downtime

March 15, 2014

I remember that back during PST I made a daily schedule blog post. I never did that in my permanent site and I realize now why that’s been the case: things were so structured during PST that sharing my day-to-day life was possible. The reality in Govi-Altai varies greatly from week to week because there’s stuff that’s supposed to happen that doesn’t (or at least not when it’s supposed to) and there’s stuff that’s seemingly spontaneous (though I often think I’m just the last to find out and it happens to be at the last minute).

According to my schedule at my permanent site, I work 40 hours a week. I think this is unusual among Peace Corps Volunteers, but since I came from a 40-hour-a-week job, this part doesn’t faze me (except insofar as Peace Corps service was meant to be a break from the 9-5 life). Four mornings a week are spent in classrooms, so that eats up a chunk of that time. The rest of the time is divided up into teaching special classes, prepping for classes, or waiting to do one or the other. Currently, my CP and I are giving two-hour, daily English lessons to workers at the Courthouse, as we’ve done in the past for the Music Ensemble and the Power Station workers. I’ve also been giving sessions on creative writing (the students do little, if any, writing at all) for a competition that will happen next week.

Between the things that are happening, there’s a lot of waiting for things to happen. I can’t say whether that’s definitively true Peace Corps-wide, but I have a sense that it is. I’d make the case that this “wait time” isn’t really downtime, though, because we are always anticipating (even if history doesn’t give us cause) the next interruption. What this means is that after an afternoon at the office, having “accomplished” nothing, I feel mentally taxed. It’s not the same kind of waiting that you do at the Registry (DMV) because, when your name is called, you have no idea what’s coming.

I wrote before about leaving behind the comforts of home and how the cumulative effect leaves one feeling out of sorts. While that was mostly in the context of loneliness, I think the sheer number of hours that we have to fill (whatever our work commitment, after all, we live here full time) is what makes the absence of all that so prominent. We find ourselves with a lot of downtime to fill.

So, here’s a list of the ways I’ve filled my thousands of hours of downtime these last two years.

extra lessons – Perhaps the most obvious, especially for a TEFL Volunteer. We have regular Tuesday night English club, Thursday night movie club, and Saturday morning conversation club with the medical college ladies. I’m still going to the Vocational School two nights a week. In addition, there’s often an unexpected knock on the door, what Seinfeld would call a pop-in. I usually make time for them. Last year, one of these girls became a regular, showing up several nights a week for several months.

language study – I continue to study vocabulary every day. However, I’m sorry to say, my spoken Mongolian remains average. Clearly, I can manage with the day-to-day but I tend not to put myself in unfamiliar situations. And I never got a tutor. How did that happen? Well, I tried initially with my Mongolian English-teacher friend but we often reverted to English. Just as the students don’t learn English in translation, I couldn’t learn Mongolian in translation. Why I never got a Mongolian-language teacher, or just a non-English-speaking Mongolian, I can’t say. It sounds silly, but I didn’t even realize it was missing until these last few months.

socialization – either with other PCVs or with Mongolians. Here’s something that has surprised me: I expected to come to Mongolia and do a lot of socializing with Mongolians. I do some, of course, but not nearly what I thought I would. Now, given that I lived in my Boston apartment for 11 years and didn’t know any of my neighbors, apparently I was counting on some personality transformation to have occurred simply by being in Mongolia. But, just as I seldom invited guests to my home back home, I’ve not done it here. I have an open-door policy, to the point that I shared my dinner with a man whom I’m still not sure who he was or how he knew me, but those pop-ins, while more common here than in America, are still not so common (once or twice a month). And to be honest, since my days are pretty full, even the days that are full of waiting, I’m content to not have more frequent visitors.

blog – it would be a great oversight for me to not state the obvious. This is my 63rd blog post. Some of these take up quite a bit of that downtime.

books – at this point, I’ve lost track. But I know it’s somewhere in the 60-ish range. That’s a mixture of e-books and the real thing. It’s also a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, classics, contemporary, pop-culture autobiographies, a few trashy romance novels, and a few books set in Mongolia.

crochet – this won’t be on the average PCVs things-to-do list, but then maybe there isn’t an “average” PCV. Thanks to some yarn contributions from folks at home, and a score at the black market, I’ve been able to make about 40 handmade hats. I also taught my sitemate, Jerome, how to do it and a day later he had his own hat. Next up, teaching some Mongolians.

The hat that started it all.

