Monday, March 29, 2010

Helping Hands

When I started this blog entry is was 7:44 am and I was with my friend at the hospital. My friend awoke at 2 am with earth shattering pain in his abdomen. It continued, coupled with vomiting and sleeplessness until he admitted himself into the local hospital. I was relieved when he finally gave in to the idea of going to see a doctor, as I had no idea what to do and was beginning to panic a little. So with the help of my friend's lovely roommate, Batsetseg, who served as translator on this bleary morning, we piled into an SUV and headed to the hospital.
Contrary to what popular opinion might hold, hospitals in Mongolia aren't all that bad. True, it is a poor country wracked with poverty and hunger, but the Soviets left many infrastructural blessings, such as hospitals, that local populations maintain with vigor. The hospital in Hovd is not too warm but clean and friendly nevertheless. It's neither sketchy nor grimy.
When my friend was admitted, he was shown to a wooden bed in the room next to the check-in desk. After a while a doctor entered. Doctors in this country are all female and are paid the same pittance as teachers. The woman who walked in had a round, shining face lined with good-natured wrinkles. She barely cleared my shoulder but walked with great competence. Something tells me she's birthed a lot of babies and let many an ailing patient slip away; she's seen it all. My friend then proceeded to vomit and feeling proudly useful after a morning of medical impotence, I procured a bed pan with lightening quick reflexes. I then washed the contents of the pan down the sink. Unfortunately it turns out that the doctor needed the products of my friend's heaving and tisk-tisked me gently. Oh to be good at medical stuff.
Our little band was shown to a room across the hall where my friend was injected with muscle relaxers and an IV drip. My friend started shivering violently which was most concerning, as he was shifting in and out of consciousness. But the doctor just creased her brow, leaned over him, tucked the blankets in around his body and took up his hand. She used her aged fingers to rub life back into his hands and thus the rest of his body, kneading his palm with her strong thumbs. Watching her do this, I was reminded of a day earlier in my Mongolian life. In October or so the library where I work was in a volleyball competition. Before they discovered that my volleyball skills are seriously limited and deemed that I was of no use on the court, I was made to attend practices. One afternoon, I stood waiting my turn to play watching tipsy men and rotund women in tiny track pants dove aimlessly after stray balls. There is no heat in the gym so I was left chattering my teeth and bouncing to avoid freezing to death on the sidelines. An older woman I'd never seen before nor have seen since was standing next to me and eyed my futile attempt to warm up in her periphery. Without glancing from the game, she took my hand in hers and proceeded to rub it, squeezing and pressing away the cold. Mildly uncomfortable at first, I let myself give in to this gesture and stilled myself. The woman's hands were similar to the doctor's, strong and deeply wrinkled. The kind of hands that are soft to the touch but underneath the velvety skin, incredible strength resides. These hands can no other be but a product of a lifetime carrying water, kneading dough, holding children and chopping wood. They are the hands of the women who have watched Mongolia become what it is today, marking history wrinkle by wrinkle. In her touch my body warmed and my chilly, jittery mind slowed. It was bizarre and wonderful to give over to such motherly intimacy from a stranger. When my masseuse was finished, she dropped my hand from between hers and didn't move. She simply stood there as she had before, watching the practice. I smiled sheepishly and thanked her before jogging onto the court to take my place in front of the volleyball net. She simply smiled.
Sitting in the hospital room I watched the doctor roll my friend's hand between hers and I could feel the way it must have felt, though the doctor had never touched me. I see these woman as having the same hands in a way, they simply do what they can with what they've got and this gesture of giving unites them. My friend's shivering stopped; I think he subconsciously responded to the strong matriarchal grasp just as I had. Shortly after he was asleep.
It turns out that my friend had a rockin' case of food poisoning and within a couple of hours there was color in his face and pep in his step. We left the hospital as the sun peered over the mountains and drove off through sparse coal smoke and bird songs. Now a few days have passed and my friend thankfully is in full commission. Even though that panicked morning is all but a distant memory the strong touch of wrinkled hands echoes in my mind.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Yesterday I loved being in Mongolia more than I have in a really long time. I felt super productive and useful- like people needed and wanted my help. Like I was a valuable member of Hovd with things to teach and share. Unfortunately it's not often that I feel that way, as many of my students don't feel the need to come to class all the time (due to things like Tsagan Saar and the English Olympics) and the fact that there's not really any heating at my work helps to beat in exhaustion and the effects of various frustrations. But yesterday was huge.

