Letter to all, 11-03-00



To All:

October 2000

To All:

Once again I put pen to paper to record what's going on in my world. I started my week off October 23rd finding out I would have a new director/principal at school. Later I heard the methodologist would be changing too. This is because of the government change. I live in the ex-directors hasha. I still have a job and housing, but I my housing may change. I was asked if I wanted to move into an apartment with a single mother. I said no. But I don't know how much choice I have because the school pays for my housing. I will just wait and see. I don't want to move. I like where I live and my hasha family, but a move would just be a new adventure. On to a random note: my students are sometimes very eager to participate. Especially some energetic ones, especially if it means going to the board. A few even half stand as they raise their hands calling "bagsha! Bee! (Teacher! Me!) Usually students do not raise their hands, with arm straight up, like Americans. They bend the right arm so only the forearm is raised and touch the right elbow with their left hand. This is similar to the gesture used when formally accepting or giving things.

One Tuesday I went with my CP to her son's kindergarten class. (The word for kindergarten in Mongolian also means garden or orchard). All parents must teach in their child's class one day. I think this is a great idea. While there we did aerobics, no jumping jacks, had snack time, which involved tea and a bagel type bread and she taught fractions. I was pleased that I could at least catch the gist of what she was taking about. There were 33 children of about 7 years old. They seemed to be constantly hitting and pushing each other. But no fights or whining. I had a moment to rush home and eat (to be eating better I've added raisins and apples to my milk rice). And to try and get some heat (the hot water was not on to heat the radiators) before going off to teach my own classes. With my sixth graders we were taking about one's holidays (vacations) and how the British go to the seaside and the Mongolians to the countryside. I asked "Why do people like to go outdoors?" I was surprised to get, with the expected answers of "fresh air, visiting friends and shopping" that the ger (general word for home also) is a "very sad place" and "lonely".

On Wednesday, the 25th, I woke up to have my water supply be an ice slush not completely frozen for the first time. It was a busy day. My CP helped me go the library to offer to work with them to get book donations for the Asia Foundation, who has an office in Ulaanbaatar. Then to the cosmetic shop because the owner speaks a little English and I had her husband, who owns the photo place, fill out an application to possibly participate in the small business workshop that the Peace Corp is doing. Then off to the Post Office, because the ladies and one mom are so nice and want to learn English. I thought I could make them a audio tape to go along with their English-Mongolian phrase book, but needed my CP's help to explain this. But we'd exceeded the attention span of her youngest son, about 5, and I saw a typical, universal, temper tantrum,. Ah, memories of my. I mean some children's' childhoods!

On Thursday, I had to endure the cold for a bit because my stove pipe needed to be cleaned so I'd have a better fire. The process was to take it outside, toss rocks in it and roll it back and forth on the ground. Cleanliness is just different here. It is ok to just wipe off dishes and put them away. But I get asked why my floor is dirty (one must sweep just about every time someone comes in from walking around outside). That night was the teachers parents meeting for my CP's home room, which my 4th and 6th graders are part of. It was nice to meet them though I couldn't talk to them and only 2 were there. One mother had gone to Ulaanbaatar, taking one of my students out of class for a week! The other was busy because the new Prime Minister of Mongolia was in town and they're involved in the army (which happens to make up most of the crew digging ditches for the new hot water pipes). When I got home I was met by my eager hasha family who wanted to learn English. So I set into a lesson of beginning English. The mother-in-law has good pronunciation (she knows German already) and Lxasaren (my old director) and his wife seem to speak with a New York accent for some reason. And, as always the "th" is almost impossible, but they are determined to say Thank You" correctly.

I made a journey to the Internet on Friday because I had an address and no zip code for a friend. I tried explaining I needed a number , else they wouldn't send it in America (very different from the vague addresses within Mongolia) and that the Internet has a book with all the numbers to a Mongolian friend, but it was a foreign concept for them. It as odd to sit down and be able to find information about a person in such a different world. To look at Yahoo.com and see a map of familiar Oakland shocked me with unexpected homesickness. I was able to look, and sitting there looking at the screen I could be back in my house. Then I looked up and see the two Mongolians waiting and finish my business.