The hat that started it all.

the mundane – certainly, just as at home, we have to bathe, do laundry and grocery shop. It’s only worth mentioning because we never know how much of our downtime these things will occupy. Will the shower house have an hour’s wait? If so, would I rather wash in my tumpun? Will I find what I want at 2 stores or 5? Knowing that I may visit 5 and still not have found what I wanted. Ger dwellers could add chopping wood and fetching water to this list.

a 6000-piece puzzle – I’m quite proud of this one. This time last year I gave up my floor for a site-mate puzzle party. Little did I know that it would take 2 months to complete. It was worth it, though.

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sporcle – I almost wish I was never introduced to this quiz website. How many times have I said “just one more” only to realize it was one in the morning? I’ve wasted a lot of time doing really stupid quizzes, just for something to do. BUT, I’ve also learned all the countries of the world, so there’s that.

TV shows, movies, podcasts, music – I do more of this media consumption than I would probably like. Sometimes I can multi-task with one of these while I prepare dinner or make hats or write blogs. But sometimes it’s a solitary, sedentary activity. Ho-hum.

exercise videos, a la P90X – I probably should have started this sooner since I’ve gained back about half of that PST weight loss. We had a rather mild (for Mongolia) winter, and there are some hikes in our future.

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

instrument – I really wish I thought to do this. Mongolia has some really interesting traditional instruments that are alive and well. Why did I never consider learning the morin huur?

creating videos, poems, songs, etc. – this is another that falls into the category of things I didn’t do with my downtime. But, other PCVs have and I’d like to share a few with you.

  • If you’re curious about ger life, and I know I am, I’d recommend this 2-minute video from a current M24.
  • For a PCV twist on an American anthem, an anonymous volunteer re-wrote the lyrics to American Pie. Incidentally, that’s my site-mate Jerome’s blog; for those of you who will miss my Mongolian chronicles, I can recommend his for a good chuckle.
  • If poetry is your thing, I point you to a current M23 who alternates poetry along with prose on a regular schedule.

I leave you with the thought that I’m somewhere around the 100-day countdown to my Close of Service. How will I spend it?


a third year

February 24, 2014

There are many opportunities for PCVs to take on additional roles during our 27-month commitment. We can offer ourselves for consideration as a VAC member (voted in by our PCV peers), representing our region as a liaison between Volunteers and Peace Corps/Mongolia staff. There are various task forces (e.g., disabilities, alcohol) to join and other projects (monthly newsletter, cookbook revision) to take on. We can apply for non-Peace Corps projects (such as judging an English competition or leading a summer camp). We can apply to attend, with a counterpart, PDM (Project Design and Management, I think), an optional training/seminar about half-way through the first and/or second year. We can apply to be a PST trainer for the incoming class of Trainees, after our first or second year. Any of these ad-ons is what really makes each PCVs service unique. Additionally, we can apply to be a PCVL (L for Leader) in a third year, with time split between a Host Country Agency and PC responsibilities (In-Service Training, Mid-Service Training, etc.). And, finally, we can apply for an extension of our current position (or with a new HCA) for 3 months to a year.

A third year is something we discuss within our different circles (PST site mates, permanent site mates, project group members, friends), maybe beginning after the first year. From the beginning, I hadn’t considered a third year. To my mind, I came to the Peace Corps for the Peace Corps experience and after these two years are up, I will have gotten it. I came to Mongolia for the living abroad experience and I have gotten that. By coming here, I paused my life-in-America and I was eager to restart it with this new experience chronologically behind me but forever a part of me. So, when I say that I hadn’t considered a third year, I literally mean I hadn’t considered it.

Recently, my friend asked me if returning home was the default option. Meaning that, since I’ve now lived abroad, is it something I would like to continue to do (in Mongolia or elsewhere). Now, if this thought didn’t occur to you, maybe it springs from her living in Singapore for 4 years, because, the truth is, yes, returning home is the default option. Now that I’ve lived outside of America, I really would like to continue living abroad, or to do it again in the future. Some TEFL volunteers go this route post service, using their Peace Corps experience as a stepping stone to continue teaching English abroad. As for me (my own worst critic), I don’t feel my particular classroom experience has given me this confidence. I’ve no doubt, however, that many volunteers finish well prepared for the tasks of lesson planning, classroom management and teaching the four aspects of language. So, despite the fact that I would indeed like to continue living abroad, I really don’t know how I would go about it, absent the TEFL angle. I suppose another option would have been to apply to an international graduate school, but I didn’t get my act together enough to apply to any school, which precludes the international school altogether. Basically, I am preparing to return home to nothing… not to dismiss all you lovely people awaiting my return, but I don’t have a plan for a job or even where I will live (and the two cities on the table are not remotely close).

