October 31, 2012

During PST we were taught two Mongolian songs to be performed for our Family Appreciation Night and our Swearing-In Ceremony. I can imagine that someone would think this is a superficial or cheap way to ingratiate the newly minted PCVs into the culture. But anyone who thinks that doesn’t know Mongolians. Singing is big here. Our songs were two of dozens of folk songs that we were given, surely a subset of many more that everyone here knows.

My language teacher asked if I wanted to sing one of the songs solo, and while I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to, not really knowing the words and having little time to learn, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity. I don’t claim to be anything more than an amateur singer, which will probably prompt comments from loving and supportive family and friends 😉 But ego-boosting isn’t necessary since I care less about being great and more about having fun and creating fun for others even if it’s at my expense. And let me tell you, that first performance was pretty bad. I couldn’t remember the words, and even with my cheat sheet I got lost with the music. Still everyone applauded; my efforts, I’m sure. By the time of the Swearing-In Ceremony, I had worked it out: no cheat sheet, no music, 2 verses instead of 3.

Ayni Showoo (Traveling Bird) has become my signature Mongolian song. I’ve been to two wedding receptions (one in a swanky UB apartment, another in a Govi-Altai ger) where, in accordance with custom, each guest is expected to lead a song. Sometimes people join in; sometimes you’re on your own. Either way, it’s a unifying experience: to sit silently, observing, sometimes joining the laughter and not knowing why, only to bust out a song in the native language on command. It feels good.

Russian is the other big language that students here study. A few times, in language class, we were taught two words because some of the Russian words remained after the Russians left Mongolia. Tomato is either R: pomidor or M: ulaan lool, dress is either palaaj or dashinz, I can’t remember which is which. So many people have said they speak Russian that I wondered if they spoke Russian like I speak Spanish, poorly.

Last week was touted as Foreign Language Week and my CP (who I found out won the Russian speaking competition in her day, and is much more comfortable speaking Russian than English) organized a singing and dancing competition in both Russian and English. But when no one signed up for English songs, Foreign Language Week became Russian Week.

Enter Love.

I came to Mongolia with loose plans to do something theater related, taking the dialogues students learn and bringing them to life or maybe even creating our own situations and dialogues. My underlying thought being that having the script would give students confidence that their words were correct, allowing them to focus on delivery. I held on to this during PST in our Community Development and Needs Assessment trainings which explained the difference between a Problem-Solving approach and an Appreciative-Inquiry approach. Basically, one says “here’s what you need” and the other asks “what do you need? and what do you already have?” The American tendency is to opt for the Problem-Solving approach, which is difficult to enact when resources are scarce.

About the time of my first classroom visits, when one group of students asked me to sing and another group sang to me, my vision for instilling confidence with speaking English morphed from theater to song. The kernel of the idea was One Song, One Night: take a song in English, explain what it means—without translating it!—teach the words to the song, and perform as a group. For fun. No pressure. I shared this idea with my language tutor, who is one of the English teachers, and a few days later she told me her school director gave us permission to do it there. What? I wasn’t asking for permission! I was just talking! And, I may have kept talking about it for two years if she hadn’t taken the initiative.

So, tonight’s the night. I have no idea what to expect. I spent the weekend deciding on Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, and many hours choosing pictures to explain what the song means… like, how there’s no fire, and no rain… how the song is just a giant metaphor for going from hurt and crying to red-hot angry. And, if you’re going to sing the song with any conviction, knowing the words alone isn’t enough, and translating the words to your native language does nothing to get that message across.

Just as Reading Rainbow was focused on getting kids to want to read, not teaching them how, my English Song Night aims to get kids to want to sing in English. That alone won’t teach them English, but it might make them want to learn another, and another. One English Song Night at a time.


October 26, 2012

Traveling and eating out are two of my favorite things 🙂

In traveling, at least the way I do it, aimlessly wandering takes up most of my day. I’ll get to the official major sites, but I’m not one for creating strict itineraries. In eating out, including during traveling, meals are decided spontaneously from a vast list of options that I can further alter to suit my taste. Preparation and clean-up are not my concern, and there’s bound to be something on the menu that I decide “Yup, that’s what I want,” which is a different thing entirely from thinking something is merely acceptable.

But, relocating to a foreign country as a Peace Corps Volunteer is neither traveling nor eating out. It is regularly cooking your own meals from what is available locally. Even when there are places around town, and my town has a few, our Volunteer stipend would not allow us to frequent them regularly. Contrast that to life back home when I seldom denied myself a dining-out opportunity.

The significance of this cannot be overstated.

