Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Olympic Labor and the Fruit It Bears

I was talking to my friend recently as we walked along the thawing river. Throwing stones through the thinning ice, I was trying to banish winter from our river forever. I was also caught trying to explain myself out of a rather confusing spot. We were chatting about life in Mongolia and I was trying to verbalize exactly why I need to complete my second year. My friend was not trying to talk me out of it, merely playing the devils advocate and trying to get my motives strait in his head. It is admittedly hard trying to tell someone why you want to sign up for another 6 month winter devoid of fresh produce and limit yourself to a small town where most people stare and some even shout at you. How could I explain that it's not stubbornness that drives me to stay but simply something I have to do? So I told him about the English Olympics. As a German professor, he was exempt from this activity but it engulfed every single native English speaker in our town and even some from towns near by. When I first heard about the English Olympics I was thrilled. I visualized students reciting Keats as they performed balance beam routines. And grading students as they took jaunts on the parallel bars simultaneously spitting obscure verb tenses. But sadly no such luck. It is merely a big test. The test includes grammar, writing, listening and speaking sections and takes all day. I thanked my lucky stars that there was no speaking section on the English Olympics this year, as our work without it included seven hours of grading. People come into the aimag center from all over Hovd to take this exam and the winner not only has bragging rights for their entire life, but also gets to go to UB to take the national English Olympics test. English Teachers take it; so do 9th and 11th grade students. Just about all of my Access students were taking the test, accounting for the low attendance as they spent countless hours in special sessions studying with their school English teachers. If the students win they are exulted and praised, if they lose they catch grief from everyone, from parents to teachers, from principals to peers. So needless to say, everyone was pretty nervous. On the day of the Olympics I was permitted by the Director of Foreign Language Methodology to arrive at 9 o'clock. When I arrived at a local school where the testing would take place, I discovered people had already been there for quite some time, barking orders and bustling about. The tests came from UB and required quite a lot of pomp and circumstance. The three different tests arrived in a big, brown envelope that was taped shut with a very official looking stamp. Us proctors had to show each teacher the unopened envelope emblazoned with said stamp. Then we assembled teachers from each testing group to watch us open the tests. We then had to copy the tests and dole them out, during which time the power cut out for a good 30 minutes. All this ceremony derives from the fact that this test is taken very seriously. There are always cheating allegations and flames of fury from the losers and we wanted to preempt this. My class of teachers was fairly well behaved while taking the test, allowing me to knock out a substantial portion of the Policital Writings of Ghandi, a truly life changing book. By the time we had finished all the hullabaloo and subsequent test giving, it was one o'clock. After a quick lunch break, it took six of us seven hours to grade all of the tests, an arduous task at best. People squatted and perched in front of the school, waiting for us to announce the verdicts. Just before the sun set over the mountains the man who had been grading the 9th grade tests finished. My head snapped up. Did my any of students win? How did they do? I try not to play into the competitiveness of it all, but because it means so much to people it's hard not to. He announced the winner. I gave a yelp of joy. It was my student! And not only my student, one of my my closest students. She had not wanted to compete in the English Olympics a month before. She told me about a falling out with a teacher at her school who was in a tizzy because she was chosen over his students to take the test (only one student from each school is allowed), even though she was a better choice than his student. The teacher had been openly rude and condescending to her. She was furious and indignant when she told me that she was going to boycott the whole thing entirely because of the childish teacher. I then explained to her that really the best revenge was to take the test and win it. "You have to show them that you can do it, that you are the best. You never know unless you try" I had told her. "Yeah, I guess" she said, not convinced. And now she had done it. Not having slept, she crammed for days, augmenting her already dazzling English with as much information as she could possibly fit into her brain. I begged to go down to where the students were waiting so that I could congratulate her. As we descended the stairs to the lobby, we were swamped with students wanting to know