Thursday, January 28, 2010

Smiles and Sighs

So for a couple of things that have been happening around here...Firstly, it's pretty darn cold. It really only inconveniences me, as I have to put on literally 10-11 layers before leaving the house every day (really- I counted them). But unfortunately, the herders in the countryside have had a much harder time of it. Apparently this has been the coldest winter in Mongolia for 40 years and over a million livestock has died already. Mongolia's economy revolves around meat and dairy products so this sucks for everyone- from the herders in the remotest corners watching their livelihood slowly starve to people like my counterpart's mother who owns a yogurt factory in town. Some schools have been collecting goods to donate to the herders and their families- I hope it will be enough. Strangely, they don't really like accepting clothes as donations, even though I am sure they would be useful. Mongolians believe that the original owner's spirit inhabits the clothes forever. That goes a long way to explain the clothes littering the ground on the streets.

In other news, I had Martin Luther King, Jr. day with my kids recently and it went beautifully. My mom had sent me a wonderful book with stunning paintings and real photos of the Civil Rights Movement. In easy terms, it outlines the basics of segregation and prejudice in the South in addition to describing the March on Washington and expounding on King's character. The kids went around in a circle reading to each other and showcasing the illustrations. We talked about racism and hate. The students grasped the concepts with sharp, open minds that day and the discussion, while limited by halting English, was nevertheless fascinating. My heart fairly burst at one point when I asked the class (this happened twice!) where racism came from and both times I heard students chirped back 'parents!'. And when the book showed a photograph of a 'whites only' water fountain (which looked like a porcelain bathtub) next to the 'blacks only' one (a dirty bucket of sorts) they gasped and said in Mongolian: how ugly is that!. We then went on to hear an excerpt of the "I Have a Dream" speech; the students listened as they followed along with the words on handouts. Then we talked about what made an effective speaker, what it is to have a dream and how brave King and his followers had been. Just before the kids left, I played a recent hip hop song by Common feat. that samples Kings speech heavily. They loved it. It was one of the most rewarding days I've had thus far. I really felt like they learned about both English and life and, most importantly, stretched their minds a little.

Next came the weekend. A mostly lazy affair, I did lots of work on my AIDS project and hung out with friends. But Saturday was cooking club. People arrived late, perhaps hoping to show up to a hot meal all ready instead of two Americans in need of onion choppers. Although I think the tardiness is more due to the fact that they were busy. We made onion rings, which were devoured with real gusto, and hamburgers, which did not go over as well as had been expected as Mongolian food is devoid of any sort of sandwich. Even after Mona had instructed them on the finer points of hamburger assembly, I walked into the living room to find people eating a potpourri of burger sculptures. One woman was nibbling on a naked burger atop a piece of bread with three pickle slices daintily arranged at the other end of the bread. Despite the confusion they seemed to like the food and although it wasn't the rousing success of last time (mostly, I think, due to the foreign fare) they all vowed to come back next time and begged for a cake demonstration. So possibly stir-fry or chili with cornbread next week and definitely a cake. In other club news, I flew solo for the first time during my advanced English book club. My partner was sick so that left me, Shakespeare, a giant Thermos of tea and six Mongolians thirsting to learn. It went over pretty well; people are beginning to open up during class and have caught onto the flow (or lack thereof) of stopping to discuss and ask questions every couple of pages. We even got into sacrifice in marriage, teenage libido, young motherhood and the different experiences of women due to socio-economic standing. It felt good to engage people on that level; I have felt rather useless as a graduate in literary studies with no literature discussion outlet. I also got some really great feedback and the class attendance is finally rising after a recent push to publicize our group. Hopefully these clubs are something I can continue for a long time to come.

