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.