Growing up Mongolian means that, if you're a boy, on your third and fifth birthday you get to be the star of a wonderful family ceremony - the haircutting. It symbolizes your ascent into adulthood - well, technically, just that you're leaving babyhood behind, but it is the first major step on your path to adulthood. It will happen again when you're 5 if you're a boy. For girls it happens at 2 and 4...proving that we do, in fact, grow up more quickly than boys. I think it is really interesting that this traditional nomadic culture clearly recognizes this, but schools in the west don't.... But I digress.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be given the honour of being invited to celebrate this coming of age ceremony...and party...at one of the local herder's who live in the same valley as our ger. This is the very proud grandfather who invited us, with the birthday boy. It was unbelievable!! It was so wonderful and particularly special as this is not something that many foreigners ever get to see, much less participate in! Friends and family from around the valley showed up to help celebrate..all of which made us all feel very much like part of the family. Here's how it went.
First the shears ( and I do mean shears!) are wrapped in a ceremonial blue cloth and given to the birthday boy to pass around. He also has two bags tied around his neck. One is for the hair that is snipped off by each guest, and the other for a little gift...in this case cash...from each person attending.
Baagii got the honour of going first.
I can tell you it is a very odd feeling to have a little one present themselves in from of you and pass you a pair of shears to shear them with....kind of wonderful though. It did feel as though by participating in this special event, everyone there was taking a sort of responsibility to help the child grow up right - as though somehow you were now a small thread in the tapestry of this boy's life, and, as such, had a responsibility to help and protect him. In short, like you had just become part of his family. Of course, for us, it was only ceremonial, but for the locals, you could see how special it was and how seriously they took it.
This part was a very sombre and ceremonious occasion full of ritual cloth winding, set cutting motions and formulaic well wishes...none of which we expats pulled off with much grace..but we got by!
...but once everyone had had a snip....
It was time for the toasts and songs that are so much a part of every Mongolian celebration.
Everyone ( and I do mean everyone!!) had to make a toast to the future prosperity , health and well being of the child ( study hard and you'll go far sort of thing....) and then sing a song. Yup..by yourself. Unless you were lucky enough to be the first expat to have to sing ( yes, that would be me...) and had had this experience previously ( cheating, I know!) and were smart enough to come up with the idea of getting all of the expats in the ger to do "Row Row Row Your Boat" in rounds. Very effective. The Mongols loved it ...much clapping and cheering...and I didn't have to do a solo number. Not everyone was so lucky though! I am not sure that Zulu rap is actually considered "singing"...but it passed.
A few of the Mongolians were even shy about the singing, but only for a minute. Have I told anyone how absolutely gorgeous it is to be in a group of really excellent singers who just love to sing and do so with a gusto? Really beautiful ... if I can figure out how to do upload a video I'll post it in another blogpost in a few days and you can see what I mean.
It really was a wonderful party and an excellent time for building bridges between two cultures...
I even managed to down the required three (large!!) glasses of airag (fermented mare's milk) impressing the locals and proving that even gadaat hung ( foreigners) can be polite when required. I think I must be going local though, because I really don't mind airag anymore...everyone else found it somewhat undrinkable, but for me it was just a very pungent yogurty taste.
After the toasts, songs, tons of food and celebration, it was outside where I turned into the official photographer and was able to take some pictures for the locals. Here are a few of my favorites.
The grandma and grandpa who invited us to the celebration. Aren't they just gorgeous!
Saraa and Baagii with one of Saraa's highschool friends!
Sue with Soo...yes, her name in Mongolian means Milk...isn't that cute?
....and look who looks like the Jolly Green Giant! He's not really that small....really! It's trick photography!
Saraa trying on Sue's hair
The other grandpa, a champion wrestler in his youth, proudly wearing his wrestling hat with the medal for the Naadam that he won.
And it couldn't be a party in our little valley without the expats doing something wacky!! Sue and Ronel off for a canter riding double. As they rode away, Baagii looked at me and sighed....
"It's never the horse's fault" he said..."always the people's!." All I could say is that is one tough little horse!
Gorgeous moments with the kids...
And, of course, the proud family with the birthday boy on the horse - a truly necessary picture to have if you are, in fact, growing up Mongolian!
In a couple of year's time it will be this little one's turn. I hope I'm here and invited once again to participate in this really lovely ritual birthday party.
I know they will be.