My typical meals look something like this:

cereal and milk; oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar; one over-medium egg; juice; yogurt; bread and peanut butter or jam; biscuit

PB&J sandwich, egg salad sandwich, pasta salad, dinner leftovers,

Any combination of the staples: onions, garlic, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips in a stir-fry or soup, sometimes with pasta, sometimes with rice, sometimes with barley, sometimes with lentils or beans; pasta; grilled-cheese sandwich; 2 eggs, sometimes with cheese;

salad of tomato/cucumber/pepper; often apples; sometimes bananas; my own trail mix(!) of canned peanuts, a chocolate bar, and raisins; wafer cookies; and yes (however seldom) chips, even though the American brands are 3-4 times what I would have paid at home

That all sounds quite American fare, I’m sure, and I’ll post a separate Mongolian food entry. You’ll notice that isn’t much variety, though. You’ll also notice there is no meat on that list. That’s my rule: I don’t cook meat. And if it wasn’t my rule before coming here… let’s just say, I don’t want to cook anything sold from the trunk of a car. That was quite a site!

As I’ve mentioned, one never knows what will be available in a given delguur. The upside here is that one never knows what will be available in a given delguur. To understand this upside, you would have had to have witnessed my euphoria at the unexpected… “ZUCCHINI!! I’m gonna take you home and fry you up!” And I did. And it was amazing! How many times have I wandered the produce aisles at a supermarket and inevitably ended up with my usual standards? So, even though my options are severely limited, in a way my variety has increased.

Thankfully, the Peace Corps is serious about our nutritional health and safety and provided us with The Peace Corps Cookbook—Mongolia Edition.  It includes only recipes with items that we can find here, though it includes a “Posh Corps” section for those in the cities and larger towns with access to delicacies like cheese and tomatoes (that’s me!) or ovens (not me, directly). From that cookbook, I also tried my hand at green-pea (from a can) falafel, peanut butter fried rice, and zucchini risotto (it was a big zucchini!). The results were mixed but I am not done experimenting… still waiting for my first veggie-chili.

Because we can get cheese and some of my site-mates have ovens, we have occasionally (once or twice a month) had group dinners of pizza, or, most recently, home-made bread bowls for home-made broccoli-cheese soup. The day the broccoli came to town the PCVs were abuzz, “Did you hear? There’s broccoli at the Fruit and Vegetable Store.” We look out for one another.

If there is anyone willing to take the PC/Mongolia Cookbook Challenge—maybe a week, okay a weekend, of cooking from the cookbook—I’d be happy to email you the PDF. It makes for interesting reading, I think.


October 10, 2012

The boys are wearing suits. Is there anything more adorable than a 7 year-old boy in a suit? The girls at this school are wearing black jumper dresses with white lace trim and any kind of pants/jeans/leggings underneath. Their long black hair is done up in braids or buns or ponytails, and adorned with white poufy bows or flowers.

Class begins with all the students standing. The teacher says “Good morning, students.” They respond, in unison, “Good morning, Teacher.” It continues, “How are you?” “I’m fine, teacher, how are you?” “Fine. Thank you. Please sit down.” The students sit down, and, for some of them, that will be the only English they speak today.

Today was my second day visiting classrooms. Since I am a teacher trainer, I do not have my own students. Instead, every other week I will sit-in on the classrooms at three different schools and interact with the students and team teach with the official teacher. The English the students are taught here is very formal with a heavy focus on grammar. I have seen the older students’ notebooks and their writing is accurate and they use complete sentences. But, when you speak to them, or when they ask a question, it is clear that they are struggling.

I am all too familiar with this, from the students’ perspective. I studied Spanish for 4 years in high school and Italian for 2 years in college; I studied a few other languages on my own for a few months here and there.

But, I only speak English.

And that’s why I’m here, literally on the other side of the world, because I know how difficult it is to learn a language when your only exposure is a few hours a week between class time and homework assignments. Without the opportunity to speak with a native speaker, a language doesn’t move from the page; it doesn’t become natural. Of course, the difference is that I studied Spanish in San Diego where there was ample opportunity to speak to native speakers yet I was so embarrassed about being wrong that I wouldn’t dare, whereas here in Mongolia, I may be the only native English speaker, and the only American, these students have ever seen.

In each of the four classrooms today, I introduced myself by answering questions the students thought up. For the most part, the questions were pretty straightforward: “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “Where are you from?” “Can you ride a horse?” Somewhere in there, I realized that I am a good fit for this position because I have no guard to let down.

