Happy Holidays! (Part 1)

This week marks the end of the American holiday season and the beginning of Mongolia’s, as both sides of the world celebrate the calendar new year. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me.

I came back to site from the capital on the 23rd. Bayan-Ulgii has a surprisingly large Western volunteer/expat community — the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, the English Language Institute, and Nova Lingua operate here year-round, in addition to long-term tourists, short-term teachers, and at least one expat family — and all of us were invited to Little Christmas Eve, hosted by the Norwegians. We had traditional porridge and marzipan and sang Christmas carols. I’d met about half the Westerners before, but it was fun to meet the rest and celebrate a holiday we have in common.

Porridge is cool. Photo cred goes to Hope of ELI.

I had originally planned to go to school on Christmas Eve and Christmas, since I’d been away for so long, but homesickness hit me pretty hard on the 24th. I stayed home, caught up with errands, and then in the evening those of us without families to celebrate with got together for a traditional Norwegian dinner. We ate cured sheep rib, mashed potatoes and turnips, sour cabbage, and lingonberry sauce, and finished off the meal with a delicious rice pudding made from last night’s porridge. I hung out and played board games for an hour or two, then went to bed.

P1010992Hanging out on Little Christmas Eve. Also Hope’s picture.

It was interesting — Karen and David’s pre-Christmas celebrations are much more familiar to me than Mongolian Шинэ Жил, but the food and traditions are still very different. Among other things, my family celebrates Christmas in the commercial-agnostic way common in America, and so an overtly religious discussion of Christmas and Norwegian traditions (provided for the kids on the 23rd) took me aback. After a moment, of course, I had to laugh at myself — Christmas is a fundamentally religious holiday, even if it’s not always celebrated as such in the States.

All four Bayan-Ulgii PCVs originally planned to work on Christmas. But when Tess and Alex’s work got canceled at the last minute, Jake and I decided to take off and celebrate with them. All of us were a little bit homesick at this time of year, and I don’t think it helped that we’d all been away from site for a significant portion of the month. We had a Holiday Turkey donated to us by Peace Corps staff, so we cooked an awesome dinner that kept us fed through the weekend. We followed it up with drinks (for the other three) and card games, those being a “weekends together in Ulgii” staple, then hung out and relaxed on Saturday. I also had the chance to talk to everyone in my family, and to open a care package that had been waiting at the post office most of the month.


Usually, on Christmas Eve, I hang out with my dad and wrap a few last presents. Our neighborhood does a luminaria, and so around noon we go to our neighbor’s house to put candles in white paper bags. A few people drop the candles off up and down the street. After that, we go home and cook dinner — usually ham, veggies, mashed potatoes, crescent rolls, cranberry sauce, and baked apples, with French silk pie for dessert. As soon as it gets dark (by 5pm), we light the candles in front of our house, as well as any neighbors who haven’t got to theirs yet. Our house is at the top of a hill on a straight dead-end street, so you can see the whole street lit up and down.


After dinner, we bring our presents down and deposit them under the tree. When we were kids, we’d watch those classic Christmas claymation videos before bed — Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy — but for the last few years we’ve foregone that to sit around and chat.

On Christmas Day, we open presents with my dad and eat a big breakfast (cinnamon rolls are usually a staple). Around midmorning we head over to my mom’s, have another round of presents, and relax for the afternoon by the fire with Christmas songs on TV. My mom and stepdad make a delicious Christmas dinner (I missed barbeque ribs this year!) and we stuff ourselves silly to round off the holiday.

I finally went back to work on Monday. I learned that I’d missed the school’s Шинэ Жил (Shin Jil, or New Year’s) celebration, which had taken place the 23-25. Шинэ Жил is a Western import from the Soviet Union era, rather than a native new year’s tradition, and is celebrated by Kazakhs and Mongolians alike (though Kazakhs call it Жаңа Жыл – Janga Jil). I’m told that the school party features Father Winter — the Russian analogue to Santa Claus — with dancing, costumes, and skits. The adult parties, however, happen in banquet halls and restaurants, and almost every professional organization books one. They started while I was in UB (the conference rooms in our training venue were booked almost every evening), and my school had theirs Monday night.

