text me

January 27, 2014

After my last post, I thought it’d be interesting for you, dear reader, to have a glimpse into my cell phone inbox. These are very typical questions and every time I read one I am reminded how much language equals culture, how vast our vocabulary is (i.e., how many words of little utility we have) and also how much emphasis is put on grammar when the point can get across regardless.

From the rare teacher who breaks from the textbook:
We are solving crossword…… Campbell is the top model from Britain. The word beginning “n” 5letters. (So, because I speak English, I know the key players of the UK fashion industry. But, of course, I did know.)

From the teachers who don’t understand the cultural aspects of the textbook:
-good morning. what is the mean cheyenne region
-hi? Can you help me, Crysler Building and yellow cabs are in New York. But what is meaning the words crysler and cabs?
-Hi. Can you help me, please? What do debut, entertainer mean?
(Is there a more useless word to learn/teach than “debut”? Seriously, how often does one use this word?)
-hi? how is your weekend? what does peer pressure mean?

From the teacher continuing to improve her English with books of questionable accuracy:
hi. good evening what is it? take the 2nd turning on the right
-good evening. I’m sorry. What is the difference next and then
-hi. love. which is correct I am at home/home
-hi. sorry what is the mean? your passport must beach at 8 characters

From the medical college English teacher:
Hey what does q 2 h mean eg monitor temperature q 2 h (thanks to my previous work in hospitals, I could answer this)

The appreciation:
-thank you very much. you are very kind and friendly person.
-teacher. i can count on you. please make my life bright. have a good night.

if you’d like to make a call

January 23, 2014

Cell phones in Mongolia are pay-as-you-go rather than by monthly plan. Peace Corps provided our mobile phones, but we are responsible for adding нэгж (negj or phone units). The expected cost is built in to our monthly stipend; I spend about 5,000 tugricks ($3) per month on negj, probably below average among PCVs. You can buy negj from almost any delguur (store). You can also get unlimited plans from the branch (e.g., Mobicom, G-Mobile) directly. Mostly, I think people go to the stores. Usually, the store has extra negj loaded onto their phone and they transfer to your phone and you get at least three text messages immediately confirming the amount. Another way you can get negj is by a little scratch ticket sold at the store. These come in denominations of 1,000 tugricks and 5,000 tugricks (maybe higher, I don’t know). You scratch off the code and type it into your phone and send. And, if you run out of negj at an inconvenient time, you can type in a code for an emergency 500 negj, and the next time you load up, they’ll deduct 550.

Nearly everyone texts, since it is cheaper than talking. Personally, I still really don’t like texting when it’s used for conversation. For a one-way message (“There’s cheese at the cheese store!” or “I’ll be a bit late to club.”), I don’t mind.

Curiously, many Mongolians have more than one phone. In my department, only the director has an office phone. All of the other education specialists use their cell phones, but I don’t think their different phones are specific to work or personal life. Also, it’s not uncommon for people to take calls in the middle of a meeting; or for teachers to answer a call in the middle of class.

Very young children in Mongolia have cell phones. I’m talking 6, 7, 8 years old is not unusual. Many high school students have smart phones and some will boldly listen to music or play games during class. And some will use their phone to access an English-Mongolian dictionary ap. In classes where there is a shortage of books, students will pass their phones around and photograph the page with the lesson, then use their phones to zoom in on the text. Talk about resourceful!

Mongolians have embraced all that modern technology to the point that flat screen televisions inside gers are almost expected. So, it was really surprising that one of the textbooks includes a lesson on electronic gadgets. That there was such a lesson wasn’t surprising, but that the lesson listed camcorder, electronic dictionary, PDA, GPS, and last but not least, pager, was quite amusing. Though I told the teacher these were outdated terms, replaced by today’s all-in-one gadgets, she was insistent on teaching the lesson as is. And, let me tell you, explaining to these kids in English how a pager worked would probably be the same as explaining it to American kids in Mongolian.

I leave you with this lovely image of a fellow PCV, Kevin, who confiscated 5 phones in one of his classes. Not sure I’d know how to use one of these.


Judge Love

January 14, 2014

One of the most unique things about being a native English speaker in a foreign country is that we are immediately qualified to be judges for English competitions (and there are lots). We don’t have to have a background in education, or even speak perfect English ourselves, because we are expected to intuitively know when we hear correct vs. incorrect speech. And since judges don’t fix the speech, they just evaluate it, being a native speaker might actually be a sufficient qualification. I do, however, have my doubts about the presumed necessary aspect of having native speakers as judges since I think it puts the importance on grammar rather than on communication, and when I think back to how my host family and I could communicate with so few words, well I get frustrated when students are afraid to speak for fear of being wrong. But, that is a tangent for sure since those were not the students we were evaluating. So, here goes the summary of my experience as a judge last month in UB.

