medical

April 1, 2014

Knock on wood; I’ve been a healthy person. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted; many a Thanksgiving my health has topped the list of things for which I am thankful. But, living in a developing country presents new challenges and managing even a run-of-the-mill cold may require more effort here than at home.

The two Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) in UB are responsible for our well-being. During PST, they give numerous trainings covering general health concerns and those specific to Mongolia. Topics covered include: alcohol (including the alcohol content of different drinks, alcoholism, alcohol as a means of escaping or coping), mental health (including the warning signs of depression and the methods of coping), dog bites, healthy eating (to the extent possible in soums with few vegetables), medications (which to use for which symptoms, what’s available in our individual med kits, what’s available by request from the PCMO), and sexual health issues (including sexual assault, alcohol and sex, Sexually Transmissible Infections and how to prevent them, and exploring the reasons people engage in sexual activity). That’s not an exhaustive list. Outside of trainings, our PCMOs also take care of in-country vaccinations, flu shots and annual physicals. When something goes wrong while we are at site, they make the decision to get us to UB so they can examine us in person. And if something goes really wrong, they make the decision to send us to Thailand for treatment. They are available 24/7 via an emergency number; of course, we are advised to troubleshoot non-emergency issues on our own first.

The Health Manual answers basic questions of symptoms and preliminary treatment and allows us to triage the more serious issues to the PCMOs. My first experience with the Health Manual was shortly after my arrival at site. I had an earache which isn’t something that I’m prone to getting. The earache was mild and short-lived so I never bothered with contacting the PCMOs about it. But I learned from the Health Manual that “for some inexplicable reason, a few Volunteers will develop excessive earwax during their time in Mongolia.” And it was true! For a while I was thinking to myself, “where’s all this ear wax coming from?” But since it wasn’t cause for concern, it wasn’t worth mentioning. I imagine it has something to do with the different climate and altitude and it’s probably further proof that I’ve adapted since over the 22 months here (wow!), my earwax has returned to “normal” levels.

The med-kit contains a medley of over-the-counter meds, a pair of rubber gloves, water-purifying tablets, rehydrating salts, condoms, an ace bandage, gauze, generic band-aids, bug spray, sunscreen, well, here’s a picture.

med_kitIf we need a resupply of things, we can request via phone call or email and they’ll mail it to us at site. I’ve gotten PCMO packages in 2 days!

The PC/Mongolia Cook Book I’ve touched on briefly before. But let me highlight the best thing about it, and where it differs from other cook books I’ve owned. This cookbook has recipes which only use ingredients we can get here. Other recipe books wanted fancy ingredients that I didn’t know where to buy or would only use a portion of before the remainder would spoil. This cook book is divided into two sections, Hungry Hudoo (for the Volunteers living in the countryside with fewer options) and Posh Corps (for the Volunteers in UB and those of us who have more variety). What this means is that I can make any of the Hungry Hudoo recipes and many of the Posh Corps recipes (except for the fact that I don’t cook meat or have an oven). But, armed with this cook book, I’ve learned to make: vegetarian chili, ginger tofu, black bean burgers, lentil burgers, any bean falafel, risotto, curry carrot soup, tomato soup, corn chowder, sweet and sour beets, peanut sauce, hummus, tzatziki, tortillas, no-bake cookies, rice cooker cake, and best of all, rice cooker brownies!!!

My reason for writing on this topic is that over the last 2 weeks I’ve had some experience with the Mongolian hospital in town and realized that I never really posted about our medical care here. So, now that I’ve done that, I’ll recount my experience.

Around the beginning of March I had a cold, nothing serious. The symptoms were a shallow cough, which morphed into a sore throat, before settling into a runny nose accompanied by sneezing a week later. I’m well familiar with Upper Respiratory Infections and back home I’d suffered through far worse symptoms before finally going to my Primary Care doc only to find I’d had walking pneumonia or bronchitis. I wouldn’t say I have a high tolerance for pain or am averse to medical treatment, but just that I procrastinated until I couldn’t any more.