I got the email from the Country Director announcing the possible Close of Service dates. It was very exciting to begin the countdown. But sitting right next to that in my inbox was the lengthy email with information for a third year. Though I hadn’t been considering it, I read the email. It sounded exciting, rewarding, and meaningful. I thought of the projects that are just now getting underway and how amazing it would be to see them through. I thought of my opportunity for language improvement and deepening my friendships with my Mongolian friends and my PCV site mates. Part of me thought, “well, I don’t have a plan anyway, so why not?” Within all these rapid fire thoughts, and entirely unexpectedly, I found myself considering a third year of Peace Corps Service in Mongolia. With a very uncertain frame of mind, I sought guidance for this decision from my mom and sister-in-law, both of whom were completely supportive of either decision, which was really no help at all! I also discussed with my site mate her reasons for applying for a third year.

Well, this blog post isn’t building up to an announcement. Ultimately, I have decided not to pursue a third year. But, I want you to know that the decision was not easy. And, for the record, at no point while I was making this decision did I consider the extreme winters, the scarcity of produce, or the once weekly shower as reasons for leaving. I’ve just come to see that the feeling that “there’s so much more to do” goes hand in hand with working in a developing country. So, instead of thinking of what I will miss by leaving as scheduled, I’m going to try and focus on what I’ve done, and what I’ve still to do, as these last few months tick by.


Sept 1

September 5, 2013

The Mongolian academic year kicks off on September 1, even if it falls on a Sunday.

Surely there is variation in how this is celebrated across the country, and possibly from school to school. Here’s what I saw at School #5: Just after 8am, students arrived to school wearing their uniforms. Many of the younger students’ parents were there. Two senior students (my students!) were MCs. The principal and the representative from the Education Department (my CP) gave speeches. There were performances galore, including the traditional морин хуур (horse fiddle, this instrument has just two strings and is played with a bow). According to my CP, a song sung by a boy included the lyrics, “teachers, who hold the pens, you are God.” For the finale, the senior student MCs sang a song, while two first graders, a boy and a girl, walked around the yard jointly ringing a bell to signal the start of the new school year. This was followed by the first graders filing into the school.

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a flexourtient person

May 10, 2013

After 27 months of service, Peace Corps Volunteers—whoever they may have been prior to service—may come to define themselves as flexible, resourceful, and patient. This blog entry is about how that metamorphosis happens.

Monday, April 8th this year was the English Olympics. That is a test that some 9th and 11th graders, and all English teachers, must take (take, not pass). The test consists of grammar, reading comprehension, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and essay writing. Being a native English speaker, the tests certainly illustrated what I take for granted. But, this blog entry is not about that…

Since all of the soum teachers (35-ish) would be coming to the Aimag capital to take the test, a few weeks prior my CP asked me to give about an hour’s presentation, as part of their full-day seminar on Wednesday. She wanted me to cover “Teaching English Grammar without Translation,” one of the activities we had during IST. The day before the seminar, my CP informs me that I will have 3 hours, and suggests that I do some other lesson since the school year is almost over, saving that one for the fall seminar. “You want me to give a 3-hour presentation? Tomorrow?” I asked, somewhat incredulously, somewhat rhetorically. “Yes,” she answered, with the straightest of faces.

I pulled together a morning that looked something like this: warm-up exercise (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes); a presentation that I’d already created and never gave on Multiple-Choice Tests; a presentation on Public Speaking that I’d created and gave to about 8 teachers but figured repetition for them couldn’t hurt; a collection of ways to build vocabulary, which included, as a listening activity, a podcast from the Matty in the Morning show wherein a Canadian man plans a surprise wedding for his girlfriend (they weren’t even engaged!); and a chance to tackle as a group the essay question from the Olympics test (“Should travelers adopt local customs when they visit a foreign country, or should the country welcome visitors’ diversity?”).

Given the way it was thrown together, I was pretty happy with the session. But, in reality, I think I spoke too quickly for a non-native audience, used too many obscure words (such as “obscure”), generally did too much talking rather than getting them to speak, and didn’t have a way to measure the usefulness or practicality of the information I was giving them.

A week after the English teachers’ seminar, on Thursday around 4pm, my CP called to tell me I was going on the Education Department’s trip to visit 5 soums. I’d be leaving the next morning, at 7:30am. I’d be gone for 10 days.

