I’m in a guest house in UB now, after having moved out of Arvaikheer permanently, and everything’s a little too close and cluttered for me to say how I feel about all of that at the moment. I will say, though, that my final bus ride was less emotional than I would have liked it to be– mostly on account of the catholic nun seated next to me who wouldn’t stop cursing (isn’t there some kind of rule against that?) and expressing how upset she was that we kept breaking down. I suppose my surprise at her choice of language and the way I had to strain to stifle laughter actually kept me from sharing in her frustration, so that’s good.

Or maybe I was just all cried out. Saying goodbye to my community was way harder than I expected; being in Arvaikheer this summer, and not  America-ing and then training in UB like last year, allowed me to nurture some of my older friendships in a way I wasn’t able to before. I got super, super close to a lot of people at the last minute as a result.

And now for some scattered photo documentation.

Laura dancing on the way to Elsen Taserhai (ps– peep our flooded river)

Rocks at Elsen Taserhai

Laura running toward the dunes at Elsen Taserhai. My camera died for the most stunning part of this trip, so I’ll have to steal and upload some pictures from my friends later. This was kind of our last adventure before leaving– hot sand and beautiful sunlight and good company.

Ding Dong, with a keen eye on my going-away party supplies

Car 1 of my going-away party caravan. Back to front, L to R: Handaa, Oyunchimeg, Jargal, Uugana, Batmaa, Oyunaa. We went to the same river as the frozen one featured in my first ever post two years ago and had a huge sheep barbecue.

The  going-away party barbecue men, before the clothes came off. L to R: Tuvshoo, Baagii, Ukaa, Batbaatar, moi (but I wasn’t in any position to be handling fire, so they did all the work)

Somewhere between vodka shot #1 and vodka shot #16, I ended up in the river.

At some point the clothes went back on and the barbecue commenced

Two of the guys went to this dude’s ger nearby and borrowed some tongs from him, so he joined the party

And then the ladies started getting thrown in the river

Batbaatar, the guy who runs the gym I go to

Baagii, the guy who cuts my hair. I guess the clothes came off again.

Uugana, gearing up to own Baagii with two fistfuls of mud

I guess Baagii rubbed mud all over me. He also kicked me in the head and broke one of my toes when he threw me into the river. That dude is strong. Anyway, there were twenty or so Americans, Aussies, Brits, and Mongolians at the party. It was a really, really fun time– the  kind of party where you wake up the next morning and can relive the good moments through the physical pain you find yourself in.

I think it’s kind of cool that my first and last posts from this two-year experience have had wild party pictures taken at the same river. I’ll miss it– still not quite sure what else to say about that.

Two days after the river debauchery, my friend Oyun celebrated her birthday and the opening of her newly constructed house. Here are some photos:

Chimgee and Oyunchimeg

L to R: Oyunaa, Oyun’s sister-in-law, Oyun’s aunt, Oyun’s mom, the guy who built the house, and Chimgee

L to R: Oyun, Oyun’s brother, and Oyun’s sister-in-law

The only other thing I’m loading on here as of now are pictures of my school’s completed library (and yes, I did, in fact, finish it on the 28th–the day before I moved out of Arvaikheer.) I’d recently returned from UB with six boxes of books from the US Embassy and Asia Foundation, a brand new computer, and some other supplies. This stuff, in addition to the previous installations, was all removed and locked away while the room was being painted. I was afraid it would stay barren, so as soon as the walls dried, I threw the whole thing back together in three hours. Tada!

View from the glass/wood office partition. The side from which this photo was taken is the librarian’s office and the future site of the school’s non-foreign-language book section.

Some shelves are still empty, but I figure the next volunteer can do his or her thing with them.

Amber and Esu threw me a fabulous birthday bash at my favorite Indian restaurant in UB last night, and my camera was also batteryless at that time. I’m worthless with cameras, essentially. But I got a Madonna CD, a beautiful yak cashmere scarf, a bottle of wine, the complete works of Oscar Wilde, awesome time with 15 friends, and some delicious cake out of the evening. Luckily, Amber let me use her camera, so I’ll have some photos of that and the sand dunes pretty soon as a supplementary upload. I’m not gonna do another post, though, I don’t think– this is the last.

On that note, I have no closing thoughts for now– none, at least,  other than a bit about my ever increasing inadequacy to make sense of my experiences through words. I look back at my old posts from two years ago and think, “what a tool that person was”– mostly because I tried to compartmentalize and understand everything based on the contrasts between my own personal culture and that of my surroundings here in Mongolia. That’s not the right approach, I’ve learned. I no longer try to illuminate things for myself through contrasts, because no matter how sensitive and politically correct we think we are in doing so, to write about those contrasts is to inadvertently elevate ourselves above our material. At least the way I was doing it. I like to think, then, that my experiences have reshaped the way I view myself in cultural context, and this is one of the  most valuable changes I think I’ve made. I guess what I’ve learned is that my personal culture is more a product of my personal surroundings, as opposed to something separate that can be juxtaposed against my environment and observed. Or something. I’m just sad to go. And happy to go home. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but I don’t yet know where I’ll post it.

I’m gonna miss this place  more than I know how to say.

Thanks for tuning in, friends.

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A quick and disjointed account of all things recent.

News and Happinesses

  1. Peace Corps finally approved the library project outlined in a recent post,  so my school will soon be able to acquire the necessary materials to set up a comfortable, student-centered, student-run learning space with books and electronic resources in several languages.
  2. Remember the sinus infection I spoke of in the last entry? Well, interestingly, it morphed into an eye infection that caused blood and mucus to seep through my tear ducts and glue my eyelids shut every night while I slept. But I kicked it! To be safe, though, let’s slap a huge “knock on wood” on this post to avoid jinxing myself any further. In fact, readers, please print this entire passage out, hastily duct tape it to a crowbar, and slam it twice into the largest tree you can find in your forested mid-Atlantic or New England community.
  3. One of my sitemates recently wrote a proposal that funded over 20,000 dollars’ worth of new beds, blankets, and furniture for a secondary school dormitory that houses herders’ children from all over the province. Let’s put some good vibes out there so that the rest of the funds (for new windows and flooring) will go through!
  4. I reserved a spot on the list of people COSing (close-of-service-ing?) on July 15th, which is the first possible day to end service in Mongolia in 2010. Seeing that in print kind of freaked me out; two years are being swallowed up faster than I’d ever thought possible.
  5. I was able to buy a week’s worth of healthy food– food that might return some vitamins to my system and prevent my eyes from bleeding– for less than one percent of an extremely generous gift from a certain family member (thanks Mema!)
  6. I’m considering finding an alternative source of kindling for my stove. Mongolians believe that it’s extremely bad to put things like used tissues (among other taboo items)  into the stove when building a fire. They sometimes refer to the Fire God, who is traditionally thought to live inside the stove of every ger. In Arvaikheer, at least, this is more of a folk concept than a real belief; still, though, some families adhere strictly to the spirituality of what can and can’t be burned.  I was reprimanded by Zaya Egch (my hashaa mom/big-sister) for having saved used tissues in a box next to my stove for later use as kindling last October. She said I would make her whole family sick if I burned them.  I regret to say that, since then, I’ve been saving the tissues in a hidden location in my ger and burning them every night. I figure I’m sick too often to waste the two-birds-one-stone opportunity of getting rid of the bio-waste while having a quick firestarter material. But we’ve all been sick all winter, so maybe it’s time I switch back to newspaper.
  7. Much of the first four seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess appears to have taken place in ancient Mongolia. Way to go, Rob Tapert and Flat Earth Productions.
  8. America has totally out-wintered Mongolia this month, so I no longer feel okay complaining about the harsh conditions here unless I’m spilling it to someone who lives in Bombay or Hawaii.
  9. I’m waiting to hear back from three grad schools. I’d forgotten what this kind of excited anxiety felt like…it restores some youth to my spirit.  Cross your fingers I’ll get accepted and offered some outrageous tuition waiver, and then force the stranger sitting next to you at the wi-fi coffee shop to cross his or her fingers as well. He or she will understand. If not, threaten him or her with the crowbar from point 2.
  10. I discovered last night that my carbon monoxide detector works, and my ear drums have the rupture scars to prove it.

This is as far as I could open 'em when I woke up.

I don't have a mirror in my ger, so I took pictures of the pus-eye to see what was up.I don’t have a mirror in my ger, so I was checking the eye infection with a camera.

Le Pièce de résistance: peep that mucus, folks.Le Pièce de Résistance: Peep that mucus, folks.

The Things I’m Looking Forward To

  1. Seeing my students researching, pleasure reading, and relaxing quietly between classes in the soon-to-be-completed Merged School library.
  2. A respite from the cold, even if it means sandstorms are on their way.
  3. Getting my 10th and 11th grade students involved in a project to redo the English translations for the labels of all of the fascinating items at the Arvaikheer museum, where I was locked inside the dinosaur exhibit by myself with the lights off for almost a half hour last week [and what’s a “Dinny Bone?” A lot of big steppe dinosaurs had them, according to the displays that kept me company while I was waiting to be released.]
  4. Sushi…just sushi.
  5. Seeing my sister at the end of July.
  6. Wrestling with my 70-kilogram German Shepherd at my parents’ new farmhouse.
  7. Tsagaan Sar!  Saturday is Bituun, or Tsagaan Sar Eve, and that means the season of traditional dress, extreme buuz-eating, and brashik (fermented seabuckthorn juice) is upon us! My favorite part of winter.
  8. Using the new Korean chin-up bar at the gym down the mountain (what makes it Korean, I’m not sure. But those things work.)
  9. Starting up a guitar club at my school after Tsagaan Sar. Some organizations in America have expressed an interest in spearheading the funding part, so that should be cool.
  10. The continued use of the three woolen blankets and thick camel fleece bedpad I just bought at the market.  I’d been using crusty old Peace Corps emergency blankets before, and I think these may have been adding to my legion physical problems. I used the old blankets to insulate my walls, and the heat just keeps building and building in this little ger of mine!

I’m sure there’s a lot more that should go in this list, but I’ll leave it at 10 and 10 with a few nasty snapshots. More later.

It’s 3:07 a.m. I can’t sleep. It might have something to do with the raging sinus infection I have–you know, the one I somehow managed to contract while killing a debilitating throat infection with a ten-day course of bubonic plague medication. There is some wild pathogenic magic going on in these parts. I think the plague pills were so strong that they tricked my immune system into believing it wasn’t needed anymore.

Anyway, what better or more productive way to spend insomnia than to engage in my favorite computer pastime (second only to watching “Xena: Warrior Princess,” of course): uploading pictures to my blog.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have had some extremely warm weather. It’s been up in the high 20’s (Fahrenheit) for about a week now. The ways in which a warm spell can remind you what it felt like before the Mongolian Winter set in are startling; your eyes don’t freeze, your running nose doesn’t freeze, and it doesn’t hurt to take a full breath of air in. Check my unwashed faux-hawk, sans hat. No frostbite this week!

