Autumn Festivities

Life has picked up since the beginning of the school year. This is partly because of work — I’ve been adding a new class or commitment every week — but also because this September, there have been a LOT of events in my community.

School Anniversary

“How do you celebrate your school’s 20th anniversary in America?”

It was the week before school started, and my teachers were writing their annual plan of action. They had been speaking in Kazakh, and I’d tuned out, bored.

“Er…” I said, wracking my brain. An assembly with a (usually rather boring) speaker? Maybe some decorations in the halls? “We don’t, really.”

In Mongolia, they do. And they do it with style.

Class was canceled two Fridays ago for our 20th anniversary celebration. Instead, we had an awards ceremony/concert at noon. The school director (the Mongolian version of a principal) gave a presentation on the school’s major works and legacy. Then the director, distinguished teachers, and high-achieving students were given awards and gifts, though I only caught a few words of rapid Mongolian to guess what the awards were about. At last, after about an hour of speechmaking, students and teachers collaborated on about a dozen acts of dombra, singing and dancing.

In the evening, we had a banquet. We snacked and chatted during another awards ceremony, and then danced. I am a TERRIBLE dancer, but I like Kazakh dancing! Everyone stands in a circle and sort of shuffles from foot to foot. The more enthusiastic dancers take turns in the center. After the dancing — just when I had concluded that this was, very strangely, a party in Mongolia that didn’t have a meal — we received dinners and a meat plate at our table.

Then, on Saturday, all of the school’s teachers went on a picnic. We left the town center around 8 or 9 for a sparse forest by the river. When I say “by the river”, I mean “somewhere in the middle of a bunch of islands formed by the branching of the river and reached by fording river branches until one of the mikrs breaks down in the water and everyone has to go back to drag the broken mikr out and then decide to stop right there and picnic.” We broke up into groups of 10 or 20 and made separate cooking fires; ate breakfast (veggies, oranges, cold pasta salad, and hot milk tea); and then regrouped to dance. Repeat for lunch (meat stew and kumuz[1]) and dinner (soup, black tea, and a bottle of wine), but with a small contingent of increasingly drunk male teachers[2]. We went home around 8pm, which my teachers tell me is a very early end to such a day.

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Kurban Ait

Most Kazakh people are Muslim and celebrate Islamic holidays. This past Thursday, Friday and Saturday were Kurban Ait, which takes place 70 days after the end of Ramadan. Observers who keep livestock sacrifice one of their animals, eat a portion, give a portion to family and friends, and donate a portion to the poor. I tried to ask a little bit about the meaning behind the holiday — “Why do you celebrate? Why now and not some other day?” — but was told only, “Because it’s 70 days after the end of Ramadan.” Instead of rambling on something I don’t really know about, I will direct you to the Wikipedia page for further detail.

One of my CPs generously invited me home on Friday. I practiced a few stumbling Kazakh sentences with her father-in-law, who carved the meat. In Kazakh culture, everyone eats from a common plate. I definitely prefer this to the eternal Mongolian battle between I should finish my plate according to politeness and Honored Guest gets as much food to eat alone as the rest of the entire family eats together.

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Eagle Festival

This weekend, October 3-4, is the Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii! This is Bayan Ulgii’s main call to fame.

In my first week at site, I noticed a lot of raptors hanging out by the river. They’re a golden-brown color and about twice the size of the redtailed hawks I know in the States. I commented to one of my CPs that people weren’t kidding when they said there were eagles here.

“They aren’t eagles,” she said dismissively. “The eagles are bigger.”

The “small” bird seems to resemble the lowly black kite[4]. The Eagle Festival bird is the golden eagle. Kazakh eagle-hunters use these birds to catch fur-bearing animals, and then sell the pelts — as I learned this past week when I helped one of my CPs, who’ll be acting as a tour guide, with falconry vocab[3].

I plan to attend the festival this weekend, and will be putting up a report next week!

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Teacher’s Day!