There were 15 judges, all Peace Corps Volunteers, for a few hundred students, both high school and college level. I couldn’t begin to break down the various categories and rankings, so I’ll just link you to it here, if you’re interested.

The prizes for this competition were the huge draw (there were 10,000 participants!), first place at 5 million tugricks (about $3,000, which may not sound like much but is really enough to send a kid to college for several years). This particular speaking competition was brand new, so while there were guidelines there were no pre-determined matrices for us to use as a standard across students and, more importantly, across judging pairs. That was our first task.

Our first day was simply informational. The process was explained and all the judges had a chance to have questions answered. The second day is where we really worked out how we would evaluate. Day three was the competition which was a 10-hour day for the judges.

There were two parts to this competition. The first was a written test two weeks prior. Only students who passed that test came to UB for the second part. The second part included 4 components, only 3 of which required the judges. While judges weren’t needed for the listening exercise (with ten questions), I volunteered to record the text so I can tell you that it was difficult! There were two texts for college students and two texts for high-school students. The two I recorded were: the history of the piano, and something about satire (the purpose of…, what defines…, I don’t remember). The questions were very specific so that even with the text in front of me, I couldn’t answer the questions without looking back to the text, yet the students were expected to answer from memory: advantage to the student who already knew in which century the harpsichord was invented.

So, now to the three parts that required the judges. During our second day, we split into groups of five and each group tackled one of the parts; we then presented to the entire group our plan for evaluating that component. My group was in charge of “The Diagram” which meant that we first had to choose two diagrams (from a stack of diagrams), one for the high school group and one for the college group, then come up with what we would look for in a complete answer. It looked something like this:

Pts HS – Life cycle of a frog College – Cycle of abuse  
5 Use all words Use concepts, phrases from each stage Students must complete all stages of the cycle for full credit
5 Ordering words Ordering words Since these were cycles, students must order them (i.e., first, next, then, after, finally)
3 Complete thoughts Complete thoughts Not necessarily sentences, as native speakers often interrupt ourselves, backtrack, or deviate midway through a sentence.
2 That special something That special something Any mention that a cycle means it will happen again, any reference to relevance in Mongolia, any personal knowledge (i.e., not on the page)
5 Speaking quality Speaking quality Including, but not limited to: confidence, delivery, pronunciation

The students had 15 seconds to look over the diagram and 45 seconds to speak about it.

The second component that students were judged on was translation from a Mongolian text (2 or 3 paragraphs) to English. Since the eligibility requirement was that participants be a citizen of Mongolia, and many Mongolian youth who were educated abroad would have an advantage as far as grammar and speaking ability, this translation component was added to level the playing field, the thought being that students educated abroad might not be fluent in Mongolian (especially written Mongolian). In the end, this translation did exactly what it was designed to do. Of course, as we are not fluent in Mongolian, the group assigned the translation evaluation was given an English version of the text. They identified 13 distinct events in the story (which, by the way, was about Chinggis Khan) and assigned them one point each. For example, the text stated that there was a well-thought out plan for battle, but that it failed; the group decided that the fact that the plan failed (not that it was well-thought out) was the key event. The remaining 7 points were discretionary for things like grammar, and the detail of the translation. The students had no preparation time (i.e., had to translate as they read) and had a minute and a half to two minutes (depending on level) to speak.

The third component was answering a question chosen at random. Sample questions include: Who is a person who influenced you and why? What was your most embarrassing moment? What is your most valuable possession? The students had 15 seconds to prepare/brainstorm their response, and a minute or two (I really forget) to give an answer. The group assigned this component decided that there would be no points for an answer that was off topic. For those that were on topic, we would assign points based on critical thinking (5 pts), intelligibility and flow (3 pts), and grammar (2 pts).

I don’t want to mention any students or identifiable answers in this public forum, so the best I can do here is give an overall impression and some generalizations about the students’ responses. Firstly, I really enjoyed being a part of this activity. As I said, it was a unique experience, especially coming up with the criteria to be evaluated. Also, in addition to seeing some M23 Volunteers I hadn’t seen in months, and meeting some M24s for the first time, I also spent an afternoon talking with some of the Mongolian students (who were not participants) at the English education center.

Now, these are some of the observations that I’ve since taken back to my classrooms in Govi-Altai:

Many students limited their answer to the diagram or question; even if there was time left, they said, “That’s it.” As a judge evaluating a person’s spoken English, I’d strongly encourage students to keep talking: restate the same thing in a different way, add detail, and/or give your opinion of the topic. Don’t let those precious seconds tick by if there is anything else you can add to demonstrate your command of English. One student’s addition to the life-cycle of a frog was completely unexpected!

