Slobodan Milosevic is holed up in his villa on the outskirts of Belgrade, while I'm trapped in my Bayangol apartment in the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar. We're both wanted by our enemies and running out of food. I'm trying to finish off whatever's left, and am now down to half-a-kilo of beef, and a few potatoes and carrots. No milk, no snacks, no desserts, no bread, no pasta... I think I'll head down to the supermarket this afternoon and buy something that will satisfy my hunger for variety.
No one from Onol has called me yet regarding this week's exams. Am I or am I not to administer some on Monday or Tuesday? I assume not. It's their job to inform me of my duties, not mine to ferret them out. Call it tough love if you will, but they have got to learn that while passing the buck may have been a perfectly acceptable practice under communism, it certainly doesn't wash in a democratic society or a market economy, where accountability is as essential an asset to prosperity as money and justice for all.
Deutsch World (DW), the international German-language channel, presented a thirty-minute report on the Mongolian zud. They covered the distribution of German relief aid in Khovd Aimag, and focused on the plight of five families during Tsagaan Sar. They live at an altitude of 2300 metres, in a valley covered in metre-deep snow. They've lost nearly all their livestock, and even the 80-year-old matriarch could not remember a colder, harsher winter than this year's. In fact, the German report seemed to revel in mentioning the temperature every two minutes: -26, -37, -50, -57 degrees Celsius, excluding the wind chill factor.
The pictures were astonishingly crisp and sharp - quite a contrast to BBC World's subdued, washed-out look -, showing in realistic detail the hardships of life as a herdsman - the dying animals, the bloody hooves, the swirling snow, the colourful dels and gers, and especially the dirty and frostbitten faces of people migrating from one place to another, sometimes hundreds of kilometres at a time, using hand-made wooden carts pulled along by horses and oxen, in temperatures dozens of degrees below zero. Harrowing...
FUNKADELIC! The penultimate instalment of BBC World's Rock History series dealt with a favourite musical genre of mine, funk. From James Brown to Sly and the Family Stone, from Kool and the Gang to P-Funk, and from Marvin Gaye to the Bee-Gees, this baddest, grooviest, craziest, dancingest of all beats had my foot tapping and my hips swaying even as I sat in my easy chair, staring in nostalgic disbelief at the cool, way-out threads and 'dos of the late sixties and early seventies. Yow, I felt good! Funk's "The One" baby! You know it!
SPRING: Highs across Mongolia this weekend reached from +10 in the north to +23 in the Gobi. However, there likely won't be any grass for livestock to graze on until May; so although the official death toll is still around two million, expect that number to double or even triple as exhausted and weakened animals perish in the waiting.
HOW?? Despite the above distractions, my mind is nearly constantly on Sun-duk and the baby. In my worst moments, I am despondent beyond consolation; at others, I cannot contain the love I feel for my wife and child, nor the joy I hope and believe will be our well-deserved lot. Yet I expect more bad days than good, particularly after Tuesday...
Well, the deed is done. I am at last in a new downtown apartment, just a stone's throw away from the UN offices, which are themselves just a couple of blocks away from MFOS. The moving actually took less time than we thought. In just about an hour, we drove from Soros to Bayangol, packed the van with fifteen bags and boxes of various sizes, retraced our steps to Soros and beyond, to Sukhbaatar District, and quickly brought my things upstairs to the fifth floor, where we spent another hour waiting for the landlady to clean, and clean out, the apartment. We have to meet her tomorrow afternoon to pay the rent, since the MFOS finance officer was sick today, and only she knows the combination to the safe containing my money.
The apartment: in some ways better than the old one, in some ways not. My cable doesn't have DW, Star Sports, Animal Planet, Arirang, and a couple of Russian channels. The TV has no remote. There are no pillows or blankets for the bed, but fortunately, I have sheets and the weather is warm. The kitchen is well stocked with the notable exception of plates, of which there are none - just bowls. So I'll have to pretend I'm in Korea, and prepare everything in bite-sized, chopstick-friendly pieces.
The neighbourhood seems much safer, with a higher class of residents, including many foreigners. There's a police station just behind my building. Buman told me that John lives about 200 metres away, in the complex just across the road from me. Kelli and Audrey also live nearby, so I'll finally have something of a social life... all the more important, now that...
Sun-duk is gone and giving birth tomorrow. I spent the weekend worrying about her, because she hadn't written or called since Friday morning. I'd imagined all sorts of things, like early labour and its many ramifications. She finally wrote back this afternoon, and called at 11 p.m. We talked about the procedure, and what she could do during as a new mother her week-long stay at the hospital. She was very upbeat, and that's all that matters for now.
April 3 and 4
Jean-Noël Roy, a.k.a. Jeong Keun-sol, was born Tuesday, April 3, at 3:13 p.m., Korean time, by caesarian section. He weighed 3.7 kilograms at birth and measured 52 centimetres in length. He has a full head of black hair, dark brown eyes, big hands, large, round eyes, and a relatively long nose. He's chubbier than most Asian babies, and is apparently a light sleeper, awakening frequently to the slightest noise. His blood type is A+. As Sun-duk herself pointed out, Jean-Noël would seem to resemble his father in many ways, both past and present.
It's now April 4. I'd been expecting word from Sun-duk since last night, almost immediately following Sun-hwa's phone call from Pusan at around six. (Sun-hwa was very brief; all she could tell me - all that her older sister Sun-nam had had time to tell her from the Green Hospital in Mokpo - was that mother and son were doing fine, and that Jean-Noël had round eyes and a big nose!) She finally called at 11 p.m., and we talked for about fifteen minutes. To say that I am currently experiencing mixed feelings is an understatement. As I write these words (it's now midnight), relief and joy are most definitely underscored by an almost overwhelming sense of grief and guilt over my absence from my family's side. My sole consolation is that this solution was, in the end, the most appropriate, and the one which other Korean couples living in Mongolia avail themselves of. (All the missionaries and doctors we've met in the Korean community send their pregnant wives to Korea for several months.)
My perfect, darling wife was in quite some pain following the operation, but is feeling much better today. She can get up, and will start walking tomorrow or Friday. She is able to see Jean-Noël several times a day, but cannot yet hold him properly, on account of the IV in her left arm. Sensing my desperation, the first thing she said to me as I answered the phone was that the hospital had taken Jean-Noël's picture and put it up on their website - something they do with all the babies they deliver. If you see him here now, it's because I was successful in navigating the site despite my inability to read Hangul with this Mongolian computer.
I had planned to empty my three-year-old bottle of Bordeaux, last night, in celebration of what has thus far been the most momentous event of our married life, but then I realised that I did not have a corkscrew. I'll try to find or buy one by the time I get the first pictures of Jean-Noël and his mother, though. In the meantime, I went to Pizza della Casa and celebrated alone, with my wife and child at my side, at least spiritually. I met Monique and Douglas on my way back home, but it was difficult putting on a smile; my heart just wasn't in it. I'm sad, desperately sad... especially when I think that I'm sacrificing one of the most important times of my life for students who could care less about English or translation.
