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.

No comments: