Category Archives: Kazakh

Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.

Camp Days

So much for the new posting schedule, eh? My free time and internet access this summer have been a bit…unevenly distributed.

Last week I was assisting with Bayan-Ulgii’s first iteration of the Bro for GLOW Diversity camp, a weeklong gender and diversity camp for teenagers living in Mongolia. The idea is to expose kids who live in mostly-Khalkh[1] areas of Mongolia to some of their country’s ethnic diversity, and to encourage tolerance and mutual learning instead of discrimination.

This first camp was run by my sitemate and two other PCVs from different aimags, each of whom brought five teenage students and a counterpart teacher. The remaining twenty students were sourced from Bayan-Ulgii’s aimag center and more accessible soums based on their proficiency in Mongolian and eligibility for WorldVision funding[2]. The PCVs and their counterparts taught some 101 sessions on gender, diversity and leadership, interspersed with hikes, games, and nightly dance parties.

My aimag-mate and I went along in the capacity of assistant runners-around and Kazakh language support — the latter of which proved mostly unnecessary, because the kids had been selected with the knowledge that the camp would run in Mongolian. This meant we didn’t get a very representative sample of Ulgii’s ethnic distribution (about half the kids were Mongolian[3], and most of the remainder were either from private schools or the public school that teaches exclusively in Mongolian), but that issues of comprehension or discrimination due to a language barrier were few and far between.

The upshot being, I spent most of my time sitting in the back of the room whispering to the lead PCV, “What’s happening now?”[4]

That said — as far as I could follow — the lessons seemed to go over really well, considering it was the first time any of the kids had had a sit-down talk on the subject. They had fun in the classroom (though, like kids on summer break everywhere, they complained that the classroom existed at all). They showed understanding of the material. Inter-aimag friendships were made and some really awesome cultural presentations were given.

I had a lot of fun and I’m hoping this camp becomes an annual thing. Next year the organizers are hoping to expand with more kids and more aimags — which means I might be able to bring a counterpart teacher and do some lessons myself.

(Renee teaching something other than English? Preposterous, and yet I live in hope.)

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[1] There are two divisions of ethnicity in Mongolia: first, by whether or not someone is ‘ethnically Mongolian’ (so, for example, Kazakhs and Tuvans are of Turkic ethnicity), and then by Mongolian subgroup or tribe (Khalkh, Durvud, Buryat, Uriankhai, etc). Khalkh Mongolians account for about 85% of Mongolia’s population, and (except in regions like Bayan-Ulgii where a single minority forms the bulk of the community) their dialect and cultural conventions dominate both institutionally and socially.
[2] WorldVision being a major humanitarian organization in Mongolia and one of the funding sources for the camp.
[3] Bayan-Ulgii is over 90% Kazakh.
[4] Shoutout to Trenton for running his sessions entirely in Mongolian, by the way. And to Jake, whose lessons I didn’t sit in on, but who speaks to his CPs in Kazakh two-thirds of the time even though they speak English. I need to up my language game.

Vignettes: Country and city

Photo cred for the eagle hunter visit goes to Michelle Kim; for the Sirgali Lake photos, Tess and Reece Stohr.

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“Hi, Baha? I’m Jake’s friend, Michelle. I’m in Bayan-Ulgii with my friend. We want to visit your soum this afternoon.”

Pause.

“Yes – Jake gave me your number.”

Pause.

“Great. Do you know a driver who can take us there?”

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“I was very surprised by your call,” says Baha as we pile out of the Land Rover into her хашаа; the fenced-in yard contains two houses. She leads us into the street-side house and sits us down at her table, four of us on a long bench: myself; Michelle, a visiting PCV; Michelle’s friend; and my aimag-mate Tess.

Surprised or no, Baha has laid the table with all the delicacies of a formal visit to a Kazakh house: candy, cookies, bread, with a cold noodle salad holding pride of place in the middle. Baha passes us cups of milk tea — Kazakhstan tea steeped in milk, stronger and less salty than its Mongolian equivalent — and plates to serve ourselves from the salad platter.

Baha, my sitemate’s friend and sometime counterpart, teaches English at a soum school near the aimag center. Like many English teachers in our aimag, she does stints as a tour guide, mostly local to her soum. An afternoon chatting in English with some friends of a friend, three of them Peace Corps volunteers and one familiar with Kazakh culture, is an opportunity and not an imposition. We joke in Kazakh with the driver, and Baha offers us fresh cheese and cups of homemade sour yogurt.

Unmprompted, after an hour or so, she asks, “Do you want to meet an eagle hunter?”

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The eagle hunter lives about five minutes outside the soum center; his family has not yet moved out into the countryside for the summer herding season. We are greeted by a half-dozen children mostly under the age of thirteen, and a barking guard-puppy-in-training. Baha asks one of the boys where the adults are, and the eldest girl leads us into the ger.

There is a black and white cat sleeping on the bright fabric of one bed — a cat, on the furniture, clean and well-fed and opening one eye to study my offered hand with the insousiance of one who knows her own worth. We sit and take the offered yogurt and bread, and the cat jumps down to accept my affection.

“Most of my students hate cats.”

“People keep them in the countryside to keep away mice.” Michelle’s been in Mongolia a year longer than I have.

01_tess with a baby goat

The younger children have lined up on the other side of the ger and are staring at us. I grin back. “Атыңдер кім?” They push each other, whispering; then give their names, one by one.

“Мысықның аты бар ма?”

“Ие,” says the only girl, and tells me the cat’s name, which I don’t remember half a second after repeating it. A few minutes later the girl vanishes out the door, to sneak back in with a week-old goat that she hides under the bed. Caught out, she presents the goat to us amid much cooing and petting.

02_the wrong way to hold an eagle

The wrong way to hold an eagle.

The eldest boy – the eagle hunter’s grandson, who is himself learning to handle eagles – takes us to where the eagle is tied beside a rock. He lifts the eagle up by the jesses, and amidst a great deal of flapping and flopping gets it onto the glove. Tess attempts the same method, gets a talon in the arm for her pains, and then succeeds much better by coaxing the bird to climb onto her arm from its rock.

03_the right way to hold an eagle

The right way to hold an eagle.

As I take my turn with the bird, the hunter himself arrives – a solemn elderly man in a clean dark suit and galoshes. He puts the bird on my arm by pinning its wings.

04_me holding an eagle

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“Do you want to spend the night?” Baha asks, back at her house as we are wrapping up the visit. I will never cease to be impressed by the generosity of the people who open their homes to me here.

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Ulaanbaatar is a shock after five months at site: noisy, big, crowded with cars and people. Everywhere crosswalks and restaurants and tourists and so much Mongolian. Within an hour I am dying to catch just a few words of Kazakh from some nameless passerby.