Well, I know I'm being a little harsh. As I said, we're not behaving any differently from other Korean couples living in Mongolia; I'm able to make twice as much money here as I could in Seoul - an important consideration with an additional, adorable baby boy mouth to feed, now; and some students do care... Bayarsuren from 3A came to my office and presented me with a small gift and card expressing her appreciation for my efforts. The gift is a small wooden Mongolian couple playing the traditional Mongolian horsehead fiddle. So thank you for brightening my day, Bayarsuren!
In conclusion: I am an exceedingly happy father and husband, incredibly proud of his wife and overawed at everything she has had to go through these past nine months. Together, we have created a beautiful tiny being, a living symbol of our deep love for each other; but most of the credit, if not all of it, should go to Sun-duk, as it must to every woman on earth who has ever borne a child. All I can do is promise to do my best from here on in, and strive to keep a positive attitude until our reunion six weeks from now, when we will at last begin the most exciting and fulfilling chapter of our lives.
Another sleepless night... I haven't had a good night's sleep since Sun-duk left, but the last few days have been just awful - just three or four hours a day. Wracked with worry, elation, guilt, pride... I'm behaving just like a father living with a newborn, only the baby and the mother aren't here. I don't think I can get by with just a phone call a week from Mokpo...
I spent all morning at the Soros office, and lo and behold! Sun-duk had sent me a couple of e-mails! One of them was the URL for the homepage the hospital created for Jean-Noël, but as it turned out, I didn't need it. Last night on the phone, Sun-duk had given me the hospital's internet address, and from there I eventually found the page containing the URLs of every baby delivered there since March 22. I scooted on over to April 3, but couldn't make out which one was Jean-Noël's, since the computer interpreted the hangul as a series of jumbled symbols.
I saw I had no choice but to click on every link until I found our boy's page. Like the piece of a Ouija Board, I let the mouse guide my hand. It roamed about the pad of its own volition and finally settled on a URL near the bottom of the list. I pressed the left mouse button, and as fate would have it, I WAS RIGHT ON THE MONEY !!! In a few seconds, I saw the image of a baby with a fairly large nose, before my eyes turned towards the vital stats to the right, and immediately glimpsed 3.7 Kg, 52 Cm, and 15:13, and I thought this had to be the place (to paraphrase David Byrne). An auspicious beginning, don't you think?
I immediately saved the page onto my floppy disk, and the picture, as well. It wasn't long before it graced our homepage and the e-mails of several relatives and friends. I printed it out, too, so I could look at it wherever I went and whenever I felt like it.
But then I was shattered by the realisation that I had to go to school. I slept-walked through the afternoon, resenting my Lumps (so many no-shows yet again) with all the pettiness my broken heart could muster. They're lucky I can't speak Mongolian very well, otherwise I would have laid a guilt trip on them the size of the Gobi Desert.
I returned to the Soros office as soon as class ended and found another letter from my better half (and I mean that literally). I wrote back several e-mails to cheer her up, because she seems a little bored at the hospital. The baby can't room with her, and she's too weak to go walking about. (If you know Sun-duk at all, you're cognizant of the fact that she's always on the move.) I stayed there until eight o'clock, hoping she would be on-line this evening, but no such luck. I dragged my sorry carcass home, swallowed a baloney sandwich, and had, for the first time in a while, a relatively good night's sleep.
P.S. Onol changed my schedule last Friday without telling me, so I ended up missing two classes Monday afternoon - moving day. They've added three hours of writing with the 3C group. My students from 4A were also kind enough to direct me to the exam schedule pinned on the downstairs bulletin board. Why didn't the adults help me with this? At every other place I've ever worked, the administration took charge of such matters as informing teachers of exams and schedules.
At 8:30, I was at my post, awaiting word from my Jagi. It didn't come until 1 p.m., during which time I wrote long replies to friends and relatives congratulating us on the birth of Jean-Noël. Her e-mail was disturbing: she was having trouble breastfeeding, and asked me to look into the subject and give her some advice.
Following lunch with Kelli at the Korean restaurant just across the street (we had ja-jjang myun, oo-dong, and kim-bap - BIG portions), I made a quick trip home to fetch our baby book and was soon sitting uncomfortably at Soros desk, transcribing all the useful information I could find. I then spent another hour searching the net for breastfeeding sites with pictures, until I found the La Leche page. It had some useful photographs, but a URL on its links page led me to the most wonderful site with instructional videos - dozens of one-minute clips, showing all a mother had to know about breastfeeding. One video showed the don'ts ?nearly as important as giving the dos, in my opinion.
I was so proud of my discovery! Being able to help my family in some way, even from afar, made me feel useful, involved. I was actually experiencing the act of fathering, however tenuously, and it plucked me out of the dusty Mongolian doldrums.
Back home, at roughly 11 o'clock, I was graced by my beloved's voice; unfortunately, it was choking back tears. The initial elation of birth and baby has worn off, replaced by a sense of frustration and loneliness, the lot of first-time mothers everywhere. It may be a case of post-partum depression, but my absence surely does not help. The fact of the matter is that we have very little choice but to keep a positive outlook for the next four or five weeks. After fifteen minutes of mutual cheering up and vows of eternal love, we reluctantly hung up and went to bed...
P.S. Sun-duk was transferred to a room with other mothers, yesterday. There are six beds, but only three or four are currently occupied. She enjoys the company.
Sun-duk's mother is with her all the time, even sleeping on the floor next to her bed at night. (This is common practice in Korean hospitals.)
Jean-Noël yawned, hiccoughed, and sneezed for the first time today! He was, by all accounts, extremely cute!
Koreans ignorant of Sun-duk's marital situation are amazed at the size of our son's nose!!!
To everyone's astonishment, Jean-Noël opened his eyes for the first time just a few hours after being born. (Most babies don't do so until the second day of life.) Sun-duk's mother swears she has never seen a newborn open his eyes so early.
Visitors simply adore Jean-Noël's big, round eyes!
My heart is aching for pictures showing all of the above, but Hye-young has the digital camera, several dozen kilometres away, and is himself on pins and needles over the impending birth of his son, who's already a week overdue. He usually joins Soon-joo in Seoul on the weekend, so it doesn't look like I'll get any hospital pictures, or any pictures at all, until the middle of the month. Sun-duk will have to find someone else with a conventional camera, or have her sister buy a disposable one - although I wouldn't get to see the pics until I arrived in Korea, since no one in Mokpo or Pusan knows anything about scanning and attaching photographs to e-mails.