But, with this particular cold, on a Tuesday night after English club, I felt a double earache coming on, the right side worse than the left. And, since I’m less familiar with these than the URIs, I consulted the Health Manual. I learned that earaches after colds could be a middle-ear infection, and that complication included a ruptured eardrum with the possibility of temporary hearing loss. As the pain was getting worse, I started freaking out a little (as much as I can freak out, which, to look at me, maybe you wouldn’t have known). I didn’t call the PCMO emergency number because, I reasoned, there was nothing they could do, or advise me to do, that would help immediately. I decided to call first thing in the morning.

It was a difficult night trying to sleep. The pain was worse when lying down. Sitting up didn’t help much, but it was an improvement. I’d taken Tylenol, which didn’t seem to make a difference, and I was worried about taking too many so I didn’t take any more. It was nearly 3am that I couldn’t stay awake anymore and tried to sleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was that there was no pain. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but it was a 1 or 2 vs. a 5 or 6 (on that 1-10 pain scale) so I was relieved. I could tell there was moisture in my ear, and sure enough, a cotton swab (and my pillow) showed a slightly bloody fluid. I assumed a ruptured eardrum, but my hearing, though muffled, was still there. Big sigh of relief!

Long story short, after gathering the information, the PCMO (who, just a few weeks prior, had visited our very hospital) authorized me to visit the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (which not all hospitals here have). Oyundar, the otolaryngologist, examined my ear, said, in English, “no puncture,” and reported back to an interpreter in UB who relayed the diagnosis to the PCMO. The PCMO then allowed me to be treated by the doc. That first day, when she inserted a 2-inch long strip of gauze, that had been dipped into a solution, into my ear, oh, joy! The remaining pressure I’d felt was relieved. And when I’d removed the strip of gauze 2 hours later, I could hear! It wasn’t permanent, meaning it blocked again when I blew my nose, but it was promising. I noticed that night, while lying in my bed in the absolute silence of night, that there was a bit of high-pitched ringing in my right ear.

Over the last 2 weeks, I have made 8 visits to the hospital. It’s pretty crowded in the lobby, where the registration window is, but I don’t have to register. Registered patients are given laminated, numbered tickets, just like you were at the deli. The ENT’s office is on the second floor, across from a pediatrician’s office, at the end of a corridor. One morning I counted 30 people waiting in the hallway. There are benches to accommodate 8-10 people. I wait alongside them, one day for nearly an hour, but once the doc knows I’ve arrived, she ushers me in and the visits are pretty routine. The door’s two glass panels are covered with opaque film, so waiting patients often poke their heads in to see what’s going on. During the third visit, the otolaryngologist charged me 10,500 tugs (about $6) to cover the total number of visits.

There hasn’t been any ear pain since that first night, and the ringing in the ear is gone (or, at least I can’t hear it anymore). She originally said 5 visits, so for the last 3 visits I’ve been asking, in Mongolian, “tomorrow, I don’t come, right?” But, she kept saying to come. Finally, today she wrote a prescription and we had to get the PCMO on the phone again, along with the translator. Turns out, she wants me to use steroid ear drops for the next three days. The PCMO approved this. She also wanted to give me an aloe injection. The PCMO rejected this. The doc and I were able to communicate using a sort of Mong-lish, and I understood that I am to take 2 drops every 8 hours, and return in 3 days. I took my script to the pharmacy and paid the 7,000 tugs (about $4) and remembered to ask for a receipt, my first time asking in Mongolian, so that Peace Corps can reimburse me.

I’ll be home in ~3 months and I look forward to hearing your voices in person!


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.

IMG_3869

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?


it’s British to me

March 8, 2014

Even though I knew the English textbooks in Mongolia were in British English, I’d only ever planned to teach my students American English, since that’s what I speak. Of course, I’d explain that both versions are correct; I’d never “fix” accurate British English just so a student or teacher sounded like me. With all the exceptions that any version of English already has, I never considered the added complication of learning different vocabulary and grammar as you are trying to learn the language. But, the real assumption was that I’d have no trouble understanding the textbooks and making the distinctions in the first place, let alone be able to point out the differences to my students.