(several volunteers, including myself, have suffered frostbite on their ears and noses in the past few weeks. It ain’t pretty.)

It was warm enough recently for me to hike up to Undurlig with a few visitors. I even took my jacket off for part of the walk.

This is Marisa, a Peace Corps Volunteer from the new M20 group. She’s a ton of fun. She came down to Arvaikheer to chill with us for a few days and relax in the relative warmth. Another visiting friend, Tysen, also came on the hike, but all of the pictures of me and him together on the mountain are heinous. Sorry, Tysen.

Once at the top , I pointed down to the Wishing Tree (mentioned in a previous entry) and asked if they were interested. We ended up walking down there to find that we’d intruded upon an elderly woman’s private wishmaking time…She was wandering around the tree and crying, all the while mumbling and clutching a bottle of vodka. I lamented the fact that, after almost two years, I’m still not familiar enough with communicational norms to have asked her if she was ok. Instead we continued on down the mountain and returned to my ger.

The following days were much colder, though still warm enough to produce precipitation. We had some of that  frozen-cloud-snow– the kind that blankets the ground in a dusting of ice particles that are much smaller than the average snowflake. It can’t even be seen in the air when it’s falling unless it’s caught at the right angle to the sun, but it accumulates and looks something like snow after a few hours. Interestingly, huge storm-like clouds dumped this type of snow in the mountains around Arvaikheer today, but never entered the town.I managed to snap some pictures (and sorry about the weird floaters in some of the images):

^This one was taken on my way back from work today, and the one below was from my street. If you look closely, you can see snow falling in the distance in both of them.

So, if I were to try to summarize this entry thus far with any adherence to its title, I’d say the things that make me happy lately are 1))making light of frostbite and bacteria-on-virus action, visitors, and frozen cloud-fall seen from miles away. But all of this is just pretext for debuting my favorite part of every day: MY LITTLE BOY!

His name’s Ding-Dong, which is actually not a Mongolian word or anything. My extremely precocious 3 year-old brother named him. He probably heard it on a cartoon or in a song. Ding-Dong is tied to a runner during the day, and whenever I approach him, he gets extremely excited and wants to bite my ankles and jump all over me. The following images kind of illustrate that, I think.

I should mention here that most Mongolians’ relationship to dogs is not characterized by the same love and friendship as it is in, say, American culture. Captive dogs serve a very specific purpose–to defend the hashaa, or yard, against intruders. They are never allowed inside under any circumstances (except in UB, where they’re sometimes owned as pets). They are usually never touched or spoken to in an affectionate way, and people often throw stones at them or kick them when they’re allowed to roam the alleys. [A lot of UB residents get offended when they read posts like this and insist that it’s not true, but most of these people don’t spend time in countryside places like Arvaikheer. So please take my word that I see this almost every single day and am NOT lying to make Mongolia seem inhumane].

Anyway, this little boy is the happiest part of my day. I love him. I play with him and feed him and talk to him so much that the dog next door, who watches jealously through slits in the fence that divides our hashaas, has come around asking for the same attention. That funny little neighbor even walks me into town sometimes.

This is me trying to wrangle Ding-Dong into a photo. He’s such a love!

K, It’s getting late and I’m starting to fade. I’ve talked myself through feeling okay about not going to work tomorrow…I love my daily life, but the Winter routines are catching up with me and making it impossible for me to get healthy again. So if you were one of the people who had to listen to me convince myself that I deserve a break tomorrow, thanks. More later!

Mountain Stuff

January 23, 2010

Sometimes I like to get above the town to Undurlig (Mongolian for ‘peak’)  for a few minutes to kind of center myself whenever the weather permits. I used to have to walk an hour to get there when I lived on the south side.  Now, though, it’s right behind my house. (Many of you might be bored to death by the same photos I take every time I go up there, but I don’t care, because I love posting them.) Today the temperatures on my mountain were about 20 degrees warmer than they were downtown, so I decided to walk up there for the first time in a while and relax for a bit.

I usually sit right here:

and while I was up there today I listened to this song:

It’s called “My Juvenile,” by Bjork and Antony Hegarty. The original video is nowhere to be found, but luckily a bunch of youtubers made their own (and the above is one of those). I started listening to it a lot when I first got to Mongolia. For me, at least, the minimalist makeup of it kind of lends itself well to looking out over vast expanses of land and letting my mind browse all of the intense and amazing things that have happened in my life over the past few years. I think it holds a special significance to me because of the fact that it’s about a son growing up and leaving home. Listen to the lyrics–they’re actually really poignant.

After I sit for a while, I usually head north and down aways to the Wishing Tree. It was set up by some monks last August, and since then Arvaikheer residents have been tying traditional sacred bolts of cloth to it and making wishes. I walk around it three times, as is common here, and think about all of the nice things I’d like to happen for my family back in America. Out of respect I won’t upload any pictures of it, but I’ll put one up of the stone pile next to it. Circumlocution around the stone pile three times is a kind of blessing which I think is borrowed from Shamanism. At some point during each rotation, people usually throw a pebble onto the pile.

It was a perfect hike. Getting up in the mountains from time to time is essential for me; I need the peace and quiet and visibility of it all to remind myself of where I am, and to purge all the little anxieties and confusions of everyday life here. It’s just an extremely positive feeling.

Also, look at this awesome hat I bought yesterday:

Victory in suede and faux-fur.

Library Project

January 21, 2010

Hello to everyone who reads this thing! I’m posting the proposal from the library renovation project I mentioned in a recent post. My counterparts and I have been working on it for a few months now and trying to secure funding, and some parties have expressed interest in giving material support of one kind or another. We’re trying really hard to get this thing done before I leave for good in July. (Fyi, the school is pronounced “Mer-ged”, and not like the English word “merged”).  The formatting is a bit strange from the paste-in, but check it out anyway:

Refurbished Library Project Proposal

Agency:

Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language

Arvaikheer Soum

Uvurkhangai Aimag

Project Facilitators:

B. Unurbayn, English Language Department Team Leader

Z. Zolzaya, English instructor

Oyunirden, English instructor

Patrick Hamilton, English instructor

D Dulamsuren, Japanese instructor.

S. Erdenbileg, Director

Chimeddorj-Oedov, Network specialist

Executive Summary

Students at Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language were forced to leave their former school facilities last April due to structural concerns, and the new buildings were not large enough to accommodate both classrooms and space for the contents of the previous library. Even when the old library was operational, its resources and accessibility  fell short of students’ and teachers’ requirements. Recent renovations and the upcoming completion of a new and larger building have opened up new space for a refurbished library, and the faculty and students are very excited at the prospect.

We intend to open a new library in order to restore independent learning and pleasure reading to the routines of the student body and to continue to improve on the general quality of education at Merged. Part of this process will be to engage our enthusiastic upperclassmen in a student-librarian program that will maximize student control and participation in the management and usage of library resources. Not only will involving students in the program bring them closer to their learning materials, but it will also ensure project sustainability in the future.

Needs assessment conducted among the student population has yielded results that are in overwhelming support of the construction of this library [see Appendix 1]. The available resources at Merged have already enabled us to begin work on the library, and schools and organizations overseas have already pledged their material support in the form of over 1,000 books. With the proper funding to acquire the remaining necessary items, and with careful monitoring and evaluation through frequent surveys and checks carried out among students and teachers, the full educational potential of our library can be reached.

The implementation of the new Library will serve as a tremendous improvement for all of the departments at Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language. This project will increase student involvement and hands-on participation in library resource management, encourage the use of new electronic learning tools, and promote extracurricular activities, research, and pleasure reading in an open study area and in the home. The augmentation of our book collection in a brand new space will bring a level of sophistication and student-control to the scholastic culture of Merged that will surely contribute to its national reputation and bring new opportunities to its much deserving pupils.

Total Project Cost: 5,141,000 MNT— $4,284.17 USD

Community Contribution: 3,506,000 MNT—$2,921.67 USD

Funding Request: 1,635,000— $1,362.50 USD


Project Background

The Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language in Uvurkhangai has maintained a competitive position in Mongolian education since it opened to Arvaikheer’s students in 1998. The school offers clean, well-equipped facilities to students from kindergarten- to eleventh-grade on tracks in math, science, and/ or foreign languages. These students have historically ranked among the top in national standardized tests and competitions—particularly in the areas of Mathematics, English, and Japanese.

This year, however, the old secondary school building was abandoned due to structural problems and its students were moved to the newer building. The school’s library remained in the old building, and all of its rather limited contents have been locked away and unavailable to students since last April. When 400 Merged students from grades five through eleven were given a survey to determine the necessity and intended usage for a new library space with more books, 64% of the students purported to have used the library on a regular basis prior to the abandonment of the old building  (see Appendix 1).  Merged teachers are therefore concerned that losing the library will hinder their students’ ability to use school resources to go deeper into the subjects they are studying or to continue research on their own.

There is also no longer a place for them to study or browse through books between classes, and nowhere for them to use computers.  In the same survey, students reported that having a quiet place to study in the building between classes and after school was the most important aspect they hoped to enjoy in a new library [see Figure 6]. Over 94% of students reported that they would make regular use of a library if it were to be refurbished, and 82.5% expressed that they would be interested in participating in a student-librarian program designed to help the student population have more hands-on involvement in library resource management [see Appendix 1] [see figure 2].

Renovations being carried out at the newer building have created new opportunities for infrastructural improvements, and the school is enthusiastic about the prospect of converting a large room for teachers into a student-centered library containing books in Mongolian, English, Japanese, and Russian, in addition to children’s books, books on physics, history, science, mathematics, and test preparation. Our director and training manager have already offered a space for the new library and helped to divide the responsibilities of setting it up among members of the faculty.

Many of the resources required for finishing the new library are already available at the school, including computers and other electronic learning tools. Additionally, electronic resources in several languages—Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French, and German—were acquired by the school and will encourage students to take the initiative to learn independently through pleasure reading and browsing to build new language skills [see Figure 5].

Goals and Objectives

1. To increase the amount of available learning resources at the school

Objective 1.1. Acquire books in several languages for all the subjects offered at Merged

Objective 1.2. Set up electronic learning resources (language software, Internet, movies, cds, etc.) and their corresponding technologies in the library for open student usage

2. To encourage students to utilize a variety of learning tools for any subject

Objective 2.1. Hold tutorial sessions on library technology and book borrowing protocol

Objective 2.2. Integrate scheduled library usage into each class group curriculum

3. To encourage out-of-class learning and to provide students with a space for scholastic and extracurricular activities

Objective 3.1. Advertise and maintain open study hours throughout the week

Objective 3.2. Advertise and recruit for clubs and organizations to be held in the library (foreign language clubs, math and science clubs, book clubs, etc.)