TO VISIT JEAN-NOËl'S HOSPITAL HOME PAGE, go to http://baby.babymam.net/gr010789/1/. You can even leave a message! If you or your computer cannot read Korean, then follow these instructions:
1. Scroll down a bit until you see, to your right, the word Congratulations! written in English.
2. Click on the pencil icon.
3. You will see a box with four fields. In the first one, to your left, you must type in your name. The second one on the right, slightly shorter in length, is for you to enter a password, in case you want to modify your message at a later date. NOTE: You must enter a password, or you won't be able to leave a message. The third field - the long, skinny one - is reserved for the title of your message. The fourth, of course, is for your message proper - but you already knew that just by looking at it!
When you're done, click on the pencil icon at the bottom. It's the second one from the left, next to the little house.
Sun-duk would really appreciate your leaving a message! Thank you.
Jagiya! Him naera! Naega kod Hanguge issul koya... Ku ttae uriwa Keun-soriga kajokuro nuhmoo haengbokhage toel konunde... Keun-sorun kippun jagi uhmmaga piryohajanha... Aga uhlgurul pomyunsuh uri yungwonhan sarang saenggak hae ba... Aduri uri sarangui kajang k'ugo sojunghanun sangjing inji hangsang kiuhk hae...
Sun-duk called me at about 3 a.m. (April 9, actually), Korean time. A lot has happened in the two days since we spoke...
First and foremost in today's news is her success in training both herself and Jean-Noël to breastfeed properly. Her milk is flowing, and Jean-Noël, after a lot of effort, has learned to extract it from a nipple significantly more resistant than what's to be found on a bottle of formula.
One of the most difficult things to accomplish in this day and age is teaching a newborn to breastfeed. Harried nurses and frustrated mothers will often give up and pop a bottle into baby's mouth as soon as he cries out in hunger - but cow's milk, as everyone knows, is not a substitute for mother's milk, which contains essential antibodies, less fat and protein, and is more easily digestible.
Today, Sun-duk was determined to give our son the best nourishment Mother Nature has to offer, and brought Jean-Noël to her breast whenever he began to cry. He had difficulty drawing enough milk to satisfy his hunger, and cried throughout the morning and afternoon; but by day's end, the technique had been mastered, to everyone's satisfaction. I'm very proud of my wife and boy; a first hurdle has been overcome with pluck and determination!
Sun-duk described Jean-Noël's features to me, which have changed considerably since his first picture was taken, just a couple of hours after he was born. First, his skin, bruised by nine months of swimming in amniotic fluid and his rather abrupt eruption into the world, has healed and become fair and smooth. His face and head, so round at birth, have grown slightly longer and thinner. His eyes and nose are still mine, but his mouth and ears appear to be Sun-duk's. He is still possessed of very big hands and long fingers, which never fail to make an impression on newcomers.
As for his behaviour... He eats like a pig! (Those are the nurses' very words!) The hospital won't let Sun-duk breastfeed Jean-Noël at night, so they give him bottled cow's milk, which he chugs down like there's no tomorrow! The spitting image of his father...
Jean-Noël has also grown accustomed to his surroundings. Whereas he used to wake up and cry at the drop of a pin, he now blithely sleeps and eats through all manner of noisy activity.
Sun-duk and Jean-Noël will check out of the hospital Monday afternoon. Because of her incision, Sun-duk hasn't been allowed to bathe or shower (sponge bath only), and she's dying to wash her hair! Now that she has to nurse Jean-Noël 'round the clock (between eight and twelve feedings a day), she won't be able to leave the house and check her e-mail anymore - which means we're down to two or three ten-minute phone calls a week for the next month. Aigo... I asked that she call me when Jean-Noël cries, because I want to hear his voice!
Sun-duk has been busy taking pictures with a disposable camera and filming our little bundle of joy with the handcam. Unfortunately, Hye-young hasn't been around to take pictures with our digital camera, so it'll be another week or so before I can see how much Jean-Noël has changed.
Ah, Korea... Sun-duk told me that Hye-young's son was born in Seoul last Thursday, but that his boss (Hye-young's a government employee in a town near Mokpo) wouldn't grant him leave on account of "urgent business". In fact, Hye-young had to work all weekend, and has seen even less of his son than I of mine! I mean, at least I've got a photograph; but the hospital where Soon-joo gave birth doesn't have a web site... Poor Hye-young! Poor us!
STORMY WEATHER: It was 13 degrees Celsius, Thursday. Then there were flurries Friday, with a wind chill factor of - 5. Today, we had a blizzard! About a foot of snow has fallen on Ulaanbaatar, transforming the city from an unsightly dustbowl into a winter wonderland. Kelli didn't believe me when I predicted an April blizzard, but my Canadian sixth sense proved me right. It doesn't matter where you live in the northern hemisphere - if spring comes early, winter will almost invariably come back and bite you on the arse when you least expect it.
The weather created havoc in the streets, as vehicles of every stripe slipped, slid, and slithered with all the surefootedness of a rhino in the Himalayas. The funny thing was that John, Kelli, Audrey, and I had been invited over to Paul's for dinner, so we all risked life and limb today getting to his house.
An extraordinary set of circumstances, which I will omit in order to avoid anyone embarrassment (you know who you are! Heh, heh! ;-), left John and me stranded for an hour near the Bayangol Hotel. We warmed our tootsies at the Casablanca bar next door until Paul, Kelli, and Audrey finally found us through a concatenation of good luck, cell phone use, and arctic trekking.
We had a lovely meal of curry chicken (Paul is from Huddersfield, which has a large Pakistani community), topped off with Kelli's chocolate almond torte - it simply melted in your mouth! As Garolou (!) and The Byrds droned quietly in the background, we - the five of us plus Paul's Mongolian fiancee - chewed the EFL fat, and certain new and unflattering information concerning the MFOS came to light. They confirmed suspicions I'd harboured for quite some time. I certainly have a better understanding of John and Kelli's grievances, now - which, for some reason, they had failed to elaborate on before this evening. However, as long as I personally am treated with fairness and respect, I think it proper to rein in my criticisms and refrain from making any overly harsh judgement until I've left the country and got the whole story straight.
John was gracious enough to let me visit his apartment after the party; he only lives a hundred metres or so away from me. We talked for nearly an hour-and-a-half before fatigue got the better of me and forced me on my way. I was surprised to find the door to my building locked, though! I knocked on it for twenty seconds before the septuagenarian dezhurny let me in. It was past midnight... Curfew, I guess!
WARNING TO THE QUEEN MUM: Paul Laws is a fierce republican! Remember what happened to Charles II and beware!..
Sun-duk called me last night in a bit of a panic: breastfeeding had not only become very painful, but Jean-Noël didn't seem to be getting enough milk from her, and had to be bottle-fed every so often in order to quell his hunger pangs. I gave her some advice I had remembered from our baby book, and added that I would write to Josee for some first-hand help.
When Sun-duk phoned back this evening, I was ready: the book was open at the correct page, and my sister's e-mail reply shone before me on the computer screen, her arguments buttressed by the experience of many friends who had also nursed.
As luck would have it, though, Sun-duk had found a solution on her own, one of several tactics Josee herself had adopted for her children: she changed position. Instead of sitting upright and cross-legged, adding stress, pain, cramps, and numbness to her limbs, back, and shoulders, she lied down on her side. Not only were both mother and baby much more comfortable, but the milk flowed more easily and quickly filled Jean-Noël up. How about that! My Jagi's taken to motherhood like a duck to water. Still, I'm grateful to her for calling me and asking for my help; a father wants to be of use, even from the depths of Mongolia.
DETAILS: I heard Jean-Noël's voice for the first time, Tuesday night. He was fussing a bit after feeding, observing his surroundings before drifting off to sleep. He sounded like any other newborn, but hearing him made me feel all funny inside. I mean, this was my boy's voice, darn it! And his tiny gurgles were accompanied by Sun-duk's gentle Q & A ("Weh kureh, Keun-sora, weh kureh? Moggo shipji, uri saranga?", as she caressed him oh-so-tenderly and reassuringly with her words, hands, eyes, smile...
Jean-Noël is a very well-behaved baby, rarely crying except when hungry. His routine usually involves a feeding, followed by several minutes of looking at the world around him from the vantage point of the floor (he sleeps on a yo) before succumbing to the sandman for a couple of hours. He is endowed with a voracious appetite, eating much more than his cousin Dong-hyuk in Pusan - but then he's much bigger than the average Korean infant, as I've pointed out before. His eyes are almost black, according to his mother, but his hair is still very light - almost brown - and thinner than that of other Asian babies. He also passes a lot of air - loudly!
Although Jean-Noël's proboscis remains prominent, Sun-duk has become less sure of the shape of his eyes. His eyelids are, and always will be, folded, but the corners seem to have tightened a bit. Sun-duk would prefer he had round peepers like his father, but I admit to having a penchant for orbs tempered with a soupçon of Asian almond. When I look at Tiger Woods, Naomi Campbell, Paul Kariya, or any number of my Mongolian students with obvious Caucasian strains, I see a touch of the exotic that enhances, rather than detracts from, that person's physiognomy.
BAD NEWS: Don't expect any new pictures of Jean-Noël and Sun-duk before the end of the month. Hye-young's idiot of a boss has kept him working overtime for the last two weeks. With a bit of luck, he'll be able to visit his newborn son for the first time this Saturday, then maybe Sun-duk on a weekday.
ON TO OTHER THINGS: I had to wade through a foot of snow for several kilometres on Monday, filling up my broken boots with several kilograms of the white stuff in the process. I'd get to the office and take off my boots, only to find several compact lumps of ice sticking to the bottom of my socks.
However, that inconvenience pales in comparison to what the weather has dished out since then. All that snow melts during the day, leaving pedestrians to slog through large bodies of water and three-inch-deep mud with the approximate smell, colour, and consistency of diarrhoea. Too often, there's simply no avoiding these hazards, so I end up spending the day with soiled pant legs, and soaked and squishy socks, wondering when pneumonia will set in. I wish I could buy some new boots, but what would be the point? Ulaanbaatar will be bone-dry once again by next week, so I might as well lump it...
HAR! Onol has put up a rather primitive poster in the building's third-floor "foyer" (har! #1), where the main offices are located. This poster displays the school's many great "qualities" (har! #2), as well as happy, eager students fulfilling their intellectual potential (hars! # 3, 4, & 5) in classes taught by such doctorate-endowed luminaries as Soros-Foundation-sponsored English teacher Daniel R. (hars! # 6 & 7), daily toiling away in state-of-the-art audio-visual and computer labs (watching French TV to boot! Hars! # 8, 9 & 10). Wonder how they'll feel about me if I nix their chances at another SPELT Fellow next year?
TOO POOPED TO PARTY: Every day this week, I'm having to administer exams and teach, with all the preparation and correction these activities involvel. I get home in the evening and plop into bed at seven or eight, exhausted... Why do I continue knocking myself out when my best students seldom give me more than 50%?
BEAUTIFUL BOY : I turned in early and tried to catch a few winks before Sun-duk's midnight call, but I was much too anxious to hear her voice, and Jean-Noël's, and was unable to fall asleep. I got up, turned on the television, watched an old fifties movie with Bourvil, then shook my head in disbelief as Christine Bravo's guests on Union libre, young Maghreb comedians Eric and Ramzy, behaved in the most boorish manner. At last came the long-awaited jangle, and I jumped off the couch and dashed towards the telephone before it had rung a second time.
The first thing my Jagi told me was how Jean-Noël's features kept changing. Last week, he still looked more or less like a Korean baby, nose notwithstanding. In the last few days, however, his hair has become ever lighter, and is now, for all intents and purposes, brown. His complexion is taking on a definite Caucasian tint, and his face, head, and cheekbones are assuming Western proportions, as are his eyes. Sun-duk, with tenderness, sincerity, and obvious pride, described our son as a truly beautiful baby ("nuhmu jal saengyuhta"), and is already envisaging him twenty years hence as a dashing, debonair young man! Of course, this made me want to see him all the more; and Sun-duk promised I would have pictures by the end of the week - hopefully, before I leave for my seven-day trek across the Mongolian countryside.
The breastfeeding issues have been completely resolved, with baby eating his fill and mother experiencing no discomfort or pain whatsoever. (In fact, perhaps as a result of the new position, our son now prefers to sleep on his side!) Between two and six a.m., though, Jean-Noël gets powdered formula from his grandmother while Sun-duk recuperates from a full day's work nursing. I heard him cry a bit as he woke up, ready for another feeding. Unfortunately, that meant mommy had to hang up, and the moment of bliss was short-lived. Luckily, my "tour of duty" ends in three weeks' time (see below for more details); so with Sun-duk urging me, as always, to be extra-careful, I too lay down the receiver - not, perhaps, brimming with joy, but at least seeing light at the end of this long, long tunnel.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME : This is the fifth or sixth time I've celebrated my birthday on the sabbath, and, I believe, the fourth time that it's fallen on Easter Sunday. On the last such occurrence, I had just survived a kidnapping in Georgia, USSR. The events of that weekend remain as vivid today as when I first experienced them - not quite so astonishing a feat of remembrance one might suppose when you consider the fact that I was plastered on red wine at the time. (You can read my account of the ordeal here.)
(Oddly enough, this year, both the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches are celebrating Easter on the same weekend.)
