It has come to my attention recently how innocent many of my students are. Last week one of my older, more promising students who racks-up a healthy 16 years of age asked me "Teacher, do you like teddy bears? I love teddy bears!" I smiled sweetly and mumbled a reply in acquiescence, mildly confused by this comment, given the seemingly mature and articulate speaker. True, ain't nothing wrong with a good teddy but this seems to be a strong cultural current and a recurring theme in my life here. Visiting the house of three female students for Tsagaan Saar, I found myself sucked into playing with a tiny, pastel tea set. I don't remember the last time I touched a tea set if it wasn't to stow it away after an evening of babysitting. Honestly, I don't remember what exactly I was doing in my mid-teens but I know it involved a great deal of Shakespeare and possibly some Smirnoff Ice but nary a tea set. Even the older students from the local university who frequent the American Center are rather sweet in this same way. I strolled over to chat with one nineteen-year-old young woman to find her Google Imaging 'pure love'. I distinctly do remember what I was doing at 19 and rest assured that I and most of my generation were not cavorting through our first year of college with pure love on the brain. This blaring juxtaposition has made me ask the same age old question Carrie Bradshaw once famously pondered: "are we sluts?" While the man-eating television heroine was referring to her bevy of girlfriends and herself, I would like to extend the circle of the 'we' in question to mean Western culture and those who subscribe to it. I am pretty confident that unless you hang out with young ladies in Amish communities or FLDS teens, you would be hard pressed to find American youngsters who behave the way that many of my students do. The girls who play with tea sets also adore Disney princesses and all my students listen to slow, sappy pop songs with lyrics like "you've become the meaning of my life" over and over for hours. Even the women here have a definite penchant for glitter and shiny, pink clothes. So what gives? Is it better to love puppies and rainbows throughout your teenage life, a la many Mongolian teens? Or is a healthier upbringing one that leans toward the Western standard, when this is a time in which most teens learn to drive and rebel? Surely both are not without causalities. The young women here certainly have a rather inaccurate, rosy view of the world as a whole while on the other side of the pond fifteen-year-olds die of drug overdoses. I took for granted before I came here that all teenagers rebelled, at least a little. We were supposed to play our music loud and be misunderstood, right? But then I came to Mongolia and discovered the same demographic loving dolls and obediently cooking dinner for their whole family every night. This in turn begs the question, why do Western teens rebel and why don't Mongolian teens do it more? Is it expected of us Western kids, so we subconsciously fall into the pattern set for us by hundreds of disgruntled, angst-ridden high schoolers who went before? Or perhaps experimentation is the natural thing for young men and women to do but it is repressed in countries like this one where the stability of the family unit depends on the 16-year-old watching her younger siblings on Saturday night. I honestly don't have an answer and am convinced that I will continue to be astonished by the cultural differences as I have been for almost two years now. Honestly, it is pretty entertaining when the groups of older teenage boys who yell and laugh at me and my strange looks are listening to Justin Bieber's "Baby" on their phones and sitting on each other's laps.
I cannot go back and change my upbringing. I wouldn't want to. But that doesn't change the fact that I do get a twinge of feeling way too old for my years and frankly self-consciously feeling a little slutty, or perhaps overly-worldly is a better term, when my heart doesn't go pitter-patter when my students do things like give me stuffed animals for my birthday. Wendy left that nursery long ago. Teddy bears haven't really been my thing in over 15 years. I traded my innocence for what I would like to think is a rather well-grasped and balanced view of the world, not filled with pure love and puppies, but not all together terrible either. I hope that in my time here I manage to not upset too many innocent youths with the things I teach them. But I also hope that I open their eyes to things they would not normally know about, even if these things are hard lessons to learn like the life of MLK and the Holocaust. Regardless of our differences, I think the young ladies I interact with are sweet and hope they won't be too harshly kicked out of their mental nursery when the time comes for them to grow up, if it ever does.