Death, Dialogue, and Dynamics of Communication

In a remote country town, Stephen Williams and Mongolian Pastor Batsukh entered the ger of a Christian couple who had lost their son to suicide. Later, he and his wife traveled and visited them, ministering as best they could given the tragedy. This article relates a conversation a Mongolian pastor and Stephen had with the couple when they visited them on a later journey in order to highlight some aspects of their culture and show how biblical teaching can be used in a conversation to enhance the discipleship process.

        William Stephens, along with his wife Kwai Lin, have served in Mongolia for over two decades with OMF in various capacities, including English teaching, Bible, theological and missiological training, and organizational development.





Death, Dialogue, and Dynamics of Communication

Mission Round Table Vol. 13 No. 2 (May-Aug 2018): 28-33


In a remote country town in Mongolia, Mongolian Pastor Batsukh and I entered the ger (yurt) of a Christian couple, Dorj and Tsetsegee,[1] whose son Byamba, a college student in the provincial capital, had come back home to this rural county for a visit. Dorj and Tsetsegee had gone out, leaving their son. When they returned home, they found Byamba hanging there dead by suicide.

Later, my wife Kwai Lin and I traveled and visited them, ministering as best we could given the tragedy. Mostly we were silent with them and we cried with them. We also prayed for them. We learned that Byamba killed himself because a young woman named Enkhtuya in the provincial capital had just broken up with him. My aim in this paper is to relate a conversation a Mongolian pastor and I had with the couple when we visited them on a later journey in order to highlight some aspects of their culture and show how biblical teaching can be used in a conversation to enhance the discipleship process.

Pastor Batsukh and I entered the ger, putting the right foot in first, which is respectful of the household. The right side is considered good and the left side bad. In Mongolian rural culture you don’t knock. You just enter. Normally the dog, which is always outside, barks, but there was no dog that day; a dog is not only a guard, its bark serves as a kind of warning. So we just opened the door and walked right in.

Actually on our next visit that day to another ger without a dog, we walked in on a half-naked woman washing her hair. She did not shriek; rather she smiled and greeted us, welcoming us and then turned away a bit in modesty. I averted my eyes. While the ger is certainly private space—a family space with clear ownership—it is only semi-private. It is perfectly acceptable when traveling to enter an unlocked ger when the family is away. People in towns lock their gers for protection from robbery. Yet in the open range some leave doors unlocked to welcome travelers. It is socially appropriate to enter a ger and have a nap on a stranger’s bed, build the fire and make some tea, and even eat some of their food. It is good form, if possible, to leave something—like candy—behind that the family will enjoy. As Brian Hogan, a missionary to Mongolia in the early 1990s, recalls:

We felt rather like Goldilocks when the bears came home. These people did not even blink when they saw strangers sleeping in their beds.[2]

Hospitality is a cornerstone of Mongolian culture. “Not being hospitable and serving at least tea and candy to someone who happens to drop by one’s home is also considered rude.”[3] Some of my best conversations have been with other Mongolian guests while visiting somebody else’s ger! For the family is busy with matters like making tea, preparing a meal, tending the children, sewing, repairing horse tack, fiddling with the power cords to charge cell phones. Meanwhile, we can sit there and sip the family’s tea which the woman of the home has served to us and have a good talk. At the same time, there can be cross-conversations, such as a family member of the ger suddenly asking how the road was or how the weather was from where you came. Mongolian time may be characterized as “polychronic,” or things happening at the same time, instead of “monochronic,” where people “do one thing at a time.”[4]

The couple that the pastor and I visited was not surprised at our arrival as I had phoned them two hours earlier to say that we were on our way. We enter their ger to the left, as the left, or west side is for men, for guests. Knowing where to go—“proxemics”[5]—is important for this traditional dwelling. As this couple knows us well, Dorj rises to greet us and we exchange hugs. We walk over and hug Tsetsegee too in the east side, or female side of the ger.

Instead of a ritual gentle embrace, we embrace in hugs. This is probably due to American Christian or other foreign Christian influence that has come in over the years; people here have embraced the custom of hugging. The pastor bear hugs. Yet after the hugs, in a nod to Mongolian culture, we older ones, the pastor and I, sniffed first the right and then the left cheeks of the younger ones, Dorj and Tsetsegee. In a Mongolian dictionary, this greeting unsekh (үнсэх) is often translated as “kiss” but it is actually a strong sniff. Olfactations, also known as “olfactics” or smelling another person, is combined with “haptics” or “touch,”[6] all coming into play in this intimate form of communication.