how they had done. The Director of Foreign Language Methodology grabbed my student around the shoulders, squeezed her and said "bayan hoorgee" (congratulations in Mongolian). My student froze with her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide as saucers. I smiled at her and gave her a hug. "Teacher!" she breathed into my shoulder. "I can't believe I did it! Thank you, teacher! I couldn't have done it without you! I love you, teacher." I smiled and told her how proud I was of her and that she had truly deserved it. Her eyes were welling up with tears. "Go!" I told her. "Go see your name on the list." Dazed she leaned on her friends and wandered into the crowd of people that had gathered around the rankings. I returned to my grading. That night I congratulated my students via text. All who participated placed in the top ten. Many of them thanked me; many of them told me they loved me (in Mongolia the word 'love' is a more casual thing than in America, but it is still special). I was bursting with pride for all of them. I felt like a proud mama duck. In a way I think it's kind of like giving birth. After hours of sweating, crying, pushing and gritting your teeth through the pain, out comes beauty and, at that time, perfection. At the moment you hold the thing you helped create, a little red infant or a young woman overwhelmed with her abilities, the pain fades. Sure, you've got the memory of the labor, but what really lasts is the success of your efforts and the glow it creates. And even though English Olypmics is not every day, I have little exhibitions of this joy almost weekly. Watching my transfixed students sing along to Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" during a unit about travel, when moments before they had declared old songs very boring. Seeing a students in the middle of their packs of friends wave gleefully at me from across the street shouting "hi, teacher!" Catching the cheeky glint in a students eye as she drops a new idiom I taught her a few days ago. And one of the biggest: a student declaring to me that she wants to be a volunteer one day. Just like her teacher. These are moments I can hold and smile at. But it's a smile like no other, a smile like the ones in photos of my mother holding my sister and I moments after birth. This is my fruit for now. These seconds of joy when everything else drops away and I'm left with the result of my work. Walking along the river that sunny afternoon, the icy water rushing by, my friend nodded his head at my story. Yes, you do have to say here, he said with his eyes. Of course I do, I said with my smile.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Independent Women: 1, Pickel Jars: 0

Today I panicked. I went home to my solitary little apartment above the city around 12:30 for lunch. On the way I picked up some bread and a jar of pickles. When I summited the stairs and set about making lunch, I discovered that I couldn't open the aforementioned jar. I'm not saying it was difficult; that jar was actually impossible to open. No matter what, it wouldn’t budge. I tried banging the edges of the lid on the counters, shaking it, pleading and praying to it but, alas, nothing worked. And the more I tried, the more I wanted to open it. Tasty contents be damned, this was a challenge! But after 15 minutes of prying that turned my hands from red to purple I realized that I was fighting a losing battle. For a while I sat and looked at the jar, willing it to open. We squared off in shoot-out positions inspired by the Westerns my friend and I have been watching. ‘This apartment ain’t big enough for the both of us.’ The jar stared back with stony resolve; the pickles made puppy dog faces begging for freedom. “Oh, God” I thought. “What if this it is? What if this is how I’m doomed to live next year when my tall, strong manfriend leaves. I’ll be surrounded by unopened jars sitting in the dark underneath blown out light bulbs that I can’t possibly reach. Is that what it’s like to be an independent woman? Lord have mercy!” Distress tends to send me back to my southern roots. Scarlet, give me strength! But I didn’t know if she could help. This is what my independent woman icon of a mother calls ‘a boy job,’ much like killing roaches and toting luggage. I paced in front of the obstinate jar, fuming. I knew I could ask my neighbor or beg some random passerby in the hall. But there was no foot traffic on the top floor and this here was a private fight. A personal battle. But what to do? Then, like a flash of lightening, I narrowed my eyes and swept the jar off to the kitchen. I placed it firmly on the counter, reached into a drawer and grabbed a knife. I raised the kitchen cutter high over my head and plunged it into the bosom of the pickle jar lid. It sank into the lid with the satisfying wail of metal giving way. I proceeded to hack away at the lid like Norman Bates until my efforts yielded a sizable albeit jagged hole. Hah! I munched away on the first pickle I managed to pry loose and carefully plucked the rest, avoiding the ragged edges of the lid. It was like playing Operation. Who says board games have no real life application? My mind settled as I munched on the tangy morsel. I realized that men may come and go and even though I hadn't yet found a remedy for those hard to reach light bulbs, deep down at that moment, I knew that I would make it. Come pickle jars and high water. Come what may. I will make it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Snow Days, Poe Days