The other night I stumbled upon something rather unexpected: America. I was feeling a wee bit lazy and very broke so I decided to make mashed potatoes to take to my friend Jake's little get-together on Saturday night. With the help of whole milk, butter, garlic, onions and a little nutmeg, the potatoes were fabulous. But stopping in a grungy, local delguur (the name for the corner stores that populate the country in mass amounts) for potatoes, I happened to look over at the t.v. in the corner of the store blaring Mongolian commercials for beer and bread (the only thing available now...I went to 4 delguurs looking for something green yesterday and all I came up with was canned peas and pickles). But after I had paid for my 'taters and was on my way out, passing the t.v. as I went, a program sprang to life on the screen that took me aback. It was a baseball game. I hadn't seen one in months. Immediately, all the baseball games of my life flashed before my eyes: going to see the Braves with my father as a kid, watching the Marlins beat the Braves the day my house burned down, sitting in the nosebleeds with boyfriends, taking refugees for their first taste of the American past time and most recently going with friends just before coming to Mongolia. I was immediately reminded of the lights and humidity, the bugs and smells, and the sounds and songs of games past. The t.v. crew even got a mug shot of a true-blue American baseball player gnawing away, open mouthed, on a piece of bubble gum. I hadn't seen anyone who looks truly American (Peace Corps Volunteers don't count- we don't shower enough to look American) in months. I had forgotten what it meant to look American, how clean and polished even the dirtiest of Americans look. Then the announcer informed the crowd that Jay-Z and Alicia Keys would be performing their latest hit single. My heart skipped a beat. It's my favorite song right now! As the pop stars began bouncing to the beat, I stood, transfixed. The song is "Empire State of Mind" and it's about New York City. "My home!" I said in Mongolian to a woman about my age who was glued to the t.v. as well, taking a respite from scrubbing the floor. She smiled and nodded politely. I don't think she can imagine being in a place like New York. Images of the Big Apple flashed across the screen and Key's voice dripped honey as she crooned about a city that holds so many wonderful memories for me. I stood there, frozen among the dirty carrots and dusty onions, the Russian cookies and Mongolian vodka, unable to take my eyes off of a city I could only see though a tiny window. On the screen I saw places I had been in a former life, places in a city far out of my reach. Memories of apartments, delis, parties, streets and parks from my time in the City rolled around my mind. It wasn't homesickness or even nostalgia that I felt in the delguur that night, but merely a recognition of things not-too-long past and hopeful things to be. I'd like to move to New York after the Peace Corps; the video tossed my mind back and forth, from the past to the future. Ultimately it reminded me that sometimes, if you are to reach your goal, you must walk away from it first. Before the song had ended, I picked up my 2 kilos of tubers, smiled, sighed and walked out into the cold.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Finally! A post about Peace Corps training. Hopefully to be quickly followed by a low-down on the wonderful Christmas in UB.

