Ochmaa Escue learned how to play the yatga, a Mongolian string instrument, when she was in middle school. After moving from Mongolia to the United States 14 years ago, Escue said her instrument still provides a connection to her culture and her home.
Escue, who works in the IU Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, performed during Saturday’s Mongolian Lunar New Year celebration in the Indiana Memorial Union. The new year celebration, also called Tsagaan Sar, featured music and poetry performances by Mongolian students, faculty and Bloomington residents.
“There are not very many of us, but we are very close,” Escue said. “Here we get to celebrate one of our biggest holidays in our own way and introduce our culture to other people, too.”
The celebration was organized by the Mongolia Society and the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. They have been sponsoring the celebration for 30 years, said Susie Drost, executive director of the Mongolia Society.
“Right now, IU is the only university where you can get a degree in Mongolian studies,” Drost said. “So it’s very important for us to continue doing this celebration and continue promoting Mongolian history and culture.”
Drost said she does most of the cooking for the event, which features traditional Mongolian food such as dumplings called buuz.
Buuz are one of the biggest traditions of Tsagaan Sar, said Saruul Erdem, a law student who moved to Bloomington from Mongolia one year ago.
“This is my first time celebrating the holiday in America, and it’s so nice to have all these people who want to celebrate with us and learn about our homeland,” Erdem said. “Some of these folk songs are things even I forgot about, and it made me so happy to hear them.”
The audience for the celebration filled the room until there were no seats left. About two dozen people stood in the back of the room behind the rest of the audience.
Some were Mongolian students and families who joined the singers during the folk songs. Others were IU students who did not have a background in Mongolian culture.
“The songs and poems are a really interesting look into Mongolian culture that you can’t really get any other way,” folklore and ethnomusicology student Jennifer McKenzie said. “It’s very hard to study Mongolia. You wouldn’t get to see a celebration like this in very many places.”
According to the zodiac system used in many Asian countries, including Mongolia, 2016 is the year of the fire monkey, Mongolian studies professor Christopher Atwood said.
“Previous fire monkey years include the year the U.S. declared independence,” Atwood said. “So I think we’re in for a very interesting 12 months.”
Tuesday night, the official start of the Mongolian lunar year, Mongolian members of the community will visit each other to celebrate other Tsagaan Sar traditions, Erdem said. She said many Mongolians clean their houses and wear new clothes to symbolize a fresh start to the year.
“Of course, this is a good opportunity for students to learn more about Mongolia and our culture,” said Tserenchunt Legden, a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. “But it is also something that reminds us of home and gives us something to look forward to.”
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