In "The Land of the Blue Sky" it is a particularly strange phenomenon when the heavens are anything but clear. I can remember only a handful of days that stick out in my mind as particularly cloudy. Though the rest of my time melts into one sunny blur, those days are left standing apart from the rest, differentiating themselves through uniqueness of color and atmosphere. Normally the sky is larger than life, a huge blue dome as big as it could possibly be. But on those rare cloudy days it becomes a blanket that hangs over the world. Then the sky seems to hug all of nature's inhabitants closer to the earth, least we tumble out into space. The world gets smaller when the clouds hang low and walking through the square I can no longer see the giant mountain that presides nobly over our little town. My focus is taken inward and the universe shrinks. It feels like our town is the only one in the world; nothing exists beyond the fog. I am used to snow and rainy weather, of course. In America I lived in Atlanta, home of the violent but inexplicably sexy summer thunderstorms that occur almost daily, and Baltimore, a place where 'clouds lour'd upon our house' most of the autumn and winter. But here it is different. Somehow when the weather is dark it has a distinct ring of Edgar Allen Poe. A resident of my latter American stomping ground, I feel his presence when it is cloudy here most of all. I think of him more in Hovd than I ever gave notice to him in Baltimore. Perhaps it has to do with the huge birds that inhabit our town. During the winter, enormous crows monopolized the skies. Huge and sleek, I feel as if Edgar Allen would crane his neck from the grave to get a good look at these magnificent ravens. The trees are completely naked and skinny, they stretching their arms towards the gray sky and this is where these birds sit, ominously surveying the land from the very highest reaches of the branches. Against the backdrop of the looming sky, it is enough to make one shudder involuntary, feeling the presence of Poe. I swear if you listen closely you can her them say "Nevermore!". Now the birds that have moved in are enormous birds of prey. I am not quite sure what they are but they have banished the crows until next winter. Now, when the sky is dark, the huge birds block out the remaining sunlight, circling some poor rodent victim. They dominate the 'brave o'erhanging firmament' completely. Though it is duly spooky and a little strange to face such weather after days and days of sunshine, at these times I find my muscles unwinding and my shoulders relaxing. It is as if the air was pushing my shoulders down and easing my mind. It is as if, with phantom fingers, Poe himself is giving me a massage. So even though Easter has come and gone and the rest of the world is sprouting daises by the bunches, I don't mind that it's still snowing here. Two days ago, the gray clouds took up residency and dumped a thick powder of snow over everything. I was outside when it started and it was unspeakably beautiful. We normally don't get snow, as it is too cold for any sort of precipitation much of the time. So when the clouds opened up, University students in the square lifted their hands up in front of their faces and declared how beautiful the flurry was. And little girls skipped through apartment courtyards, holding hands and singing "snow! snow! snow!". It seemed that, though everyone is yearning for spring, the clouds brought happiness in it's stead. I stood in the crisp air and breathed deep, appreciating flakes falling from the dark sky. Poe would have been proud.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Contemplating Comfort and Corona

Many of my students competed in the English Olympics and therefore were exempt from school for several months. Their school administrators would rather have them study for the test than attend classes. So I ended up with quite a few visitors in the American Center (AC) during my normally quiet mornings. One morning two of my favorite students rolled in around 11 and we chatted until it was lunch time at 12. I had to print out some photos so they agreed to come with me and show me where the print shop was. My friend had visited the AC earlier in the day and, while I was printing, texted me to see if I'd like to come over for lunch. "Sure!" I responded without hesitation. I looked at the two girls, who had been so diligent about helping me with the printing process. 