It started early, I had to get up, look presentable, fill gigantic Mongolian thermoses with boiling water, collect the 50 or so cookies I'd cranked out the night before and get to the library sometime around 8. We had the first English Teacher's Workshop starting at 9. Well, kind of at 9. Apparently some of the English teachers had gotten invitations that had said come at 10 to a different location. God only knows why. But after a flurry of cleaning, organizing, signing in and outfitting teachers with appropriate stickers for their discussion groups, the workshop began around 9:30 or so. It started out reasonably well. I have this problem with always feeling like I'm being condescending when speaking slowly to a large group of adults. But beside the initial second guessing, everything flowed smoothly. The workshop was about classroom management. The point was to address a pressing issue with all of the Secondary School English teachers in Hovd. There are so many competitions among teachers (there was even a resource competition recently where basically everyone printed out all their 'resources'-none of which anyone really uses- and put them on a table. The winner wasted the most paper.) but not really any collaborating or conversing. So we, Jake and I along with our counterparts and one of the Directors of the Education Department, set out the change this. We had been discussing this teacher collaboration idea since December and that alone was enough to make me lose all faith in the Democratic process. But finally we settled on a monthly workshop for about a half day and that Classroom Management would be the topic. Jake and I led several sessions with role playing, discussing and solution sharing. An sage old teacher even came in to share her secrets of controlling the youthful masses. (She was the kind of woman a girl wants to be one day- unabashedly sporting her belly under a cashmere sweater and track pants 3 sizes too small, she wore Jackie O shades the entire time and pared them with snakeskin cowboy boots. She was dignified the entire time; the teachers clung to her every word.)
The aforementioned boiling water and cookies were for the tea break half way through the morning. I was in charge of that and after frantically setting everything up, I proudly watched my cookies disappeared like free beer in a frat house. And I swear this is true, women flocked to me asking if I could teach them how to make the heavenly 'cakes' (really just Quaker's Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from the bottom of the oat can). So it looks like Cooking Club will get a little bigger next time. Horray!
But the positive feed back didn't end there. After the workshop a teacher I'd never met before came up to me and gushed about how helpful she found everything we had done that day. She excitedly suggested ideas for next month's workshop and while she declined to teach any of the future workshops (as did all the attendees), she expressed great enthusiasm. 'Oh God. This is it,' I thought.' I've reached Volunteer Nirvana. After months of training, struggling, freezing, improvising, floundering, iterating and reiterating, begging and just being confused, I matter here.' The workshop and this woman's words made me feel valuable, needed even. This is a special thing; I've grown used to being ignored by my busy counterpart or condescended by those who see me as inconsequential due to my white skin and poor language skills. I am overly alien to many. Since the earthquake in Haiti, I've been fighting the feeling that more help is needed elsewhere. If I could be digging infants out of collapsed parking decks, why am I sitting around a library? But this woman checked me. She, as a representation of the entire day, reminded me that I am helpful here. There are already people cradling Haitain orphans, perhaps not enough, but there are people there. But there's no one in this little corner of the world to help teachers be better influences and more positive mentors to impressionable young students, students who will one day hold the fate of Mongolia in their hands. Though I wanted to stay and chat with the woman, the room was a mess and plastic tea cups littered the floor. Time for cleaning up.
After a frantic lunch I had a session with my younger class. Unfortunately many of my students are in the English Olympics, a cutthroat competition between the best 9th and 11th grade students from each school to see who can master the bad English tests they are administered. (Bad as in sometimes the questions have no correct answers or sometimes they have many of them. The test also features outdated or nonexistent colloquial phrases the students are expected to know.) In order to prepare, the participating students are excused from all classes for months and study around the clock. If they win, it's a great honor. If they lose, their parents, friends, teachers and school administrators give them shit forever. So my classes have been rather small recently as many students have skipped to study with their school English teachers, not an option for the students. Four children came and after mulling it over for a while, I decided to teach them how to write a good essay. There's an essay portion of the Olympics and while they're never taught how to write an essay, they are expected to anyway. So I set about to teach them. We talked about 3 paragraph essays, essay structure, what will set you apart in terms of content and other valuable ideas. I tried to introduce the concept of an outline and got many a blank stare. But I persevered and by the end of class, the more hopeful students were on their way to mastering the art of the essay. While teaching this class I realized that I really liked teaching writing. Not enough to consider a change in profession, mind you. But it was fun, exhilarating even to see the students light up with the concept and scribble away with their own ideas. One student wrote a 3 paragraph essay on death, another girl wrote about religion. And even though I'll certinly need more writing drills in the future, this class, useful for the students and illuminating for me, was a really great way to top off a very fulfilling day. A day spent loving my rather bizarre job in a far flung corner of the world.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shout Out