I propose a new drinking game to my sitemates: every time one of us slips up and speaks Kazakh at the next Ulaanbaatar conference, somebody takes a shot. This game is destined to remain an amusing fantasy due to risk of alcohol poisoning.

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Walking down the Peace Avenue thoroughfare just after sunset. A boy stands away from his friend on a doorstep, locks eyes with me, walks as if he’s going to slam into me if I don’t back up or step aside. The swagger and the low-pulled baseball cap say be intimidated, but he’s a half-head shorter than me and so stick-skinny he invokes the incongruous urge to laugh.

“Oi,” I say sharply, arm across the open top of my purse.

“Oi,” he echoes.

“Oi!”

“Oi!”

“Юу хийж байна,” I demand, finally grasping some bit of grammatically confused Mongolian.

“Юу хийж байна,” he mocks with a laugh, then swerves aside at the last second to give me a friendly clap on the shoulder. As if, recognizing him for a pickpocket’s accomplice and not giving way, I’ve earned temporary membership into his private club.

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A driver — another friend of a friend — gives me a lift to the airport around midnight. I’m half an hour late for the international flight from Seoul. Still, there aren’t many tourists hanging around the crowded arrivals terminal, so I wait at the gate until a tap on the shoulder makes me jump and grab for my purse.

My brother grins at me, and my father behind his shoulder.

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05_purgon cram

I admit that six hours over unpaved roads is a bit of a stretch for a three-day trip, given one purgon, three PCVs, and six visiting family members. But there’s not a whole lot to do in town during the summer, and the next nearest tourist site is a mountain – neither my family nor Tess’s was up for mountain climbing.

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Six hours and two pickups from my town, maybe an hour after a rainstorm that necessitated the migration of our camping gear from roof rack to our crowded laps, the purgon parks at a permanent complex just outside Sirgali. Our guide — a teacher from my school who runs his own tour business — collects our passports amid much shifting of luggage to verify our national park passes with the guard.

06_purgon cram plus luggage

“Should we get out?” someone asks, craning to see what Sabit is doing. My seat faces backwards and I’m still half-asleep from the drive.

“I don’t know, it might only be a few minutes…”

“Look,” someone else says after a few minutes, an indignant chuckle bubbling under his voice. “They’re laying down. We should get out.”

We tumble out from under our bags into a cool lakeside afternoon. Sabit and our driver are indeed lounging on the grass. My family and Tess’s stand around, uneasy with puzzlement and inaction; Tess, Alex and I flop back to do some lounging of our own. Waiting in summer sunlight for a bit of bureaucratic processing is positively relaxing, compared to sitting in the teacher’s lounge for a meeting of unspecified purpose that gets canceled forty minutes after it was supposed to start. After twenty minutes or so, the official returns with our passes.

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The Sirgali Lakes, called the “earring lakes” in Kazakh for their double teardrop shape, sit nestled in a valley deep in the Altai Mountains, near the Mongolia-China border. The leeward, eastern side of the valley rises in rolling hills, yellow-green-grass-bare-rock-stark like everywhere in the Altais I’ve been so far; but the windward side, the far side, displaces me to Europe. Deep green grass and groves of pine trees skirt chocolate-colored, snow-capped peaks.

07_sirgali_windward

We camp for one night on that far side. Next morning I go on a walk with the other PCVs and my brother. Alex takes us to the top of a rise, where we can see the forested foothills fall before us, then climb to where the tree line starves them of earth.

“It smells like pine,” I say gleefully, breathing in.

“I didn’t notice,” my brother remarks.

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We spend that first night with a friend of Sabit’s. Three gers are set up in a level dip near the lower edge of the forest; a pen, open and empty for the late afternoon, and a shed half-hidden in the trees suggest that this is the family’s usual summer home.

We are greeted by Sabit’s friend, his extended family (brother, wife, sister-in-law, mother, the usual gaggle of children), and a dog kept close to the campsite by a weight around its neck. Another dog, less friendly, is tied to a stick at the edge of the clearing. At the grandmother’s direction, we troop into one of the gers for milk tea.

Kazakh gers are higher-roofed than Mongolian gers, and huge; too large to be heated in the wintertime. Every inch of the walls is hung with traditional Kazakh embroidery, and the beds that circle the edge of the ger are made up with rich fabrics and curtained into small private cells. We cluster around a table on the far side of the ger, across from the door and behind the central stove.

The countryside guest-table is different from the town’s, a cluster of food made by the host’s own hands instead of a myriad of bought products. We drink tea with cream and butter, eat baursak and three kinds of cheese.

I am sitting at the far end of the group, beside Tess and her mother and far from my own family. Tess’s mother says nervously that she doesn’t want to drink the tea, would that be rude? Tess coaches her to touch the tea to her lips, then put it down, hand over the bowl, to say she’s done. I watch my family for some reaction to this become-familiar custom, but their faces are blank with the polite American’s wish not to offend the unknown.

My father tries dried curd and nearly cracks a tooth, and then we leave to make camp.

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Thump. Thump. Thump sliiiiide thump.

I start awake and stare blearily at the wall of the tent, now smeared with mud. “Who did that?”

“I think it was a goat,” Tess says, amid the blaas and sneezes of a herd released from its pen. She adds, “I hit back.”

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I’m returning from my morning necessary trip when I spot the friendly dog, the one with the weight around its neck. I stop and click my tongue at it, and the апа — the grandmother and matriarch of this family — spots me standing at the top of the hill. She motions for me to follow her.

I look at the dog. She follows my gaze. “Жақсы ма?” I ask uncertainly, very much wanting a dose of animal affection.

“Жүр,” she says serenely. Come.

I click my tongue at the dog. It half-rises, and the апа drops it with a sharp word.

I follow the апа into her ger.

Alex is already inside, drinking a bowl of milk tea; one of the younger women serves me a bowl as well. I settle in beside him and sip slowly, enjoying the early-morning peace. One of the little babies is still asleep behind parted curtains.

The апа tells us to eat some cheese and baursak. We obey. The апа tells Alex to translate for me, and we assure her that I understand, though I suspect Alex has a better grasp of gum-muffled апа Kazakh than I do. Satisfied, the апа says a few more things, which I recognize as imperative statements and nod knowingly in response to.

I wonder, sometimes, when this ritual became comforting instead of foreign.

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08_sirgali_leeward

The other side of the lake is less lush, but warmer. We lounge with our feet in the water, eating hardboiled eggs; in the evening I hike up a nearby mountain with Alex and my brother. Tumbles of igneous boulders dot the sparse grass, and pine scrub nestles in windward dips. I feel as if I am walking on an alien planet that has just begun to recover from a rain of meteors.

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“What’s the plan for today?” my father asks as we disembark from the plane in the capital.

I blink at him, take a breath for patience. I had forgotten how reasonable, how common this question is in a country that takes reliable scheduling for granted. “Haven’t got that far yet. First we check into the hostel.”