The second class asked me to sing a song in English. In a classroom with 45 students, at ten-something in the morning, I sang a verse from the first song that popped into my head, Corner of the Sky from Pippin, a musical I did in high school.

Several of the classes asked “what are your hobbies?” but one asked a follow-up question, “What does yoga look like?” How could I not show them? I flowed into a Warrior I, Warrior II, Reverse Warrior, Triangle, explaining each position as I settled into it. I looked up to see camera phones pointed my way.

I will give them what they want, if they are asking in English. There’s no telling the foolishness I will endure, smiling all the way.

And what do I get from it? One class sang the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” And I was happy.


October 7, 2012

One of my professors at San Diego City College, the brilliant and animated Bill Stewart, encouraged his students to ask questions because, as he said, a third of the class was probably wondering the same thing. I have always loved how he framed our inquiries as though they were for the benefit of the quieter students. It trampled on the “there are no dumb questions” approach to getting students to participate, and instead made it our duty to ask. Like I said, he was brilliant.

In that spirit, here I introduce the first Q&A blog entry. These questions are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Tricia.

Do you have any containers that you can fill with water for those days it is not flowing? 

Here, she is referring to my plumbing that, as I wrote to her, has repeatedly been shut off. In 6 weeks, it’s probably happened about 6 times but not in any scheduled way that would allow me to plan for it. (Might be due to the construction on my street.) It’s lasted for as little as 10 minutes to as long as 8 or 10 hours.

To answer the question, I have a Peace Corps-provided water filter (which deserves its own blog entry) so that I am able to drink, and cook somewhat depending on what I am making. It holds about a gallon of water, and the lesson learned is to promptly fill it so that I am never without drinking water. If the drought were to continue for an extended time, I could purchase bottled water from almost any of the delguurs, however, there is no recycling here so I hesitate to do that unless it was urgent.

Do you have refrigeration?  Freezer?  Oven? What about containers for leftovers?

I do have a refrigerator with a freezer inside. It’s about 3-feet high, though they have smaller and larger in Mongolia. The freezer, however, has no door so either the entire thing was a freezer or I turned down the setting, which is what I did. In the winter, I could use my entry room as a freezer, like the people who live in Mongolian gers use their ping (boxed-in area covering the door, to keep out the cold weather). But I don’t expect to freeze much, food-wise, since I don’t buy anything frozen, and have been making meals with only 2-3 extra portions, which I finish off in the next 3-5 meals.

I have a table-top electric burner for cooking. (There are two burners but I was told only one works so I never tried the other.) I also have a rice-cooker, which I always wanted in the States and never got. I do not have an oven. The PCVs with ovens are willing to share, though, and at our site-mate dinners I have benefited from their ovens in the form of pizza, garlic bread, home-made pretzels, and most recently a chocolate cupcake with coffee frosting and caramel drizzle. Thankfully for me, the ovens are not wasted on non-bakers or the stingy!

As for containers for leftovers, I’m all set there. Since there is no recycling, I have been reusing, mostly pickle jars. The longer I’m here, the more jars I will accumulate and use for all manner of storage—not just food. But, because I am so conscious of the absence of recycling, I hesitate over impulsive items (like single serve juices) since additional uses for the bottle is limited, relative to a jar.

Hey, how’d you like your toothpaste? I remembered that was included while I was brushing mine thinking I needed to replenish our stock.  And I smiled a little knowing Toms would be a nice treat.  Like you mention, it’s the basics we appreciate more when we go without them.

Ah, stream-of-consciousness writing… how it speaks to me. Here, she is referring to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste which she lovingly included in my care package. It was indeed a treat. In fact, I had stopped purchasing Tom’s at home because I was finding it a bit pricey and hard to find my favorite flavor: fennel. Trader Joe’s used to have it at $2.99 but then they introduced their own brand and the Tom’s went up, and I tried the TJs brand—I believe they even had fennel—and didn’t like it as much. Ho-hum. This is probably a luxury item that will remain off the care-package list, but would make me smile if it were to emerge from a box.

How far are you from where you work? Which bldg is it?  Is it one of the pics posted?  How far to post office (again)? Do you walk everywhere?

This reminds me that I never posted the link to the new Permanent Site photo album. It is here. Forgive me for redirecting you; I am still having trouble uploading to this site.

My apartment is about a 7-minute walk to work. The post office is about an 8-minute walk in the opposite direction, so that if I walk from work to the post office, it is about 15 minutes. Yes, I walk everywhere. Unless, as has happened 2 or 3 times now, a coworker driving by stops to take me the rest of the way. “Thank you for sparing me those 3 minutes of walking!” Really… maybe I will appreciate it when it is winter but now it seems silly, despite being a nice gesture.

