Who cares about the stuff anyway?

I just returned from four weeks with my new Mongolian family of ӨлзийӨлзийбүгэн and their children Учрал, Хонгор зүл, Энхзүл and Мөнхзүл. Even though you might like to know who the family is, if the food was terrible and where I went to the toilet, I will first write about stuff to get it out of my system. Because in their case, a rich life with little stuff is not about the stuff at all.

Why is not about the stuff? Because they do not care much about their things. When I asked them to visually organize their priorities, tools were important but ger and furniture made it last place. Even though tools were vital they did not receive special treatment. You could see it for yourself: the saw lying in the rain, a knife constantly disappearing and reappearing behind the sofa, between the trash or on the bottom of a barrel; an older sister’s shirt firmly tied into a knot to make it fit; sandals repaired with broad plastic tape; last year’s schoolbooks used to start fire and my English to Mongolian sketch torn up to make a note.

Why aren’t they careful with the not-so-many things they have? I want to come back for a decent interview but I am going to have a stab at it: hands and other factors are much more important than special equipment, I would even say that their equipment is not special at all. Their tools are sturdy but the rest is cheap and/or wonky.

Only a few items really matter. When I asked the family which personal belongings mattered to them, they had a very telling answer. It was the family car. Very few things are seen as private possessions. The youngest child does have a Barbie that is hers, but almost everything is used by anybody whenever they want to. I asked two of the children about things that only belonged to them. The boy called Учрал named his clothes – because there was no one to share them with – and when I persisted, ten year old Энхзүл came up with something that was entirely hers: her knowledge. Eat that.
It was my observation that only a handful of tools were crucial and they confirmed: ax, rope, saddle, knife, bucket, stove and wok. Учрал said that if necessary they could make everything else with the first set of tools. Of course they would also need skills, other people, cattle and natural resources. Things like the car, a cup, a spoon and a saw are very good additions, as well as clothing, a ger and sleeping equipment.

Their equipment is not special at all. You may have noticed that ax, rope, knife and bucket are pretty universal. Only the saddle, the stove and the wok are special to my western eyes. This means that you could start up a farm with a trip to Ikea and a hardware store.

Glandorff Moogtzul earrings W DSCF6214There are almost no fit-for-purpose tools, designed to pull the rope through that tiny hole, mash the potatoes evenly or slaughter the animal in an extra fast way. No, it is done with a special twist of the hands, a  piece of wood/rolling pin and a pocket knife plus bowl. All members of the family are excellent innovators as they will use anything for whatever they need, not necessarily what it was designed for. Moogtzuls earrings are a good example: trip to the woods + Moogtzul + tape = earrings.
These small innovations are possible because of several factors, but to me the tool/material and the skill/imagination of the person matter most: if you have a limited amount of equipment you have to be creative to deal with an obstacle. And the tools they use are versatile, simple and durable. They have to withstand all these jaw-clenching experiments that keeps designers out of their sleep. This brings me to the next point:

Their tools are sturdy and the rest is cheap. Creative use of equipment is fine when it is of good quality or without moving parts. If it is made of an age old material like wood or leather it is best. This is because they have knowledge of past generations about the limitations and possibilities of the material, as well as tacit knowledge of years of working with it. A lot of fancy stuff will not survive the creative treatment. I slowly removed my headlamp from the family pool because at least one person tied it as if it were rope. It was too fragile and elastic band is a material that is not often used.

The cheap availability of new products such as clothing from China, plastic furniture such as stools, and nylon rope, does not inspire great care. You can replace them any time. If you think that my family was not materialistic, you are right. If you think that they are beyond consumerism, think again. Buying and disposing of such consumer items seemed to be done without any concern of lifespan, environment, fair trade or all the fancy stuff that I spend quite a lot of time on. I cringed to see the amount of packaged food and the lovely ditch that the plastic ended up in. That however will be another story.

I think that usefulness is the key to understand their attitude. They do care about beauty when going out, they do enjoy my headlamp and their blow torch because it makes life easier but these things are bonus and temporary. When the gas from the blow torch ran out they lit the fire with paper and smaller chunks of wood. At some point in the future someone would buy a new gas can, but who knows when? When the children got new clothes they were happy. When it tore they pulled a face, called the culprit a bad person and then shrugged. At the farm, looks or smart design matter very little. Does the color bleach? Who cares as long as you can wash away the animal poo. Are there holes in the linoleum? Fine if you don’t trip over it, this is the summer ger where everything gets dirty and broken anyway.

This attitude feels liberating to a (sometimes) prudent person who cherishes her tongue brush next to her tooth brush for its slightly better ability to clean. That drawing that was torn up? It wasn’t a good one anyway and I think the children sensed that. Looking pretty? Just like the family I had a few sets of clothes that I put away for special occasions. That skirt that tore? Well, what do you do. Silk and cotton mixes are not suitable for the country site. If I care that much I can find another. Who cares about looks when you are feeling alive?
So who cares about stuff when you are enjoying company? When you are learning something new every hour? When you can make more than five kinds of food with flour and a wok? When you can vomit with the sun drawing beautiful shadows on the mountains? When you race the grass on an eager horse? When everyday is a small adventure? When you are learning to deal with frustration? When hours of nothing pass by without getting bored?

Who cares about stuff when there are so many more interesting things in life anyway? Let’s move on to other stories as I am finding out why.

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