“I just don’t want to end up sitting around in the hostel.”

“What’s wrong with sitting around in the hostel?”

My brother, sensing danger, intervenes. “Who cares as long as we’re sitting around with Renee, right?”

I realize that my statement has failed to convey what I want it to, anyway: Doing nothing is relaxing, sometimes. Maybe we’ll be tired later and want to relax. Why should we force ourselves to go-go-go just because we made a schedule that says we should?

Striving for a middle ground, I say, “First we’ll check into the hostel, and I have to deliver this package to Tuul’s son. Then we’ll pick somewhere to eat lunch. After that we can decide what we’ll do for the afternoon. Okay?”

We run out of sightseeing halfway through the last day, and when my father asks, “What now?” at four o’clock I seriously reconsider the advisability of a schedule. Then at least I’d have numbers to point to and show how none of the sights took half as long as I’d intended.

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My father leaves at ten-thirty. I go out for one last meal at Burger King, only to find it closed. So are almost all the restaurants on Peace Ave. Ulaanbaatar is a small city in the international scheme of things.

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The flight back to my aimag is full, but there are only two or three Mongolians on it: the tourist season has begun in earnest. Everyone is speaking English. I put in headphones and curl up irritably against the window.

There are two others on the flight from my aimag’s small foreigner community, people I haven’t seen since summer dispersed us several weeks ago. Catching up with them, I feel myself slipping back into my skin.

A Month in the Life

The past couple of weeks have been a little bit crazy for me — professionally and socially. It’s been a little bit difficult to gather the reflectiveness necessary for a collected blog post, so this week I’m just going to ramble a bit on recent events.

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April has been the month of Administration-Ordained Events for the English department at my school.

Every year, the director of our school requires each department to put on a certain number of extracurricular events, as outlined by a curriculum plan the teachers create at the beginning of the year. One of the events my teachers decided on this year was “Ten Days of English” — two weeks of daily extracurricular events for all English students.

The department head had suggested scheduling this event every term this year; but because it would require a lot of time input (even with 11 teachers in the department!) it was repeatedly tabled. This is the last term of the year, however, and there’s no time left to put it off. Why not kick off term proper this way?

Theoretically, each teacher (myself included) was supposed to volunteer for two events, one of which was for the grade they taught. Because I function as everyone’s auxiliary, I was volunteered for 4 or 5 events in the first ten minutes of the discussion, had to repeatedly inquire after the schedule and firmly absent myself from things, and still got pulled into several activities so that teachers could have pictures with the American in them. I officially particpated in the seventh grade speaking competition as a judge, and borrowed three board/card games from a friend to host an ‘American’ games day[1]. The games day was so successful I decided to ask my father to bring some board games for me when he comes to visit this summer.

That ended last week. This week, the Foreign Language Methodologist (aimag representative for the national education department) is coming to visit our school with 20 foreign language teachers. My teachers are understandably quite stressed; the visit has prompted a complete redesign of our English cabinet[2] and a quest for the Best-Ever Open Lesson. I was volunteered as Open Lesson Auxiliary Planner and to host a half-hour methodology presentation — the latter of which I declined because I’m burnt out from the last two weeks and don’t have time to research new activities. Here’s hoping the visit goes well, anyway.

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I’ve also picked up a few evening activities this month, which are tons of fun but make my evenings a bit crowded.

A Kazakh friend of mine hosts a ‘women’s fitness club’ on weeknight evenings, which is to say she puts on zumba/aerobics videos and provides water and encouragement. A few fellow foreigners go once a week, and I’ve taken to joining in; some of the videos are kind of silly, but it’s a good opportunity to check in with the rest of the volunteer community and enjoy myself in English.

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve also found a taekwondo club in town. They meet three times a week at the sports center. I heard about it because the head instructor’s wife is close friends with a friend of mine; when I met the instructor, he told me he also taught the PCV who worked at my school before I did. So that’s a nice bit of continuity. I’ve missed the hell out of being in a dojo, and the club should be good for my language and social life as well as my body. The only difficulty is that the class begins immediately after my workday ends, so I can only attend on days when I work downtown (near both my home and the sports center).

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And to round off a crazy month, I’ve made some new friends. We have a new volunteer in town, a German working at the local private school. She’s officially the youngest (adult) foreigner in Bayan-Ulgii and lives with a host family; there are only a handful of people from her organization in all of Mongolia, none of them in the west. I have decided that the Ulgii PCVs will adopt her.

I also met one of my sitemate’s CPs, a teacher at the Turkish college, who offered real Turkish food in exchange for help with his TEFL certification project[3]. His wife is studying English at the teacher’s college and speaks about as well as he does; they have a one-year-old child, just mobile enough to be a danger to himself, and so the CP’s wife is pretty much stuck at home these days[4]. I have decided to adopt her too, though we’ll see how that goes — I’m usually stuck at work when she’s stuck home alone.

Finally, during Nauriz I was invited to a student’s home and met her father’s best friend, who is a driver. This guy has taken to offering me a lift whenever he happens to drive past me, and has been insisting for the last week that I need to visit his home. I’ve met his son, who is studying at the teachers’ college, as well as his wife, briefly. I fully intend to make the visit eventually, but I’m a little cautious because it’s not usual for men to extend invitations to women here; I’m waiting until my schedule calms down and I have the attention to muddle through my limited language and cultural understanding. Being Kazakh, though, this guy has been calling me every day to re-invite me.

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All in all, to call my month eventful is to approach serious understatement. Most of the happenings have been enjoyable, but unforunately busy days = stress = anxiety for me, and I’m ready to settle down for a quiet rest of the year.

Well, I can dream.


[1] The friend in question is Norwegian. But hey, we have Jenga and Uno in America, too.
[2] a.k.a. the room where all the English supplies are housed.
[3] As a rule, I refuse to help with English lessons outside of my work hours. But Turkish food, guys. Real Turkish food. Including coffee and dessert. Totally a fair trade, even if 8pm coffee at the end of a stressful week did set off a three-day-long anxiety attack.
[4] Kazakh conceptions of childcare being much less intensive than Turkish (or American) ones, she can’t really find him a babysitter.

Language learning

During PST, I received something like 40 hours of Mongolian language training.

At the end of PST, I received rather less than 12 hours of Kazakh language training, the bulk of it in one single eight-hour session.

I remain somewhat puzzled by this, since for 90% of the people at my site, Kazakh is the everyday language. Mongolian is only used in formal professional situations or with somebody who doesn’t speak any Kazakh. I’m sincerely hoping that this year, the training staff will do better by the PCVs going to majority-Kazakh regions.

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Arriving in Bayan-Ulgii, securing language training was one of my major concerns. Because scheduling is somewhat — laid-back — in Mongolia, acquiring a tutor can be really difficult. You arrange to meet with a tutor; you set a time; you have one, maybe two lessons; then the tutor gets busy and has to cancel, and somehow the lessons never pick back up.