It was your usual Kazakh party: We sat, chatted, and ate snacks (candy, fruit, cold salads, and the ubiquitous ham-cucumber-tomato plate); circle danced for a while; had an awards ceremony; danced more; ate cake; danced; ate meat; danced. Our school had hired famous singers from Khovd for one set of dances, and somebody dressed up as Santa Father Winter to hand out goodie bags with sweetbread, juice, and oranges to all the teachers. I’ve been having lung trouble since my stay in UB, so I couldn’t dance for long without coughing; parties aren’t much fun when you can neither dance nor make extended small talk, so I headed home before midnight.

Tonight, families will gather together and stay up til midnight to welcome the new year. While I would be welcome to spend another evening with any of the Westerners, I haven’t seen much of my CPs since I came back into town, and this is one tradition that I want to experience the Kazakh way. I’m super grateful to be invited to a CP’s house to celebrate.

See you all in 2016!

Xutul meets Zombies

Edit 2016-02-03: Ian has put up his cameras post (“Khutul on Film”) on his blog. Check it out!

Happy holidays, everyone!

December has been a bit crazy with Peace Corps-required trainings and the start of the Mongolian holiday season (Шинэ Жил [Shin Jil], or New Year’s, is at the end of the month). I’ll have posts on both over the course of the next month or so, but right now I need to process and catch up with work.

The nice thing about this madness? I’ve had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with my PST sitemates. The following post was inspired by a discussion with fellow bloggers Ian and Jenni, and should eventually have a companion post (What Cameras Are We?) on Ian’s blog.

So, without further ado:

The city you were visiting became the site of a zombie apocalypse while you were peacefully asleep in a hotel. You wake to find that a zombie has climbed through the window of your very small fourth-story room. The door is locked and the zombie could tackle you before you have time to unlock it. What would you do?[1] Room contents: bed, small table, wooden chair, bookshelf full of paperbacks and heavy ornaments.

Logan: Would beat the zombie to a pulp, no problem, and then spend the rest of the week painfully contemplating the ethical dilemma of (re?)-murdering the undead while on the run from a zombie horde bent on revenge.

Alex: Would have a wacky misadventure that resulted in her dangling halfway between her window and street level, safe from the zombies but not entirely certain how to return to solid ground before nightfall.

Ashleigh: Would be prepared for this eventuality on account of her extensive SFF reading. Having seen signs of the impending apocalypse, she would bring her Anti-Zombie Kit (TM) with her on vacation, with which she would hastily dispatch the zombie.

Elisha: Would loudly exclaim, “WHAT?!?” and demand all of the details of the zombification process, edging toward the doorway as the puzzled zombie paused in front of the window. She would discreetly unlock the door, slip out, and slam it shut on the lunging zombie’s face.

Ian: Would discover that zombies, like Ians, are photo-phobic. The zombie would tumble back out the window in its effort to escape Ian’s lens.

Olivia: Would scream and smash the zombie with the chair, stunning it long enough for her to implement a clever plan involving items on the bookshelf.

Bryan: Would probably get turned into a zombie, but it’d make a good story to tell his fellow sufferers.

Amanda: Would shout at the zombie to get the hell out of her room, how did you even get in here? before waking fully to the realization that it was undead. By then, however, the zombie would already be climbing back out the window in search of a more easily frightened target.

Jenni: Would make a quick call for help. Ian, at the top of her recent call list, would advise her to attempt a picture with her phone camera, and in this way she would frighten the zombie into submission.

Paul: Would affect complete ignorance of the zombie’s change of life and shoot the breeze as if it were perfectly normal to have a shambling corpse trail innards into your room on a Sunday morning. The zombie, confused, would decide he was one of theirs and stumble off to find someone else, pounding on the door and moaning until Paul considerately unlocked it.

Eric: Would loudly proclaim his love for his wife before smashing the zombie with a heavy orb from the bookshelf. The zombie would drop. A slightly puzzled pause would ensue — Eric having of course expected to be slaughtered by the angered undead — and then he and Emily would tiptoe out of the room, settle their bill with the zombified desk clerk, and return to their home city, which would remain unaffected by the scourge.

