Tag Archives: gender in mongolia

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.

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.

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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.

Winter

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.

Staging and Let Girls Learn

Hi friends!

As I write this I’m staying in one of the cities[1] for in-country orientation, but by the time it posts I will have settled in with my PST host family. We don’t know for sure what the internet situation will be like. I’m taking advantage of jetlag to sketch out a post before my cohort wakes up and clogs the hotel internet connection.

Usually, Staging is a four-hour prefix to the long flight overseas — brief overview sessions on safety and security, Peace Corps goals and expectations, and cultural sensitivity (?) before we’re all packed like sardines to find out who objects to having their shoulder slept on and whether our overexcited sociability will aggravate the flight attendants to drastic action.

Our staging event was two days long. Peace Corps Mongolia is a pilot country for the Let Girls Learn initiative, which provides training and resources to Peace Corps volunteers (and USAID employees) so that they can actively work toward the empowerment of girls and young women through access to education. This year, eleven Peace Corps programs will host an extended staging event and extra PST sessions as made possible by the initiative.

So our staging event had a series of sessions on gender: an intro to the program and to the benefits of women’s education, followed by presentations and discussion on the definition of gender, gender identity, and how the concept/presentation of gender changes between cultures. Most of it was very familiar to me (hooray feminist theory and gender studies!), but I was glad for the extra two nights’ sleep — and there was one session in particular that I found fascinating for methodology reasons. But I can’t describe it here, as that would spoil the fun for future trainees 😉

Mongolia is…an extremely weird country to pilot the Let Girls Learn program, at least at first glance. Women’s education is the norm here rather than the exception.

It was explained to me like this: Men in Mongolia are expected to be the leaders, the decision-makers, the heads of their families and the breadwinners, whereas women are expected to work hard to further themselves, their homes, and their families in absence of the burden of leadership[2]. As a result of this, a very high value is placed on girls’ education, whereas boys are torn between education and early employment.

This is affected in turn by Mongolia’s economic landscape. Some of the most lucrative jobs are in herding and mining — hard labor work usually performed by younger men. Boys disengage in class or leave school early because higher education is not required for these jobs, but later in life they have few options if they choose (or must for health or economic reasons) to change professions. Women fill the majority of education-prerequisite positions and are often the primary breadwinner in the house, while men with less education struggle to find employment. However, those men who do pursue their education are almost always placed in the highest available role, because, again, men are expected to be decision-makers — so while employment and education are not a problem for women, their leadership opportunities are limited.

(All of this was told to me in the States by Americans, but it seems to hold true in-country: almost all of the PST staff are women, with the exception of a handful of people and all of our truck/bus drivers. I can’t speak to the men-in-leadership point, though, because (a) there aren’t enough leadership positions OR men for a decent sample size, and (b) this is a U.S. government program and the hiring was approved if not performed by the Peace Corps, so it’s skewed toward U.S. norms, and many leadership positions are filled by Americans or other highly qualified international citizens.)

So I suppose it’s “Let Boys Learn, Let Women Lead” for our initiative — or so our presenter indicated at Staging. But, well, that’s a much messier slogan than Let Girls Learn, and I guess the White House likes its titles clear and concise.


[1] Note that it’s a Peace Corps policy not to share my exact location publicly, because I’m highly visible as the only/one of few Americans in a relatively small community. I mean, in the current case it’s more like a huge group of loud and boisterous Americans flooded a relatively large city, but it’s still best practice not to share.
[2] If you are familiar with Mongolian gender roles and can correct or add nuance to my understanding of them, please do comment! I am yet a novice and an outsider.