I got lucky. Early in the year I was talking to my supervisor about finding a teacher when one of my CPs cut in. Did I really want to learn from a Kazakh language teacher, or could anybody teach me? I answered no — I’d actually prefer to learn from somebody who spoke a little English. My CP immediately volunteered herself in exchange for equal hours of English tutoring. Even better, because she’s a junior teacher, her schedule is all over the place — she’ll have one lesson at 8am and then nothing else until 2pm, and in the meantime she’ll hang out in the teacher’s room. It means that she’s really easy to track down for a lesson.

I also experimented with a few paid lessons downtown; there’s a company near where I live that offers both English and Kazakh lessons. But the lessons turned out to be rather by-the-book in a way that failed to catch my interest, and my HCA is way on the other side of town, so scheduling was too much hassle.

#

Materials have been a bit of a pain, as well. Bayan-Ulgii Kazakh takes a lot of influence from Mongolian. It borrows names for official people and places from Mongolian, and some colloquialisms have shifted to mirror Mongolian ones (e.g. Не бар?, “What’s up?” is cognate to Mongolian Юу байна? and is more common in Ulgii than the native Қал қалай?). Additionally, some verb conjugations are much more common in Ulgii than Kazakhstan and markers of the dialect; and in case of two synonymous vocabulary words, the very common Kazakhstan-dialect word will produce a long, blank stare from my tutor, followed by a discussion with the entire teacher’s lounge about what the word means and what word Ulgii Kazakhs use instead.

My resources tend to fall into two categories: locally and non-professionally compiled (e.g. an early edition of somebody’s minidictionary and a phrasebook created in Darkhan), containing local colloquialisms but also contradictory information, mistakes, and confusing layouts; or from Kazakhstan, well-designed and technically correct but full of language people in Ulgii don’t use. There are some dictionaries and basic readers in a shop near my home which might be more useful, but I haven’t yet delved into my language-learning budget to check them out.

Right now I’m working through the 2008 Peace Corps/Kazakhstan textbook with my tutor, which is useful insofar as it has basic grammar and provides a jumping-off point for local vocabulary. I’m about halfway through it, though, and realizing it’s quite basic and rather repetitive. Once we’ve finished that, if my tutor doesn’t have any suggestions, I’m going to check out the bookstore down the street.

#

Outside of lessons, there are a few things I do to try and build my language.

First, I use a flash card program called Anki, which is tremendously helpful for building vocabulary. I recommend it to everyone trying to learn a new language. I use my phrasebooks to create flash cards that are Kazakh on one side and Mongolian on the other, and every day the program provides 10 new cards. After a card is ‘learned’ for the first time, Anki tracks how often and how easily you remember it, and gradually grows the interval at whih the card appears.

I also keep a little notebook and a pen on me whenever I go around town. When I come across a new word or need one and can’t remember it, I write it down to ask my tutor later. This is my ‘practical’ dictionary and my best source for vocabulary.

But the most important thing — and the most difficult, for me — is practice. I’m a shy person. It’s not easy for me to initiate conversations, and often when other people approach me they start in English, because they assume that as a white person I’m either Russian or American. Moreover, they usually approach me because they assume I’m American, and they want to practice their English. In my capacity as an English teacher (and a fundamentally efficient person who prefers to speak in the easiest language possible) I usually stick with English and only switch to Kazakh when we slam headfirst into a language barrier.

The easiest way around this is to make friends with little kids, who haven’t started to study English and have no real interest in practicing it. They are often really excited to play teacher to the teacher and to help me learn new words. I have one CP in particular I love to visit because there are about a half-dozen tremendously rambunctious kids in the extended family, all of whom are eager to teach me. It’s difficult, though, because I live in the city center, about an hour’s walk from her.

More recently, I’ve joined a local taekwondo studio. After only two lessons I can see it’s going to help my language tremendously. The head instructor speaks a little bit of English — words like “jump”, “kick”, “come”, and “stop” that are very useful when he’s showing me the fundamentals — but of course the class itself is in Kazakh. I have to listen for the handful of words I know and keep an eye on what the other students are doing. I’m a fellow student there, not a teacher, not a privileged foreigner; the instructions, banter and rapport existed before I came along, and it’s my responsibility to fit myself into them. The class laugh and echo the instructor’s shouted, “Long! Think!” when I miss a kick, but when they ask who I am and what I’m doing there, when they try to explain what it means to kick long, it all happens in Kazakh.

Happy holidays, part 3: Nauriz

Nauriz (properly Наурыз, also Nauryz or Nowruz) is the Kazakh new year celebration, observed around the week of March 20. Most of Bayan-Ulgii celebrated March 22-23, although there are stragglers on both ends extending the holiday from the 20th to the 25th.

The idea behind Nauriz is much the same as Mongolian Tsagaan Sar: celebrate the spring’s coming prosperity by cooking a lot of food and sharing it with family, neighbors and friends. In practice, however, it’s a little bit different. With this in mind I present —

How to Have a Successful Nauriz

1. Brush up on your Kazakh language ahead of time. This is one of those occasions where everyone is constantly speaking Kazakh and everyone’s father-in-law who never met you wants to see how much Kazakh you know. At minimum learn the holiday greetings: Улыс оң болсын, ақ мол болсын, and, if you want to get to the point, құтты наурыз.

2. If you are lucky enough to own Kazakh traditional clothes, wear them. This is the only time of year anyone who is not a small child or a bride wears traditional clothing. If you don’t have any, that’s fine — a lot of Kazakh people don’t, these days — but do wear a nice outfit and clean shoes.

3. Don’t eat breakfast.

4. Tuck a bit of toilet paper into your pocket before you leave home; you’re going to be drinking a lot of tea and a lot of soup. But also make sure your water filter is full. Both the tea and the soup are salty, and қазы is addictive for the same reason potato chips are addictive: it tastes like pure salt.

5. Under no circumstances should you agree to work Nauriz morning. Even if your CP is stuck at school until she finishes grading the national English Olympics exam. Even if all the other PCVs bailed on helping her grade. The city parade is supposed to happen at 10:00, which means it starts at 11:00 just when you are supposed to start grading — and you definitely don’t want to miss the chance to see people from every institution in town wearing their finest Kazakh clothes. In the square, where the parade takes place, there are also food gers and kiddie attractions like photos on a pony and roller skating.

6. Theoretically, you are supposed to visit 40 homes in the first day of Nauriz. This might happen for the school kids, who wander into a home, gulp down a half-bowl of қоже, and tell the host their name before they wander on to the next house. (“I think he is in my daughter’s class,” said my CP. “She said she invited some of her classmates.”) But for an adult, a bare minimum of 20 minutes is polite — enough time for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup — and a particularly hospitable host may occupy you for an hour and a half with different foods and topics of conversation. To visit three houses outside of your immediate neighbors is minimally satisfactory; five, admirable; seven, probably not possible before it gets dark (and anyway your stomach might explode).