While it is true that visiting soums was in my “work plan” when I began last fall, it was put off for so long because of lack of funds. So it wasn’t that the trip was happening that threw me, it was the timing of when I was told about it to when I was expected to be ready to leave. No part of me thinks that this trip was thrown together at the last minute or that anyone else in the department was frantically running through a checklist of what to do. But I didn’t have time to fret about the last-minute notice: I had a bag to pack, a plant to water, and electronics to charge. I also had to notify Peace Corps that I was leaving site. I grabbed a few story-books from the resource room and headed home.

The week that followed can only be described as a whirlwind. Peace Corps had asked me to provide them with a schedule (soum name and dates we would be there), the type of transportation and the number of men and women. Armed with this information, I still had no clue about such practical concerns as sleeping arrangements, meal plans, or what exactly I was expected to do. The good thing was that, though I’d started out winging-it, with each new soum I had a little more experience from which to draw.

These are some highlights from this trip:
– Four of the soums were similar in size (2,000 people), one a bit larger (3,000). Some soums, including at least one of these 5, have an 11pm lights-out policy, enforced by shutting off the electricity. The landscapes varied; the most shocking was Hukhmort, the soum built on sand. Several soums had no internet access. One had a legit karaoke club. From two of the soums we drove about 30 minutes to see sand dunes with a lake or a gorgeous marshland surrounded by mountains… made me wonder how these soums came to be where they were, rather than at the “Beautiful Place.”
– Our entire group stayed in the school’s dormitory. Regular public schools have dormitories to house the students whose families live in the countryside. As I understand it, this is free to them. The dormitories vary quite a bit from soum to soum: spacious rooms or small rooms, with bunks or singles. One dormitory, notable for its indoor plumbing, had been awarded Best Dormitory of 2012, with a cash prize of 500,000 togrogs (~$350).
– Our meals (mainly carbs, meat and pickles) were all provided, either room service by the school’s cafeteria or at a horkhok—a sort of picnic wherein the meat is cooked outside.
– I ate marmot, and liked it! It is a red meat, but soft like chicken. They don’t use much in the way of seasoning here, so it could only be even better. I didn’t know what a marmot looked like until I told my sister-in-law and she emailed me a picture (Tricia, you meanie); they’re so cute!
– In Darvi soum, we had a tour of the brand new kindergarten. I recall that, from the outside, it didn’t look very kindergarten-like, but the construction was first rate. The proud teachers demonstrated the kid-sized flush toilets and working sinks in each of the bathrooms; they had us wear booties to cover our shoes before allowing us on the classroom carpets.
– Students were enthralled by my ability to “bridge-shuffle” my deck of UNO cards. I think it was my cousin Allyson who taught me when I was around 10 or 11 and we played hours of Spite and Malice. So, a big thanks to you, cuz!
– I sang “my” Mongolian song at least 8 times. At each soum’s group event, my department colleagues insisted I sing it; at the last soum, one of the teachers insisted I sing it for each of her three classes. Би шинэ дуу хэрэгтэй (Be sheen doe herekhtay; I need a new song).
– Riding for hours at a time on unpaved roads is a skill that Mongolians have mastered. Reading and hat-making were out of the question for me, but, I kid you not, one of my colleagues threaded a needle and re-secured her purse strap, while I looked on tightening my grip on the seat in front of me. While they were slumped over napping, I was being tossed about, every which way, wishing I had a seatbelt, not for safety, but just to keep me tethered to the seat so that I didn’t crash back down after every bump or dip.
– I spent my “work” time observing teachers in the classroom and giving feedback, touring the schools, their facilities and the soum beyond the school, attending meetings (I stopped after 2 since I got little out of them and had nothing to add), and attending organized seemingly mandatory socializing events. I spent my “student” time answering questions (formally or not), reading short stories, teaching them UNO, teaching them an English song, or just visiting. I spent my “down” time, of which there was very little, reading, making a hat, or trying to keep up with my language studies.

On a personal note, I had already considered myself a flexible, resourceful, and patient person. But these experiences are testing those traits, even redefining them.

Pics of the soum visits can be found here.


showtime

February 7, 2013

The invitation was so casual; I had no idea what I was getting myself into a few weeks ago when my CP asked if I would sing my Mongolian song for Teachers’ Day. Without asking any questions (other than “When?”), I agreed. This would be my third official time singing Аяны Шувууд (Ay-nee Show-whoa), not counting the two wedding parties I never wrote about where, as tradition goes, at one point someone decides it is time to sing and each guest takes turns leading a song.