On Bernard Pivot's Bouillon de culture, Christianity was on the hot seat. It was, as usual, an extremely civil debate between highly intelligent people who respected and understood one another's position despite fundamental differences of opinion. On one side, there was an atheist, an agnostic, and a believer who loathed the Church; on the other, we had a Dominican friar (Timothy Radcliffe, an Englishman with a near-perfect command of French), flanked by an self-styled objective sociologist who, though a devout Catholic, puts little stock in the Bible. Pivot himself seemed to lean towards atheism, but he did not play favourites; in fact, he gave the believers more time to air their views.
As I sat listening, mesmerised by each man's eloquence, I couldn't help but think that such a debate would never, ever take place on North or South American television, much less on Easter Sunday. The New World, and more particularly the Latinos and Anglo-Saxons, simply refuses to consider the very possibility that God might not exist - a position that not only restricts one's intellectual development, but also encourages intolerance towards non-believers and non-Christians.
Anyway, Buman, Enkhe, and Kelli threw a combination birthday party / baby shower for me on Saturday. They went to Los Bandidos and brought to my apartment several bagfuls of Mexican food, colas, and beer. Poor Enkhe guzzled glass after glass of water in a vain attempt to put out the fire in her mouth - although Kelli and I found the food only mildly spicy! For desert, Kelli made us some delicious almond cookies - not too sweet, not too hard, and not too flaky. She has a way with the baking oven that leaves me green with envy!
ONOL: On top of my already heavy workload, Khanda had me write up several "practice" exams to help prepare the seniors for the state examinations next month. I have to administer them every day next week, as I rush to correct my remaining exams and homework assignments before the "Seminar Season" begins at the end of April.
CONSOLATION PRIZES: There are several: First, I've made up my mind to leave Mongolia Sunday, May 6, come hell or high water. I told Khanda to schedule all state exams for the first week of next month, as soon as I get back from Dornod and Dundgobi.
Why should I care when these exams are held? Well, strangely enough, the state doesn't correct its own accreditation exams - it's the students' teachers themselves who must perform this onerous and conflict-of-interest-riddled task. I thought about this for a few days, then asked Buman to tell Khanda that unless Onol actually wants a success ratio of only 10%, the school had better get someone else to do the grading, 'cause I'll be flunking these kids left and right; I know them too well to pass the majority of these dullards with a clear conscience. More than half are getting F in my writing class this semester; they refused to attend class or hand in homework (both of which together account for 70% of their grade), despite my stern warnings that doing so would guarantee them a failing grade. Well, what do they care? They're national-university rejects buying their way through life - education has nothing to do with success in modern Mongolia.
Secondly, and praise be to her, Buman has decided not to send a Fellow to Onol next year. Ian did crap-all in 1999-2000, even advising me to buy all the wrong books (what the school really needed were bilingual dictionaries in business, law, and linguistics, not additional conversation textbooks, the function of which escapes all but a few students); and when I came in, accomplishing with great panache and extreme erudition (hey, if you've got it, flaunt it!) everything that was asked of me, and much, much more, the workaphobic "lumps" stayed away in droves, squandering the opportunity of a lifetime.
Besides which, it only makes sense to spread the Soros wealth around: send a Fellow to a school for one or two years, then move on to newer, if not necessarily greener, pastures. Since, as Fellows, we seem destined to accomplish very little as teachers or teacher trainers, it appears the only lasting influence we have on our host institutions is the textbooks we buy and bring over from the West.
BANGALORE GALORE: I treated Ganaa to lunch at the Taj Mahal, Friday afternoon. He spent three years as a student in Bangalore, in southern India, and showed me how to eat a la indienne.
We ordered the lunch special, Talhi. It's basically a grab-bag of curry, rice, beef, salad, and several other side dishes, all served in little metal bowls set on a large round platter. The owner, and then Ganaa, removed my bowls from the platter and urged me to just dump whatever struck my fancy onto it and dig in.
Easier said than done! I simply took the naan and scooped up the condiments one by one with a spoon, making mini-fajitas. Ganaa did what all good Indians do when eating Talhi (which is as common a meal as rice and kimchi in Korea), eating everything with his fingers - even the rice! Half the bowls were filled with sauces, so his hands and face were quite a sticky sight by the time he'd done slurping his desert, a yolk-shaped bit of yellow bread dipped in honey-sweet syrup. I wish I'd brought my camera!
I asked for the cheque, and then a funny thing happened on the way to the cash - I was five thousand tugriks short! Instead of the T15,000 I thought I had stashed in my coat pocket, I only found T10,000. Embarrassed, I presented my business card (the Soros Foundation is an excellent referee) and promised to come back within an hour to pay the balance of my bill. The owner, an Indian with an excellent command of English and the good manners his country is known for, told me I could come back anytime to settle the difference - he trusted me! Ganaa and I left, and almost simultaneously remarked to each other that Indians must be the most polite and understanding people on the face of the earth...
(By the way, I found the "missing" T5000 bill lying on the floor next to the bed when I got home later in the evening! I really ought to be more careful with my money...
ON THE EDGE OF BLUE HEAVEN: BBC World is presenting a three-part documentary on Mongolia. It airs every Saturday at 5 p.m. Hong Kong Time. It was shot in 1998, so it's a little out of date... Nonetheless a good primer for those who don't know the country.
FORMULA 1: I was supposed to accompany John to the Chinggis Club to watch the San Marino Grand Prix with all the Germans, but I simply had too much work to spare four hours in the pursuit of happiness and relaxation. I wonder, though, if the stress of the past few weeks will compare favourably to what I'll no doubt experience in my job search in Canada?..
As she had promised, Sun-duk called at 11:30. Jean-NoNoël was asleep, so I didn't get to hear him at all, tonight. Any news? Yes!
One: Jean-Noël bit - or rather, gummed - his mother hard while feeding the other day, bruising her breast and necessitating a trip to the hospital and a dose of penicillin. While at the hospital, Sun-duk decided to give Jean-Noël his second-ever checkup, and his first-ever booster shot. His vital signs, as befits the child of a couple as healthy and robust as us, are normal.
Two: Hye-young came over and took pictures with the digital camera! He's sending them to me today, so by the time you read this, there ought to be photographs of Jean-Noël all over the place - in the diaries, in the Children's photo section, in the Korean-Canadian Couples' Children's section, and, of course, on the portal page. Sun-duk said that he had trouble getting "good" pictures, because every time Jean-Noël opened his eyes, he usually made a face!
Three: Sun-duk phoned a travel agency in Seoul and inquired about airplane itineraries and ticket prices. She said that Air Canada (or is it Canadian?) flies to Montréal via Vancouver; tickets are between C$800 and C$850 for adults, only C$80 for infants (for baby seat rental). She forgot to ask about the dates and the length of the stopover in Vancouver. If the latter is too long, we'll stay an extra day or two to let Jean-Noël recover from jet lag and fatigue. She'll call back later this week - maybe as early as this evening - so that we can buy the tickets as soon as possible, before they're all sold out. Hmm... I have to remind her not to get seats in the middle of the plane; according to our baby book, that's the worst place for babies.