It was an early morning on Sunday; early as in about 6am (the you-know-what crack of dawn as far as I'm concerned). However, I managed to snag some extra sleep as the plane was delayed so we didn't leave for the airport until 8. Still bleary-eyed, I found it in myself to drag my backpack down to the car and into the airport dispute these two heaven-sent hours. After locating the other Volunteers (not difficult considering the size of our local airport) we holed up in the local guanz, which is like a Mongolian cafe, sort of. There we got to spend some time chatting with Tuya, the charming and hilarious francophone from the previous entry about our cooking club, nursing tea and instant coffee until it was time to leave. The plane flight was lovely. Mona and I read the Glamour magazine that my parents had sent and gave Jake (another PCV from Hovd) a hard time about being too tall for the bathroom for about 15 minutes. Mona and I cackled so loudly at the magazine that we noticed after 30 minutes that everyone within a 3 seat range had found a new spot on the plane. Oops. I know it was sad that that our remote location had made it impossible for us to have Thanksgiving with our friends in UB and being so far it is difficult to bond with other Volunteers, but the entire air traffic time I was filled with gratitude at being at a fly site. Many people have to sit on a bus, sometimes next to rowdy, vodka saturated men, experiencing frequent break downs and a host of other delays, for up to 20 hours to get to the capitol. For us it was just a quick hour and a half ordeal with fresh coffee accompanied by a soothing "whirr" of the propellers powering the plane. It was so nice to just sit back, close my eyes and feel the vibrations against my back, knowing that we have possibly one of the easiest commutes in Peace Corps Mongolia. The planes flies low to the ground so it's easy to see the sweeping stretches of frozen tundra and the enormous mountains folded like napkins from the little plane window.
After we landed, it was a blur of cramped taxi rides, seeing too many people in not enough time at the Peace Corps office then off to find Mona a coat at the huge Sunday market. We chose the Sunday market and not the normal black market, as the latter is outside and the weather was literally freezing. The market was nothing spectacular- just stores like cubbies in the wall piled high with clothes of all sorts and some atrocious New Years dresses. Then came the really great part of the day. Mona and I took ourselves to a place simply called Charming which we heard had really great at haircuts for relatively cheap. When we got there (after a rather frustrating taxi ride) we found an immaculate spa-salon not fit for the likes of us dirty hoodo travelers. Nevertheless we booked the next available appointments and headed to the Irish pub/Western restaurant and bar downstairs. Sinking onto bar stools, Mona ordered a glass of red wine and I got a ridiculous cocktail (with real fruit!!) in addition to splitting a salad (with cheese and tomatoes!!) and nachos (nachos!?!). The familiar atmosphere of the restaurant acted like a tonic, even though neither of us had ever been there before, and added to the food and drinks, we quickly relaxed after the hectic day. It's amazing how simple things like bottles of Tabasco scattered across the bar, mahogany tables and waiters in uniforms make one feel at home even after being away for so long. Finally it was time to abandon our padded(!) stools and head up for our haircuts. I truly felt like Cinderella. I had a hair wash with warm water and the stylist did an excellent job shaping a bob of sorts. I emerged from behind the partition of mirrors no longer dirty and scraggly-banged but polished and fresh feeling. It was both literally and figuratively a weight off; not only to feel that pretty again but also be shorne after all the months of hair growth. We then raced over to the Peace Corps Office, grabbed our stuff then I dashed to an Indian restaurant where I met lots of other friends I hadn't seen in months. It was wonderful to chat with everyone- we all sat at a table so long that it stretched the length of the entire restaurant. Abuzz with conversation and quips, we dined on exotic things like chickpeas and eggplant for the first time since boarding the plane to Asia. After we had our fill of naan and finished stories of sheep, gers and students, the party dispersed and I grabbed another taxi to my friend Cassandra's apartment. Her apartment is amazing! It's like discovering Mongolia's secret Ikea branch. I suppose that's what you get when you live in UB. It was so wonderful to see her! Wine and conversation flowed freely as we chatted late into the night about absolutely everything. She is definitely one of the people I wish I were better friends with but as she is so far away, it is difficult to maintain a close relationship. It is always wonderful to reconnect though and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

It was another early morning, as I had to board the bus at the Peace Corps office at some ungodly hour like 8. Somehow with 44 PCV's and 44 counterparts, my counterpart was the only one who almost missed the bus. We had to pick her up on her way out of town she was so lost, even though she told me she knew just where the Peace Corps office was the day before. Anyway, we got to the resort just out of town and it was beautiful. Submerged in snowy mountains and surrounded by birch trees, it was warmer than any building I'd ever been in to in Hovd and I resolved not to go outside until either a fire or the end of training forced me. Sadly, the exotic fare from the night before had caught up to me and had evolved into exotic nausea. So unfortunately I had to spend much of my first day of training in bed or hugging the (Western!) toilet due to a mild case of food poisoning. That night I had a bunch of my friends to the room that Mona and I were sharing and we had an all out girls night. We watched the classic "Diary of a Mad Black Woman", collectively laughing and 'ummhmmm'ing at the cute boys and villainous ex-husband. My Glamour magazine must have changed hands at least six times that night, too. I don't think any single issue of that magazine has been so well reused or gushed over. We giggled into the wee hours until every dispersed, thinking of the training that the early morning would bring.