'Will you eat lunch?' I asked. They both stared at me silently. One shook her head. The other goes "in Mongolia, we only eat when we are hungry." I asked them if they were hungry and the former nodded. I know that one of the girls only drinks a cup of boiled water for breakfast and the other only has one, perpetually absent parent. So I said "well then, come with me. We'll have lunch with my friend." So I sent my friend a text letting him know we were going to have guests, picked up my photos, stopped on the way for a loaf of bread and took the girls to my friend's house. In America this would be a strange thing to do, invite two young girls into your man-friend's apartment for lunch. But in Mongolia, where the lines between teacher, surrogate parent and friend are non-existent, I felt quite comfortable with this gesture. My friend was more than happy to have them for lunch and, because these two students are particularly precocious, we spent the time chatting pleasantly. We ate pasta with a veggie/tofu tomato-based sauce, much to my student's surprise. The sauce was quite a bit spicier than they were used to and they were perplexed by the absence of any real meat, but the girls bravely and ravenously devoured their bowls. When we returned to the AC after lunch, they excitedly told my counterpart all about the exotic fare they had eaten and proudly explained how the spiciness had given them headaches but they didn't mind. This short respite from my day, complete with students who make my time here worth all the struggles and my friend, the closet person I have in Hovd, was blissful. During our lunch, Batsetseg's boyfriend, a semi-famous young morin khuur (or Mongolian horse fiddle) player swaggered in and accepted a bowl of pasta. The girls had never met such a well traveled Mongolian, the boyfriend has been all over Europe giving concerts, and filled the kitchen with questions about foreign lands. The boyfriend answered all of their queries good-naturedly Sipping my tea, I felt that this was home. We made a strange, motley family sitting on stools and stolen chairs in the small kitchen and somehow, in my mind, it all fit. This feeling of home, like many of the emotions I seem to find blog-worthy, washes over me unexpectedly. One minute I'll be giggling with students over their new found love of Calvin and Hobbes and suddenly I realize that there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be. But this feeling doesn't come overly often; it is hard won through days of freezing, contemplating and gritting my teeth with frustration. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been nicer, perhaps even easier, to take a different path. Recently I was thumbing through Facebook photos of friends and family who live what I consider to be very comfortable lives. Tanned grins in front of tropical backgrounds beamed at me, as Corona flowed freely and fresh salsa sat waiting for a diving chip. You can even hear the crash of the crystal blue waves. This is a place devoid of mangy dogs, outhouses and stocked with all the fruit a girl could wish for. Easy life, right? But then again I wonder who am I to judge these lives? Just because these people live differently doesn't mean that their lives don't come with their own hardships. Sometimes I think it would be nice to sit by the beach with friends, work normal jobs and have a steady boyfriend. When those thoughts cross my mind, somehow my memory always darts back to New Years. On that night, my counterpart had invited me to her apartment where she was apparently on babysitting duty. The only one in the apartment over thirteen, I realized that it would have been a rather depressing New Years had I not obliged to come over. Realizing that made me glad I had left my friends, who were in the middle of Twister and other New Years festivities, to join her. We sat behind a table laden with food and cake and chatted. After about an hour or two of playing 'swing the little kid around by his hands' with the two 5 year-olds and watching fireworks (a stunning spectacle when seen through the eyes of a child), my counterpart's mother came home from a party and my counterpart was allowed to leave. Her 'special friend', an illicit boyfriend who is also a friend of mine, came to pick us up and walk me back to my foreigner's party. They leaned on each other in the dark, holding hands and giggling, feeling safe because they thought I couldn't see. It was on that walk that the same feeling, the feeling of being home, came back to me. Fireworks exploded in the sky and the smokestack that looms over the city, vomiting smog from the town's only heating system, was dressed in it's finest: cheery green and red lights that twinkled in the night. We walked pass the University dorms where boys hung out the windows, legs dangling and faces thrust into the cold air. They all sang; some sang the same songs, some chose different ones. Condensation issued from all of the melodious mouths and the sound of their songs warmed me. That felt like home. The festive family feeling of that joyous walk embedded itself deep in my core and remains with the memory of that night. So would it be great to be lounging by a sunny poolside, the most recent trashy mag in one hand, a fresh margarita in the other? You betcha! But for now, these moments, so hard fought for, so unexpected and rewarding, would win over the tropics any day.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Happy (Lunar) New Year!