Four: A Korean won the Boston Marathon for the very first time, today; and Ottawa's upcoming Tulip Festival was previewed on Korean TV, this evening! Apparently, the festival begins right about the time we're due to arrive in Canada, in mid-May. How about that?
The wheels have been set in motion: Monday and Tuesday, Buman and Ganaa did what they had to do to get me out of Mongolia on May 6. By Friday, I should be in possession of both my airplane ticket and exit visa! Could it be? Will I really be in Korea just two-and-a-half weeks from now?
NOTES: Nothing much going on elsewhere. I'm administering exams, correcting exams, grading exams, teaching, correcting compositions, etc. It never ends. I want to finish everything by Friday, but Monday seems a more realistic goal.
The 4A class were outside the school, yesterday morning, playing strange farewell games that consisted of rushing into one another's arms, running about shouting and crying and laughing, holding hands in lines and circles, and other equally bizarre activities!
The temperature is once again a teenager, and, just as I had predicted, dust storms have replaced snowstorms. This could very well spell the end of winter, once and for all. This morning, I actually spied green shoots and buds here and there.
I spent a couple of hours in the company of John and his girlfriend Togsoh. I brought over some leftover beer from the birthday party, and in return, John lent me some methodology textbooks which I'll use for today's review with 4A. Togsoh is a very personable young woman who might accompany John to Baku next fall - or not. She's thinking of maybe studying in either South Korea or Canada.
BABY DIARY: Oh yes, did I mention I created two new pages this week? (Don't worry, it didn't take very long.) One's an ongoing diary of Jean-Noël, which will become much more interesting once the family is reunited. I think all Korean-Western couples will enjoy this new section as the months and years roll by. The other page is the pregnancy diary, which chronicles all our actions, thoughts, and feelings as Jean-Noël grew inside his mother's womb. And just in the name of fancy, I whipped up a new banner advertising the diaries!
Sun-duk phoned again last night to tell me that Air Canada has daily flights from Seoul to Montreal, via Vancouver. She forgot to ask how long the stopover in the West was, and she still has to find out whether I need a visa or not. I think people staying in Korea less than a week or two don't need them, but better safe than sorry...
It was a very short conversation, interrupted by Jean-Noël's greedy cries for milk... Aigo! So we had just enough time to talk about the gorgeous baby-and-mommy pics and pleasantly argue about whose eyes and mouth our son has! The eyes seem more Asian than Western, and the mouth consists of what appears to me one full bottom lip and one thin upper lip - which would indicate a Roy, not Jeong, gene. His ears are most definitely Sun-duk's - notice the slightly outward curving tips and lobes. In any case, there's plenty of time yet for second-guessing!
What struck me most, though, was Jean-Noël's hair, which is brown verging on red. Sun-duk assures me that it's only brown, but my own mane has red highlights, especially visible in the sun or a camera's flash... So don't discount the Archie Andrews factor just yet! But wouldn't that be wonderfully unusual - a red-headed child with partial Asian features?
I spent part of the afternoon resizing, uploading, and programming the pictures into the homepage, and a solid two hours just admiring the little miracle Sun-duk and I have worked...
ONOL, OH ONOL: Khanda told me last week that I was only to administer three practice exams - this Monday (4B), Tuesday (4A Lit), and Wednesday (4A Meth) -, but when I got in late this morning, the kids from 4C asked me why I had been absent. They then pointed to a tiny schedule pinned up on the bulletin board with my name in a box... And in two more boxes! Uh-uh... That batty old communist was at it again. All semester long, he kept switching and adding classes to my schedule without ever bothering to tell me or anyone else about them. Well, I'll be darned if I bend over backwards for him. Khanda told me three classes, and that's all I'm teaching, period.
Yesterday's methodology review was a disappointment to the students, because I concentrated on actual teaching techniques and syllabus writing. They told me afterwards that the state exam would consist of thirty questions dealing with methodological theory. (Apparently, there's a standard list of eighty questions that the students must try to answer on their own; from this list, thirty are chosen at the time of the exam. Is it just me, or is this practice uncomfortably akin to... well, cheating?)
What could I do? Khanda provided me with absolutely no material - no sample questions or exams, no notes, no books. Maybe if I had had time and one of the students' notebooks from last year, which is when they were absolutely deluged with theory (they showed up at their first internship without a single minute of classroom experience), I might have been able to whip something up; but I'm a self-taught teacher, and the books I have read all deal with the practical side of teaching. I mean, when you're in the lions' den, theory doesn't help squat! Crazy, disorganised, *#&$*)&@*(&!!
RETREAT OR PURGATORY? Buman told me that we would probably be leaving for Dundgobi next Monday; we won't be coming back until May 1. This will be my only trip to the countryside, apart from the train ride that took us from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar last August. I'll be unreachable for those seven days, unless, by miracle, I manage to find a computer with an internet connection. Maybe Sun-duk will be able to call me on the cell phone, but there's no guarantee she'll be able to get through.
I was informed that we would be travelling by Russian jeep. While Mongolians are divided on the issue of which jeep is best - Russian or Japanese -, they are unanimous in their deprecation of European and American models, which are not at all suited to the country's terrain. Even as great a Western authority as Lonely Planet recommends the russky jeepsky. It ought to be fun trekking across steppe and desert, a la siberienne, and I plan on taking a lot of photographs!
PICTURES! PICTURES! Hye-young sent me the balance of Jean-Noël's pictures, and I spent all afternoon just looking at them... He's a cute kid! Of course, you'd expect a father to say that, but objectively speaking, I think my son is cute. So there! ;-)
East and West are both well represented in little Jean-Noël. Yes, he does have folded eyelids, and yes, his eyes are pretty round... But they fold at the corners just like an Asian's. Think Tiger Woods or Paul Kariya!
He has most definitely inherited Sun-duk's ears and eye colour, but the nose and lips belong to me. His mouth, though, seems to come from his mother - or maybe that's the Seguin overbite at work. Brown hair, pink skin - that's me. Chin - cleft, so definitely mine. My hands, my fingers, and, as far as I can tell (in a picture I haven't uploaded and thumbnailed), my feet - his second toes are shorter than his big toes. As for the rest, we'll just have to wait and see!
(If you have trouble navigating the site, than just click here to see the pictures.)
WE'RE GETTING THERE... At 12:30, Sun-duk and I discussed when to leave Korea. Because the weekends - i.e. Friday-Saturday-Sunday-Mondays - are such incredibly busy times for travelling, we decided to leave on a weekday. We settled on one of three possibilities: Tuesday the 15, Wednesday the 16, and Thursday the 17. Sun-duk will think about it over the weekend and call the agency on Monday to find out about ticket availability and baby-friendly seating. Then she'll make reservations and give some money to Hye-young, who will purchase the tickets for us in Seoul while visiting his wife and child.