7. While it’s socially acceptable to visit both days of the holiday, you might want to do most of your visits the first day, when the food is fresh and hasn’t been picked over by a dozen visitors. Most of your invitations will be on Day 1, anyway.

8. Don’t make a schedule. Resist the urge. Even if you have eleven invitations and you’re determined to fulfill all of them. Your schedule will be in tatters as soon as your host says a mutual acquaintance is coming in twenty minutes and they are visiting the same person as you next and you should definitely wait for them. Do, however, find out where everyone lives and decide when you want to visit which district. You don’t want to spend the day shuttling from the Turkish college to the over-the-bridge ger district and back (an hour-and-a-half walk one way or up to 5000T taxi fare).

9. Do call your prospective host before you make a visit. Usually, families manage the sheer number of invitations they receive by leaving one family member at home and sending the rest off on separate visits. If you know the whole family or if you’re visiting the mom of the family, odds are good you can visit any time, and strictly speaking you can walk right in without any invitation at all; but even so, it’s polite to call in advance and make sure the people you want to see are home.

10. When entering a house, there aren’t as many formalities as here were at Tsagaan Sar. Take off your shoes; wash your hands if you’ve just used the restroom; wish your host a happy Nauriz, and take a seat in the living room. Guests should sit facing the door near the head of the table (designated by the nearness of the meat plate if there are chairs at both ends).

11. Staples of the Nauriz table: the meat plate, with a goat’s head, sheep meat, and қазы (salty horse sausage); женте, a kind of crumbled sugar-and-dry-dairy dish with raisins; curd and red cheese; some bread and cold salad plates; cookies and candy; a fruit plate. First, you’ll be served a bowl of milk tea (some houses also have seabuckthorn juice) and urged to help yourself to the side dishes. Then your host will slice up some of the meat plate. Finally, қоже, the classic Nauriz soup: millet or rice served in meat broth mixed with a special kind of yogurt, which gives it a slightly sour taste. In some homes you will be able to mix in your own yogurt, while in others the broth is cooked with the yogurt or your host will mix it for you. As a bare minimum, drink one cup of tea, eat one bowl of soup, and sample anything your host points you to when they notice your mouth isn’t full.

12. If you’re midway through an extended visit and a large group troops in — perhaps your host’s homeroom class or half her husband’s coworkers — it may be a good idea to vacate the table, so they have enough seats, and relax in the back of the room or wherever your host indicates. The bigger group probably won’t stay long, and you can take advantage of the break to do a bit of digesting.

13. Once you have gossiped and digested sufficiently, tell your host it’s time to be on your way. They may inveigle you to try one more dish or suggest you wait for a companion for your next visit. Stop at the outhouse; call ahead for your next visit; and go on to the next stop!

14. You may collapse at home once it gets dark, as by then it’s not really polite to visit without being explicitly asked to.

cosmic musings

“Do you believe in God?”

I blinked. Four seventeen-year-old faces blinked back at me, waiting with earnest curiosity for a response they understood.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a…complicated question.”

It was four-thirty on the Friday before the third-term holiday. The twelfth-grade concourse class had assembled, four-sevenths of them, for a listening lesson that ran short. At this point — three-quarters of the way through the year — they had exhausted all of the grammar points their exam book had to offer, and so my co-teacher announced that we would practice dialogues for the remainder of the class. This question had come from the aspiring lawyer, who was shy to speak but revealed a surprising fluency when pressed to do so.

Do you believe in God?

It’s a red-button question, in the States, where a single community will hold Jews, Muslims, and a half-dozen Christian denominations, all of whom profess to believe in one God but differ widely about what that means. Where a significant portion of the community is agnostic, or atheist, or of a non-Abrahamic tradition, and may be offended by the question’s inherent assumption. It’s a missionary question, after all, in the evangelical Christian tradition: not, What is your faith? but Do you follow mine?

But of course these girls were coming from a different angle, and had no knowledge of the context that makes that question so loaded in my home country. Religious diversity, among Kazakhs, exists mostly along a scale from the strict Muslim, who wears a head scarf and prays five times a day, to the citizen of Muslim tradition, who goes about her day without thinking too much about God but attends funerals, weddings, and holiday celebrations. I know there is a small Christian population here, and no doubt a few quiet atheists; there may even be some Kazakhs who have adopted Mongolian Buddhist tradition[1]. But the majority by far is at least nominally Muslim, and I would be surprised if my students knew more than one or two non-Muslim community members. For them, there really only was one way to conceive of God.

I didn’t want to answer with a simple yes or no. I know my students are sharp. I will give simplified answers to certain delicate questions (“Would you date a Kazakh?” they asked later, and I replied, “I want to go back to America”) but I think, as a matter of respect, I should attempt for most questions to convey as complete an answer as possible.

The girls murmured a question in Kazakh to their teacher. I caught the word ‘Крист’ and thought, yes, well, there’s a place to start. “My family is Christian.” My students nodded, satisfied by this answer; but I forged on anyway. “But there’s a — a ceremony — for Catholics, my mother’s family is Catholic Christian –” oh, what was the word, un-thought-of for the last six or eight years? ” — a sacrament, it’s called, a ritual called Confirmation — when you’re sixteen, you, um, you become an adult in the church. But I didn’t do that.” I was losing them, I could see, drawing away from them into a world of incomprehensibly foreign experience as their texbooks so often did. “I wanted to…oh, to see different religions first. There are so many religions in the world, and how to know which is right…”

Their faces had withdrawn into polite incomprehension, complete with raised eyebrows. I surrendered. “I believe in something. But I don’t know exactly what.”

#

It’s been a while since I’d given serious thought to the religious question.

It’s always been a question for me, for some reason, even during childhood CCD class and Masses (I recall being bribed, sulking and whining, into regular Sunday attendance with the promise of Sunday donuts afterward). Sometimes, hearing a hymn or following a Bible passage during church, I remember a sense of awe: This taps into something profound. I would feel, for the briefest moment, my insignificance in a timeline that stretched far beyond my birth and death; but it was always accompanied by a kind of sadness. This house is not my home. I was certain, even as a sulky preteen, that the natural laws laid down by the church did not align with my understanding of the world. At sixteen, I took one look at the list of requirements I had to for Confirmation and told my mother flatly that I did not want to be Christian. The ensuing argument started out stormy, but I was eventually permitted to drop out of my final year of religious ed.

I’ve known people who have become their best selves by following their faith; I’ve seen the strength that a religious community can confer on an individual. I admire that. I’m glad that it exists in the world. And on some level I do want it for myself. But it isn’t something I can do halfway; if I am going to commit to a belief, I am going to commit to it fully. And so, at sixteen, I put the question of religion — What do I believe in? — aside, figuring that someday I would find my way to the answer.