Now it is time to sit down. I motion for Pastor Batsukh to go in front of me toward the back of the ger, the khoimor (хоймор). He is five years older than I and normally the older man sits closer to the back than the younger man, who would sit closer to the door where it is colder. An exception would be if a younger person clearly had much higher authority.

Batsukh: Teacher, sit in the back of me [the word for “back” also means “north” and means to sit closer to the honored back of the ger].

Bill: No, you pastor. You sit in the back.

Batsukh: No, you teacher, pastor.

Bill: Ok, ok. Thank you.

The last time we did visitations together, I had Batsukh sit closer to the honored back of the ger. Since that time the pastor had asked my forgiveness about something, and I forgave him. I think this is possibly a way for him to continue to say he was sorry, by showing me respect.

Dorj: Hello, Teacher. Hello, Batsukh Pastor!

Dorj is esteeming us by honorific titles. It would be impolite to simply call us by our names. This shows “power distance”[7] between the couple and Batsukh and me. Interestingly, the  Mongolian word for “pastor” is “pastor,” a loan word from English. One may wonder why the word “honichin,” [хоньчин] meaning “shepherd” was not chosen. I believe that this is because of missio-globalization. Many foreign “pastors” come to Mongolia and give seminars and they see DVDs of what they call “big pastors” in the U.S. or in South Korea. Korean pastors started many of the first churches in Mongolia, but the Korean term for “pastor” has not been borrowed into Mongolian. It very well may have, but the word English word “pastor” is now understood even by society as a whole and has entered the Mongolian language.

Dorj, the man of the house, takes his seat in the center of the back of the ger, the most honored part. The man of the house sits here.[8] One only sits at the back of the ger—the khoimor—if you have been invited to do so. You then sit next to the host, normally the man of the home. If the master of the home is stepping outside, and he or she asks you to stay in the back, then the master is really honoring you. I have experienced this before. Moreover, on two occasions the man of the ger has insisted that he sleep on the floor while I sleep in the khoimor, in his own bed. This is an extremely high honor.

Dorj stands up to go to the northwest corner of the ger to open the storage chest to retrieve his snuff bottle. The snuff bottle may already be with the man himself, in the northwest corner chest or in the north chest. It would not be in the northeast chest, as the east or right side of the ger is the female side.

​​​​​​  Mongolian ger (photo credit: Tze Hung Seeto)  

There is a symbolic power distance of the man of the home (or woman, if she is the head of the home, being a widow for example) in the khoimor and the guests. Even if the President of Mongolia were in the ger, he would respect the quasi-sacred space of the khoimor. If there are idols or icons, they are in the khoimor. When you sleep you never point your feet, considered unclean, toward the khoimor, nor toward the idols if there are any. The north direction in Mongolian cosmology is associated with power. I had been sitting some distance from the back, per Mongolian custom. I wait to be asked to come further into the khoimor, which Dorj does for me. Mongolia does reflect more “high context,” where words, symbols and spaces are more important, more performative than “low context” places such as the U.S. where words and symbols are more up for grabs.

I consider waiting to be invited to the khoimor to reflect the words of Jesus:

But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:10-11, ESV)

Dorj: My teacher, please sit up closer.

I move closer, take out my snuff bottle in this familiar “cultural script” or “sequence of actions that is associated with a particular event or situation.”[9] Pastor Batsukh to my right does not have his snuff bottle; perhaps he has forgotten it as I have seen him use it before. Dorj gets down on his right knee. I get down on my left knee. This is a ritual form of body language, or “kinesics.”[10] Traditionally, this would mean that Dorj’s left knee and my right knee are figuratively forming a barrier for evil to enter from the door, a barrier to the southside.[11] Most Mongolians today I have asked have not heard of the meaning of why the knees are placed this way.

“North” is associated with power and luck while “south” is associated with misfortune. A ger has a rope inside that is attached to the top of the ceiling. The rope serves a dual purpose. If there is a windstorm that threatens to pull the ger up into the air, somebody grabs the rope and pulls down with all their strength to protect the ger. Secondly, the rope symbolizes the vagaries of life, of fortune. It snakes back and forth up above the ceiling poles, going north and south and north and south. The end of the rope must always point north, for good luck. It would never point south, which is considered bad.

