again, not kidding: Batsuur took my Mongolian-English dictionary to show me the Mongolian word for ‘sleight-of-hand.’)

After a few more demonstrations, they wanted to try. I handed the deck to each of them in turn, but no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t get their hands to do what mine had done. I’d take the deck back from them periodically and shuffle in slow motion: ‘Like this,’ I’d say. ‘Like this, like this, like this, like this.’ They’d take the cards back and just laugh, unable to get the cards to layer evenly, or to get their bridges to collapse. Shaking their heads, they’d ask me to do it again, so they could watch more closely this time.

Finally, I just smiled and explained that my parents had taught me to shuffle cards when I was a small child…in the same way that they’d been making buuz since they were children. It’s probably the single biggest communication breakthrough I’ve had with anyone in my two months in this country. Batsuur, Aruna and Boloroo all smiled and nodded their heads knowingly. Instead of finding the vocabulary to explain why I found buuz-making challenging, we’d inadvertently stumbled upon a way for them to experience it. We have a shared experience and now, any time they’re trying unsuccessfully to shuffle cards, they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Buuz!’ 🙂

My khashaa family playing huzur

My khashaa family playing huzur

PS – I should probably mention that while my Mongolian family never took to blackjack, I have started learning to play huzur. I’m no strategist yet, but I am getting the hang of it.

PPS – I should also mention that in the weeks following this exchange, Boloroo began daily shuffling practice and seems to be figuring it out. She’s continuing to work on speed and flourish, but is far enough along that the heat is now on for me to get my buuz technique in order. They’ve invited me back to Sukhbaatar for February’s Tsaagan Sar holiday. I think I’ll be expected to have it down by then.

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