Yes, Tsagaan Sar was in February but better late than never, right? Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian Lunar New Year and singularly most important holiday of the year. It completely overrides things like school and work of any kind; the whole country comes to a grinding halt. The markets close, children stop coming to class and people don't even bother to respond to text messages alerting them to things like Book Club. I learned later the reason for all the preparation is because culturally it's of the utmost importance to get good and ready for Tsagaan Sar. This is not only because 100 of your closest friends will be rolling through your ger, as it is a visiting holiday, but also because the way you start the new year will determine how the rest of the year goes. So people spend incredible amounts of hours and thousands of tugrogs on this holiday.
It's a three day affair but spills into the rest of the week and monopolizes much of the weeks previous. People out West always make bansh (mini meat dumplings- like ravioli but with mutton instead of cheese), while Mongolians in the rest of the country favors buuz (rather large mutton dumplings). Because of that, I sent a little thank you to the gods of love handles and cultural assimilation every time I was encouraged/forced to eat more bansh. In keeping with the theme of setting things off on a good foot for the next year, the more you eat during Tsagaan Sar, the more food you'll be able to have in the coming year. For a country that has seen 5 million livestock die in one winter, that's pretty important. Thus I was made to eat a lot of bansh. It is not uncommon for a family to make over 1,000 bansh for the holiday, which is admirable sticking power, as all those must be made by hand. Regardless, halfway through the second day, my super cheap and bling-y belt actually popped open an embarrassingly large amount of times. Hilarious? Yes. Sexy? Oh no.
The clothes are also super important on this holiday. Evidently, young Mongolians can wear whatever they want, however the older Mongolian and foreigners wear deels. The older Mongolians wear them because they're the traditional Mongolian dress, a long, double breasted coat with sash at the waist. The foreigners wear them because we get convinced that it's very important to wear them by our Mongolian friends and counterparts (who, as it turns out, don't even wear deels themselves). We then show up for visits and are the only ones under 65 wearing deels. And sadly the thick, shininess of the deel does nothing for the figure and on further examination I rather think I look like a large glow worm in the pictures. But they're super warm and it's nice to have one so it's not a big deal at all. It was also fun to play dress up for a week, too so it wasn't too bad.
Despite the some of the obstacles of clothes and food, it was really great to experience a holiday that so few people get to take part in. I'll give you a run down of the first family I visited and you can surmise the rest from there. All visits are basically the same in structure. The people change but the rituals, food and conversations are similar at every house. I went to about 12 different houses throughout the course of 4 days, so going through them all would fail to be interesting after a time. But I loved experiencing Tsagaan Sar with a variety of people. Sometimes I went with a group of foreigners, sometimes I went it alone; I visited single girls my age, a precious young family, elderly parents of friends and teachers I've come to love to among others. I visited apartments and gers and found gers truly superior. They are better in the way that they bring everyone together, forcing a community. And the way that the mothers and grandmothers spoon the milk tea high in the air, letting it pour back down into the wok as it froths in the sunlight is something that exists only in gers and is truly magical.