Luckily by the next morning, my sickness had passed. It turned out to be a rather enlightening day. I learned that in many schools, the teachers salary gets docked if their students are caught drinking or behaving badly outside of school. The police contact the child's school Director who then lays into the child's Home Room Teacher because they think it is her fault. Also, I discovered that I live in probably the only country where people ask Americans if the term Morning Wood means making a fire when you wake up...That night we had something of a little party which consisted of a handful of PCV's and what seemed like half the of Mongolian and Kazakh counterparts. It was in the room Mona and I shared and within a matter of hours about 2 liters of vodka disappeared, a whole horse worth of horse sausage had been eaten (a Kazakh counterpart had brought it all the way from Bayan Olgii) and an opera's worth of Mongolian songs were sung. I didn't take part in the former two endeavors due to my shaky stomach but it was nice to see my counterpart socializing and host a slew of Mongolian and Kazakh women who just wanted to have a good time. Unfortunately, I made it to the lobby just in time to see my site mate, Tyler, mess his knee up horribly as he wrestled another PCV. He's currently in Thailand getting medical attention, unsure if he and his wife will be able to continue their service in Hovd or will be forced to go home for treatment. So it was a breath of fresh air making new friends for some but a horrible night for others.

Wednesday was also a very productive day of training. My counterpart and I collaborated with Jake and Mona and their respective counterparts in addition to Tyler's lone counterpart on a sort of Hovd Teacher's Club, the purpose being that teachers at different schools could share ideas and resources. There are so many local competitions between teachers that there is really only hording of teaching materials and a huge lack of conversation about teaching methods or anything else. No one is willing to share ideas and supplies because winning a local competition is such a great honor. A teacher at Mona's school is in an upcoming competition and she swears that each of the other English teachers at the school have put in about 25 hours on this one lesson in order to outshine other school's English teachers with a PowerPoint presentation. So our counterparts decided it was past time for the teachers to collaborate between and within the schools. We settled on having a committee of one teacher from each school and to perhaps hold a seminar in March or April for Hovd English teachers. Later on we want to invite teachers from the whole of Hovd aimag to participate. It's still in the works now and I hope that this project sees itself to fruition one day.
That night I got a text message saying that I should go down to the resort's sauna. There I met up with a few of my friends and we spent several hours sweating, chatting and laughing. The latter hour was pretty much dominated by a conversation I got into with the girls about Shakespeare in text and performance and how Geoffry Chaucer figures into literary history including his similarities and differences with Shakespeare. Our group consisted on two boys and three girls. During the conversation about Early Modern Literature, the boys just sat there, literally stunned in shock and awe that we could carry on a heated and well-informed conversation about such a topic. Needless to say, they were rather impressed and even taken aback. From there the night descended into debauchery and fun was had by all.

Friday was the final full day of training. We worked more on the Teacher's Club, arguing logistics and grafting a list of short term tasks in addition to discussing long term goals and objectives. We discovered that having so many people give input, factoring in the cultural differences, in addition to trying to summit such a huge project can be something of a challenge. The project moved steadily albeit slowly for much of the day. That night there was a talent show and dance party. Throughout all of training, I found myself getting to know many PCV's better and Friday night was no exception. It's really nice to build new relationships even after being here for such a long time already.

The next day at noon we all boarded the bus and took the short ride into the city. We were dropped off at the Peace Corps office where I was the lucky recipient of 4 different vaccines at once and met up with my friend Laura. There I will leave you for now, as my Christmas adventures with Laura, Ashley, Deborah, Alana and others I will save for another (forthcoming) blog post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So Not Cronological...My Week Thus Far Before Jumping Back in Time

I really want to write a big blog entry (or several) about training and Christmas in UB in addition to New Years. But I normally spend lots of time on what I consider 'meaty' blog entries and right now I  don't have a whole lot of time. Also, wanted to let you know about my week thus far. For some reason it's been a rather eventful week and I'd be remiss if I didn't spend just a little time blogging about it right away.