Nik: Would manage to make the zombie laugh, confounding scientific conclusions on humor as a trait destroyed by the zombification process. He would go on to be elected mayor of the new zombie city, appoint Bryan as Official Liaison Between Undead and Not-Yet-Dead, and issue official pardons to Logan, Olivia, and all other murderers undead or alive, in light of the immense panic caused by the change in state of three-quarters of the city’s population. His twenty-year reign would render him the most popular, if not necessarily the most effective, mayor in the city’s entire history.

Matt: Would calmly and quietly walk from his bed to his table, pick up his key, unlock his door, and leave the hotel.

Xutul and Xutul-friends: What are your thoughts? How close am I to the mark? What do you think I would do?

[1] These are Renee’s guesses. No interviews were performed for the writing of this post.

Fairness, passion, and persistence

It’s Usage Olympics season in Bayan-Ulgii.

In Mongolia, the English Usage Olympics are designed as a demonstration of each school’s linguistic prowess. The school’s top students are chosen to participate in a series of events — for instance, introduction, roleplay, English-language song and dance, spelling bee, or debate — and each team is graded on a point scale.

I have been closely involved in the competitions this year. My school relied on me to help the students prepare, and I was asked to judge one of them. (We have two — the Usage Olympics, begun by a former PCV and run by a different school every year, and the English Extravaganza, run by our aimag’s Foreign Language Methodologist.) Between one thing and another, my schedule has been pretty much consumed by Olympics for the last two weeks.

To place in these competitions is a huge deal. Reputation is a major currency for Mongolian schools — if you work or study at a high-achieving school, you carry yourself with pride — and a school’s reputation is very much determined by its Olympics rank and concourse scores.

On the Saturday afternoon I was judging, the auditorium was packed with students who’d come to cheer on their classmates. The other judge and I cringed as groups from two private schools shouted, trying to drown each other out. “You’d think they were at a high school football match,” I said in some exasperation, trying to parse the haphazardly-micced performance on stage.

“You know,” the other judge said thoughtfully, “there aren’t organized sports here. So this kind of is their football.”

Foreign volunteers are usually sought as judges for the English Olympics, partly because of their mastery of the language, partly because as foreigners they are supposedly distanced from the rivalries and biases natural to a long-running annual competition. This is, to say the least, a bit of an awkward position: all of the American volunteers (Peace Corps and otherwise) currently working in Bayan-Ulgii are directly affiliated with a school. I’d helped the kids in my school put their presentation together, and I knew they’d worked hard and were very proud of their performance; I wanted very much for them to win. And it didn’t much help that, before the competition, both of my teachers texted me to think well of my school while I was judging.

I’ve had moments, out here in Mongolia, where some of my most fundamental values prove themselves to be cultural artifacts, and they’re some of the most difficult moments I’ve had to face. You find yourself at an unexpected communicative barrier that has nothing to do with language, and see your own incomprehension reflected in the eyes of somebody you care very much about. This was one of those times. In Mongolian and Kazakh culture, it’s seen as a good deed to grant the people you care about a few extra points; but here I was asked to judge specifically because I was American, and Americans take particular and vehement offense at that kind of favoritism.

“You’re a judge?” one of my tenth grade students asked in shock when we entered the auditorium, and then grinned. “You can give lots of points.”

“I will be a fair judge,” I told him, because at the end of the day, I had to stand by my principles. As much as I wanted my kids to win, I wanted them to win honestly.

My school didn’t place. I later joked halfheartedly that my job that week was to make the students cry: several of them had stressed themselves to the point of tears during preparation, and all of them were damp-eyed in the hallway after the scores were announced. If you don’t place, in these competitions, it doesn’t matter how hard you practiced or much fun you had on stage; you still lost. It tore at me, because I had seen these kids work incredibly hard over the past few days.

The rest of this post, then, is for the kids I’ve worked with over the past few weeks.

To the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who participated in the Olympics two weeks ago:

After the Olympics, I told you I was proud of you. This is true. You only had three or four days to prepare, and I saw you work very hard every day. It is a little different for Americans: We think it is important to win, but it is even more important to work hard. We value the person who has very difficult circumstances and works very hard more than we value the person who wins easily. Because of this, I think you did very well, even though you didn’t place.