4. To improve the quality of language education at the school

Objective 4.1. Provide a centralized location for students to hone their language skills in all of the languages offered at our school via software, the use of written resources, Internet, electronic media, and contact with other students

Objective 4.1. Provide a wide array of resources in languages not offered at the school in order to help students who wish to learn other languages

5. To allow students a place to study and have total control over the information at their disposal in a quiet, user-friendly   learning environment

Objective 5.1. Keep the library open from the time school starts to the time it ends

Objective 5.2. Keep library resources and facilities accessible and student-centered

6. To develop students’ and instructors’ comfort in using and maintaining library resources

Objective 6.1. Create a sustainable part-time rotating student-librarian program which would maximize student involvement in the initiation and  continuation of the library

Objective 6.2. Train student librarians in assisting library users with library resources

Project Description

With a combination of support from the Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language and resources from The Asia Foundation, we will go to UB to secure books in Mongolian, English, Japanese, and Russian, in addition to children’s books, books on physics, history, science, mathematics, and test preparation. While in the city, we will also use acquired funds to purchase the necessary repair materials, a rug, and whiteboards for the room. Upon returning to Arvaikheer, the books we secure will be kept in our storage facility until the language faculty, carpenters, and student volunteers have finished setting up the library’s furnishings. Carpenter Ts. Baatar will be commissioned to build five large shelves and three large desks.

We will then transfer the previously acquired electronic learning resources to each of the five computers in the new room and hold student librarian managerial elections. Ten students from our Merged tenth- and eleventh-grade volunteer pool will fill daily library-monitoring shifts of three periods each, Monday through Friday (five student-librarians per day with rotation). One library manager will be elected during this time to help oversee the creation and maintenance of the librarian schedule, to aid in the training of student librarians in the checking out of books and software usage, and to ensure student librarian responsibility.

In training the student librarians, Oyunirden, Unurbayn, and Zolzaya will hold three sessions during the second week of the first month to instruct the volunteer librarians on how to keep books catalogued and record book transactions, how to monitor student library usage, how to log hours, and how to assist class groups who have come to carry out their research and class activities. We will also get the assistants acquainted with the accompanying electronic learning resources, with anti-viral software acquisition and implementation, and with computer hardware. This part of the process will involve hands-on usage of the facilities and simple demonstrations, followed by a short quiz to test their knowledge on the material covered.

The final step in this project will be the process of familiarizing the teachers and students of our school with the library facilities and integrating its usage into their curricula. Each of the instructors at Merged will take his or her individual class groups to the library, and these groups will take turns occupying the library for the completion of research projects and class activities on rotating schedules throughout the week.  Debriefing meetings will be held on Fridays between faculty facilitators and student librarians to monitor the success of the project and to discuss new ideas and improvements.

The recent construction at Merged has created a competition for space inside the newer building, and therefore securing a set and accessible library room for the students will provide them with a place to organize into more extracurricular clubs and activities without having to work against the busy schedule of lessons in other classrooms. Students will be able to maintain consistent English Club, Japanese Club, Chinese Club, Poetry Club, Internet Club, and Book Club meetings in the new library while at the same time having immediate access to the materials they may need during club meetings.

Among the more beneficial aspects of creating this new library will be the peer-tutoring program we have already begun to organize. The library will provide young learners with the opportunity to improve on their studies not only through independent research, but also through scheduled tutoring hours with advanced students in every subject. This, paired with the aforementioned student librarian program, will set the stage for a new level of student responsibility and preparedness for the time after graduation.

Action Plan Summary

Action Facilitator(s) Time frame
Acquire language books from Asia Foundation, etc Zolzaya, Patrick Week 4, Month 1
Book categorization and cataloguing Patrick, Senior students Week 4, Month 1
Acquire room materials Erdenbileg, Zolzaya, Patrick Week 4, Month 1
Room layout and set-up Zolzaya, Patrick, senior students Week 1, Month 2
Language software computer transfer Oedov, Patrick Week 2, Month 2
Student librarian and managerial elections Oyunirden, Unurbayn, Zolzaya, Week 2, Month 2
Training of student librarians and creation of librarian rotating schedule Patrick, Unurbayn Week 2, Month 2
Implementation of student librarian program Unurbayn, Zolzaya, Oyunirden, Patrick Weeks 3-4, Month 2
Software training, internet set-up, and integration of the library into department curricula Oedov, Oyunirden, Unurbayn, Patrick, Zolzaya Week 4, Month 2
Monitoring and Evaluation (logs, surveys, quizzes and exams, etc.) Student Librarians, Unurbayn Weeks 1-4, Month 3

Potential Library Usage Breakdown

The following is a hypothetical weekly lineup of activities and scheduled usage periods for the library:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
8:00-8:40

(student librarian 1)

10b class research time Open study Mongolian Language track research time Physics track research time Open study
8:40-9:20 (student librarian 1) Open study 9A English  class research time 11b English class research time Open study Open study
9:25-10:05 (student librarian 1) 10A English class research time 9b English class research time 11A English class research time Open study Open study
10:15-10:55 (student librarian 2) Open study Open study Physics track research time History track research time English read-aloud time with primary students 3
10:55-11:35 (student librarian 2) Electronic resource tutoring time Internet Club Open study English read-aloud time with primary students 2 History track research time
11:40-12:20 (student librarian 2) Open study Open study English read-aloud time with primary students 1 Open study Open study
12:20-1:00 student librarian 3 Open study Open study Open study 8a Japanese language research time 5A, b English class research time
1:00-1:55 (student librarian 3) Mongolian Language class research time 8b English Class research time 7a Japanese class research time 8b Japanese language research time 6A, b English class research time
1:55-2:35 student librarian 3 7g English class research time 7b English class research time 7b Japanese class research time Open study Open study
2:40-3:20 (student librarian 4) Chinese Club Open study time Japanese Club Open study Book Club
3:30-4:10 (student librarian 4) Open study English Club Test preparation assistance hour Russian Club Foreign Language Peer Tutoring
4:10-4:50 (student librarian 4) Poetry Club 10A Japanese   class research time Open study Open study Maths and Sciences Peer Tutoring
4:55-5:35 (student librarian 5) Foreign Language Peer Tutoring 10b Japanese class research time Japanese Movie Night Open study Open study
5:35-6:15 (student librarian 5) Maths and Sciences Peer Tutoring open study Open study English Movie Night
6:15-6:55 (student librarian 5) Open study Open study Open study Teachers’ English Club Open study

Sustainability

Integration of the library into Merged curricula will provide students with continued access to reference materials, electronic learning resources, foreign language books and software,  and pleasure reading toward a general improvement of the quality of education at the school.  Eleventh-grade students involved in the management and monitoring of the room will be in charge of assisting the faculty facilitators in recruiting and co-training new student librarians and managers for the following year prior to leaving Merged. Incumbent tenth-grade student librarians can also choose to run for the position again for their final year of school.

Current enthusiasm among students of all ages at Merged suggests that such a project, if designed and implemented according to plan, would be willingly and responsibly continued into the future despite potential volunteer absence [see Appendix 1]. Tenured faculty involvement is also very strong with this project, and that tends to be a main factor in the future continuation of, or disregard for, such endeavors.

Risks and Mitigations

As mentioned earlier, competition for teaching space is rising among teachers in the midst of the recent construction projects going on at Merged. However, our director and training manager are extremely adamant about the conversion of the current teacher’s lounge into a permanent library, and this should prevent any other parties from attempting to take over the space.

Resources

Refurbished Library Cost Evaluation

Item qty Unit Cost Total Cost Requested Funds (MNT) Arvaikheer
(MNT) (MNT) Community Contribution (MNT)
Books / 0 0 0 0
Carpet (rug) 2 50,000 100,000 0 100,000
Chairs 15 28,000 420,000 0 420,000
Couches 1 450,000 450,000 450,000 0
Large desks 3 60,000 180,000 0 180,000
Desktop computers 5 500,000 2,500,000 0 2,500,000
Dvd player 1 30,000 30,000 30,000 0
DVD’s / 0 0 0 0
Electrical outlet installation (renovation) 1 50,000 50000 0 50,000
Facilitator’s desk 1 45,000 45,000 45,000 0
Flooring (renovation) 1 400,000 400,000 400,000 0
Headphones 4 10,000 40,000 40,000 0
Internet (installation) 1 120,000 120,000 0 120,000
Keys 5 1,000 5,000 0 5,000
Paint (renovation) 5 5,000 25,000 0 25,000
Posters 10 5,000 50,000 0 50,000
Shelves 5 50,000 250,000 250,000 0
Software / 0 0 0 0
21” TV 1 300,000 300,000 300,000 0
UB Transport for Zolzaya and Patrick 2 28,000 56,000 0 56,000
Whiteboard/ 2 60,000 120,000 120,000 0
blackboard
Total Cost (MNT) 5,141,000 1,635,000 3,506,000
Total Cost (USD) $4,284.17 $1,362.50 $2,921.67

Funds Management:

An alternate joint account at Khaan Bank will be opened in Zolzaya’s and PCV Patrick Hamilton’s names. All funds will be directly transferred to this account. Proof of requisite amounts for specific items, including the furnishing materials and technological resources stated previously, will be recorded by Zolzaya and Patrick during the purchase of said items.

Resources Available at Merged

Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language is willing to provide the space for our library, to cover the cost of Internet and concurrent monthly fees to be installed on our computers, of a rug, of large desks, of chairs, electrical outlet repair, and of foreign language posters for the walls. It is also willing to cover the cost of transportation to and from Ulaanbaatar for resource acquisition for Zolzaya and Patrick. We have the proper electronic learning tools at our disposal, and the school already has some books and materials in the old library.

All available computers were purchased by the school. Desks and chairs will be commissioned from a local carpenter, Ts. Baatar.

The Barnesville School in Buckeystown, Maryland, has donated a shipment of 1,000 elementary English language books to our Merged Library. These books will arrive in mid- to late-January. The local government of Okayama, Japan, will also be donating a shipment of Japanese language books and CD’s by the end of January 2010.

Monitoring and Evaluation:

Visitor satisfaction surveys will be placed on the facilitator’s desk in the library, and all users will be encouraged to fill one out before leaving the library [see Appendix 2]. This data will be compiled and discussed at weekly student librarian debriefing meetings with members of the faculty project staff. Mandatory post-setup completion surveys will also be distributed to all of the students making use of the facilities via their respective instructors after the first month (and every other month for the first year) to gauge their levels of satisfaction with the facilities and student librarians, involvement in library extracurricular activities and clubs, personal achievement standards, number of books checked out, and frequency of personal and/or extracurricular use [see appendix 4]. Weekly quizzes, personal interviews, and monthly exams will be given on the specific material covered during lessons conducted in the library or for lessons that made use of library materials and/or resources. The survey process will be repeated with addenda at the end of the year to evaluate overall faculty and student satisfaction.