I should have known better. Several years ago, in the Glasgow airport, I had a taste of what it is like to be aware that you must understand the words, and yet have no sense of the meaning.

Here’s what happened when I’d ordered a coffee:
Scottish barista: two sitor too tay quay?
Me: pardon me?
Scottish barista: tosit orto takeway?
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Scottish barista: to sit or to take ’way?
Me: OH! To take away. Thank you.

You’d think the context would have clued me in, and maybe I was lost in a traveler’s fog or succumbing to jet-lag, but I literally had no idea what she was asking. In my defense, some gestures on her part would have done a lot to clarify the meaning on my part. It wasn’t merely the Scottish inflection that threw me but the phrasing as well; in my part of America, we’d ask “for here or to go?”

Back in the classroom, what began as an absent-minded activity, “translating” words (torch=flashlight, post=mail, maths=math, football=soccer, cloakroom=coatroom) in my head, morphed into a sometimes frustrating attempt to decipher my mother tongue. On more than one occasion I assumed something to be a typo rather than one of the ways American and British English differ. “Have you got a brother?” Who talks like that? I didn’t know that a “jumper” was a sweater. I straight out told a teacher that the book was wrong because “sledging” is not a word. Turns out, it’s what you do when you go “sledding” in the U.K. And, apparently, a “zebra crossing” is what I’d call a cross-walk.

Early on, I wrote about the absence of prepositions in Mongolian. If we were only dealing with “on holiday” vs “on vacation” perhaps there’d be no confusion. Alas, these textbooks teach “at the weekend” which I can’t bring myself to say naturally, preferring “on weekends” or “this weekend” depending on the situation. And why do they have “at THE weekend” but “in hospital” when I’d say “in THE hospital.”

If I—a native English speaker—can suffer such confusion, what must it be like for my students?


Tsagaan Sar

February 5, 2014

Tsagaan Sar (meaning both white month and white moon) is Mongolia’s most revered holiday. It coincides with what Americans might refer to as Chinese New Year, though the Mongolians I mentioned that to didn’t like it one bit, and rightfully so, I think. Since they are celebrated completely differently, Mongolians should get the recognition of their own holiday for the Lunar New Year, which is a big deal here. I am the Year of the Dragon, as are my host mom and dad (they are 12 years older), which is why I wanted my new deel to have dragons.  🙂

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

Whereas Naadam is all fun and games, Tsagaan Sar is full of tradition and custom. The American equivalent to Tsagaan Sar would be if you took the food of Thanksgiving (not the actual food, of course, but that food is the centerpiece), the gift giving of Christmas (according to the Mongolian rules of gift giving), the fanciness of a formal New Year’s Eve gala (not that I ever attended one), combined the expense of those three holidays, and threw in some serious spring cleaning.

During the week or two prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians spend hours upon hours cleaning their homes in preparation for visits from family and friends. They go shopping for gifts to give those who come to their home. They prepare bite-sized, meat-filled dumplings (bansh, buuz) by the thousands to feed those who come to their home. Little work-work happens during this time, especially that week prior to Tsagaan Sar.

This year, I was able to help two friends with their bansh making. In both instances, all the preparation (rolling out the dough, filling the dough with meat, pinching it closed) took place on the floor. Very curious to me, given that this is such a musical culture, was that there was no music. I think of painting parties or such back home and there’s often music to occupy our minds while we do the task at hand. But here, in each home, the tv was on as background noise but what was on didn’t seem to matter. For all intents and purposes, bansh making was a very quiet affair.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat's worth of bansh.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat’s worth of bansh.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