October 5th is Mongolia’s national Teacher’s Day. Our school is celebrating it on Monday — I think — one of the teachers said we would be celebrating Friday, but the other teacher sounded more sure of herself — we’ll see — and it sounds like a silly, fun sort of day. Topsy-turvy. The teachers sit back and relax while their students teach the classes, and we have another banquet over the weekend. I’m not sure how this holiday will work for me, since I don’t have homeroom students or a stable schedule, but I think I’ll have fun, whatever happens.

[1] Fermented mare’s milk, known by Mongolians and most PCVs as airag (айраг); қымыз (kumuz) is the Kazakh word.
[2] A small contigent for two reasons: One, there are only maybe two dozen male teachers at my school; two, possibly because of the predominantly Muslim population, Bayan-Ulgii parties are a little bit more sober than other Mongolian parties. Alcohol at picnics is a thing.
[3] Why do I know any falconry vocab? Goodness knows, but I managed to pull words like “hood” and “jesses” out of somewhere when my CP asked for them. And why is falconer the only common-use word for people who hunt with raptors?
[4] Edit 10/8/15: I am informed by a visiting PCV that these birds are kites, not steppe eagles — and migratory, which explains why I haven’t seen any in weeks.

Happy new school year!

Another month later…

My internet situation has been a little more questionable than I’d hoped for — I’ve only gotten public internet access as of this week.

This post and the previous one backdate to when I thought I would have internet within the week.

Written for September 2nd, 2015

Yesterday, September 1st, was Mongolia’s national first day of school. The teachers greeted each other in Kazakh, clasping hands, and I leaned over to one of my counterparts and asked what the words meant. “Happy new school year!” she told me.

In Mongolia, every school year begins with an opening ceremony. I gave a speech in front of the whole school — in Kazakh, written with the kind help of one of my counterparts — and sang an American song. At least two of the kids recorded the event, so there is now a video somewhere of me mangling Kazakh words and forgetting the lyrics to “I Dont Wanna Miss a Thing”[1].

I am super excited about my placement. Here are some of the awesome things about my school:

  • My CPs have high fluency and good comprehension — meaning we can speak exclusively in English, because they understand what I say and can answer in an appropriate way. (This is not true of all English teachers in Mongolia, unfortunately.)
  • I’ve already gotten suggestions for four or five different projects, as well as individual requests for specific help (e.g. grammar, TOEFL, teaching the college-prep 11th and 12th grade classes) — and I haven’t even started work yet.
  • The school has had multiple PCVs in the past, so they know what to expect and how to work with me.
  • The kind of projects being requested of me are very much in line with Peace Corps values — so, while it’s true I’m likely to help tutor advanced students for the Olympiads[2], I am also being asked to run a weekly English club for disabled students and help design student-centered, inductive lessons[3].
  • My CPs are super excited to have me specifically because I am a woman, and the entire English faculty at my school — bar one — is female. Cross-gender friendships are not a thing in Mongolia, but the division between work and personal life is not as strong as it is in the ‘States. My CPs really, really want to get to know me as a person, not just as a teacher, which they couldn’t do before — their previous PCVs were all male.
  • Related to the last: I am super well cared for here, as PCVs often aren’t when they live in apartments. While I spend a lot of time alone at loose ends — a chronic problem in PC/Mongolia — I’ve made contacts. I already have somebody to buy dairy from (it’s a thing here to buy dairy fresh), and my nearest neighbor/landlady is a CP’s sister. (Also a huge sweetheart who is gradually lending me half of her kitchen cabinet.) Last Friday at lunch I told my CPs my phone number, and my phone immediately started ringing off the hook as my CPs made sure I had theirs. “So you can call us in the evening,” one of them told me.

There are, however, some challenges in store.