Monitoring

Monitoring Question Source of Information Method(s) of Acquiring Information Responsibility Timeframe/ Frequency
What is the level of student satisfaction with the new facilities? Student library users Surveys available at library facilitator’s desk, compiled and discussed at student librarian debriefing meetings; student interaction with librarians Unurbayn, Student

librarians

Once weekly
What is the level of student satisfaction with student librarians? Student library users Surveys available at library facilitator’s desk, compiled and discussed at student librarian debriefing meetings Unurbayn, Student librarians *Librarians can ask library users to fill out a survey before they leave at any time
Are students making good use of the library outside of class? Student librarians Student librarian observations, discussed at student librarian debriefing meetings Unurbayn, Student librarians Once weekly

Evaluation

Evaluation Question Source of Information Method(s) of Acquiring Information Responsibility Timeframe/ Frequency
Is in-class library time having a positive influence on student performance? Teachers, Students Mandatory surveys (from students’ perspective); in-class research presentations; exams; teacher debriefing meetings; quarterly grades D Dulamsuren

Patrick Hamilton

Oyunirden

Z. Zolzaya

B. Unurbayn

S. Erdenbileg

Chimeddorj-Oedov

Monthly; end of each quarter
Are students’ foreign language abilities increasing due to room usage? Faculty, Students, competitions/ standardized tests, Exams and Quizzes Mandatory surveys (from students’ perspective); Personal Interviews; Teacher Interviews; Exam and Quiz Scores D. Dulamsuren,

Patrick Hamilton,

Oyunirden,

Z. Zolzaya,

B. Unurbayn

Monthly; end of each quarter
Are students reading more for pleasure now that the library has been open and available to them? Faculty, Student Librarians Mandatory surveys (from students’ perspective), Personal Interviews; Book Transaction Records; Student Librarian Observations Student Librarians, D. Dulamsuren,

Patrick Hamilton,

Oyunirden,

Z. Zolzaya,

B. Unurbayn

Monthly
Is the number of checked-out  books increasing through library activity and social programming (extracurricular activities, info sessions, class work, etc). Student Librarians Book transaction records Student Librarians, B. Unurbayn Monthly, end of each quarter
Which clubs and extracurricular activities have been most helpful/ enjoyable? Students Mandatory surveys (from students’ perspective) Student Librarians, D. Dulamsuren,

Patrick Hamilton,

Oyunirden,

Z. Zolzaya,

B. Unurbayn

Monthly
What is the most useful resource (technology or personnel) available at the library? Student Librarians Mandatory surveys (from students’ perspective) B. Unurbayn, Student Librarians Monthly

Appendix 1: Library Needs Assessment Surveys

Student Survey

Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language is conducting a survey to determine potential interest in the creation of a new library. Please carefully consider all questions and answer honestly.

  1. Did you ever read or study in the old library before it was closed?

Yes—256/400 = 64%            No—144/400 = 36%

  1. If the library were to be reopened at Merged, would it encourage you to read more?

Yes—377/ 400 = 94.25%       No—0 = 0%     (no answer) = 23/ 400 = 5.75%

  1. How many hours per week do you think you would make use of a new library? (Figure 1)

1—31/400 = 87.75%

2—82/400 = 20.5%

3—90/400 = 22.5%

4—58/400 = 14.5%

5—60/400 = 15%

more than 5—79/400 = 19.75%

  1. Would you be interested in participating in a student-librarian program in a new library?

Yes—330/ 400 = 82.5%          No—62/400 = 15.5%            No answer—8/400 = 2%

  1. What kinds of books would you most like to have available in a new library? (Figure 3)

Literature (Novels, Poems, Articles)—169

History books—187

Language and Grammar books—211

Math- and science-related books—180

Other—88

  1. What kinds of activities would interest you in a new library space? (Figure 4)

English club—171

Chinese club—37

Japanese club—121

Book club—65

Poetry club—33

Essay writing prep—37

Peer tutoring—15

Computer club—152

Foreign songs club—68

Other—47

  1. In addition to English, what other languages might you be interested in learning or improving your skills in via new library resources?  (Figure 5)

German—86

Spanish—19

Russian—142

Japanese—158

Chinese—75

Arabic—8

French—62

Other—30

  1. What would you like to see yourself accomplish/learn/be able to do after using the new library facilities? (Figure 6)

Use new books and library resources—174

Improve communication skills—103

Develop your reading, writing, and listening skills—137

Spend more of your free time in a quiet study place—191

Improve your knowledge of how to conduct research—165

Other—33

  1. In your opinion, how much would opening a new library in Merged improve your studies? (figure 2)

Very much—332/ 400 = 83%

Somewhat —39/400  = 9.75%

Not very much—8/400 = 2%

I don’t know—21/400 = 5.25%

Appendix 2: Weekly Monitoring Surveys

Library User Questionnaire

  1. How satisfied are you with the new library facilities?
    1. Very satisfied

b.  Satisfied

  1. Neutral

d.  Unsatisfied

  1. How satisfied are you with the assistance of the student librarians?
  2. Very satisfied
  3. Satisfied
  4. Neutral
  5. Unsatisfied
  1. How many hours did you spend in the library this week outside of class? (circle one).

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5 or more.

Appendix 3: Monthly Evaluation Surveys and Quarterly Evaluation Guidelines

Monthly Evaluation Survey

  1. Is in-class library time having a positive influence on your studies? Yes/ No
  1. Are your foreign language abilities increasing due to room usage? Yes/ No
  1. Are you reading more for pleasure now that the library has been open and available to you? Yes/ No
  1. Which clubs and extracurricular activities have been most helpful/ enjoyable?
  1. What is the most useful resource (technology or personnel) available at the library?

Quarterly Evaluation Guidelines

Questions to Consider:

  • Is the library schedule conducive to incorporating library resource usage into class curricula?
  • Is in-class library time having a positive effect on student performance?
  • Is the number of checked-out books increasing through library activity and social programming (extracurricular activities, info sessions, class work, etc)?
  • Are students’ foreign language abilities increasing post library-setup?
  • Have students’ test scores shown changes since the opening of the new library?

Appendix 4: Figures and Charts





Mongolian Food

May 8, 2009

I just had an experience that absolutely necessitated an immediate blog post on Mongolian food culture. The team leader of our university foreign languages department initiated a lunch-preparation group a few months ago in which each of the 11 faculty members takes turns making food and bringing it in to work at around 11:00 am on a rotating daily schedule. My coworkers assumed that I, being 1) male, 2) the teacher with the lowest salary, 3)single, and 4) American, would not even be able to cook food for myself, let alone for 10 other people. Sensing that exposing them to some international foods would be a good way to win them over in the workplace, I insisted that I wanted to participate. Before long, I was cooking fabulous dishes and wowing my colleagues–and thereby gaining credibility and access to their inner circle.

Then, just the other day, I noticed that my name was absent from the food-prep lineup on the the large makeshift whiteboard in our faculty lounge. I asked why, and my team leader said, “because you don’t cook, and so it’s very difficult for you to prepare all of this food for us, and you are just a man, so you can’t.” This confused me, considering I had witnessed all of them slip into delightfully international food comas after dishing out effusive praise for each of the meals I had slaved to make for them. Once again, I insisted that they put my name on the roster; I didn’t want to lose any of the cool-points I had earned in the past few weeks. So, with an “Ok, but don’t say I didn’t tell you so” sigh, she scribbled my name into the slot for May 8.

And that’s where the fun began. I woke up this morning at 10:00 and ran to the store  (by the way, it’s snowing again) to buy flour. I had decided on fusion veggie soft tacos, and I only had an hour to make them.

**interesting tidbit–one of the most prominent Mongolian soda and beer companies just released a new soda product– “Kickapoo Joy Juice”–the label of which boasts a stereotypical Native American jumping into a vat of homemade liquor. The soda is bright green, and very, very cheap, so I decided to by 2 litres and try some last weekend. I opened it, drank some, and closed it, and when opened it and went to drink it again, it exploded and fizzed into my sinuses. It went flat 20 seconds later. I have been waking up with blood in my nose and mouth every morning since then, and I now have an upper respiratory infection that makes me cough up brown and bloody mucus. So that’s why I woke up so late this morning. Victory.**

Anyway, I rushed home and made 10 curried tortillas, chopped five green and red bell peppers, stir fried the peppers with garlic and onions and chili powder, and dumped Old Bay seasoning into the mixture. I carted the tortillas and veggies, along with a bag of oranges, sourdough bread, tabasco, soy sauce, sea salt, unsweetened yogurt (as a sour cream substitute), and the requisite Mongolian condiments–mayonnaise and ketchup, just in case–across campus and up three flights of stairs to my faculty lounge. Only one German teacher was there.

I was just finishing arranging the table when people started to trickle in. I gave the first of what would amount to be 5 introductions on how to prepare a soft taco in a way that I thought would appeal to Mongolians–first squeeze a line of mayo on the tortilla, then apply the vegetables, followed by some hot sauce (for the adventurous ones) and a trail of yogurt and/or ketchup to top it off before wrapping it up and eating it. This doesn’t really sound Mexican at all, I realize, but this entry will illustrate later on that any combination of flavors subverts culinary trends here and had the potential to pique the Mongolian palate; any flavor, essentially, is “international.” Bottom line, these things were delicious.

I noticed immediately that my counterparts were only eating the vegetables and leaving the tortillas  to soak in their own juices on their plates. I suppose they forgot I speak Mongolian, as well, because I started hearing muttered grievances through mouthfuls of sauce : “this is hard to eat”,  one instance of “I’m going to far too much after this”,  a few sarcastic utterances of “this is delicious”, etc. No one was trying the hot sauce, as such a strong flavor actually hurts Mongolians.

One of my counterparts took the yogurt bowl and started drinking out of it. Another licked her finger and wiped it across the top of my sea salt container, licked her finger again, and repeated several times. The colleague seated next to me abandoned her taco for a piece of sourdough bread and covered it with mayonnaise, then with yogurt, and ate it. Then everyone decided to do the latter. I just sat back in amazement and laughed.

Eventually, my main counterpart, who has traveled abroad extensively and enjoys a more sophisticated palate, arrived and voraciously ate five tacos–with hot sauce–and loved them. That made me feel a bit better.

The point of this story is to illustrate how concretized the traditional Mongolian culinary scene remains in modern culture. Before the consequences of prolonged Chinese and Russian control took effect, I’m told, Mongolians ate a diet consisting entirely of vegetables and dairy products during the summer, and saved all of their meat for the winter. There is little trace of this now; the modern Mongolian diet is now extremely meat and lipid-heavy year-round, with high carbohydrate intake and little appreciation for vegetables. Most dishes, even when advertised as “vegetarian,” have prominent pieces of goat or mutton in them, with separately and deliberately added chunks of fat. In fact, I have seen people go into the meat markets and buy two kilograms of pure goat or sheep fat right off the animal to later put in their dinners.