Many students read from the diagram. Since this was an evaluation of speaking English, this should have been an obvious no-no. Here, I’d encourage the students to put the text into their own words, either initially, or as an explanation of the text. Reading from the text, in addition to not showing English proficiency, did one of two things: it slowed the students down so that they ran out of time and couldn’t finish the diagram, or it caused them to “finish” prematurely (having reached the end, they had nothing else to say).

Many students didn’t take advantage of the brain-storming time allowed for the question; they began their answer immediately. The effect of not planning out their answer meant that many students’ answers were incomplete: to say person X is a wonderful person doesn’t answer the question of how they influenced you. Another result was getting caught up in the details and running out of time, never getting the opportunity to say how person X influenced you.

So, there you have it. Feedback, as always, welcomed and appreciated.



January 7, 2014

New Year’s Celebration #1 was the office party. We had a week-long kick off with the “monito” (like a secret Santa) who left small gifts on your desk every day. This was great: a pack of cookies, some gummy snacks, a juice box. The party was at a restaurant that was decked out as if for Christmas. A musician brought his murin huur, but played only one song live; the rest of the evening he was the DJ. I tell you, the dancing was nonstop and everyone got up there at some point. No wallflowers allowed! In between the songs, there were games and end-of-the-year staff awards. There was also a raffle of home items from the department: rice cooker, iron, even a washing machine! Finally, there was the gift to your “monito” (which in my office was not the same person you’d been giving gifts to all week, but the person you’d been receiving from). Our limit was 20,000 togrogs (about $12) and I got my guy (I was told it was a young guy) a nice sweater for exactly that much. The evening lasted over 5 hours and I’m sure I can say a good time was had by all.

Mongolian(s) waltzing.

Mongolian(s) waltzing.

The two-people-eat-one-apple game.

The two-people-eat-one-apple game.

The pass-a-card-in-a-circle-without-using-your-hands game.

The pass-a-card-in-a-circle-without-using-your-hands game.

The monito gift exchange.

The monito gift exchange.

The raffle winner of the new washing machine.

The raffle winner of the new washing machine.

The champagne toast.

The champagne toast.

New Year’s Celebration #2 was the school party. I’d imagined a small-scale, classroom-based affair, but no. This was school-wide and so it had to be in the gym. It also included awards (for the outstanding seniors), dancing (choreographed), students playing morin huur, Winter Grandpa, kids in animal costumes, and two kids in clown costumes who were really obnoxious, but I think that was their job. I wish I could have stayed longer but not knowing it was such a big event, I’d only allowed myself two hours.

Principal recognizing the graduating class.

Principal recognizing the graduating class.

One of the many dance performances.

One of the many dance performances. The clowns are trying to pick up the dance in the back corners.

Winter Grandpa, appreciating the kids' show.

Winter Grandpa, appreciating the kids’ show.

Kids playing that gorgeous morin huur.

Kids playing that gorgeous morin huur. A shot where the clowns aren’t misbehaving.

New Year’s Celebration #3 was with my CP’s family on New Year’s Eve. It was a quiet evening at their home, which seems to be the norm, at least in Govi-Altai. The TV was on, but the channel was changed quite a bit. I arrived at 10pm but was still given food to eat. At midnight, we toasted with champagne and ate cake. This was the same routine we’d followed last year, just the 5 of us. And it occurred to me that I won’t be there next New Year’s Eve. The Mongolian president came on TV, in a ger surrounded by people I am to assume are his family, and he toasted the New Year with milk tea. Also, my CP said that he thanked the foreigners living in Mongolia, helping to move the country forward. Boo-yah.

Mongolian food

January 3, 2014

I read somewhere that “no one comes to Mongolia for the food.” That’s a really harsh and insensitive statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. Meaning, unfortunately, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have a craving for the cultural cuisine. Much of the Mongolian food is very labor intensive. It is not uncommon for a meal to take 1-2 hours to prepare. (Which, actually, now that I think of it, might be standard but remember I didn’t really cook before I came here.) For anything involving dough, that is made from scratch.

The main courses:

Buuz – (pronounced “boats”) round, meat-filled dumpling. These can be eaten as is or made mini (“bansh”) and added to soup, which also contains meat.

Giddis – literally translates to “stomach” but refers to any of the animal innards. I did it. Once. A bite of intestines. The taste is tolerable, but the texture… slimy… It took everything I had to swallow it, and then everything I had left to keep it down. Once was enough. Thankfully, I have seldom been offered it at site.

Goat head – (I guess the Mongolian is close to yamaanii tolgoi) now that’s exactly what you think it is. During PST we had a culture day where many traditional foods were awaiting us so that we could be prepared when we entered our communities. The goat head is boiled and there isn’t much flavor. And, yes, I did it. I ate a bite of goat face. It tasted like boiled meat and the texture was meat texture.

Horhokh – this is very popular on outings in the hudoo. The meat is cooked with big chunks of root vegetables (never enough for my liking) and because it is cooked in a sealed container, it is very juicy and tasty. Everyone eats with their hands (and maybe a knife) from a large communal bowl. And there’s a jar of pickles with it!