I had another reminder that my foggy memory of the outside world continues to exist with the arrival of the Newsweek the Peace Corp sends us. What have you been doing since I left? Anger is erupting worldwide, with much hate directed at Americans. I don't feel it here. Most seem unconcerned with worldly affairs, and I'm only plagued by school children chanting "hello" or trying to get my attention. The worst that has happened is a teenage boy randomly said "Fuck you" and flipped my off. I was walking by and he was sitting with a friend. I couldn't help but smile because it was so out of place and the teacher in me first thought what good pronunciation and knowledge of non-textbook English he had. Movies are wonderful teachers. And as I mention this incident, which I found to be interesting in it's possible severe emotion, isolation and cross cultural interaction, I am reminded teachers I know back home are having their students look at the pictures I send back. I write what goes on. I mention drinking because it is very common here, but I don't get drunk as often as my mom worries I do. I don't edit my writing, but do try to remain sensitive to the people I write about and that silly people may assume I am describing "the Mongolian person" instead of individual experiences I have. So I hope I can provide some interesting teaching material, though it may need to be cut down a bit (not just for content, but I'm very aware my rambling is often lengthy).

Friday night I was very happy to have American company as Tom dropped in on his way to Ulaanbaatar. We woke on the 28th to my first real experience of Mongolian snow. We got 4" when I measured at 10am. I collected some for drinking water. I know I've heard the description before, but it really is very true that it looks like sugar. As it fell it sparkled like a glitter. It was very light and powdery. It stopped snowing a bit later and hasn't snowed since. The coal stove near me peppers the white expanse as it drops its heavy smoke. It has been about a week and there are still tiny patches of snow left here and there in shaded areas. The snow doesn't melt so much as just disappears. The wind is almost constant, the air dry and the sun ever presently intense, so the snow just evaporates. Sometimes the ground is a bit darker suggesting dampness, but there has been no mud or slush. That night I could not get a fire started. Arumstestey came over and helped me, but asked if I could live in a ger in the winter. It is so frustrating to constantly be told I can't do it. I'm so used to support from back home, maybe this deterrent will be good for me. But that's just a way to deal with unpleasantness. In crew the motto was "Whatever doesn't kill us will make us stronger".

On Sunday, the 29th my calendar told me it was the end of Daylight Savings time, but apparently not here. I asked several times, but was told the radio didn't announce it, so nothing has changed. I wondered because I was going to visit Algvinoa, not that if I were an hour late or early it would make much difference. When I got there I paused in the doorway. I thought I was seeing a ghost. So sure was I that the grandmother who sat there was the one I'd recently attended a wake for. But even when speaking with English speaking Mongolians, communication is not always clear. An extra confusion is that both one's own, and husbands mother, are called mother. Sometimes even the mother in law of ones' brother in law is called mother. But I was very glad to seen the emmay again. Later I went to my CP to do the lesson plans and there was a local ger who had pumpkins. I wanted to do a Halloween lesson. So we walked into a hasha, but I was discouraged seeing no garden, and we were led into a ger. It had a big deep hole in the middle and acted as a storage cellar. He had 5 small, but beautiful pumpkins., He didn't know how much to charge, so we offered him a little less that a watermelons price. It was 500 (about 50 c) or 5 hoshuurs (a good dinner). They didn't know what to do with them and his wife had made them into compote , which is how fruits are preserved. Chunks float in fruit juice. Pumpkin compote sounds gross, the fruit is good. My day ended with a beautiful, soft purple sunset against the thick clouds laying atop the, now white, jagged mountains.

Monday went quickly as I got into the holiday spirit. The store lady didn't understand when I said I wanted a kilo of each of 4 candies. She started to give me just on kilo bag of a mix. I tried to explain it was for an American holiday, but Halloween doesn't translate and to start to explain pumpkins and evil spirits is not casual customer clerk conversations. The next door shop lady, who'd gone back to her ger to get more orangish paper, said I was an English teach and that seemed to satisfy all. So, I went back next door and bought 20 sheets (sold individually) of a peach orange paper which was also shocking to another customer that walked in, but ok since I'm an "Angl hel bagsh, English teacher". I have so many classes I reserved the messy joy of carving to my 6th graders after class and a group of onlookers hung out. Somehow the holiday spirit is a general non-date specific feeling, so I was inspired to go home and wrap my family's Christmas present and Fort Knox the box for its journey. It was a tough choice, but I gave up much of my fire-starting paper for cushioning and taped it enough to practically make it water proof. I've seen the state of some of the boxes. Some others in town told me they once got only burnt remains of a box. I thought it odd they shipped it and also wondered what its story was

