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.


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.


October 31, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Love.

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

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

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

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


October 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

But, I only speak English.

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 17, 2012

In case it ever comes up, cabbage is a decent substitute for lettuce in a BLT. Either that, or our longing for a connection to home was enough to fool our taste buds as we celebrated the 4th of July, our first holiday away, by making that classic sandwich. Really, any sandwich would have done since, though there is lots of bread in Mongolia, no one besides the Americans is putting things between two slices.

On the heels of our American Independence Day was a major Mongolian holiday, Naadam, also known as the Three Manly Sports. Now, I wouldn’t normally be interested in horseracing, archery, or wrestling, so I was glad that they also had musicians, singers and a few dance performances in the mix. That said, the rituals involved with the wrestling were intriguing and it was nice to see families spending time together and little kids flying kites. I enjoyed myself enough to plan to return to my soum for Naadam next summer.

The downside to the holiday (celebrated in our soum the week before National Naadam) was that we had two super-long weekends (i.e., we missed 5 total days of language class time). Before the break, we had our language assessment, though—20-minutes of me speaking in Mongolian!—which I was pretty comfortable with mainly because it kept to the most familiar topics. (By my count, we have about a 400-word vocabulary.) To fill our free time, I danced the night away at a soum “block-party” (how happy am I that my group dances!?), hosted group dinners, hiked a mountain, swam in a murky river, had a “Glamour Shots” photo shoot with my little sister, and played lots of Hozor. There was some studying too… just not enough for me to feel like it was enough.

I will leave you with this… my host family hosted one of those group dinners. They asked the Americans to sing along to the one Mongolian song we’ve learned called Traveling Bird—we were told that all Mongolians know this song and it is appropriate for any occasion—and we did pretty well. Then, quite unexpectedly, we were put on the spot to sing an American song—one that all Americans know—and we came up with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

New pics added here.