Recently I've felt super accomplished. Sadly my language isn't getting much better but I've been really productive so I hope that makes up for the lack of Mongolian skills. Due to the incident with my student finding Hitler the bees knees, I decied to get some back up. When I went to UB I went with a mission to ask for copies of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, hopefully an abridged copy. However, my trip was a whirl wind and I didn't manage to figure out who exactly would give me books. The American Embassy? The American Center in UB? Peace Corps? So I decided to take matter in my own hand and when I got back sent a shot in the dark e-mail to the people at the Anne Frank Organization in America explaining my plight and begging for supplies, resources or suggestions. I received in return possibly the most pleasant e-mail I have ever gotten from a woman who works there. She told me about what she's heard from teachers in South Africa and China on this subject, expressed her deep interest in Mongolian education, forwarded some e-resources, explained helpful projects and, wonder of wonders!, shipped out some books to Hovd!!! So that's been pretty exciting and depending on how the package gets here I'm considering putting together a WWII education package for PCV's with problems similar to mine. I have also found American pen pals for my students at my middle school and high school alma matar, Woodward Academy. The teacher there even want's to start a Wiki page for this cultural exchange. Embarrassingly enough I have no idea what that entails so I am drafting an obliging and tech-savvy Swiss gentleman to help me figure that out sometime soon. Also, I'm working on an AIDS project that will hopefully ultimately be a book of stories of both American and Mongolian HIV + individuals. It's in the budding stages now but I've started compiling stories and possible helpful sources so together with my PCV friend Larry we might actually bring it into fruition sometime in the future. So all sorts of productivity...

Also an exciting development is my new community development project that has come into being recently. After Mona and I had the spaghetti afternoon teaching all of her counterparts about the finer points of Italian food, we decided to launch a full scale cooking club together. We decided on making pizza (at the behest of some Mongolian friends) at her apartment on Saturday at 11. We had a cover charge of about 1,500 tugrigs, pittance for a lovely afternoon of pizza and socializing we thought and enough to reimburse the buying of all the necessary ingredients. Ultimately 13 women showed up to the cooking club; we made 5 pizzas, went through 4 huge Thermos's of tea and hung out for about 4 hours. It was lovely. The bunch was comprised of many of our Mongolian and Kazakh friends, women we want to know better and Mona and my counterparts. The women spoke in a mix of Mongolian and English. And even when I didn't understand the conversation they were having, I couldn't help but get tickled and giggle along with them when they all threw their heads back and belly laughed, poking each other and grinning with knowing smiles. Mona and I facilitated the beginning part, I manned the yeast and dough evolution while Mona headed up the topping effort. But soon the pizza making was taken out of our hands by the ladies, as they furiously chopped, stirred and kneaded like it was their job (indeed for some of these ladies cooking is their job...). Saturday had such a wonderful, comfortable feeling. It was a morning that seemed to last all afternoon and it was so nice to just sit on Mona's floor with my back against the wall, listening to Tina Turner as I watched steam rise from bowls of tea and the women talk amongst themselves, meeting new people and chatting with old friends. All the while the pizza baked in the oven, perfuming the room with the smell of garlic, bread and tomatoes. One of the women there, a teacher at the local University with a better English vocabulary than me, really made an impression that day. She turned to me and said "you know, I am really impressed. This is very nice. No other Peace Corps Volunteers have done anything like this and I think you are really fulfilling a community need." I was floored. Those were the words that every Peace Corps Volunteer wants so badly to hear but never dares dream they will, for fear it won't happen in all two years. I made a great new friend, as well. She is the sole worker in the airport cafateria and doesn't really speak any English, although her French sounds flawless. She is so fun and full of life that you can't help but love her company. She is a brilliant artist, as well. She showed me some of her stuff and I was completely amazed. We even talked about having a gallery opening together in the American Center of Hovd artists. That would be great. So now I can't wait for next Saturday. The menu is hamburgers and onion rings, a prospect which many of the women were floored at. I can still hear the resounding 'ooooh's when Mona and I suggested it. Only a week and a half away now...

Cooking club was Saturday and on Sunday I went out to the frozen river with some friends. There we encountered a bevy of Mongolian teenagers who were itching to play soccer with my friends ball. So we started up a game of soccer with about four foreigners and what seemed like millions of children. Unfortunately it was an icy and rocky terrain we had chosen so I am pretty sure I ended up on my face more times than I touched the ball (including one epic jumping kick in the air after which I spun around and found my knees sorely bruised). Despite the fact that we are now so banged up from slide tackles and slipping that we look like we've been down a white water rapids in only floaties, it was lots of fun and so great to run around after a winter inside.