There is some seasonal observation of food trends here, but it still revolves around the meat axis. In summer, Mongolians prefer “lighter” meats like goat, and wait until winter to eat the meats that are considered good for insulation, like horse flesh or beef.

**interesting tidbit–I thought I had giardia, a protozoan parasite that is commonly found in water contaminated with fecal matter (and 96% of Mongolian water is)–for several months. The symptoms include diarrhea or constipation, sulfuric gas emissions, weakness, weight loss, and fatigue. I sought medical consultation, did research, took medicines, and nothing helped. Finally, after sending a stool sample to the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, I discovered that my system had absolutely no trace of any parasite whatsoever. It turns out I just have a digestive allergy to horsemeat–previously my winter nutritional recourse, per the suggestions of my Mongolian counterparts. **

Returning to the homogeneity and limited diversity of the Mongolian diet, it should be stated that there are only five main dishes eaten by a majority of Mongolians:

  • Tsuivan–a dry flour noodle dish with fat and meat and sometimes potatoes and carrots
  • buuz–steamed dumplings with mutton and fat in them (see the Tsagaan Sar entry)
  • Hoshuur–analogous to empanadas, also with fat and mutton in them
  • Shul–broth soup, with meat and fat and sometimes potatoes and pasta
  • hurag–rice, meat and fat, and sometimes potatoes

**There is also a much-loved sixth option, and it’s gedes–innards. Mongolians love eating nearly the entire inside of an animal. I remember once over the summer, in my homestay, I had just finished saving an email draft to my family that centered on how well I had been adjusting to the culture here. In it, I described how I had heard that Mongolian food was horrible, but was pleasantly surprised to have found nothing so far that had disagreed with me. I saved the email in a folder designated for future internet access and walked into the kitchen for lunch. There, on the floor, was a bloody goat head. My host mother was kneeling over a bathing bucket filled with entrails, and she was funneling blood into a long string of intestines and tying the ends off for boiling. My host father entered the kitchen with a still-bloody slaughtering knife, pulled a bloody intestine out of a pot of boiling water, and instructed me to use the knife to eat it. I was shocked. I ate liver–the least heinous of the mixture–for the next three weeks, until I lied and told my host mother that the Peace Corps doctor had instructed me to stop.**

Of the above bulleted dishes, buuz  and hurag are probably of Chinese origin, and the soups might have been a Russian introduction. There are other side dishes that are widely enjoyed here, but their origins and regard hint further at the lack of options in the Mongolian diet:

  • Neeslil Salat–“Capital Salad”–chopped potatoes and mayonnaise mixed together.  A Russian dish first introduced to Ulaanbaatar,  it was considered to be so exotic that people decided to name it “Capital Salad” and the name stuck.
  • baitsaini Salat–oil and cabbage mixed together, from China.
  • Lovangiin Salat–shredded carrots and mayonnaise mixed together.
  • Kimbab–a Korean dish of rice and spam sausages rolled into seaweed and cut into sections.
  • perojkie– a Russian snack of ground mutton and rice packed into a yeasty dough pocket and deep fried.
  • mantou–a Chinese steamed, fluffy biscuit

Further emphasizing the sparse nature of the Mongolian culinary scene is the notion that a large percentage of the produce and dishes available in Mongolia are known by Russian or Chinese names:

  • chinjou– from the Chinese ‘qingjiao’, 青椒,–bell peppers
  • baitsai–from the Chinese ‘baicai’, 白菜–cabbage
  • jyotsai–from the Chinese ‘jiucai’, 韭菜–green onions/ leeks
  • songon–from the Chinese ‘cong’, 葱–onions
  • lovan–from the Chinese ‘luobo’, 萝卜–carrot
  • manjing–from the Chinese ‘manjing’, 蔓菁–turnip/wild cabbage/ beet
  • ongortsii–from the Russian ‘ongurets’, огурец–cucumber
  • perets–from the Russian ‘perets’,перец–pepper

And the list goes on and on. Even the one of the standards of weight for measuring vegetables is from Chinese–“Jin.”

As far as drinks are concerned, I think I’ve made the importance of vodka apparent in previous posts. In the summer and early autumn months, however, a welcomed semi-departure from trends in alcohol consumption occurs, and fermented horse milk–airag–is drunk. It has a very mild alcohol content, and one can drink quite a lot of it before achieving a buzz. I’ve heard other volunteers say that it’s an instantaneous hangover, but I’ve never had that experience. I will say, though, that it’s an acquired taste–sour and difficult to handle at first. The truth of it is that on a warm autumn day, there’s nothing better than sitting in a stall in the market under the sun and having a refreshing bowl of airag.

I should say that, though the aforementioned food options do seem quite basic, I was surprised to discover even the slightest amount of diet diversity after my summer homestay. My host family was contractually obligated to provide three meals a day to me, and was paid 7,000 tugrug a day to do so (even though Mongolians don’t usually eat breakfast themselves). And provide they did. When I wasn’t eating liver, I ate goemontau shul–noodle soup, with fat and a few inadvertant stray goat hairs–three times a day for three months. I had no idea that the other options were actually widely eaten until I left my training site, and my world opened up to the other options.

I later found out that my host family was saving the money Peace Corps gave them for food to buy a washing machine after I left. haha. ❤

As you may have noticed, the dishes I’ve discussed thus far have mostly the same ingredients in all of them. This, to a foodie like me, should seem like a serious hardship. I won’t lie–I’ve had periods during which I’ve felt disillusioned with the Mongolian diet in my 11 months here. But now I arrive at the portion of this explanation where I tell you how much being here has made me crave Mongolian food intensely, at the weirdest times.  After my summer study, I actually started feeling goemontae shul withdrawal, and I went through a phase where I had to eat flour products to satisfy that. Now, I have the same feeling for tsuivan–the dry noodle dish–and I have to satiate it or I feel off balance.

To sum it all up, last week I went to the gym where I teach yoga and lift weights and had the best workout of my whole service, then went straight to a seedy police bar and ate 10 enormous buuz. Without condiments. I’ve assimilated.

To bring some variety to our diets, most Peace Corps volunteers cook for themselves. There truly are ingredients that we can use to diversify our food intake, as shown by the taco failure mentioned previously, and distate for deviations from normal food trends here is purely cultural. A perfect example of this was when several volunteers cooked pizza and spaghetti for their host faimlies, who fanned their mouths with their hands and hyperventilated at the “spiciness” of the tomato sauce (which, incidentally, had nothing but parsley in it.) Nevertheless, the ingredients are out there–if a little expensive–and we have been known to splurge on  $9/kilo cheese for pizza from time to time. We cook roti with lentils, enchiladas, chili, tostadas, tofu stir fries, peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches, omelettes, steak fajita burritos, spaghetti, pesto baked vegetables, cakes and breads, beer battered onion and pepper rings, kimbab, and vegetarian variations of a lot of the previously mentioned Mongolian dishes. In this way, we’ve all managed to stay healthy under some form of western culinary variegation.

Wow…what a disparaging tone this entry has. Unintentional. I would just like to reiterate that, depite the relative dearth of options and flavors here, and despite the elitist tone I took in this post, I am wholly addicted to and dependent on the traditional food of Mongolia. I know that a year from now, I’ll probably be sitting in some posh sushi restaurant in DC and wishing I had a perojkie and some milk tea to tide me over.

As I prepare to write this entry, I’m trying to think of ways to include an explanation of my post-party-tipsy state into a disclaimer about the quality of the post. No need now, I suppose. Just get ready for the coolest entry ever…because this one’s about the coolest holiday in Mongolia: Tsagaan Sar.

Tsagaan Sar means “White Month,” or alternatively, “White Moon.” Considering the fact that it is marked by the first new moon (i.e. black sky) of the lunar calendar, however, it is usually translated as the former (or erroneously as the latter). And though this entry is an attempt to portray Tsagaan Sar from the perspective of my own experiences, I should probably say a few things about the holiday in general beforehand.

It is an intensely family-oriented holiday, and for this reason I must admit that I was a little nervous to celebrate it here in Mongolia for the first time. During the first three days of Tsagaan Sar, families dress up in traditional Mongolian clothing (hereafter referred to as ‘deel’ ) and visit each others’ homes, where they are met with gifts, refreshments, and the traditional holiday staple that is buuz–steamed goat meat dumplings. Guests are also expected to bring gifts of money, sweets, or small practical items when they visit homes. A whole series of behavioral protocols, which will be visited in a later section, are also observed during this holiday. The most important thing to take away from this introduction, though, is the fact that Tsagaan Sar is–by far–the most important and widely (read: wildly) celebrated holiday in Mongolian culture.

Families are expected to spend up to 3 months’ salary in preparing for Tsagaan Sar. This money is put to use towards buying the materials necessary for the hand-production of up to 2,000 dumplings, dozens of traditional lard-fried sweet bread products, candy, and (of course) vodka. Cold weather in the weeks leading up to Tsagaan Sar offers Mongolians the perfect opportunity to produce these items and freeze them outside, but increases in average temperatures have made this difficult in recent years.

So, to move onto my own experience, the first celebrated portion of Tsagaan Sar is actually Tsagaan Sar Eve–or Bituun. Foreign residents of Mongolia are  cautioned that this has the potential to be the most painful of the celebration days, as it tends to inspire parties limited to nuclear families. I was fortunate enough, however, to experience Bituun with my best friend Uugana and her family; she is my main counterpart, and our relationship is one that routinely bridges the inconsistencies between American and Mongolian cultural trends. She was happy to share this auspicious day with me–a foreigner external to her personal and familial adherence to tradition–and I was very grateful. Bituun does not feature any of the customary motions or greetings of the rest of this complex holiday; on Bituun, families simply eat together and finish preparations for the actual celebrations, which occur the following day.

Uugana’s son Yusoo played video games and enthusiastically showed me his Playstation car-racing simulator prowess while Uugana’s husband Saikhnaa put the finishing touches on the Urz centerpiece–a decorative skinned goat-hindquarters placed on an ornate wooden tray in the center of a low table in the living room. Saikhnaa and his young brother-in-law, Uka, used an antique Mongolian steak knife to remove and snack on portions of the slab of meat.

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Another family's urz display with side dishes

Another family's urz display with side dishes

I came to this Bituun celebration with the assumption that gifts were requisite for participation, but I was wrong. That I was included in this very laid-back celebration of the opening of Tsagaan Sar was a true honor and a testament to my friendships with Uugana and her family.

Interestingly, the word ‘bituun’ is actually a verbal noun of a term that means “to eat until completely full”, or “to eat until unable to eat any more.” Bituun certainly lives up to its name; I was served buuz, carrot salad, and milk tea until I was ready to explode.

buuz

buuz

As I said before, I felt extremely lucky to be invited to Bituun at Uugana’s house. It was perfectly within her culture-dictated rights to spend Bituun with only the members of her immediate family, and she still chose to include me. My anxieties surrounding the hardships of a family-less Tsagaan Sar, however, were realized on the second day–the designated extended family day.