I bet people think that Mongolians drive jalopies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the vehicles here are HUGE: Jeeps and Land Rovers and such (I had to write “and such” because I don’t speak car, but you get the idea that they are big SUVs). It makes sense because of the roads. Some of the paved roads have giant pits and some of the dirt roads washout in the rain so that people just blaze a new trail. However, and I find this particularly noteworthy, one of my coworkers has a hybrid 🙂

They also drive motorcycles, sometimes 4 deep: the dad driving with a kid in his lap and a kid sandwiched between him and the mom at the back. I saw the same thing in India and did my first triple-take. No worries for me though; Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from riding on or driving a motorcycle, not that I’d have been tempted.

Some of the kids here have bikes, but I have no intention of getting one. Why not? Bicycle maintenance, winter, and bad roads dissuade me.

There are also taxis, but having barely taken them across Boston, I can hardly rationalize taking one across Govi-Altai. Again, maybe when winter hits.

Beef stewing it tomorrow. Oooh…can you get yeast easily?  And flour?  Eggs?

Oh, yummy! (Even though I would pick around the beef, which is amazing given some of the things I have eaten here – food blog entry in the works.) I believe yeast is courtesy of care packages, or else found in the capital. But, since I do not have an oven, I’d be less likely to use it. Flour and eggs are readily available. In fact, I made my own tortillas from scratch! (Chris, are you reading this?! Who am I?!) Until then, I thought they were uniform circular disks that came in packs of 8-12. While mine were far from uniform, they tasted like bona-fide tortillas 🙂


October 5, 2012

A small shop in Mongolia is called a delguur. The storefront is usually one of the doors to a house, and the delguur to resident ratio rivals that of a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts; from one, you can easily see at least 5 others. They range in size, but the footprint might max out at half the size of a 7-11.

More often than not, the prepackaged items are stocked in an orderly manner on shelves behind the counter: giant boxes of imported chocolates get prime shelf space, a few cans of peas, milk in a box, mayonnaise in a bag within a box, single toilet paper rolls, sea-cabbage for making a type of non-fish sushi called kimbab, or eating plain like I have come to do. The counters are always glass and underneath you will find smaller goodies (candy, spices, tea, single serve 3-in-1 packets of blended coffee, sugar and creamer). Eggs might be sitting in those egg-shaped cardboard trays on the counter and they are purchased individually. You tell the clerk what you want and he or she gets it for you. The money is kept in a cardboard box on one of the shelves, and if they can’t make exact change because of the pesky 10, 20, 50 tugrugs (10<penny), they make the difference in your favor.

I can imagine that going from shopping in a Supermarket—with over a dozen aisles, frozen foods, prepared foods, a deli, a bakery, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen and canned—to shopping in a room with <1% of the stock would seriously distress someone who hadn’t already expressed that the sheer number of options available to Americans was overwhelming. Since I am the person who bemoaned so many brands of XX, it was a bit of a relief to walk into a store and choose *the* loaf of sliced bread, or *the* jar of pickles (we have pickles!!!), or *the* bag of dehydrated tofu. In and out in 5 minutes.

I can also imagine that there are people who, upon seeing less than perfect produce, would turn up their noses and shop elsewhere. Thankfully for me, I was the person who would have chosen the slightly damaged package just so that it wouldn’t get tossed out. And, yet, I was also the person who once asked a coworker who was peeling a full-sized carrot during lunch why she went through all that trouble?! This is what growth looks like, people. Transitioning from so-called “baby carrots” to the carrots-straight-from-the-earth was less of an adjustment than I would have thought. It’s one of the changes I plan to keep when I return home.

All the delguurs are variations on the same theme. They all start with candy, flour, tea, potatoes, onions, carrots, juice, salt, sugar, jam, soda, vodka, beer, single serve ice-cream, toilet paper. You know, the essentials. Maybe half of the delguurs will add some or all of these: cabbage, garlic, butter, yogurt, apples, eggs, milk, frozen chicken legs (loose in the freezer, take your pick). And a few of those will add cheese, bananas, peanut butter or cereal. So that the store that has cereal (which we helpfully refer to as “The Cereal Store”) has yogurt but neither eggs nor butter. The store that has cheese (which we call, yes, “The Cheese Store”) sometimes has chicken, sometimes has bananas, but hasn’t yet had peanut butter. Depending on what’s on your shopping list, if you guess right and the stars are aligned, you can get everything with just 3 stops. But, then, when you can walk across town in 20 minutes, it’s just a dusty, uneven aisle.