A few of my favorite things

January 26, 2013

The handshake: In Mongolia, when someone’s foot is stepped on, or bumped under the table, the two people shake hands immediately. No words are needed. I did it with my host family pretty frequently since our dinner table was cozy for the usual 3, sometimes 5, of us. I’ve also done it with strangers on a crowded bus. Some people are more casual about it, others are super serious. Either way, it is an easy habit to develop, and an easy way to impress the locals.

The touch: In Mongolia, when the candy dish is presented (and even when the candy dish is already on the table), the guest first touches the side of the dish with the palm up, before taking a piece of candy; always with the right hand. Our instinct seems to be to grab (or at least take) what we are given. I’ve witnessed this appreciative moment, this reflective pause, taught to small children. I love it.

The sniff: Americans kiss one cheek. Europeans, kiss twice (sometimes, thrice). Mongolians sniff. Similar to smelling the clothes of a loved one to trigger that scent memory (the one that Fergi sings about). I think of it this way: a kiss is from me to you, but a sniff is from you to me. It’s a completely different sentiment. Almost like the difference between “remember me” versus “I want to remember you.” When I left my training site, my host mom sniffed me goodbye. Some of the other moms did, too, as they called me sain ohun (“a good girl”).


Sunlight: The days are getting longer now, but without Daylight Saving Time and only one time zone in Mongolia, sunrise in my Southwestern Aimag is around 8:45am (sunset is around 6:45pm). It is incredibly difficult to wake up (at 7:30am) in what looks to be the middle of the night. But, this is The Land of Blue Sky!!  And my apartment makes the most of that. It is perfectly situated, such that one window gets the morning sun, and the other window gets the afternoon sun.

New Year, New Ideas

January 16, 2013

One of the tenets of Peace Corps is that change takes time. It’s why Volunteers are placed for two years instead of two months. Without doubt, lots of good can be done in two months absent a language barrier and community integration. But, such is the framework of Peace Corps service. So, I’ve roughly a year and a half in which to make a difference, leave my mark, create sustainable programs, and other trite expressions, which, for me, mean motivate further English learning. Otherwise known as getting things done!

Below are some ideas that were cultivated during IST. My CP seemed pleased that I’d already been working on it when she asked me to come up with something during our Project Design and Planning session. They are all still thoughts at this point—listed loosely in the order of feasibility—but they get me excited and hopeful. And, I’ll point out that none of these ideas requires money, only the currency of time… as much as this does not surprise me, it still pleases me immensely.

Music Night(s): One English song. First learn what the song means through pictures or acting it out. Then learn the lyrics. Then sing the song as a group. (After my inspiration, I launched this on October 31, 2012, and had six classes before leaving for IST/vacation. It’s been well received and the students have requested an additional song on Saturdays.)

Pen-pal between grades or schools: students write to each other in English. (My intent was to get the Mongolian students to use English with one another. My CP understood “pen-pal program between Mongolian and American students”—she thinks on a big scale. But since I have been matched with a school in Minnesota, through the World Wise Schools program, this is possible. On to logistics…)

Mentoring program: experienced teachers are mentors for other teachers. Mentors share skills, tips, ideas; gain leadership experience. Mentees continue learning; don’t have to reinvent the wheel. (Mongolia is a competitive culture to the extent—so I’m told—that teachers do not collaborate or share lesson plans. This is partly because, as I understand it, each teacher is evaluated on their performance relative to other teachers; being “the best” comes at the cost of other teachers. If we can frame this in the way that the mentor is a prestigious position, to which the mentee can aspire, we might be able to use that competitive spirit to their advantage. I acknowledge that it may involve prizes, e.g., Mentor of the Year.)

Future English Teachers Club: high-school students who plan to be English teachers meet to practice speaking English, learn games, experience being in charge, etc. (A few times I’ve been a “judge” for English competitions, and more than once I’ve heard students answer the question “what do you want to be?” with “I am English teacher.” At first, I hung my head (metaphorically speaking, of course) at all that was wrong with that sentence. Then, I had this idea to get them all together, speaking English with one another. Let those kinks work themselves out.)

English Story Hour: native English speaker (that’s me!) reads children’s stories (at English library, kindergarten, my home). Teach others (English teachers, future English teachers, community members) to read English with emphasis, intonation, character voices, pauses, etc. (This is a natural precursor to the theater class I have wanted to implement since the application process.)