I was slated to host 11 of my counterparts at some point during the holiday at my apartment. I was told to prepare pizza, vodka, and candy for all 11 of them–“but no gifts, because of the global recession,” according to my manager–but the event was canceled at the last minute when half of my coworkers traveled to the countryside to visit relatives. I was left friendless, essentially, for the bulk of this most social of holidays…or so I thought.

I had believed that my dearth of home-invitations stemmed from a previously unnoticed lack of community-integration, and as a volunteer, I can tell you that this is the worst feeling someone can have. That it fell on a joyous holiday made it that much more unbearable. Soon enough, however, I realized that the first official day of Tsagaan Sar was for relatives, and that ANY invitations as a foreigner were to be much appreciated. I ended up going to the home of Baagi and Byamba–a former Mongolian Denver resident-cum-Arvaikheer Merci Corps employee, and a head monk (lam) at a beautiful monastery in town, respectively. This husband-and-wife team is considered to be among the most affluent in the town, and their spiritual and logistic contributions to the community are widely celebrated. I felt so honored to have been invited to their Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends.

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment. Byamba owns his own monastery and stupa, and his father is the founder of one of the city's most prominent construction businesses. He is a Red Monk, which means he is allowed to marry and have children. Red Monks tend to focus on community projects, while Yellow Monks are required to engage in introspective prayer and the private (celibate) achievement of enlightenment.

This was my first Tsagaan Sar visit outside of Uugana’s family. In these visits, which begin after Bituun, guests are required to hold blue bolts of traditional fabric called ‘hadag’ in their outstretched, upturned hands. If the guest is older than the host, he or she must hold the hadag thusly above the arms of the host, who also holds a hadag in the same fashion. If the guest is younger, his or her arms must be held beneath those of the host. The younger of the pair is expected to lean in for the elder to place a Mongolian kiss (which may be a strong, brief sniff through the nose) on each of his or her cheeks. During this greeting, both parties say the phrase, “Amar Baina uu,” “Amar Sain uu,” or a combination of the two. This translates roughly to “Are you resting well?” and its use is strictly limited to greetings during Tsagaan Sar. Every person in the household must be greeted accordingly, and then everyone may fold their hadag and place them in their deel pockets before offering small gifts to the eldest member of the household and sitting down in the main living room for refreshments.

The aforementioned urz platter remains the centerpiece of the table for the duration of Tsagaan Sar, and next to it is a stack of lard-fried bread bricks called heveenbov. They are arranged in a circle in one, three, five, seven, or nine layers, depending on the age and/or rank of the host. These ornate bread bricks are often topped with candy and sweetened white dairy products to symbolize the purity of the White Month. Young couples typically stick to 3-layered heveenbov stacks, while the elderly display larger arrangements. The heevenbov structure contains, without exception, an odd number of layers. This is due to the fact that the bottom layer represents happiness, the next layer sorrow, the next happiness, and so forth. To show an even-number-layered heveenbov is to suggest that sadness permeates life, and it is never done.

heveenbov

Heveenbov. This model may appear to have six layers, but the top disc is merely a cover for the otherwise topless arrangement and is meant to support candy and sweetened dairy products.

During Tsagaan Sar, the heevenbov serves a solely decorative purpose. Separate glass trays of candy, as well as plates containing sausages and cucumbers, are passed around the room clockwise for guests to consume. Shots of expensive liquors, bowls of fermented horse milk (airag), and glasses of homemade Russian beer (brashk) also move around the room, and recipients are expected to either drink the entire offering or to touch it to their lips before returning the container directly to the host. Depending on the household, the passing of liquor can be a gendered endeavor, with red wine offered to women and vodka to men.

One of the more interesting customs is the exchange of snuff between guests. Men often carry ornate glass or agate bottles of powdered tobacco in embroidered silk pouches on Tsagaan Sar, and it is customary to swap bottles during household visits. One man will remove the bottle from his pouch and hold it out in his right hand (with his left arm bent under his right elbow–the default respectful passing gesture of Mongolia), and the recipient will simultaneously accept the snuff bottle with his right hand while sliding his own bottle into the other man’s. Each will then remove a small amount of snuff from the bottle using the spoon attached to the inside of the lid and deposit it on the skin between his index finger and thumb, inhale it deeply into each nostril, close the bottle, sniff the lid, and return it to its original owner the same way it was passed.

As with any major Mongolian social event, toasting and singing tend to be a large part of Tsagaan Sar home-visits. Toasting, of course, serves as a spoken reminder of interpersonal appreciation and friendly affirmation for guests and hosts alike, and it often sets the tone for drunken merriment. Sometimes, though, the hosts–who usually remain comparatively sober on Tsagaan Sar and opt to get their guests drunk–decide to do the singing (especially when they have the added confidence of affluence and marital happiness, à la Baagi and Byamba!)

Guests normally visit individual homes for 1-2 hours before leaving. In my limited experience, the hosts’ presentation of gifts for the guests is typically an unspoken signal for their departure. The gifts I have received, incidentally, have so far been way beyond my own financial means–be they foreign sweets, expensive personal hygiene products, phone unit cards, or crisp (and lifesaving) bills.

Before I go into a soc/anth rant about the collectivist- wealth-redistribution benefits of such a holiday, here’s a play-by-play of my first Tsagaan Sar so far:

After visiting Baagi’s and Byamba’s place, I went home and lamented the fact that I did not have more houses to visit. My other American friends all seemed to be involved in parties at their respective coworkers’ homes, but everyone from my entire work realm seemed to have gone away for the holiday. As mentioned earlier, I was beginning to feel as if my loneliness was a reflection of poor cultural integration skills–but then I remembered that a mere expression of my interest in Mongolian  cultural processes has always landed me exactly where I wanted to be socially. So I sent “Happy Tsagaan Sar” text messages out to almost everyone I knew in town, and sure enough, I started getting invitations. The following two days turned out to be filled with enriching cultural and interpersonal experiences.

Yesterday, I visited the home of my coworker’s sister, whom I had never met. I arrived before my other friends, so the vodka poured for me before anyone else had to touch it. I was alone with a couch full of complete strangers, whom I thought were staying, but they ended up leaving after we had all carried out the customary hadag greeting protocol. I ended up having a lengthy discussion with my coworker’s brother-in-law while stuffing myself with buuz, vodka, brandy, whiskey, Irish cream liqueur, airag, brashk, milk tea, and salad. Eventually my other friends arrived, and we had a very jolly gift exchange and conversation period.

My coworker's sister's family and friends

My coworker's sister's family and friends

After visitng my coworker’s sister’s home, I returned to Uuganas house for an official Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends. She had even prepared vegetarian food options–something that is very scarce here in Mongolia–for one of my sitemates, who is abstaining from meat during Lent. I was told that this party would phase out into a jaunt across the street to my director’s home–the home of Uugana’s father-in-law–but it never happened.  I returned home slightly tipsy and got into my pajamas just in time to receive a text message from a tenuous acquaintance that read “REPLY ME–MY HUSBAND WILL COME TO PICK YOU UP. WHERE DO YOU LIVE?”

I sensed that I might be in for a rare opportunity to get to know an entire whole kinship group to which I had never been exposed. At such a late hour–midnight, actually–I felt like it was even more of a social adventure. So I rushed back into my traditional clothes and ran out the door to meet the text-sender’s husband in a landcruiser. We drove to an apartment complex near my campus and ascended eight flights of stairs to the apartment of Duya–a Japanese language teacher at the magnet elementary school where I help coordinate a computer-based educational resource program. Once again, vodka, buuz, salad, airag, milk tea, and conversation with new friends.

It got very late, and I had the impression that it was time for me to leave. Duya and her husband told me that, despite my apartment’s close proximity to their complex, I would have to accept a ride home in their vehicle. I explained that I am more than accustomed to walking alone at night, especially from such insignificant distances, but they insisted. So I followed them down the stairs to the parking lot, where a white van filled with happy women and children pulled up. We got in and, thinking I was going straight home, I set my body at an uncomfortable angle on the edge of the seat by the frozen sliding door.

We drove through the darkness of Arvaikheer for over an hour–into nameless alleys and down steep dirt bluffs, through dry riverbeds to hidden houses, all the while dropping laughing girls off at points throughout the town. I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone would know this labyrinth of homes and dusty streets so well, and my tispy brain was working overtime in suppressing what the night’s vodka had turned into a very urgent bladder. I found out then that Duya was not taking me home; she was bringing me to her father’s house, where there was supposedly a car waiting to escort me back to the area that was originally within eyeshot of where I was before.

So, my decision to use a faint social connection to meet some new people led me to a whole household of people I had never even seen before. Her father’s house rested on a hill above the city in a dark corner on the far northwest side, and it was filled with people. There was more meat, more vodka, more tea, and by then I was barely able to walk from a combination of drink and sensory overload. Still, though, I made some new friends and received some very interesting gifts; Duya’s mother handed me a bar of chocolate and a half-used orb of yellow anti-bacterial liquid soap on our way out.

I remember walking out of the house into the man’s yard and looking out over the city. The lights of the gers and houses and apartments were far enough away for the Milky Way to be the brightest light in my field of vision, and the holiday had rendered the entire town silent. It was really an amazing site, and a truly incredible feeling; I felt like I had really done the right thing as Duya and her husband guided me into her father’s car and drove me home.

Today I dragged myself out of bed and went to a giant hadag-greeting at my school at 9 am with faculty and staff. It lasted until 10 am, at which time everyone shot out the door to their respective social obligations. I then joined my friend Brian at the ger of a mutual student, Zaya, on the northwest end of town for an afternoon Tsagaan Sar visit. She lives with her mother in a gorgeously decorated and very warm ger, and she had infused all of the buuz she made with chili powder. Spice, for those of you who  have not heard, is simply not done here. So I was very happy.

When we first entered her home, she instructed us to go and pay our respects to her altar–a sort of lars familiarum containing photos of her deceased grandparents and incense–and to spin her brass Tibetan prayer wheel three times. We then sat down and ate about forty buuz with salad, goat meat, brashk, airag, vodka, and milk tea.

Zaya's ger

Zaya's ger

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

We left after Zaya gave us money and candy and headed to another household for a repeat of the same meal, sans spice, and about twenty times more vodka than I was prepared for. The walk home this evening is blurry in mind as I write this, but I have these charming photos to prove it happened:

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dsc06605

Anyway, as promised, a quick rant on the cultural and collectivist benefits of Tsagaan Sar.