On to the important stuff! October 31st We always start class with "Hello, how are you?" as the students stand next to their desks. After I sit I ask "What is today?" and write it on the board. But this day was not just another Tuesday. Today is Halloween. I held up the pumpkin and said the name. A few didn't know the name in Mongolian, then I turned it around to show the face to many giggles and smiles and taught them Jack (easy because of Titanic) O-Lantern. We sang Farmer in the Dell with Halloween words (the pumpkins here today). They drew ghosts or pumpkins with emotive faces. Some were very creative and well drawn. We had shivering "cold" ghosts and crying "sad" ghosts and "angry" pumpkins with gritting teeth. Then I went around with a bag and gave out candy when they said Trick-or-Treat, whose words and the sound of a bag filled with candy were so sweetly nostalgic. Some were almost too shy or disbelieving to take the candy. They also practiced numbers and their names in English by guessing at candy in a jar. One boy who won just stood in front of the pile of about 25 pieces for 5 minutes. All the kids kept telling him "ow-ow" (take-take). And he finally did full of smiles. I didn't think I cause bad embarrassment, just surprised them. Some winners gave out a piece to everyone else. Oh, and when I taught witch and broom and said she flew on it, about one kid in each class already knew this. As I lit the candle in the pumpkin, my CP explained Halloween in Mongolian and showed a picture of Trick or Treater's in a picture dictionary. I felt I was doing my culture sharing duties. I got even more stares than usual as I carried the Jack o Lantern to and from school. Mexico has "Day of the Dead", but there doesn't' seem to be an equivalent holiday there.

For some reason that night I was going through the pockets of my St. Mary's College planner and found some American coins. I was already feeling nostalgic, so I sat down and enjoyed the familiarity of the penny and how much I liked the dime because it seemed dainty for its worth. To find such completely, overly, numbed-to, common place items was a strange feeling since they are so out of place here. Kind of like when Christopher Reeves found the penny in his pocket from the "future" in Somewhere in Time and it knocked him out of his parallel existence.

On Thursday, I had my moirn khuur lesson which was interrupted by a phone call for my teacher. A sister and husband of two different workers at our school, plus another man were in a car that got in an accident with another man. Both drivers were thought to be drunk. All the men died and last I heard the woman was unconscious. It happened the other day, very close to my house. My CP said such accidents are not common here. I don't know if it's the small community, but I seem to be closely associated with many deaths, other PCV's have noticed this too. Here it was workers at my school's relatives; before it was a friends mother; earlier it was my directors grandmother. Two separate PCV's had a host aunt and host uncle die. And not to lighten the seriousness of death, but I can't think how to make a smooth continuation of the letter.

So I'll note, that that evening I made Jack o Lanterns pancakes, not having an oven to make a pie. Friday, November 3rd, I was awaken by a fierce windstorm that lasted the whole day. It shook my ger and I was told the Spring storms are worse. I was visited by Inktuya who runs a tourist business. She speaks wonderful English and is very nice. My students read a short piece on tourism in Mongolia and I had them write questions to her. With a little help from me in grammar, they wrote: Where are the tourists from? She mentioned just about every country (Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain) and said she used English to communicate with all of them. One student asked "Why do tourists come to Mongolia?" And she answered that obvious reasons of a desire to see the steppes, desert, herdsmen, camels, ger, etc. But surprisingly some come for the skies. Especially the Japanese who want to see the bright stars and beautiful sunsets in the clear skies. So I'm not imaging the skies are bigger and more beautiful here. Others think so too. A vague question of "When do tourists go back?" We decided could be length of stay which varies from 2 15 days. With such talk of the beauty we went out to the steppes. The morning we went had seemed even a slight tiny bit warm, but soon we were very cold and returned to the classroom. They had to write a poem called a diamante (noun, 2 adjectives, 3 verbs) all related 4 nouns related top the first and last noun, all related (3 verbs, 2 adjectives , 1 noun that is the opposite of the first. I wrote one too in Mongolian. For example one student wrote: mountain / hard blue / growing giving birth seeing / rock sky sun grass / shining blooming moving / green wide / steppes. I wrote mountain / tall jagged / climbing enclosing forebidding / rocks animals earth Mongolian / walking exposing inviting / flat endless / steppes.

So tomorrow (Saturday) is an inauspicious day for travel, for traditional Mongolians. So I will head to Ulaanbaatar via machine to attend "In Service Training" with my counterpart.

With love,