The first morning of Tsagaan Sar some families watch the sunrise and circle the ovoo 3 times and give a milk offering. I was invited by Oyuna, one of my medical college ladies, to join her and her husband, who is one of my students at the vocational school. This time of year, in this part of the country, sunrise is about 9am. Unfortunately, the morning of Tsagaan Sar was overcast and cloudy, but at around the time of the sunrise, people around me raised their hands toward the sun. (It was the closest thing to religion I’ve seen here, apart from visiting a monastery during PST.) During the wait for the sun to rise, I’d entertained fantasies of returning home and taking a nap, since the first day of Tsagaan Sar is family day. At this point, I didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Now, I’ve just explained that Tsagaan Sar is a time to visit families, but I’m going to spell this out for you because I didn’t fully understand what that meant until I was a part of it. I went with Oyuna and her husband to Oyuna’s oldest family member’s home, then to Oyuna’s home. I was starting to question whether I should stay, or rather, whether I was supposed to go (being very aware of my gadaad hun (outside person) status, I wasn’t sure if my still being there was appropriate). So I asked and Oyuna said that I should stay with them because otherwise I would be alone and I shouldn’t be alone. I didn’t have a problem with being alone, but neither did I have a problem with accompanying her and experiencing Tsagaan Sar to the fullest.

So, here was my revelation: IT WAS THE SAME PEOPLE. I visited 4 apartments and 5 or so gers before I lost count. Oyuna later told me it was 13 homes altogether. You know how, in America, individuals host the big holiday and everyone gathers in that home, probably relieved that they could skip hosting this year? Yeah, that is not Tsagaan Sar. At Oyuna’s, the second stop, I recognized some people, either the people themselves or their fancy deels or hats, and dismissed it thinking, “well, of course they’d be here, they’re family.” But at the 3rd, 4th, and 5th homes, I finally understood. Everyone hosts everyone. It’s a wacky idea that they each take very seriously.

That morning, at the first home wearing our deels and hats, getting in a line from oldest to youngest, we did the formal greeting (zolgokh). This was done only once, and later in the day as newcomers (who’d been visiting spouse’s families?) arrived. But everything else was repeated at each home: the milk-tea, the plate of ham and pickles, the host presenting the tower of bread and candy or aruul and saying “eat, eat” (well, the Mongolian equivalent which sounds exactly the same!), the formal presenting of the snuff bottles, the bansh, the vodka, the gifts (10 hours later, I had 20,000 worth of crisp tugs, an assortment of chocolates, and a shampoo/conditioner set). By my estimate, I ate between 30-40 bansh that first day—nowhere near the PCV record of 130—and I was super proud of myself at this assimilation even as I longed to go home and floss.

Zolgokh. Elder's arms above, younger's below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Zolgokh. Elder’s arms above, younger’s below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true... someone was watching).

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true… someone was watching).

As Tsagaan Sar lasts 3 days officially, this scene played out a handful more times over the next two days, with me visiting a few friend’s and a few student’s homes. I’ve written 1000 words already, and included pictures, yet I feel I can’t really capture “what it was like” for you. During this time, and having little to do with how the Mongolians treated me, my emotions ran an intense gamut, including: being in awe (faced with the deep-seated tradition that I always found lacking in America), impatient (when will she call to invite me?), annoyed (at the short notice, “please come now”), overconfident (look at my shiny new deel!, as if that’s all it takes to fit in), shy (the only way I can reason not having taken advantage of this opportunity to speak Mongolian), frustrated (that I couldn’t be in control of my own food, especially the intake, “eat!”), incredulous (the snuff bottles, again? You just did that!), jaded (another sheep carcass on the table), exhausted. Was I a guest? An intruder? Is it possible to be at once ignored and the center of attention? Did I just sum up life as a PCV?

Last year, my M22 site-mate, Brittany, observed that, with a 27-month commitment, Peace Corps service gives you “a first time and a last time” to experience most of the holidays. As overwhelmed as I was, it is a bittersweet thought that I will not be here for the next Tsagaan Sar. Happy Year of the Horse!

Because I can't have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.

Because I can’t have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.


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.


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.

judging_group_shot


Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.