Dried Cheese

Back from the countryside Last August Batbayar, a student from my church whom I am mentoring, returned from the countryside to start his final year at university. In order to get back to the capital Ulaanbaatar he had to travel along bumpy dust roads for four days and nights, sitting on his small suitcase in a crowded microbus. His family is poor: father has been unemployed for many years so mother works in a small cafeteria seven days a week from morning until night. They have four children, two of whom are university students. One is now in his second year and the other, Batbayar, will graduate next summer. Unfortunately, mother’s meagre wages are not sufficient to support them so in May some friends and I gave some money to enable Batbayar and his brother, who are both excellent students, to pay their long overdue university fees. Otherwise they would have had to discontinue their studies!

When Batbayar came to see me, he had a big plastic bag full of aruul with him. Aruul is dried cheese that comes in different sizes, colours and degrees of hardness. This aruul was 10 cms. long, 3 cms. wide, brown, and as hard as a rock. To a foreigner aruul has a sour, distinctly unpleasant taste and if it is the hard variety, it makes you wonder whether you are going to break your teeth on it. But the Mongolians love it!

Batbayar had just told me enthusiastically that his parents had become Christians because they had noticed the big changes in his life and his character since he came to Christ 2 years ago. Then he showed me the aruul. Before he could say anything about it, I blurted out, “Oh dear, that’s aruul! I ate it for the first time in 1999. It was terribly hard and sour! I finally managed to bite off a little but I hid the rest in my trouser pocket so that I could get rid of it at home!”

Tears and a prayer

Batbayar went silent and mumbled something about having to see the neighbours for a few minutes. When he came back after a while, he told me he needed to talk about something that was bothering him. He said he had gone outside because my words had hit him very hard. First he had cried (!) and then he had spent some time praying. Why? The aruul had been made by his granny and it had been given to him by his mother as a present for me for the help they had received.

Hurt feelings

I felt deeply ashamed, even though I had not hurt him deliberately. Trying to put myself in his shoes, I realized that:

1. aruul is something the Mongolians are very proud of;

2. it was a special gift for the help I had given;

3. it had been given by his mother.

Most Mongolian songs are either about nature or about mothers, so you can imagine how deep-seated this feeling for mothers is. I had not only said disparaging things about his country and the present, but above all I had unwittingly insulted his mother, which had really hurt his feelings. No wonder he had been crying (a rather unusual thing here for a man).

I told Batbayar I was thankful he had been so frank with me! He replied that he knew that I had not hurt his feelings on purpose and that he could understand that not every foreigner liked aruul, but nevertheless my words had stung him. I asked him to forgive me, which he readily did, and we prayed together. Then I felt I should ask him if I could have some aruul. And believe it or not, although it was still as hard as a rock, it definitely tasted much less sour… In situations like this I find the following saying helpful and encouraging: “If you never stumble, you will never learn to walk.” Still, some of the stumbles are painful!