The English of Other Subjects: Math and science, in particular. (In one afternoon, yesterday, in fact, I’ve created the beginnings of a card–based Game of Life—Mongolian Edition (where else is “Winterize ger” a life event?). It provides lots of practice with the structure of big numbers (necessary when counting in togrogs), along with the mathy terms of plus, minus, percent. Some kinks to be worked out, but I see promise here! Why is this so far down on the list, Love?!)

Anki to Staff: free, internet-based, electronic flashcard system. To reinforce vocabulary and basic sentence structures. (This program has been my main method of Mongolian language study, rather than the supplement it is intended to be. That said, it is a helpful way to build vocab. There are already several decks of Mongolian-English cards, but since my early days in Altai, I’ve been working on incorporating pictures, colors, size, etc., to make it require more than just translation.)

Word / PowerPoint / Excel training: formatting basics, formulas, etc. (Pretty straightforward. They use these programs and I have had formal training in them; I might be able to pass along some knowledge.)

Government Workers and Non-English Teachers: conversational English. (And anyone else who wants it!) Speaking practice: focus on pronunciation, common phrases for fluency, tricky words.

Creative Writing: take control of the language, have fun, think outside the box of sentence diagrams. There are no limits.

USA College Prep: Everything you ever wanted to know about what it is like to study in America. The college experience, life in the dorms, classroom differences, choosing a college, choosing a major.

The Elevator Pitch: who are you, in two minutes. Learn the skill of highlighting your strengths, targeting your audience, and summarizing your life experience. Useful for job interview, Visa interview, email introductions.

The Resume: Your work, education and life experience summarized in a page or two, following a standard format.

Feedback and suggestions welcomed and appreciated.

IST – Cultural Q&A

January 5, 2013

During the first few days of IST there was a question box for PCVs and CPs to anonymously ask questions related to Mongolian or American culture, respectively. When we had the Cultural Q&A session, the groups were mixed but PCV and CP pairs were in separate simultaneous classes and we were reminded that what would be said in the class could be sensitive and to not use names if giving examples and to not gossip about who said what afterward.

I always feel a bit strange in the representing-America aspect of Peace Corps service (2nd Goal), since I often feel like an outsider, at least until I don’t anymore. That probably surprises some of you. If so, I’m sure you can appreciate that the inconsequential question of “How do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?”—the most American of holidays—has no one answer. Yet, how you go about your day-to-day life will be seen as America personified. This is true of all foreigners living abroad, of course, but Peace Corps regularly reminds us and asks us to let it guide our behavior.

Since answering questions about American culture is like holding a mirror up to the country—how do we see ourselves?—I was relieved to have other PCVs not only to help field the questions, but also to get their insight into the many facets of American culture. I realized almost immediately that the fact that certain questions were asked was incredibly insightful into the mindset of that group. I hope that gets conveyed here.

Okay, standard preamble out of the way, let’s get to more Mongolian (and American!) cultural insights. Woo-hoo!

Oops, one more thing. As I’m about to write this, I realize that there is the potential for readers to make judgments about the limited information I present and I take full responsibility for only giving an overview rather than a complete explanation, which isn’t possible. If negative opinions result, let this blog be an opportunity for discussion. Thank you.

Why don’t Mongolians enforce homework completion?
It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach. It’s their democratic right not to do homework.

Why do Americans put their things on the floor?
Excellent question… why do we do this? Among the things we PCVs were instructed in culture sessions during PST is that Mongolians do not put their personal items (back-pack, purse, etc.) on the floor. It was so far off my radar that, were it not pointed out, I probably wouldn’t have noticed at all. It seemed curious that it was worth mentioning so I paid attention in the real Mongolian world, and it’s true! Purses are usually on the chair (in the seat, not on the back) and women sit to accommodate them. I’ve noticed that on the playground, while children are playing basketball, the back-packs are all on a bench, not the ground.

Why do Mongolian women dress like they are going to a party when they are going to work?
I’ve already written about how Mongolians dress professionally, but is it too much? Here’s what they had to say: Teachers are seen as a role model—they take it seriously. In some schools, teachers are required to wear a uniform.