If it’s not obvious already, I’m fascinated by collectivism, and it’s getting to the point where anything that even remotely suggests roots in, or promulgation of, collectivist behavior practically screams out at me.  I have to turn it over in my mind and think about it and record it. Tsagaan Sar is no different. In fact, I would say that this holiday is one of the most glaring examples of Mongolian collectivist culture possible; the exchange of gifts, the obscenely high amounts of money spent on preparing food and sweets and alcohol on guests, not to mention home preparation–all of this month-long effort is churned into an enormous financial, social, culinary mutuality! Everyone–regardless of socioeconomic status–hosts, and everyone visits. Almost in the same way that Halloween candy is snatched up in stores and hoarded until kids come around and receive it at our doorsteps, individual Mongolians’ tireless efforts and exhausted salaries culminate to contribute to a vast redistribution of community wealth and resources, and it happens every single year. Most communities observe the official first three days of Tsagaan Sar, but many people consider it to be a February 1st- January 31st holiday; a family who hosts and visits everyone they know in Arvaikheer during Feburary and decides to summer in the countryside seven months later might go through the entire Tsagaan Sar greeting-and-eating process when they finally get to see their relatives in the summertime. Like so much else, this depends on the community, on the family, on the individual at hand.

I’ve said it before, but I’ve most definitely experienced problems in the community integration process since I arrived here last August. I thought my coworkers’ sudden flight to the countryside would leave me lonely and bored during this incredible holiday, and the thought of missing out got to me more and more every minute I had to wait. When those invitations started coming, though, I’m not sure I can liken the sentiment to anything I’ve felt since I’ve been here. The only thing that surpassed this feeling of being included in positivity was the actual process of participating in the holiday, and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house

PARTY TIME

February 12, 2009

I would be remiss in my attempts to give any semblance of an accurate portrayal of Mongolian culture if I neglected the enormous party element any longer. So, without further adieu, I give you the epic party post.

haha...

haha...that's not water...

I think one would have to live in Mongolia for a few months, as I have, to begin to understand the scope of partying and celebration that goes on here. As with any nation harboring a prevailing collectivist societal wind, Mongolia boasts a mainstream culture that is extremely social in nature. As I may have mentioned in previous posts, Mongolians’ self-concept is derived almost entirely from their relationships with their personal surroundings–family, kinship groups, friends, work, etc–and not on subjective qualities, actions, or any of the aspects inherent to the trends in individualist cultures (like that of America). In Europe and the West, a combination of plague and industrial revolutions over the centuries contributed in altering social constructs in a direction that favored individualism for survival and comfort over collectivism. In Mongolia, however, the maintenance of one’s position as a part of one’s group is still the deciding factor in one’s survival–be it survival in the workplace, in the family network, or quite literally, survival in the face of extremely harsh weather conditions.

To tie this back into partying, then, socializing is not just a good time; on the contrary, partying serves to fortify and reaffirm a sense of belonging and solidarity among members of a group. And though no Mongolian would ever contrive an enormous party just to let people know they are included, and though said reaffirmation is never a driving force in the social decision making process involved in planning and executing a party, the results are still the same–partying continues to strengthen relationships and provide windows of opportunity in the modern Mongolian context.

To illustrate these concepts, I’ll have to limit my explanations to just a few of the holidays that I’ve experienced since my arrival in Mongolia (which are many–there is usually at least one that is widely recognized and celebrated per month!), namely weddings and New Year celebrations. But before I do so, let me make it perfectly clear that the social importance and crucial adherence to tradition in some of these celebrations do not, in any way, preclude excessive behaviors or wild, wild…stuff…Sometimes at school parties I can’t tell whether I’m at work or on a disco MTV Spring Break Girls Gone Wild Pirate Ship of Naughtiness. That should be a bit more elucidated in the following explanations.

Weddings

Weddings are definitely among my favorite celebrations in Mongolia, and this might be due to the fact that one of the first big social events I ever attended was the wedding of a gym teacher whom I had never met from a school located in Kharkhorin, north of my town. I was invited as the guest of another volunteer living in the town, and I was a bit nervous as a complete stranger. I quickly realized upon arriving, though, that this wasn’t a problem; once again, evidence of a collectivist culture–I was friends with one of the guests, and was therefore deemed an acceptable presence at the wedding. This may seem strange from a western perspective, but the reason for that lies in the contrasts between conventional American weddings and Mongolian ones. Because you see, Mongolian weddings are just huge parties.

A Mongolian couple is considered married the instant they move in together (and sometimes sooner, depending on the couple; relationships rarely last longer than 3 months without the issue of imminent marriage, or splitting, being decided.) It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, for children to come into the mix before any official, legal marriage takes place. With this being the trend in Mongolian relationships, the formality of the actual ceremony of marriage is often disregarded (at the last wedding I attended, the groom and I were the only people who dressed up, and everyone else was in tanktops), and there is a lot more room for fun and carousing.

My first wedding began as most Mongolian weddings do–dozens of people sitting on whatever surfaces they can find in a large circle in the living room and exchanging awkward pleasantries and introductions. A large spread of fruit, candy, a sheep rump, meat, sausage, sliced cucumbers, juices, beer, and vodka was set in the center of the room, and no one seemed to be touching it. A few guests were timidly sneaking bits of the display into their hands and eating them surreptitiously after a few minutes, so I took that as a sign to do so as well. So did everyone else, and eventually the trays of food were passed around clockwise until everyone was eating. Then the youngest male family member of the bride took a seat next to a large wooden drum filled with fermented horse milk, or airag, and spooned portions of it into a series of bowls with an ornately-carved ladle. He would then pass the bowls to whomever he decided should drink, and they would return it to him for refills to be passed on to other guests when they were finished. Traditionally, each bowl of airag should be drunk to completion, but if the recipient does not want to finish it, he or she can touch it to his or her lips and attempt to return it. The distributor usually refuses to take it back at first, but he is bound to accept the unfinished bowl after three attempts. He then adds more airag to it and passes it to someone else. It gets all over the floor in the process, as tradition dictates that even untouched bowls still require more airag to be added upon being returned to the distributor even when they are already full.

According to tradition, each guest is required to drink three bowls of airag, three bowls of Mongol aerekh–the clear, high-content fermented byproduct of traditional Mongolian cow dairy items–and three bowls of straight vodka, and not necessarily in that order. As a result, every single guest at a Mongolian wedding gets completely plastered. It’s actually kind of beautiful–the laughter increases by the minute, refusals to drink get more absurd and are met with more hilarious denial from the alcohol distributor, faces get redder, songs erupt, food gets everywhere, and the atmosphere takes on a tremendously jovial feeling to it. Eventually, this is tempered by periods of quiet during emotional standing toasts, first by the parents of the new couple and then by the other guests. After the toast has been said, the speaker is expected to sing a song–any song–and all of the guests join in the singing after the first few words. The speakers go in order according to where they stand in a counter-clockwise fashion until everyone–including the foreigner–has spoken and sung. The whole thing gets more and more like karaoke and less like homage as the drinks pour.

I once sang “The Star Spangled Banner” out of drunkenness at a wedding, and by the third line the guests were telling me to sit down. A rendition of some Bjork song–I don’t remember which–had me just as unpopular at another wedding not too long thereafter.

During all of this, except for the toasting period, the bride is expected to resupply empty trays and plates with food and candy and continue food preparation. The groom sits at the north end of the room in a centralized position and stays there for most of the night.

At one wedding, I made it clear that I wasn’t feeling up for six bowls of fermented dairy on top of three bowls of straight vodka, so my punishment was 15 shots of straight vodka in two hours. The pressure was immense–even a colleague of mine who is allergic to alcohol was made to drink. But my social credibility was at stake as a new member of the community, and succumbing to partying as a social inclusionary behavior paid off for me in the long run.

New Year

Unlike weddings, New Year parties never put me in danger of becoming the event photographer (as the only one with a camera). So This portion will have more photos.

My experience with new year parties has been limited to large-scale school/work events, but I’ve seen enough to know that the New Year is just as alcohol-soaked as weddings, if not more so. Once again, it is customary for work parties to lay out lavish spreads of food and alcohol on long tables in a large hall. At my particular branch of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the New Year celebration was held in the gym with a ring of 20-meter-long tables arranged under huge departmental logo banners on the walls. Every table boasted at least $1,000USD of food and drinks, and I was surprised to see that the school had even splurged on baby pigroasts for each table.

lavish table spread at my school's faculty new year party

a lavish table spread at my school's faculty new year party

the cyrillic text on the pig was written with mayonnaise. It says "happy new year" in Mongolian. the other side said the same thing, but in Russian. no one even thought about eating any part of these charred piglets.

the cyrillic text on the pigs was written with mayonnaise. it says "happy new year" in mongolian. the other side said the same thing, but in russian. no one even thought about eating any part of these charred piglets.

I should note that there were actually two parties for the new year that week–one put on by the senior class in honor of faculty, and the second put on by faculty in honor of themselves–neither of which took place on or even close to New Years. Both were also combined with the Mongolian version of Christmas, as the two are considered to be one holiday.

my seniors in front of the great new year's christmas fiberoptic tree

my seniors in front of the great new year's christmas fiberoptic tree

Like all Mongolian parties, both celebrations were rife with performances and speeches. Several of the departments competed against one another in risque coordinated dance routines. I was not so surprised to see that the performance that swept the adoration of the second celebration’s crowd, though, was a ten-minute slapstick routine featuring men dressed in pig-masks and Ming Dynasty Chinese clothing  jumping around the room, mocking Mandarin language in loud twangy squeals, and hitting people in the head with buckets. No one could stop laughing long enough to explain the cultural significance to me, but it was a pretty clear display of anti-Chinese sentiments.

senior students performing at the first celebration, which was put on by the senior class in honor of faculty. the girls all made their own dresses for the occasion.

senior students performing at the first celebration, which was put on by the senior class in honor of faculty. the girls all made their own dresses for the occasion.

That it was a vocational party meant that there was an added element of the announcement of professional awards, as well. These garnered little attention, as alcohol had distracted much of the guests. Most of the awards were announced to deaf ears, and eventually the ceremony slipped into a slightly debaucherous dance festival with flashing lights and wild motion. The most fascinating thing about this, though, is that the instant a slower song came on, everybody grabbed a partner and assumed the respectable, agile movements of the traditional Mongolian waltz without skipping a beat. Then a techno song would return to the playlist and everyone would resume grinding.

awards!

awards!

For the sake of brevity (or something close to it), I’ll spare the details on the other holidays and just describe some of the basics. Teachers’ Day, for my community, was more insane than New Years–more vodka, more money spent on pizza and fish and chicken and pineapples and all sorts of things that aren’t usually available in Mongolia. Soldiers’ Day may have already happened, and if so I don’t remember it, but I know schools and government offices are closed (which means everything else is, too). Men are expected to drink a lot. Women’s Day is coming up in March, and traditionally women are completely relieved of their domestic responsibilities and men have to assume the stereotypical Mongolian housewife role for an entire day (staying at home, cooking, cleaning, tending to the fire, taking care of children, washing clothes, etc). The king of Mongolian holidays, though, is Tsagaan Sar–or “White Moon.” It marks the beginning of a new lunar year, and it usually takes place in February. For each family, it calls for the preparation of thousands of meat dumplings (buuz), candy, alcohol, and gifts. In urban centers, families will leave their houses each day for three days and visit dozens of households around their community. At each house they are offered small presents, buuz, and sometimes even money, and they are expected to return the favor when visitors enter their homes at another scheduled (or unscheduled) time during the three-day period. In the countryside, this holiday can often last up to a month.