I’m wondering now if it’s time to think seriously about it again. What do I believe in? It seems to have been relevant, lately. I suppose in some ways it’s fundamental to being a PCV — positive belief, that is, not religion per se; you’ve got to have some kind of ethical guide given this unbelievable opportunity to choose what you do every single day, and it takes a kind of willful faith in circumstance to hold out hope for some of the projects we attempt. But it’s not just that. I’m in my mid-twenties now, and while I know that’s quite young to some of my readers (“little Renee,” my CPs say affectionately) I am certainly an adult. At some point in the near future — five, eight, ten years from now — I’m going to look up and find myself settled into a worldview and a lifestyle I may not have consciously chosen. Now is as good a time as any to examine my beliefs.

And it comes up in discussion. Not just with my well-meaning students, either. A fair number of people in Bayan-Ulgii’s expat/volunteer community are Christian, outspokenly so[2], and have found their way here partly because of their faith. It comes up with my fellow PCVs, who are, like me, somewhat of an intellectual bent: What would you do if you had no obligations — to anyone or anything? What do you think about organized religion? Even from the counselor: This week, consider this idea of a universal force that keeps coming up, and how it affects your thinking.

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What do I believe in?

I don’t believe in an ordered universe, or at least, in a universe that behaves in a way that the human mind is capable of comprehending in full. The universe I believe in is, I suppose, a bit like the one Derrida[3] philosophizes: fundamentally chaotic, nonsensical, made comprehensible only by careful application of a constantly-shifting contextual target; gleeful in its chaos, studded with gems of cognizance and beauty, offering a choice, in all things, between joyful engagement and cynical denial. A world of infinite opportunity and constant, irreconcilable limitations.

I suspend judgment on the idea of a god, or an afterlife, on karmic balance or cosmic rule. No way to know for sure, I told myself as a teenager; no need to worry about it. I’m still not sure if that was a cop-out. I don’t believe these are things we can ever achieve certainty in, and while I think they’re ideas I ought to put more consideration into, I believe I would derive benefit from them only insofar as they gave me comfort and a sense of direction.

I believe that narrative is the way we make sense of our small part in a vast and confusing experience. I believe — as a writer — that narrative is one of the most powerful cognitive tools we have. It gives us the power to shape to our days and reconcile ourselves to the incomprehensible. I believe in the possibility that the narratives we shape for ourselves may, on our deathbeds, be the one real and poignant cumulation of a lifetime’s experiences. Even the tangible artifacts of memory are incomplete without the story that created them[4].

I am not convinced of the possibility of a universal ethical system (or any kind of universal philosophy, come to it), but I do believe in the positive power of a personal system of ethics. Consistently behave in a way that you find laudable, and at the very least you will feel fulfilled by your life. If your ethics are good, if good ethics exist, and you might benefit the world at large, if it is possible to place the world on a positive trajectory. But, not being convinced of universality, I am a fundamentally selfish creature, and I figure leading a fulfilling life (whatever that means) ought to be enough for most people.

I believe, most of all, that we retain the power to choose much about our lives. Everyone at some point faces choices that might change their life’s trajectory. But more than that, we are able to choose the way we conceive of that trajectory. We can engage with the circumstances we find ourselves in; we can create meaning in fundamentally arbitrary occurrences; we can name ourselves principled, and give ourselves principles to fulfill that name, and make further choices based on those principles. Deliberately or not, consciously or not, we choose every day whether our lives are rooted in hope or in fear. I am trying to be more aware of making that choice.

I don’t know, at the end of the day, if all that adds up to something approximating direction-giving organized belief. I suspect not, or else that I’m not applying it consistently — otherwise I wouldn’t be musing about it, would I? I do rather doubt that it aligns with the practices of most upstanding religious organizations. And while it makes me a bit sad, a self-exile, standing outside peering into the circle of light — I’m all right with it. I’m rather a contrary soul at the bottom, and doubt I would do terribly well as either sheep or shepherd.

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Since religion is a hot issue in America, and since the practices of both Islam and Christianity are tangentially relevant to this post, a couple of ground rules for the comments section:
– No proselytizing.
– Be open-minded in your comments if you can, even if the discussion runs counter to your beliefs; at the very minimum be civil.
– Reactionary Islamophobia and hate speech will be immediately deleted and the poster’s IP and email blacklisted. Keep in mind that I am living in a Muslim community and have a great deal of respect for many of the people here.


[1] Though Kazakhs are proud of their minority status and their differing cultural traditions, among which religion is foremost. It seems more likely to me — as an outsider, mind, who hasn’t talked much about religion in my community — for a Kazakh to adopt a new minority faith like Christianity than to switch to something as quintessentially Mongolian as Buddhism/shamanism.
[2] But, do note, they are not missionaries: the Mongolian government is firmly against proselytizing as the country tries to reclaim its cultural roots from communist-era disavowal. We are not, for example, permitted to receive religious books by mail.
[3] A somewhat eccentric philosopher of the twentieth century, of much renown in literary theory. In case you can’t tell, I am rather fond of his work, which is not to say I understand it entirely.
[4] Relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiMsI5ZZ-qg

International Women’s Day

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. I was aware that Mongolia celebrates the holiday, but not having heard much about it, I assumed it was a quiet affair much like Mother’s Day in the US. Work an ordinary day, then take Mom out to dinner and give her a present, that sort of thing.

I showed up to the teachers’ lounge on Monday to do tutoring for the national English Olympics. About halfway through the hour one of my teachers came over to inform me that the men at the school were throwing a party that night for the women, and that our afternoon meeting was canceled. I thanked her for the information with my usual spike of Oh god what do I wear how do I find the place how late should I show up? alarm, got directions to the third or fourth banquet hall I’ve partied at in this aimag, and resumed the lesson.

Toward the end of the lesson, a few students came in to chat with a tutee. One of them stole her Mongolian script reference sheet with a promise to return it the next day, at which point my student reminded her, “Ертең демалыс күн.” The other student shrugged and said she’d return it on Wednesday. With mingled alarm and reignation, I asked the girl in English, “No school tomorrow?” Half of my morning work was scheduled for Tuesday this week.

What I would give for advance knowledge about these events.

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I’m happy for all women to be celebrated, but women in Mongolia — oh, do they ever deserve a day all their own.

10 of my 11 CPs are women. Out of the 110 teachers at my school, I would guess that less than 20 are men. Women in Mongolia, barred from traditional careers in herding and from dangerous and lucrative jobs in the mines, tend to be highly educated and are encouraged to pursue their education from a young age. They have a huge advantage over women in many parts of the world[1]. In any given collection of ‘bright’ or ‘talented’ students selected by their teachers, at least in the English department, a solid 90% will be girls. I think I have 4 boys in a concourse class that started with over 60 students.