On Monday I gave a test to my older class. I spent plenty time worrying about if it was too hard or if it did the chapter justice. It was my first time writing at test. I knew that the Mongolian educational system encourages cheating. Here if the students do well on a test, the teacher is a good teacher and will get a raise in salary. If the test does not go well, it is the teacher's fault, as he is clearly a bad teacher. I've even heard stories of teachers who put the answers on the table and leave the room for tests here. So fully prepared for my first encounter of kids groomed to cheat, I put them all at separate tables and forbid talking during the test. Even still, trying to quell the whispering and peeking was a little like playing real life whack-a-mole. They had no shame, I caught some students asking everyone about an answer in Mongolian thinking I wouldn't understand and another boy who got up to get a dictionary but instead just gawked over his friends shoulder until I made him sit down. Upon grading, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the students did very well and many of them even had different answers for the questions! I was very proud.

While I was grading tests yesterday I had an encounter which epitomizes the prevailing erratic work schedule. As I was grading tests around 11 o'clock, my counterpart decided to hustle me into another office, despite my cries about the urgency of finishing my work. There, in a wee postage stamp of a room, we crammed onto benches and chairs with about 14 other women while my counterpart dished out bowls of milk tea with meat dumplings in them (or banchtetsea) for everyone. My muscles unwound; it's always freezing in my office and I have to keep my coat on, involuntarily tensing my muscles against the chill. But the little room was warm and the tea was a like a tonic against the Mongolian winter. This had never happened before and I'm not quite sure why it happened yesterday. I noticed that there was absolutely no bogart-ing of forks, three little plastic utensils circulated among the group until everyone had had their fill. We chatted for half an hour and they passed my camera around, laughing about the pictures from the office New Years party. After that everyone returned to work, resuming after the grinding halt that befell the library for milk tea and mutton.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Updates of Angels

So I've taken to seeing my students as sort of angels. They totally make what I'm doing here worth every struggle. They're amazingly supportive, kind and interested in me. I try my hardest to reciprocate what they give me by being the best teacher I can be, not only of English but also of the world in general. If you've read Joseph Conrad's The Water is Wide (which I highly recommend you do if you haven't), Conrack is my teaching model. I want the kids to be aware of the world around them, not of just preterit tenses and adjective clauses.
Before I left for training and Christmas in Ulaanbataar I invited all of my students over to my house to learn how to make Christmas cookies and watch the Muppet Christmas Carol. In total I think I had about 17 kids show up that day and maintained a state of controlled chaos in my kitchen for around two hours. They voraciously housed two and a half boxes of Swiss Miss a family friend had sent me recently in addition to concocting three different cookie batters- oatmeal raisin, sugar and thumbprint jam. Unfortunately all but the latter flopped in the oven for some reason but that didn't dampen their spirits at all. When they could, they snuck peeks at Pussycat Doll music videos on my internet and posed for each others camera phone pictures. When it was wind-down time, all of them piled onto my futon and I turned on the movie with subtitles. They were sucked in instantly- I don't think they had ever seen puppets before. When the characters began to sing in the film, all of the kids automatically started crooning with them, as if it was one of those Disney sing along videos with the bouncing mouse head on the lyrics. They had never heard the songs before and thusly created quite a cacophony. It was precious. At the end they presented me with juice and some very expensive candies which they had bought together before they had arrived at my apartment hours before. Then descended my icy stairs hooting "goodbye, teacher!", "thank you!", "today was very funny!", "you are a wonderful teacher!!" as they left. It was the best possible way to leave Hovd.
When I got back, I informed them that their projects should be ready for presentation. The younger class had to write a report on a famous person of my choosing. The list was this:  Martian Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Lewis and Clark, Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, Alexander the Great, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth I and Galileo Galilei. I thought it was a good smattering of times, places and genders for them. They have spent the last two months researching and were ready to present. Yesterday Queen Elizabeth I, Mother Teresa and Amelia Earhart went. They learned so much- it was tremendously rewarding. Things from Anne Boleyn's death to the difference between Catholic and Protestant, from what a Saint of the Gutter is to where on the globe to fine Iceland. They were absorbed in the stories and participated while their fellow students read their reports then asked mountains of questions after the papers were finished. Today hopefully Harriet Tubman, Gandhi and Mandela will be the topic of class and their eyes will be opened to even more great leaders of the past. Leaders that I hope will inspire these angels to fly as high as they possibly can.