Horokh – not to be confused with horhokh above (I can’t spell with these non-Cyrillic letters!!) Horokh is a stir-fry. Another presentation of the same root vegetables…


Huushuur – flat, meat-filled pancake. Deep fried. Now, this I actually like because, rule number one, everything tastes better fried. If you can add soy sauce, or ketchup, it’s that much better. During PST, my Mongol mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I asked for “makh-gui huushuur” (literally “meat-without huushuur”). Turns out that is called “tomis-tai huushuur” (literally “potatoes-with huushuur), but they also added carrots and turnips. That was really yummy comfort food with surely no nutritional value. I didn’t care.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

The potato-huushuur my mom made. YUM.

Ohkh – fat. I’ve said it before, Mongolians eat the fat. It could be mixed in with the meat (like in sausage), but I’ve also seen it served, fried, as a side item on a plate. All of these dishes here include fat. Recently, I’ve started to see it as not so crazy. We eat bacon, which has a lot of fat. Don’t get me started on the pork rinds… so, still crazy, but not so crazy.

Shol – soup. With meat, vegetables, noodles, rice… It’s soup. Don’t be fooled though, even nogoo-tai shol (literally vegetables-with soup) has meat in it. And, fat, of course.

Can you see the fat?

Can you see the fat?

Tsuivan – home-made noodles, mixed into a stir-fry. This can be great with lots of root veggies mixed in and a packet of “tsuivan seasoning” or it can be noodles and meat and fat… It’s generally a large portion, either way.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

This is a vegetarian version, so those are cubes of tofu.

The various dairy products:

Ahruul– yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth so all the liquid runs out, and it becomes hard as a rock and is kind of fermented. The shelf-life of ahruul is infinite, which makes it ideal for nomadic people since the dairy product needs no refrigeration. Ahruul, the centerpiece of every holiday, takes many shapes and forms. I can, and sometimes do, eat the “chikher-tai ahruul” because it is a bit sweet, and usually bite-sized. The regular ahruul is too hard for my teeth.

Ahrtz – sour, kind of crumbly. There’s an ahrtz popsicle which I mistakenly bought one day. I ate it, but now that I know, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Tarag – yogurt. My Mongol mom and I once sat at the kitchen table and had a refreshing snack of yogurt; I added honey to mine. That evening, she turned the precious tarag into ahruul!!!

Uurim – the cream off the top off milk (maybe); this is thick. You can spread it on bread and add a bit ’o sugar.

The drinks: even in the heat of summer, we would have hot drinks. During PST, on a sweltering day, as a site-mate neighbor and I were heading inside to have lunch, we talked about the reason for this. I had chalked it up to being a custom; he thought it was the way to make the water safe. So, maybe that is how the custom got started.

Suutai-tsai – milk-tea (more milk than tea), sometimes with butter and/or salt. The tea used for this comes in a large block (like a 5 pound chocolate bar I was once given).

Tsai – tea. This is usually regular old tea bags. At my host family’s, it wasn’t uncommon for several people to reuse the same tea bag. You can get Lipton, which costs more, or Akbar is another popular brand and that one comes in a variety of flavors (lemon, berry). Then there’s green tea from Korea. I’ve really developed a taste for green tea since coming here.

Booze – So, I guess here is where I talk about the prevalence of vodka in Mongolia. It’s pretty much a guarantee at most functions. And, there aren’t really mixed drinks here, so it’s all shots all the time. You can sip it and pass it back, that’s what I do. Be careful, though, because that shot glass keeps coming round til the bottle’s empty. Or, if you really want to abstain, you can dip your right ring finger in and flick three times in three different directions. I’ve tried that because some people can be a bit aggressive in their offering, but sometimes they don’t like me flicking… not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner or because they’re intolerant of teetotalers. There’s also beer, wine, and a bottled sangria that are often done in shots. Alcoholism is a concern in Mongolia (there is high unemployment and vodka is super cheap = bad combination); the last two years the president has toasted the New Year with traditional milk-tea.

I’ve saved the best for last…

Airag – the famous fermented mare’s milk: sour and thin like water, rather than thick like milk. I’ve seen them milking horses, but so far as I know, no one drinks the horse milk unless it’s been turned into airag.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

Not sure how frequently the horses are milked, but she spent about 3 minutes with a few of them and got a few cups worth of milk.

This is popular during each of the two biggest holidays, Naadam and Tsagaan Sar. Now, you can also get camel airag, which I had at last year’s Tsagaan sar and actually enjoyed. It’s a bit creamier than the original. And my hosts added a bit of sugar to it, which made it more palatable for me.

Tsagaan Sar is just a few weeks away! Fingers crossed for timeenii (camel) airag!