If you want to read a really amazing article by my fellow Hovd-ite, good friend and American Center predecessor, Andy Cullen, now would be a great time. He just went out to the countryside to document the dzud (Mongolian for 'crazy cold winter in which everything dies') and got it published by Here's the link: He took the photos and wrote the article, both of which are very illuminating.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Conversation with Ms. Fitzgerald

Firstly, I am so sorry for being terrible about posting on the blog. I realize it's been a while since I've written and though I know all God's children are busy- I really am. I'm currently at various stages in the midst of a myriad projects, requests and assignments. At any rate, my older class is graduating tomorrow and my younger class is currently mired in the English Olympics. So soon enough I hope to have more free time.

In the vein of my older class graduating, I have been enjoying doing fun classes with them (or what I consider to be fun). So, for example, we recently spent two days discussing art. I asked the what they think art is, what makes art good or bad and so on. Then I had them debate a Pollock, one team was assigned 'yes! it is art' and the other was 'hell no, spatterpainter!'. We then moved to Picasso and I had them try and decipher 'Guernica'. We talked about what it might mean and what Picasso was trying to say. They were surprisingly good at panting analysis; I had planned on 15 minutes, they gushed over the painting for 45. The next day we did a wrap up with the history of Picasso's epic work and a little more discussion. Today my idea of fun was a lesson on jazz and blues, the differences between the generas and the history therein. (I knew my stint at a liberal arts college would come in handy some day! In one week I successfully tapped into mental residue from both Art History 101 and History of Jazz.) My students knew precious little about the topic at hand which was neat because that meant I was exposing them to something completely new and different. First we talked about music, what they like and know and what they don't. Then I doled out copies of lyrics from Summertime, a ballad from Porgy and Bess, as covered and remade as it is sublime. We listened to Billie Holiday's distinctly jazzy, saxy version of the song, then switched to Ella Fitzgerald's slow, mournful cover. The kids weren't hugely impressed with the songs- they chuckled at Billie's high pitched voice, all cracked and retro and seemed to be lulled into a collective coma by Ella's thick song. But the class was ultimately successful. In the end I played Kanye West's recent hit "Golddigger" and Amy Winehouse's chart topper "Rehab" to prove that blues and jazz are still pretty darn sweet today. Overall they really latched onto the concepts and seemed excited by the whole lesson. Score.

Teaching the song 'Summertime' really gave me pause. It's followed me through my life with dogged persistence and had grown near and dear to my heart. It reminds me of my childhood, especially Ella's slow, sweet version. The low notes and soft words take me back to hot nights in Atlanta. Nights with humidity so bad you could cut it with a knife. My mind clouded with summer evenings when cicadas sang in my backyard and fireflys illuminated the firmament. For a moment, while teaching, all of this rolled over me and I stood there, dazed. I heard my freinds calling to me from next door, felt the swing in my hands, breathed the basil, charcoal and honeysuckle in the air, felt the weight of the heat. In the context of Ella and this melodious lullaby it seemed so strange to live in this cold desert place, a place devoid of Southern hospitality, oak trees, big hair or even sweet tea. These days my skin is caked with dust and smells of trash fires instead of being heavy with sweet sweat born of the South's oppressive moisture. My hands are always cold now and even though it's March, warmth is still a stranger. It seems ludicrous to think, with Ella's voice caressing the air around me, that I would ever dream of leaving place the place that I came from. A place where the fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high, a place where nothing can harm you. If you were born from sticky nights and loving arms, why would you leave? But then again, as Ella poses the questions, she ever so slowly croons the answer: you must spread your wings and take to the sky.