As for my arrival in Korea two weeks from now, Sun-duk advised me to take a shuttle bus from the international airport in Inchon to Kimpo, whence I am to fly to Mokpo. (The ticket is only about US$45.) There I will be greeted by my wife and son, and we can all have a good cry together...
AND...The Air Canada flight from Seoul to Montreal will take about 17 hours. The stopover in Vancouver is two-and-a-half hours, and the flight to Dorval lasts four. Sun-duk is worried about Jean-Noël; but apart from possible pain due to takeoffs and landings (easily remedied by nursing him - the sucking and swallowing will release the pressure he will feel in his ears), he should be all right. He'll only be six or seven weeks old by then, and sleeping most of the time.
I AIN'T MISSIN' YOU AT ALL: During the four weeks leading up to Jean-Noël's birth, Sun-duk was pretty lonely without me, and called often from Korea, sometimes teary-eyed. (She knows it was just as hard on me.) That's all changed now, of course. Since leaving the hospital, her existence has evolved into a constant series of two-hour shifts consisting of nursing and napping, nursing and napping, nursing and napping... She hasn't the time to miss me. With our reunion just 16 days away, she has even grown chipper, looking forward to May 6 as though it were Christmas!
And me? Still experiencing mood swings. I was elated by this week's pictures, then downright morose when I thought of the fun I could be having with our son. Hearing his voice on the phone again tonight didn't do much for my morale.
WARNING! Before hanging up, Sun-duk always begs me to be careful - not to be out late at night (especially alone), to ignore taunts from drunks and punks, to tread lightly, both physically and metaphorically, wherever I may go... We both have great happiness within our grasp, and this is not the time to let it slip through our fingers. I remind myself of this every day...
By the way, in case anyone was wondering: Sun-duk is using cloth diapers!
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE: I plugged our page on the discussion board of the only other Korean-Western couple site I know of, Matthew & Won-ok's. This married couple haven't updated their homepage since moving to Philadelphia over a year ago, but the forum has become the premiere cyber-gathering place for Korean women dating, engaged or married to North-American men. It gets dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hits per day - although to be frank, and generally speaking, only two topics ever seem to be discussed: how to get a work, spouse, or student visa, and how to reconcile linguistic and cultural differences.
In three days, the announcement of our Korean-Canadian baby diary received 300 hits and 53 downloads (meaning 53 people saved our post for future reference) and brought an additional ninety visitors to our homepage. I think it's important that Korean-Western couples know about our site, because it's the only one in the English-speaking world - at least as far as we know - that gives an in-depth, detailed look at a successful, and evolving, Korean-Canadian family. Koreans are intensely curious people, and Korean women involved with Western men, as I know through experience, have an insatiable appetite for anecdotes and shared experiences. Sun-duk and I hope that our story, set in words and in pictures, and unique in the internet world, will bring hope, pleasure, amusement, and comfort to those like us.
ON YOUR MARK, GET SET... Gana and I went to the Immigration Office to get my exit visa (it'll be ready Monday) and to the Korean travel agency to reserve my ticket. The owner/manager remembered me when I mentioned Sun-duk's name, then we had coffee in his office and talked for half-an-hour - he in English, I in Korean. Good practice for both of us!
He told me that the last couple of years have seen a "Canada Boom" (an appropriate Konglish neologism). When I asked him whether Ottawa, our likely home, had seen its share of immigrants, he replied that they were there in the thousands. That's quite a change from five years ago, when the phone book showed no more than a hundred or so Korean families. In fact, when Sun-duk and I were in Ottawa two-and-a-half years ago, we saw no Korean or Korean store anywhere. It took all our powers of sleuthing to locate a few packages of ramyon in a Chinese food shop. (It was in Bytown.)
I was very glad to hear that Sun-duk wouldn't be isolated if, as I expect, we settle in Ottawa-Hull. It's important to be able to socialise now and again with people from one's culture; I wish I'd had some French-Canadians - or even some Frenchmen - to keep me company during my five years in Asia. If, on the other hand, we end up in, say, Halifax or Regina... Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that.
P.S. Had lunch at Pizza della Casa with Gana; darned good pizza. It's the copious amounts of olive oil they put into the sauce...
Less than two weeks to go... I've got my ticket, my passport, and my exit visa, stamped May 6.
Sun-duk and I spoke for the last time until next Monday. I wanted to leave Korea around the 16th, but she prefers a week later, maybe the 22nd. Well, she's the mother! I've let her decide, and Hye-young will probably pick up the tickets for us on one of his weekend trips to Seoul.
Good news: we'll have between C$1500 and C$2000 left after the purchase of the tickets. I'll have a few hundred American dollars, as well, tucked into my money belt when I leave Mongolia.
Four of us - Buman, Suvdaa, the driver, and myself - are leaving for the Gobi (Mandalgobi, to be exact, the capital of Dundgobi Province), where we'll be training high-school EFL teachers for five days. This site will lie dormant during that time, but that doesn't mean you can't write or call Sun-duk in Mokpo!
NOTES: Sunday, I had brunch at the Taj Mahal: baked beans on toast and poorie bhajie, a kind of very light, holly, puffy pancake that one fills with potato curry. Pretty darn good, if I do say so myself - and I had the opportunity to repay an old debt!
If this homepage, and this diary, has any Mongolian ex-pat readers left, they're probably bored out of their skulls. I'll admit to having become more and more disinterested in Mongolia and my work. Not only have my efforts been utterly ignored by my employers, but, well... How can an indifferent, and sometimes downright hostile, third-world country compete with a first-time father who's being kept away from his wife and child?
Dozens more messages from Canadians crowding Sperling's job discussion board, all reiterating the fact that people like me - i.e. holders of degrees in non-technical, non-technological fields - are unemployable in our homeland. If I can't find decent work by the end of the summer, I'll have to settle for something in manual labour (that'll require dumbing down my resume considerably) and hope the three of us can survive until March, when the university semesters begin in Asia... Of course, just getting that far would necessitate borrowing thousands of dollars from friends and relatives. More debts, failure, ad nauseum...
I'm not looking forward to this trip to the countryside. Six days without a phone or a computer, and long days teaching three dozen high-school teachers the rudiments of TEFL. I was hoping it would be more like Terelj - small classes, just three half-days' worth of lessons.
Gundegmaa found me at the Soros office and not only paid me for the editing job I did two months ago for the Ministry of Education, but gave me a copy of the published book, as well, with my name writ large on the inside cover (in Mongolian). Would that they had taken heed of all my corrections - there are quite a few glaring mistakes - I might actually be proud of the thing and use it as reference.