Why do Americans have beards?
Would you have thought this would be noteworthy or controversial? Kind of hard to answer, right? So, the Americans in my group turned the tables: Why do Mongolians dislike beards? Usually, Mongolian men do not grow beards until after 33 years old; not while their father is alive.

When my hashaa family checks on me at night, are there customs I should follow?
Unfortunately for the person who asked this, there wasn’t a suggestion in our group. However, there was consensus among the Mongolians that they are probably just worried about you. Aww.

What surprised you about Mongolian culture when you arrived?
Oh boy, so many things I never wrote about! Here’s what we came up with as a group, with my two-cents: personal space—that should be lack thereof. It is not uncommon for groups of friends, boys, girls, men and women, to walk arm-in-arm, to sit with their arm around another, or to touch an arm or knee intentionally, or to unavoidably have limbs continually pressed up against the limbs of someone you don’t know, like when we sit two-to-a-chair in my director’s office; shared rooms—while I lived in my host family’s small room, they slept together in the large room (what we’d call the living room). Of course, families in gers have only one room; teenagers are helpful and able, not in the “given chores” sense, but in the having responsibilities sense; eating hunks of fat—yup, not only is there no “lean meat” but the fat is a side dish, too; my Boston peeps will understand why my personal favorite cultural paradox is drivers who consistently use turn signals but have no patience for pedestrians.

Why do Mongolians eat so much more meat over vegetables and fruit?
 I was particularly interested in this because I would have chalked it up to “tradition” but the answer is much more insightful: there were fewer options in the old times. Ohh!

What are some American customs for receiving unexpected guests?
Before I get into how this went down, let me explain the Mongolian custom. When a guest arrives, expected or unexpected, immediately the candy dish is presented to them. If it happens to be mealtime, food and drink are given to them. The national election happened during PST; when the campaigners came to the door at suppertime, my host mom gave them a bowl of soup! From what I’ve read, a bed will be offered if needed. It is this hospitality that has allowed the Mongolian nomadic culture to survive. So, I can’t help but wonder the incident(s) that lead to this question. Now, how did we handle it? The ten of us looked from one to another, shaking our heads, utterly perplexed. Hmm, we don’t do that, we thought. It is more likely to call first, we said. Now, I know for a fact that some of you live in the ’burbs, where you received welcome-to-the-neighborhood casseroles. So, let’s see if you agree with this summary that one of our peers put his finger on, much to our collective relief: if it happens, the guest says “sorry for not calling,” and the host says “if I’d known you were coming…”

Given that it’s a collectivist society, when/how do Mongolians find time to be intimate?
Jeez… really, Americans? Shaking my head… I guess it is a legitimate curiosity, and the writer gets points for creatively phrasing “when/where do you have sex?” But, jeez… (By the way, there is no answer… sort of like “How do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?”)

IST Challenges

January 3, 2013

IST – In-Service Training

Before I get into this, I should preface it with a disclaimer of sorts and that is: I love this stuff. I love getting diverse people together and asking questions (leading or open-ended, it doesn’t matter to me). I love seeing concepts illustrated with images, brainstorming and team-building activities. I love sessions that present something of which I’ve had only an inkling and walking away feeling illuminated. I love hearing what others have to say and especially that moment when I think, “I had no idea. You just blew my mind.” I readily admit they don’t all go this way. But, I also love giving honest, constructive feedback… muah-ha-ha!

Normally, I go to these meetings that I enjoy and take notes that I feel are important and then never look at them again—just one of my idiosyncrasies that bugs me. But, this blog is the perfect excuse (why do I always need an excuse?) to revisit what I felt was worth writing down. If I am right, at the end of reading this, you’ll have some insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Mongolians.

In the “Expectations and Challenges” session, we were asked to recall our expectations when we got to site, then list our current challenges. Note, I’ve cherry-picked these responses to highlight the cultural aspects.

One of the Mongolians’ expectations was that we would become accustomed to living in the Mongolian winter. (One month after my exposure to the frigid UB temps and my big toes are only about 85% normal; strike one for Love.) They also expected that we would be an active member of our schools. Seems fair enough, right?

The PCVs’ expectations included a desire to use our skills other than English (we are more than just TEFL beings) but, at the same time, that our CPs be aware of our limitations (e.g., just because we can read English, does not mean we can fix your computer).