Not working in a classroom, I wouldn’t be experiencing the Teachers’ Day I’d heard about during PST. How an older student takes over teaching the lesson to her peers and a teacher might wear a student uniform to class. I wanted to be involved in some capacity, so I didn’t hesitate to agree.

The Wednesday before the Sunday performance, I rehearsed the song for the first time. The keyboardist took the song I knew as a ballad and made it double-time with a backing track that had none of the melody I would recognize. We also tried at the speed I was accustomed to, but they were all agreed it should be peppy. So, I went with it.

On Friday morning, I showed up at work as usual when my CP announced we were going to the theater for rehearsals. She and I had just wrapped up a 2-week stretch of working daily with the Govi-Altai Music Ensemble—about 30 singers, dancers and musicians—teaching them an English song for one hour, followed by an English lesson for the second hour. They were such a friendly, eager group to work with; they made my busiest two weeks, my best two weeks. Since they all sang when they were with me, I didn’t realize until that morning that I didn’t know how each of them actually fit into the ensemble. From my seat in the front row, the first dance performance made that clear. Three men, one of whom was the choreographer, took to the stage with moves resembling horse riding, squats-turned-kicks reminiscent of Russian dances, and lots of knee-to-stage impact that made me cringe in awe. It was riveting, and watching the men dance reminded me of my best guy friend in high school who channeled his energy and creativity to become an esteemed choreographer and dancer.

The scale of this performance was becoming clear, and the singers (not just the professionals, but the other laypeople like me) were so vocally gifted that I put my thoughts on being visually interesting to make up for my vocal shortcomings. Always one to move with the music anyway, and this song being made up tempo, I tried to incorporate movements consistent with the lyrics. Since the song is about love across a great distance, I used some from-me-to-you and from-you-to-me hand gestures, including a hug to myself. When I would sing about the traveling bird, I would flutter my left hand across the stage. I tried to keep it simple, partly so that I would be consistent from rehearsal to performance, and partly so that I didn’t too sharply contrast with the Mongolian singers who stood stoically throughout their songs, the better to showcase their voices.

Saturday was the dress rehearsal. With the costumes added to the performances of the day before, I had no doubt I was out of my league. At no point did I reconsider, however, because I could feel that everyone was supportive of my being involved and encouraging me to do my best. Maybe it helped that I had worked with them the past two weeks, but I think it was more their nature that allowed them to welcome this amateur into their folds.

Following the dress rehearsal, the Artistic Director gave feedback to the singers and I could tell it was related to everyone’s wardrobe by the way the man in the black suit looked down at his brown shoes. (Besides, members of the Ensemble wear their performance costumes so they weren’t there for this part.) The director actually called out my name and turned to my CP in the audience with a message, which she explained to me as “you need to wear tights and shoes” (instead of my black workout stretch pants and Mongolian boots). Well, we had already made plans to procure the items, accepting that my dress wasn’t nearly formal enough but it was the dressiest thing I’d brought, but the whole thing ended up being moot. When I arrived on Sunday at noon, I was met by eight Mongolian women and a large pink strapless dress. So, I went with it.

Perhaps it was my theater background that allowed me to undress in the middle of the auditorium with sixteen eyes upon me and the likelihood that more would arrive since they were expected. (Thankfully, that didn’t happen.) After a fair amount of adjusting by several of the women, sometimes me, sometimes the dress, it fit well enough but its length and the very high heels caused me to be unsteady on my feet. To my great surprise, my CP said that if it meant I couldn’t dance then I should wear my boots instead; no one would see them, and they liked my dancing that much! And that’s how Love happened to wear the most formal dress of her life with Mongolian winter boots underneath.

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In the green room, one of the singers, whose English is better than my Mongolian, said to me “sometimes, makeup.” So, I went with it. I borrowed some foundation, lipstick and mascara. There were several attempts to teach me the proper way (i.e., the ladylike way) to lift my dress so that I could walk without stepping on it, but that was expecting too much of the girl with the boots on.

The show went off without a hitch. The dancing couple nailed the lift they’d had trouble with in rehearsal. There were no wardrobe malfunctions. No singers were accused of lip-synching. The lights didn’t go out, which would happen at the Super Bowl later that day.

Immediately following the show, the education department whisked the entire staff (about 16 of us) out for dinner in a private karaoke room. They had me sing the bird song again, and a few English songs, too. I tried to sing along to their slower songs by reading the lyrics on the TV. It was an exhausting, but very worthwhile day. There are so many more songs I want to learn, and though not yet at the halfway mark, I already feel that my remaining time is short.

You can see pictures of the Teachers’ Day performances here.


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 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.