My first visit was to a ger and I think that spoiled me. The morning light was beautiful as it streamed in through the hole in the top of the ger, lighting the faces of children and the marigold lattice work that holds the structure in place. This visit was with my friend (see previous post) and Batsetseg to visit their department head. I wasn't sure of his name, now I think it might be Dawadorj. But to me he will always and forever be Fou Man Choo. When I ducked into the ger, after a brisk walk through the biting February air, he was there, sitting at the head of the ger. (Mongolians sit in order of seniority in gers, the most important in front of the door, those of least significance next to the door. Generally I find myself at 'the kids table' of ger spot, somewhere low on the totem.) He sat there, flanked by his cronies, legs spread, hands on knees and decked out in magnificent deel with the most phenomenal Fou Man Choo mustache I have ever laid eyes on. It was a thing of beauty. We were beckoned into ger and addressed everyone with the traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting. What happens is this: both people have their hands outstretched, elbows bent. As you near each other, the younger person takes the older person's elbows in his hands, a gesture of support. You then say amara bano and kiss or sniff the cheeks of the other person. You do this to everyone in the ger regardless if you know them or not. Shortly after everyone had finished this ritual and sat down, more people entered and after what seemed like ten minutes of sniffing and musical chairs I landed a little plastic stool and stayed there. We were served potato salad and a salad of shredded carrots and peppers in vinegar called simply salad on little communal plates in addition candy. And even though it was only about 11 am, the vodka was making its rounds as well. You don't have to drink the vodka, served strait up in a glass, when it's handed to you, but it's seen as rather rude if you don't and many hosts won't take the vessel back with anything more than a drop left. But thankfully there was also milk tea, tsutetse and no one wanted to pound the liquor too hard then. Batsetseg and I chatted pleasantly while my friend chummed around with Fou Man Choo, then I played with the kids running around the ger who were clutching their new Tsagaan Sar toys. After a while of pleasantries, as you're not allowed to talk about bad things on Tsagaan Sar, we were served heaping bowls of bansh by the young girl who had been bustling about, serving and cooking. (It's always young girl's jobs to serve, clean and cook. My 19 year old host sister cooked all the meals; she was the first child up and last person to bed. Many of my female students share the same family role.) At this point in my Tsagaan Sar experience I was fresh, not saturated in days and days of the same fatty dumplings. So tucking into the steaming bansh wasn't a problem then. It was rather precarious, as all the food perched on the narrow table on which also held a huge pile of cookies. These cookies aren't too sweet and are kind of shaped like an oblong pill, about as long as 2 hands though. They're about two inches thick and are piled very carefully like bricks on top of a bowl. Decorated with sugar cubes, dried milk products and candy, literally every home has one for Tsagaan Sar. It's just for decoration during the holiday and the layers of cookies are stacked in odd numbers of generally 5 or 7. The layers of 5 for example symbolize 'happy', 'sad', 'happy', 'sad', 'happy', a hopeful projection for the new year. We spent about an hour in Fou Man Choo's ger and by the time we left, rivers of sweat were pouring down my back. After making sure it was not in any way offensive, I had stripped off my deel. In gers it's easy to make a roaring fire that heats things up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, the fire got so hot in my friend Laura's ger stove that her house lit on fire when I visited her recently! So in addition to the tea to drink, things get rather toasty. After we had finished eating bansh, chatting and had stayed the appropriate amount of time, my friend helped me do up the deel buttons under my arm and strapped me in with my belt. My friend and I had to suit each other up in our deels every time, somehow it proved impossible to do alone. Then we were on our way; it was time to go visit our friend Jhavlan's family. On the way out the door, we were presented with candy and 1,000 tugrogs (exchangeable for about 75 cents) each. The three of us bowed and pressed our gifts to our foreheads before leaving. We walked to the gate of the mud wall surrounding the compound with the mistress of the house, as only people from that family can quell the ornery, anti-social guard dog all Mongolian gers seem to have. But before we left, between putting on my deel and going outside to the fresh, cool air, which, wonder of wonders!, was no longer so cold after about 3 shots of vodka, Fou Man Choo's wife insisted we stay for a while longer. She had just made fresh tsutetse and insisted that we drink it. Already covered in a film of sweat I silently begged that she was kidding. But as soon as I sat back down, a scalding bowl of milk tea found its way to my hands. I sipped it gingerly, feeling the effects of the sauna close in around me. While I was trying to concentrate on not dripping my face sweat into my tea, she explained that it was very special, this tea. Because we were the first drinkers of a fresh batch, our wishes would come true in the new year; it would be a very special year. I smiled politely through my glasses, fogged from the tea's steam but was intrigued by this idea, hoping that perhaps she was right. I have yet to really experience this new year but I hope it will be a good one like she promised. Something tells me it will be.