In the modern world, this means that Mongolian women are highly employable. In a lot of families the woman earns higher or more stable wages. This does not, however, extricate them from the demands of social and family life.

Women in Mongolia are expected to do most of the housework. When I lived with a host family, I became the oldest ‘girl’ in the family, and as such (and ostensibly as part of my training) I was assigned a lot of chores. I did most of the dishes every night. Older girls are expected to clean the house, help attend visitors, and babysit younger siblings and cousins. Women will marry; married women will have children; women with children will be their children’s primary caregivers, along with the grandparents. This is taken as a given.

And then there’s the familial structure of a Kazakh household, which is again a little different. Kazakh families follow Muslim inheritance rules, which state that the youngest man of the family will inherit the parents’ property in exchange for taking care of them in their old age. This means that the son will continue to live under his parents’ roof (or a new roof he builds for them) for the entirety of his life.

His wife is келін, kelin, which in Kazakh means both younger sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just as the youngest son of the family is responsible for seeing to his parents’ welfare, the келін is responsible for seeing their household run smoothly. They take on the lion’s shore of the chores and childcare, and might even be responsible for helping with their siblings-in-laws’ chores and children if their in-laws live on the same property.

A lot of PCVs in Mongolia get asked why they don’t have a Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend. My CPs tell me I should not marry a Kazakh man. I suspect I would not make a very good Kazakh wife.

And yet, despite all this work, my CPs are boundless in their enthusiasm for their work with me, their love for their families, their engagement with the life that they lead. I’ll be dragging and irritable in the afternoon as one of my CPs — who, aside from her teaching job, runs a cashmere business in the afternoons, does all the household chores, and manages a miniature kindergarten composed of her own children and her in-laws’ — cheerfully invites me home for lunch and an afternoon of lesson planning/Q&A. Or the department head, inundated with the projects assigned to her, will repeatedly ask for input about the latest competition assigned to her. The CPs who invite me to their homes, who make opportunities to work with me, who juggle their children and their careers and their holidays and the sudden appearance of in-laws from Kazakhstan, with not more than the occasional bit of snark at the dictates of their mothers-in-law…it amazes me. I don’t think I could do it.

#

I showed up an hour late to the Women’s Day party, expecting to be one of the first ones there, only to squeeze into a mostly-full table at which most of the food had been devoured. Shortly after my arrival, the men announced the official beginning of the night by serving milk tea. Only one cup per person: with a dozen or two men shelling out for eighty or a hundred women, funds didn’t stretch very far.

There were all the staples of a Kazakh party in Mongolia: singing, dancing, chatting with my table-mates. I marveled at how far I’ve come since the beginning of the year: I’m starting to catch bits and pieces of conversation, enough that I can piece together the gist of a discussion, and was proud to ward off a particularly insistent vodka server with, “Керек жоқ. Ішмеймін,”[2] which amused him enough that he left me alone. Dancing is fun instead of mildly terrifying, and I even attempted the Mongolian waltz with one of my CPs — who, not being especially good at it herself, agreed to give up halfway through. I also learned a new game, “Атым не?” (What’s my name?). You dance around until the music cuts off, at which point the announcer shouts out a number. Then you have to get into groups of that number. I just about had my belt yanked off by a teacher who was determined to keep me in our group, and was promptly disqualified with a dozen others when nobody else would let go either.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a rough couple of months. But that night, giggling at my coworkers as they about knocked each other over trying to stay in the game, being yanked into the center of a dance circle by the craziest dancer in the school, recognizing the dance songs enough to sing some of the words, having my teachers affectionately call me “little” and tell me I wasn’t eating enough, chat with me, pull me into the dancing, make sure to assign me a ride home before any of them left — I felt, at last, as if I belonged.

I thought: I am here. There are so many places in the world I could have ended up, but I am here. There are so many people who have left, or have been left behind; but I have not, and I am here. And this is exactly where I choose to be.


[1] I remain puzzled, along with many other people, as to why Mongolia is a Let Girls Learn country. If anything, Mongolia has the opposite problem than the one Let Girls Learn proposes to solve.
[2] “No need. I won’t drink/I don’t drink,” though I got the conjugation wrong — it’s actually either ішпеймін or ішкем жоқ.

Food in Mongolia

Most of the time, these days, I eat horse meat.

It’s quite tasty, actually — it looks, cooks and tastes a lot like lean beef. It’s also one of the cleanest cuts of meat you can find here: in Mongolia, fat is considered as valuable and edible as meat, and so most of the cuts of beef or mutton are marbled. Horse meat is readily available in in Bayan-Ulgii at all times of year,[1] and only marginally more expensive than other meats. I supplement with beans and peanut butter, which I buy in UB or have shipped to me in care packages, since a diet of straight red meat can get tiresome.

Because Bayan-Ulgii is so far from the major cities, most of the produce is imported, and its availability varies. When I first arrived in August, we had onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, in some дэлгүүрs (shops) cucumbers or tomatoes; apples, watermelons, and oranges. With regular shipments from China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, we are often able to find bell peppers, kiwis, and occasionally such gems as lemons, lettuce, and pomegranates.

I’m also a bit limited in prep methods. This is my kitchen:

[picture]

That’s fine by me, though, since I do most of my cooking on the stovetop anyway.

I have easy access to fresh dairy, and there are a lot of dry goods from Russia, China, and even western Europe in the aimag center — there’s even a Russian store with goodies like oatmeal and spices.

There’s a lot of overlap between Kazakh and Mongolian dishes. Here’s a quick primer on the foods I’ve eaten here:

Хурга (xurag) – a dish of chopped fried meat. Comes in будаатай (budaatai, with-rice) and ногоотай (nogootai, with-vegetable) varieties, among others.
Шөл (shul) or сопа (copa) – soup. Meat and bones are boiled together; the bones are removed, the meat left in. Also comes in будаатай and ногоотай, as well as гуралтай (guraltai, with-flour, i.e. noodle), versions.
Хушуур (xushuur) – meat or potatoes fried in flour pockets; sort of resembles a pasty.
Бууз (buuz) – meat dumplings steamed in flour pockets.
Цуйван (tsuivan) or құрдақ (kurdak) – a noodle dish! Steamed noodles, meat, and sometimes veggies. This is my favorite.
Сүүтэй будаа (suutei budaa) – rice cooked in milk to make a kind of soup; for upset stomachs. (My stomach was not too happy with the offering, considering how rich the dairy is here, but I appreciated the sentiment.) I ate this during PST, but haven’t seen it in Bayan-Ulgii.
Қазы (kaz/kazi) – Horse sausage. This is a Kazakh specialty I have yet to sample.