As we get ready to exchange snuff bottles, Tsetsegee gets rice bowls ready to serve salty milk tea. Dorj and I exchange snuff bottles using our right hands called khuurug zuruulekh [хөөрөг зөрүүлэх]. The left hand, considered bad, is never used. We pass the beautiful polished stone bottles to each other in the right hand and each person receives the other’s snuff bottle. You open the bottle and sniff the tobacco snuff inside either by simply opening the cap a bit and sniffing both sides of the bottle opening or taking out the cap and pulling snuff off the metal plunger and snorting a tiny bit of tobacco up your nose. I always simply sniff the bottle without snorting. Dorj snorts my snuff this time. One way is not considered more polite than the other. During this brief ceremony of relationship making or affirmation, we exchange pleasantries.

Dorj: Zaa [Заа] (Okay), my Teacher! Are you fattening up beautifully for the winter? Is your work tall? (The word undur [өндөр] can mean literally or figuratively tall. For work it can mean “important,” “busy,” or “satisfying.”)

Bill: Beautifully, beautifully. Are you wintering beautifully?

Dorj: Beautifully, beautifully.

After exchanging the bottles, Dorj does the same thing to the pastor, who does not have a snuff bottle but still receives this bottle in ritual greeting.

Dorj: My Pastor Batsukh. Are you wintering beautifully and comfortably?

Batsukh: Beautifully, beautifully. Are you wintering well? Are your livestock fattening and wintering beautifully?

Dorj: Beautifully, beautifully. Fattening and wintering beautifully.

We put the snuff bottles back into their ornate bags. Dorj’s goes back into the chest, while mine goes back into my right pocket. Tsetsegee serves us tea. Now it is time for more pleasantries.

Tsetsegee to all: Drink tea! (Tsai uu!) [Цай уу!]

Tsetsegee already had warm hot tea in a thermos. According to local custom she serves her husband first before serving the guests in the order of which we are seated. In this particular region of the country it is customary to boil up a fresh pot of tea, which takes some time as tea is made in a wok over a stove with a fire in it. So a visit takes a long time. Tsetsegee then starts to make some more tea.

Dorj: How is Kwai Lin? Is her work tall?

Bill: Good. Yes, her work is tall.

Dorj: Is she in Mongolia?

Bill: Yes, she’s in Ulaanbaatar.

Dorj: How are your daughters?

Bill: Our girls are good, good.

The word “good”—sain (сайн)—is proper Mongolian. It is the equivalent of answering “fine.” I stand up, walk over and give a bag of gifts to Tsetsegee. She pulls out some apples and a box of cookies and puts the gifts away. In Mongolian culture, it is customary to bring gifts when visiting a home, and it is better to give two or more gifts. A gift by itself, such as a box of cookies is only one item, and one item is considered “alone”—gants (ганц)—and Mongolians do not like being alone. Many Mongolians hate to be alone, even fear being alone. Out in the open you may be the target of evil spirits or wolves. As a guest you do not give gants.

Tsetsegee: Thank you, my teacher.

​​​​​​  Photo credit: Low Chen Wei  

I sit back down. There is a period of silence. Silence is OK in a Mongolian home.

Dorj: Are your daughters in America? What are they doing?

Bill: Yes, in America. Jasmine is working in a laboratory. Jacinda is in her fourth year in university.

Dorj: Where in America is she?

Bill: She’s in California. Los Angeles City.

Dorj: My Pastor, is your work tall?

Batsukh: Tall, tall. (Pause. Everybody is sipping tea. There is silence). It’s been cold!

In an interesting form of “vocalics”[12]—the way words are said to enhance communication—Batsukh says the first “tall” in a high pitch and slightly louder. He is saying that he is very busy.

Dorj: It’s cold, cold!

Bill: Scary cold!

The word “scary”—aimar (аймар)—is a very common but not ill-mannered term meaning “very.”

Tsetsegee: Scary cold, scary.

There is silence for a while. Tsetsegee puts the new tea into a thermos, and pours some first to her husband, then me, then the pastor. All four of us drink soothing hot tea in silence. As we finish, it is common for the woman or sometimes the man to refill our tea bowls, but we are familiar people and it is acceptable for the pastor and me to simply reach over and get the thermos of tea for ourselves, which we do.

Then Tsetsegee looks at the photos of family and friends on display in the khoimor. She gets up, walks over, and puts her finger on a small photo of her son. Normally there is a large photo of the deceased and I wonder why there isn’t such a large photo. I wondered if it could be due to the particularly tragic nature of death, but this would be an inappropriate question to ask.

Tsetsegee: That girl, that girl! What’s wrong with our son Byamba? He was as good as any other boy. Who is she? [Mutterings of unintelligible words under her breath]. Who is she? Now he’s not here.

Tsetsegee breathes in quickly and deeply twice in a show of a “v

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