And now, the challenges
The Mongolians listed “pets” at the very top of their challenges in dealing with American PCVs. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but, as a rule, Mongolians do not have pets, though there are many dogs and some cats throughout the country. The dogs in their hashaa (yard) are guard dogs, and even those are feared. Dogs are the reason our host families wanted us home before dark. (In defense of this reasoning, dog bites are a very common reason for a PCV’s trip to the medical staff in UB.) Cats are seen as evil spirits, as I understand it. So, the PCVs who take in a stray dog or cat are effectively creating a wedge between themselves and their community. Makes it hard to host a dinner, for example.

Another hot-button issue for the Mongolians is the everyday appearance of their PCV. Mongolians, as a rule, are very professional looking. Remember that the average PCV age skews post-college, but even those of us who are outliers likely came from casual workplace environments. Yes, it’s true that we had to pack for 2 years (including all seasons of clothing) and were allowed only 100 pounds of baggage, but this complaint isn’t about the wardrobe, per se. For, even if the Mongolian women wear the same three dresses, they are always clean and presentable. A big sigh to the Americans hand-washing in a tumpun… or not, as it were.

Also on the list of challenges for the Mongolians is their PCV’s Mongolian language skills. Here, I hang my head in embarrassment (strike two for Love.) I had thought my motivation would translate into learning, all by itself. Not to say that I’m not putting in effort, just that by my own standard I am not doing nearly as much studying as I had thought I would and am therefore not nearly where I expected to be after 7 months in the country!!! Please hear me when I say this, it is a two-part message: 1. any foreigner who enters America and works with people who speak their native language (as my CP speaks to me in English) will have great difficulty learning English on their own just by merely living in the culture; 2. any American who ever uttered the words “if I were going to move to a country, I’d learn the language” as if it were the most effortless thing, and held the oft-accompanying belief that not learning the language was a choice made by the individual—is ignorant. Yes, I just said that. My built-in thesaurus gives me these alternatives: unaware, uninformed, rude, impolite, inconsiderate. Any of those will do, too. I’d also add xenophobic. Long before Peace Corps, I was preaching from the learning-a-foreign-language-is-hard soapbox. I’ve always admired those who are conversational in a second language, but only now can I really empathize with those who are struggling with English. Only now do I really champion those who try, especially when they are wrong.

Aaaaand, back to the list.  A few other things the Mongolians find challenging when dealing with American PCVs I will group as their concern for our wellbeing: what are they eating? are they eating enough? can they make a fire? are their clothes warm enough? are they missing home? did they remember to lock their door? Some of the PCVs, easily and understandably, misinterpret this as patronizing the helpless American and find it suffocating and even belittling. But not me! Not Love-of-the-frozen-toes! I’d tell you I’d embrace this kind of being cared for, except that I don’t live in a ger (which comes with a hashaa family) so I’m not experiencing the brunt of it. Maybe that’s also why I can see that it comes from a place of concern.

Now for the American challenges living in Mongolia and working with Mongolians: As casual as we Americans are, we love our clocks! We want the Mongolians to make a schedule and stick to it; give us as much notice as possible; not be late for meetings and especially NOT not show up at all. I find this fascinating.

We want the CPs to understand that we have responsibilities to Peace Corps in addition to those of the HCA and when they conflict, the PC expectations win out.

We pointed out that PCVs face the challenges of: “diminishing interest” in our roll over time (my very first Staff English class had about 8 people; since then it is usually 4, and not the same 4, despite their insistence that I am a good English teacher); “lack of specificity/details” in what they’ve asked us to do; differences in school and classroom norms from what we are used to.

Observation 1: I wrote above that the Mongolians expectation was that their PCV would be an active member of the school? Turns out the PCVs would counter with “don’t assume we know what’s going on” event-wise (and, of course, “give us as much notice as possible”).

Observation 2: Juxtaposed to that list of Mongolians concern for our wellbeing are a special set of PCV challenges summarized as “understand our stresses.” This was explained as being away from friends and family, struggling with the language, where to buy warm boots… not exactly parallel lists, but certainly overlapping ones.

It’s a fine line between understanding and assumption. IST was a valuable, eye-opening week for PCV-CP relations, Mongolian-American relations, and Love-PCV peers relations, since none of us is having the same experience in the Peace Corps, in our jobs, or in Mongolia.