And some classically Kazakh/Mongolian foods that aren’t meals:

Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai, lit. tea with milk) or ақ шай (ak chai, white tea) – the infamous milk tea which both Kazakhs and Mongolians drink like water. Mongolian milk tea is made by boiling tea leaves in milk; Kazakhs boil a milk-water mixture then pour it over a strainerful of tea leaves. Some families add salt. Kazakh milk tea is made with tea leaves from Kazakhstan and has a stronger flavor than Mongolian tea.
Тараг (tarag) or айран (airan) – a thin, sour, drinkable yogurt. Delicious with sugar or made into a frozen juice popsicle. Also makes a good sour cream substitute.
Ааруул (arul) or құрд (curd) – dried milk curds. Sour, crumbly, and hard enough to break off your tooth, but as snack foods go it’s quite healthy, and my host sisters loved it.
Айраг (airag) or қымыз (kumis) – fermented mare’s milk. The taste varies depending on who’s making it, but it’s sour, thick, and slightly fizzy. Can be served hot or cold. Kazakh Muslims who abstain from alcohol sometimes drink this instead of wine or vodka at house parties.
Борцаага (bortsag) or бауырсақ (baursak) – nuggets of deep-fried dough, somwhere between donuts and funnel cakes in taste and texture. The борцаага bowl, along with candy and milk tea, is always on the table in a Mongolian household, though Kazakhs supplement or replace this with cookies and bread.


[1] Unlike Kazakhs, Mongolians aren’t fond of horse meat, and in many provinces it is only available in the winter.

Motivators

A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the internet store because my modem had stopped working. Again. I carefully prepared a few phrases to use with the customer service provider. At the store I ran into an English teacher friend, who was happy to translate the answer: I’d used up all my data because I hadn’t sent an SMS to the company to convert my units into gigabytes[1].

Great, I said, though I wasn’t excited to pay double for the month. I went home and popped the modem’s SIM card into my phone. I waited for a network to show up so I could text the company.

And waited.

And waited.

Nothing. A grey triangle where there should have been reception bars. After a week of cafe-hopping and buying lunch just so I could watch Facebook fail to load — after changing providers three months before for a network that actually loaded — after finally having a discussion with a provider where I understood what was going on, I still couldn’t get my stupid modem to work.

I threw the modem at the wall, threw myself on my bed, and cried for a while. And I asked myself: What am I even doing here?

#

That anecdote probably sounds a little dramatic. It becomes all the more so if I mention that I considered plugging my modem in and using a few kilobytes to research why my phone and internet SIM were incompatible; that I considered going back to the provider and asking if he could fix it; that I considered knocking on my landlady’s door and asking to borrow her smartphone to send the SMS. But no. I threw my modem at the wall and cried for an hour.

Take a minute, though, and think about the last time you focused really hard on something mentally taxing for more than an hour. Maybe two hours or four. Think about the way you felt afterward: a little bit like your brain had turned to limp noodles, as if all the usefulness had been wrung out of it and you could no longer form a coherent thought. Right? Communicating in a foreign language when you have low proficiency starts to feel like that after the first half hour.

Now imagine the last time you had a really busy day at work. You had two or three meetings on top of your own projects. And your coworkers kept interrupting you because they needed your help, or your input, or you owed them something and you just hadn’t had the time to do it yet. You end the day not just exhausted from multitasking, but irritable about how little got done despite it. With a dozen CPs, over a thousand students, and almost daily requests for new projects or private tutoring, I have a lot of days that go like this.

And that’s not talking about cross-cultural problems. Or about limited food availability and no control over indoor temperatures. Or the half-hour daily walk to and from school. Or the immature snots in the schoolyard who mimic me in a falsetto every time I speak English. Or, or, or…

It’s not an easy job. It’s emotionally taxing. You need investment and you need some kind of motivator.

#

I didn’t throw a tantrum because I was frustrated with something as minor as a faulty SIM card. Not really. I threw a tantrum because I was exhausted, because everything felt difficult, and because in that moment the whole two-year exercise seemed meaningless.

Why am I even here?

After an hour or two I gave in to practicality, if not to reason, and decided I should probably eat lunch. I had just heated up leftovers and was sitting down with my meal when I heard a knock on my door.

I paused. Listened. Decided I must be imagining things. Nobody ever came and knocked on my door. It was always the landlady they were visiting.

The knock came again. I put my lunch down to see who it was.

“Surprise!” exclaimed two of my twelfth-grade students, and announced that they had come to take me to lunch. One girl’s favorite restaurant, surprise location, their treat.

Oh, I thought, blindsided. That’s why.

#

The work I’m doing here is important, and I care about it. I care about my fellow PCVs and the network we’ve built, tenuous with distance and made enduring by shared experience. I care about Peace Corps ideals, abstract as they are — building cross-cultural communities and professional skills. But none of those things are enough in to keep me here, not in a moment of distress.

I’m here for the half-dozen students who are always asking to visit my home, to make American food, to climb a mountain together or go shopping.

I’m here for the girl who monopolizes my open office hours to ask every question about English grammar known to humankind.

I’m here for the full-time professional who stops me after an evening class to show me her new vocabulary app or ask how I pronounce a list of words.

I’m here for the sixth-grade boys who crowd in awe around my ereader in the canteen, cheer when they realize I know some Kazakh, and tell me proudly, “Food! Ол аспаз. Дәмді ме[2]?”

I’m here for the non-English speaking teachers and friends who patiently and encouragingly repeat the same question in Kazakh, over and over, until something in my brain connects and I can stumble over an answer.

I’m here for the afternoon spent chatting about anthropological terminology and cross-cultural experiences with the English teacher who runs a side translation business.

I’m here for the teachers who, seeing me exhausted at the end of a Monday, play with my hair[3] and tell me I’m very young to have this much responsibility, and then jump on my supervisor to tell him he should cut back my schedule.

I’m here for holiday parties and weekend game nights with the other foreigners in the community and some young-adult Kazakh friends.

I’m here for the friends and counterparts who have opened their homes to me, fed me dinner, asked about my life, and encouraged me to practice Kazakh with their children.

I’m even here for the gaggle of ten-year-old boys who chant “Apple apple apple apple” when they see me in the courtyard — not because it’s particularly endearing to have a random word shouted at you, but because they switch languages when I shout “алма алма алма алма” back, and give me something to laugh about on the walk home.

#

I’m dedicated to my work. I enjoy it, I find it fulfilling, and I am invested in developing myself a professional adult. But at the end of the day, I can’t live for work alone.

It’s about the people, the community, the connections I make. And I’m lucky enough to have made some good ones.


[1] Side question for PCVs using Skytel: Does anyone else have this problem or is my local provider just stupid about it?
[2] “She’s a cook. Is it tasty?”
[3] This sounds really weird in an American context. Here it’s a normal gesture of affection/comfort between sisters and close female friends.