And you had so much fun and creativity when you were planning! If we judged based on fun, I think you would have gotten many points.

To the students participating this week:

I think you are going to do very well, and I am so proud of you! You spent many hours preparing with me last week, and the last time I saw you, your performance was great. I am especially proud of how hard you have worked on your debate, and that you can debate for ten minutes and make new sentences by yourself. Good luck on Friday!

To all of the students I have worked with these last two weeks:

I don’t have many opportunities to work with very active students, because we don’t have an English club this year. Preparing with you has been so much fun for me. I saw your creativity and your love of language, which I can’t always see teaching normal classes. You are incredibly passionate and motivated students, and that is so important. Your passion motivates me to be a better teacher. Keep working hard for the things you are passionate about: this will help you so much in university and in your adult life.

Renee teacher


This post actually backdates to November 18th; for some reason it decided not to autopost.

In Mongolia, it’s said that the year of the monkey — this year — is often especially cold. I think this explains a lot about the geography of my life. I was born in the year of the monkey, and while I haven’t got any especial affection for winter, I always seem to end up in places where the season is particularly infamous.

In Buffalo, winter is marked by a change in color and in scent. Autumn brilliance falls away from the trees, leaving a bare, grey tracery in the sky; the sweet brown smell of fallen leaves fades as the weather grows colder, and the air turns crisp with snow. Then the first storms blow in and cover everything in white.

In Mongolia, the transition is not so marked. It’s dry out here, so it doesn’t snow often; the dangers of winter lie not with storms, but with the intense cold. (In Ulaanbaatar, winter temperatures reach -40 degrees. Out in my aimag it’s a little bit less frigid.) Nor are there enough trees to make fallen leaves a notable phenomenon. Winter this year, for me, has come as a gradual adding of layers to keep the half-hour walk to school pleasant, and in watching the river vanish under layers of snow and ice.

Today I spent half the walk contemplating the wisdom of taking a cab because it simply was not possible to cover the skin around my eyes, and observed that someone set up a skating rink in the middle of the river. I think it’s safe to say winter is here.

As I said, snow isn’t a common event in my part of Mongolia. It’s only snowed twice this year — once in mid-October and once last week — and my counterparts say it’s not likely to happen again. Kids are as excited to play in the snow as they are anywhere, though, and they do the same things as kids in the States: snowball fights, snowmen, snow drawings, sliding around on icy surfaces and down hills.

Last week, after it snowed, the entire school ran outside during the ten-minute midday break to have a giant snowball fight, and after fifteen minutes the training manager (sort of like a vice principal) had to go outside to shepherd the kids to their classes. Apparently it’s a thing here for boys to dump snow on girls and stuff it down the backs of their shirts. I’m not sure whether it’s a badly executed gesture of repressed affection or a socially acceptable outlet for the innate urge to be a hormonal ass that overcomes most adolescents at some point or another. Most of the girls ran outside to join the fight anyway, though.

One snow-related difficulty has to do with Mongolian urban geography. That is to say, most roads aren’t paved, and there aren’t really things like trees or gardens or even grassy lawns to get in the way of walking, so pretty much any space that is not inhabited by a building is fair game to be traversed. It simply isn’t possible to clear the snow from all those roads and plazas. A few very major paved roads are salted, but other than that, people just seem to drive/walk slowly and entrust themselves to fate. Having driven in snow for the last five or so winters, and knowing that I cannot count on most Mongolian cars to have snow tires or even tires that would pass inspection in the US, I have zero intention of being in a car on any road that has turned mostly to ice.

Fortunately, the walkways seem to progress from packed snow to ice to ground right back down to bare dirt and safe, in contrast to New York, where icy paths just get snowed on again and add another layer of impossible-to-remove slipperiness.

While all the trappings of winter have arrived, we’re not yet caught in its grip. I’m not really looking forward to February — when early darkness and frigid cold have long ceased to be a novelty, and everyone holes up in their separate homes waiting for winter to end — but I’m curious to see how it compares to my previous experiences.