On a personal note, I was told by an English teacher colleague that I would be exempt from the normal responsibilities of a Mongolian Tsagaan Sar host due to “the global recession” (and I was impressed at her vocabulary when she said it), and that I would only need to prepare “pizzas, a meat dish, and one candy bar each for eleven people.” No small feat, that. I still luck out as a foreigner, though; the average Mongolian spends up to 3 months’ salary in preparation for Tsagaan Sar, and a few pizzas from scratch and horse meat curry won’t set me back too much.

m'little pizza in m'little oven

m'little pizza in m'little oven

I’ll say it again–it is next to impossible to fully convey the intensity and importance of the party lifestyle here, and my frustrations as a foreigner are even harder to contextualize without offering some idea of the allocation of funds for these events. My school, for instance, may have spent over $20,000USD for the most recent Teachers’ Day party (which was the source of the wild video clip earlier in the entry). While these expensive celebrations are happening back to back, the school can’t seem to get its hands on the money to replace a few broken sewing machines or to repair the ceiling in the English resource room.  And to make matters worse, preparing for these events seems to take precedence over making the necessary arrangements for the beginning of the following semester. My work has yet to finalize its spring semester course schedule, and we are already approaching our third week of classes–and all because teachers and administrators were too busy preparing their dance performances, drinking, and making decorations. Having never experienced anything like that in my entire life, I’ve caught myself feeling a judgmental regard swelling up somewhere under my tolerant exterior; but then I remember how important these social activities are to the maintenance of a solid communal unit, and it begins to (almost) make sense.

Without going into too much detail, my relationships with my colleagues last semester suffered immensely under the pressures of our discrepant work ethics, and at the hands of a few gossipy parties who feared for the security of their own jobs and resorted to some group-damaging self-preservation.  I thought that I had officially been excommunicated from the interpersonal network of my surrounding job culture. But I put on a smile and went to these New Year parties, and by the end of the first night I had waltzed with all of the enemies I thought I’d made, looked at camera-photos of their children, and made my way back into good graces just by sitting at a table and eating and drinking and laughing with everyone. Vocational survival = achieved. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

rare party fruits

rare party fruits

Apologies for the inconsistent posting! I  just returned from a 10-day business trip (sans internet) around various parts of Mongolia, and the experiences I had made me realize that it was about time to discuss the challenging world of travel in this fascinating country. Prepare for a wildly anecdotal and generally all-over-the-place post.

Giving an accurate account of the intensities of travel here in Mongolia would take a lot more time and consideration than I’m able to offer, but I can at least try. The reason for this explanatory difficulty, as with so many other aspects of communicating the nature of this lifestyle, lies in the incredible contrasts between Mongolian life and the lifestyles of my readership. To say that travel is a challenge here, then, might not mean as much to someone reading this post from the comfort of a computer desk in America as it would to a fellow volunteer living in Mongolia. (No judgment there–I promise–just bear with me!)

I suppose the first thing one should know about the nature of travel in Mongolia is the unfortunate fact that, with a few route exceptions, virtually all inter-city travel must go through the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Even if a desired destination is between my hometown, Arvaikheer, and the capital, I have no choice but to go straight to UB past my destination and find a means of transportation that backtracks to where I want to go. Direct transport is an option for some people if they have their own vehicles and are willing to do off-road driving, but this works out to be a tremendous, and often dangerous, inconvenience.

This is due in part to the fact that Mongolia has only two adequately paved roads that stretch over one or more aimags (provinces), only one north-to-south railway that runs from the Russian border in Selenge Aimag to the Chinese border, and scattered (rarely used, expensive, often runway-less) airports in several cities. This lack of a transportation infrastructure, combined with Mongolia’s status as the second largest landlocked country on Earth, makes travel a huge undertaking.

Part of these challenges, at least from a foreign perspective, is the wide range of alternative driving techniques and risks that Mongolian drivers (Jolooch) are willing (or compelled) to take in order to get from place to place. In the case of my particular town, superstition often plays a large role in such driving decisions. There is a brand new, almost fully-completed paved road extending the majority of the 300-kilometer trek from Arvaikheer to Ulaanbaatar, and yet some drivers consider this road to be bad luck. Bus or van drivers who fear the pavement feel more comfortable adding as many as 11 hours to the trip if it means sticking to familiar sand and dirt paths, which can be extremely bumpy and nauseating for some passengers.

I once crammed myself into a van with 21 other people and rode through the open all-terrain desert–parallel to, and within eyeshot of, the paved road–for 17 hours to the city, when it could have taken a mere 6. At the time I was livid…But as frustrating as it can be to experience discomfort and delay at the hands of a superstitious driver, one still has to respect the cultural significance of such ideas. It requires a lot of effort, but I try to take pleasure in the notion that adherence to traditional cultural trends in transportation is evidence of aspects of Mongolian culture surviving in an increasingly complicated and externally-influenced modern era.

Check out this video of the ride from Battsengel Soum to Tsetserleg, Arkhangai Aimag:

^^The blue/red/white plastic cover over the bed of the truck in this video was used to secure a pile of dead sheep in place. Slaughtered livestock are usually transported in the beds of trucks, on the tops of vans and cars, and even alongside passengers and personal belongings on the insides of vehicles.

there are seven people (including me) in the back seat of this four-seater jeep, and three in the front.

On the way to Battsengel Soum. There were seven people (including me) in the back seat of this four-seater jeep, and three in the front. A complete stranger was sitting on my lap (not pictured).

In addition to acting on customs governing the safety of particular travel routes, many Mongolians also tend to avoid travel on certain designated “unlucky” days of the week. In my village in Selenge last summer, for example, it was impossible to find cars into the closest city on Saturdays or Wednesdays due to their perceived inauspicious qualities.  As increasing foreign investment, urban relocation, and the post-Soviet climb of  social mobility continue to fuel the values and agendas of a less traditional lifestyle, though, finding travel options on these “unlucky” days is getting easier.

To compound the travel difficulties that stem from overcrowding, sharing space with dead animals, and uncomfortable off-roading, nausea is a common side effect for many Mongolians during long rides. Buses, in particular, seem to draw out the worst symptoms, and passengers whose rural lifestyles have scarcely exposed them to rapid (i.e. non-horse) transport have the most intense reactions.

Virtually every Ulaanbaatar-bound bus ride I have ever been on has featured a seven-hour chorus of vomiting. Headphones have proven to be quite useful in my carry-on.

the partially-nauseated bus to UB

the partially-nauseated bus to UB

I’ve noticed that when female passengers get motion sickness, the drivers often let them sit or recline in the cushioned chair adjacent to the console at the front of the bus while they vomit into the on-board trashcan. Sick men tend to just stay in their seats and vomit into plastic bags that they have prepared especially in the event of nausea.

I know this sounds like a load of complaints, and I know all of these personal anecdotes may seem too subjective to be representative of the foreigner experience in Mongolia, but I stand by their accuracy. In the interest of not sounding like a total softy, though, I’ll combine my last two general issues into one worst-case scenario (with which I have quite a bit of experience already): winter breakdowns.

Traveling in the summertime yields all of the same frustrations for me that traveling in the winter does–crowded buses and vans, bumpy rides that leave the coccyx shattered and the skull migrained, timing issues, peripheral peanut gallery nausea–with one exception:

In the summer, one doesn’t run the risk of freezing to death if one’s van breaks down.

Winter is a different story. After mid october, exhalation condenses and freezes on insides of the windows in all vehicles, and visibility is therefore limited to small portions of the front windshield. The floors of vans and buses are usually the same temperature as the outside air, which creates tremendous discomfort in the lower extremities. And this is all while the vehicles are running smoothly! The instant the vehicles break down, the front doors go open while the driver is alternating between tweaking whatever it is that broke in the undercarriage and returning to his seat to check on engine performance. The frigid air whistles its way in through the open doors until the vehicle is fixed.

an etched out vista in the frozen window of the bus on the way back to UB

an etched out vista in the frozen window of the bus on the way back to UB

If one is traveling by van and the van breaks down, everyone has to get out while maintenance is being carried out. If this should happen at night, under-prepared passengers have to figure out how to survive in unspeakably horrendous conditions.

That said, I do not know of a single Mongolian who would ever set foot outside his or her own home without enough clothing to stay warm for a while. I have, however, broken down in a van during a freezing cold night, and I witnessed a young mother barrage the driver with indescribable rage until he figured out a way to make the van sputter along for at least 5 kilometers at a time until he could find an automechanic shop. Everyone was a little frightened that we would be stranded.

I had been in the country long enough at that point to know that when Mongolian passengers  express discontent at the inconvenience of mechanical mishaps, something is seriously wrong. And this brings me to a trait that never ceases to both impress and infuriate me–the ability of the average Mongolian to regard such adversity as just another part of the adventure. In my first 8 months here, I have been on perhaps 10 trips in vans or buses. I am not exaggerating when I say that not a single one of those excursions began or ended on time, nine of them them had me positioned in a space too small for my body, and eight of them were  marked by at least one break down that lasted more then forty minutes in the cold. And yet, somehow, the aforementioned experience with the young mother was the only instance in which I observed even the mildest of frustrations in the responses of my Mongolian co-passengers.

At first glance, this seems like an absolutely lovely way to travel. What better company with whom to share your travel experience than someone who never, not once, complains?  Step back, though, and imagine the lone foreigner straddling the lap of an elderly Mongolian stranger in the back of a frozen van with a busted timing belt in the middle of the Gobi Desert, at night, in late October. He will most assuredly miss his morning business meeting in the city, and he’s frustrated–huffing and puffing, kneeding his face, sighing loudly, shaking his head. In the cultural context of Mongolian travel, his behavior–which would be deemed perfectly normal for such an inconvenience in America– is unacceptable. He–(or “I”, if you haven’t figured that out)–is made to look like a complete and total misanthropic ass by his calm surroundings.

This is the source of the admiration-frustration combo that summarizes my regard for the Mongolian travel disposition. Once again, though, we arrive at the same conclusion–that the contrasts between my personal/national cultural background and the structural and cultural trends inherent to my new life in Mongolia have put me in a position to reexamine and reevaluate my own perspectives. In this way, it is absolutely crucial to recognize the circumstances that give rise to Mongolia’s contentment with the state of things as they are; Mongolians are not frustrated by the same concepts and trends that might frustrate me, as a foreigner, because our respective vistas are informed by vastly different experiential sources. That the American life I’ve lived before was so different than the life I have here, in an altogether different context, is not a reason for me to take a judgmental stance.

And I’ll do my best to try to remember it the next time my bus breaks down.