  • I have eleven CPs. All of them have been excited to meet me, and about half have already suggested projects they want to work on. Scheduling could get…interesting.
  • I’m at one of the bigger schools in the province — there can be as many as 35 students per class. I really don’t like big classes, as a student or as a teacher; a lot of the fun of teaching, for me, is in getting to know the students and adapting my lessons to their needs. The more students there are, the more difficult this becomes.
  • I don’t know Kazakh. I really, really don’t know Kazakh. I can buy food at the market and mumble through some pleasantries (though I’m not sure which of the five ways to say “hello” is appropriate at any given moment). Because my CPs speak good English, and my landlady and school personnel also speak Mongolian, I could theoretically get by without learning much — but that’s not, in my opinion, a good thing. Most of my CPs speak Kazakh to each other, and in meetings the faculty speak both Kazakh and Mongolian (sometimes switching within a single sentence). I need to learn the language if I want to know what’s going on, but it’s going to take a lot of initiative on my part, since I can almost always ask for a translation instead.

I’d say, though, that these problems are surmountable with a bit of attention and planning.

All said and done, while I was petrified when I first got the placement (“I have how many CPs? There are how many students in this school?” not to mention that bigger schools are usually higher ranked and have a better reputation), the more time I spend here, the happier I am about the time I have ahead. I’m really looking forward to getting back to work.


[1] The story behind me singing in front of a crowd of Kazakh children is a tale unto itself, too long for this humble post.
[2] English competition, about which I shall write another day.
[3] Teacher jargon, about which I probably will not write.

Aloneness in Mongolia

Another month later…

My internet situation has been a little more questionable than I’d hoped for — I’ve only gotten public internet access as of this week.

This post and the next backdate to when I thought I would have internet within the week.

Written for August 26, 2015

As a general rule of thumb, people don’t live alone in Mongolia.

Family is super important to Mongolians. During training, my host mom — who was theoretically the only one living on her хашаа — was visited almost every day by her sons and grandchildren, whether to help around the хашаа or just to hang out. Her elder sister visited once every few weeks with her family, and other extended family and friends came by on a regular basis. Twice while I was living there we had family from the capital come and stay for a week.

And then there’s the хашаа system. In the хашаа districts of soums and aimag centers, a person buys a plot of land and builds a fence, or хашаа, around it. Then that person can build whatever he or she wants within the fence. Relative to American houses, gers are quick and easy to assemble and don’t take up much space, so it’s easy for a relative to set up for a while in an empty part of the yard. Smallish living spaces for nuclear families within a larger communal yard — especially combined with the Mongolian emphasis on hospitality — create a sense that all space is shared space, and everyone is welcome. It was not uncommon, when I was living with my host family, for visitors and host family friends to wander right into my ger, inspect my belongings and the cleanliness of my surroundings, and make small talk in Monglish.

The хашаа setup can be frustrating for Americans, who are used to privacy, but ultimately it helps with integration — if a Mongolian is liable to wander into your space at any moment, it behooves you to learn as much about the language and customs as you can (and to keep your ger clean).

At my new site, I’m living in an apartment, and the atmosphere is very different. I’ve only met a few neighbors on the stairwell, and everyone keeps their doors locked, even when they’re home. I share an entry hall with the sister of one of my coworkers, so I do have a neighbor who can wander in at will, but it’s still got a different feel from when I was on a хашаа — I don’t like to go into my neighbor’s apartment without an invitation.

Being alone is not a good thing in Mongolia. While short periods of solitude are recognized as valuable, a person who lives alone is believed to be isolated and unhappy. This isn’t usually the case for me — I relish my alone time — but here, after two months on a хашаа, moving to a place where I don’t speak the language and don’t have a teacher, where there’s only a few other Americans within two hours’ drive, where my only cultural contacts are my coworkers…well, it gets a little lonely.

As I meet my counterparts, I’m making it well known that I live alone and I’d like visitors, and that I’m very happy to trade English for Kazakh lessons with anybody who has the time to spare. My counterparts seem super excited to get to know me, and I’ve heard again and again that they specifically requested a female Volunteer so that they could spend time outside of work with her[1]. Hopefully I won’t be lonely long.

A lot of Volunteers in apartments — especially in the Kazakh region, because of the language barrier — move onto хашааs their second year. It’s certainly something to consider, but, well…I also like centralized heat and running water. We’ll see how this winter goes.


[1] In a later post, I’ll write more on relationships, cross-gender friendships (or the lack thereof), and the fun of being a single American in Mongolia.