The Changing Face of Mongolia: Maintaining cultural traditions in a globalized world
By Joseph Fernandez
Figure 1. Naran Tuul Market Entrance.
Over half the population of Mongolia was born after 1991, meaning the median age is just 28-years-old. This young demographic plays an important role in shaping the culture and identity of Mongolia but is at times at odds with the traditions of older generations. During my time in Mongolia, as part of an intensive field-based course, this generational divide was clearly apparent.
In Ulaanbaatar, it is almost impossible to miss the signs of westernisation amongst Mongolia’s youth. As we walked past teenagers in vans and through the countless stores selling fake Louis Vuitton in the famous Naran Tuul Market, or Black Market, it became obvious how pervasive American style and culture had become amongst young Mongolians. Our tour guide, a 20-year-old university student who studied at the National University of Mongolia, talked about his favourite hip-hop stars and NBA players. Basketball has become one of the most widely watched sports in Mongolia, despite the national team not being ranked in the FIBA World Cup. The longer we spent in Mongolia the clearer it became that Americanisation had increased exponentially in the last couple of decades, driven primarily by the country’s young people.
Out in the country, there is a far greater level of connectedness to the traditional Mongolian culture and lifestyle. Nomadic kids wear the traditional clothing, or deel, as they play together outside their yurt (ger), whilst a few older teenagers and young adults speed around on motorbikes herding livestock. Here, many people are using technology to help keep the nomadic way of life thriving. Mobile solar panels are set up next to gers and trucks help to ease the seasonal movements of gers throughout the year. An interesting observation that we made was the lack of people our own age out in the countryside. Despite being there in the height of summer, there were hardly any university-age students. It became apparent through talking with local people that many young people had moved to Ulaanbaatar, a move that many older people struggle to come to terms with. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle is, for older Mongolians, turning your back on an ancient and central part of the Mongolian way of life.
Many young Mongolians have moved to Ulaanbaatar in search of a different future and better work or study prospects. Many also move in search of a community bigger than those that exist in small towns or more rural provinces (aimag). With families who desire a retention of a pastoral way of life, young people’s relationships with their parents can become strained. A network of youth centres have opened up around Ulaanbaaatar in recent years, offering a place to meet and create communities. These centres also provide essential information about important issues that are particularly relevant for young people, such as reproductive and sexual health. With sex education rarely taught in high school, these centres and services are vital in helping to educate young Mongolians in preventing STIs and unplanned pregnancies.
Another aspect of the generational divide in Mongolia is the treatment of LGBTQI+ people. Homosexuality was illegal in Mongolia until 2002, and it was only in 2014 that a law was passed to include attacks against queer people as a hate crime. However, members of the community have continued to be victimised, with 80% of people who identified is LGBT having experienced some form of human rights abuse or discrimination in the past three years. This wasn’t always the case. Before the communist revolution in 1921, society largely accepted LGBTQI+ people. Many queer people became shamans, who were gender diverse. With the advent of urbanisation and the breakdown of nomadic family microcosms, the idea of ‘otherness’ emerged, and the criminalisation of homosexuality soon followed. Now, these ideas still permeate many communities, even amongst young people. A UN report found that nearly 87% of queer people in Mongolia hide their sexual or gender identity from their friends and family. However, in recent years there has been a growing tolerance amongst young people, which can be attributed to both the work of NGO’s and activists in Mongolia, increasing exposure in popular culture and ease of access to the Internet.
The connectivity created by new technology in recent decades has enabled young people to interact easily and create communities online. Whilst this has led to a dramatic increase in non-Mongolian media and culture coming into the country and being consumed by youth, there has also been successful efforts to partake in and spread aspects of Mongolian culture. Mongolian fashion, photography and art has flourished on platforms such as Instagram and opened up Mongolia to a global audience. Musicians such as The Hu and Magnolian have incorporated Mongolian melodies and instruments into their music to widespread success with both bands garnering millions of streams on Spotify. It is clear that some young Mongolians are using their platforms online to spread and actively partake in Mongolian culture in the face of globalisation.
Mongolia’s youth are becoming increasingly urbanised, drifting away from the traditions of older generations. Some efforts are being made to blend the old and the new, but it remains to be seen how Mongolian culture will change and hopefully flourish in a globalised world.
Joseph Fernandez is currently studying for a Bachelor of Law (Hons) and International Relations at The Australian National University.