After several delays and errands, including vittles for the long trip ahead, Buman, Suvdaa, our driver Enkhbayar, and I finally left town at 2:30. Much to my initial disappointment, our jeep was a shiny blue Japanese model, not the fabled khaki-brown Russian specimen I had expected. It had all the frills, so right off the bat, we weren't roughing it quite as much as I'd hoped. The quintessential Mongolian riding experience, animals excepted, is the Russian jeep, which can turn the hardest kidneys into pudding within a matter of hours. Oh well...
Leaving Ulaanbaatar, one goes through a toll booth (T200), and thence to the city limits, marked by a huge ovoo (and I mean BIG - the size of a bungalow) made expressly for vehicular worship. I don't know whether Enkhbayar is religious, superstitious, or patriotic, but he made sure to go 'round the ovoo, shooing away a couple of mangy mutts with death wishes (more on that later) before speeding headlong into Tov Province.
Thirty minutes later, the road metamorphoses from macadam to dirt. Mongolia only has about 1000 kilometres of paved highway; that's why the jeep is the preferred mode of transportation outside cities.
The main road was barely distinguishable from the surrounding steppe. At this time of year, everything's still brown and yellow, and the only way to make sure you're driving in the right direction is by following the telephone and electricity lines. The highway, however, is no more than a guide. It's so pot-holed and gravelly in some places that parallel paths have been trod on either side of it - sometimes as many as half-a-dozen of them, all winding their way in seemingly purposeless meanders, zigzagging hither and thither, sometimes criss-crossing one another like DNA strands or the Nile Delta. The steppe offered a smoother ride, and a more scenic route that often strayed several kilometres from the main highway.
The hills about us offered a spectacular view of nature in the raw - heavily forested in some places, pockmarked with remnants of winter in others. Countless crevices, in fact, still held banks of snow and ice, which, despite the heat of the last ten days, have been spared the sun's deadly glare.
It wasn't long before the reality of the zud hit us. Dead livestock littered the roadside and flanking valleys, and we would eventually see hundreds of animals that had perished of extreme cold and/or hunger. I could soon tell how long ago each victim had met its end. Some had obviously died that very day and lay on the ground, eyes open and still glistening with seeming life; others were in various stages of decomposition which ranged from bloated and hideless corpses to blanched bones. Just about every animal we met was either bovine or equine; I assume they were simply too heavy for their owners to drag them home for eating, while a smaller goat or sheep can very easily be slung over a shoulder or saddle and brought to the ger for cooking. In any event, the sights were not pretty ones. The suffering was, and continues to be, intense. In one field, I saw a mare standing over her just deceased foal while the horses fed about her in blithe apathy; she wasn't able to produce enough milk to feed her offspring.
Other animals were thriving, however. On our way to Mandalgobi, we encountered marmots, steppe mice, camels, sparrows, and even eagles. Some Mongolians actually eat marmot, although I can't imagine it being very tasty. The steppe mice were everywhere in Tov; thousands spend the day sunning themselves on the highway and paths, then dart into one of millions of nearby holes as soon as traffic roars by. I though they were cute, but Mongolians consider them pests, because many a horse and rider have gone down as hoof tripped into burrow.
The swallows were great fun, too. They would pop up out of nowhere in front of the jeep and fly away, skimming the ground for dozens of metres. At first, I thought we were disturbing their nesting sites (the highway runs through valleys where water holes and runoff are most plentiful), but upon closer observation, I came to the conclusion that these birds were playing chicken with the jeep! I saw them swoop down from far away and purposely fly in front of us, defying death by the breadth of four or five metres. Many simply lay in wait in the middle of a road, taking off a few seconds before we could hit them! A singular phenomenon...
By far the most awe-inspiring sights involved eagles. The first one I saw was perched atop a mile post; as we approached it, the majestic bird sprung up, slowly flapped its wings, and lifted itself airborne like a laden passenger plane, oh-so-leisurely. Its chest and wings were speckled white, making it hard for its victims to spot it from below; dark brown coloured its head and back. In the next four hours, we would spot four more eagles, but only once did we manage to get in close enough for me to take a picture.
Enkhbayar followed the bird as it landed several dozen metres from the road. It lay on the ground in a prone position, probably at the mouth of a marmot's burrow, waiting for its next meal to come out. It didn't seem bothered at all by our approach, and we got within perhaps 40 feet of it. When we stopped, it suddenly took note of us, rose, and gave me a benign look as I aimed my camera at it. I snapped once; then with two beats of its wings, it took off, slowly enough for me to capture it on film a second time. It was a wonderful moment, marred only by the fact that it was a different species of eagle, one that is completely brown and not quite as regal-looking as its cousin.
Halfway to Mandalgobi, we stopped for pizza (Della Casa takeout) and a pee break. Enkhbayar drove us up a hill, way off the beaten track, to a small outcrop of rocks that jutted about a foot from the ground. These were the women's privy; they walked out a ways, wrapped a jacket 'round their waist, and crouched as low as they could. We men just did what men do in these situations. By now, the hills had been reduced to mounds, and the vegetation consisted mostly of tough small bushes and tiny clumps of yellow grass. It hardly seemed possible that thousands of animals could survive on this alone until the arrival of summer.
As we crossed the border between Tov and Dundgobi Provinces (circling another ovoo in the process), the bushes and grass gradually gave way to dust and sand. Any asperity on the horizon now was invariably attributable to a camel, not a mound. We had entered the Gobi Desert, and the landscape was flat as a flapjack.
Speaking of which... About an hour before pulling into Mandalgobi, we ran into a herd of domesticated camels feeding on some of the sagebrush. Their forelegs were bound with strips of cloth, like convicts on a chain gang, making escape impossible. They were nearly all saddled, as well, but their owner was nowhere to be seen. I got out of the jeep with my camera and approached one beast in particular, coming within a kick of it. I don't think it especially enjoyed my attentions; every now and again, it would turn its head toward me, stop chewing, and just glare in my direction with a demeanour that suggested a monocled Manhattan snob wondering how the hoi-poloi could be so hopelessly crass. Enkhbayar offered to help me into the saddle and ride the fellow for a bit, but he looked a little too ornery to render the risk worthwhile. Besides which, I was wearing my suit!
We pulled into Mandalgobi at 8:30 and made directly for the hotel. The rooms are nearly identical to the ones we had at Terelj - bathroom, living room, and bedroom, with more furniture than in any Korean apartment of comparable size. The only drawback was the lack of heating, which had been turned off several weeks ago for want of money. After a quick dinner, I stepped into my bed fully clothed, in the hope that my jeans and sweater would successfully counter the cold desert night until breakfast and a nice, hot cup of Mongolian milk tea.
Class began at 10:00 after a short introduction. There are twenty-two female high-school teachers in all, coming from every soum, or county, in the province. Their level of English is surprisingly good considering their isolation - much better, overall, than that of my students at Onol. But perhaps I shouldn't be quite so shocked at their relative proficiency; to willingly accept the terrible wages given Mongolian high-school teachers in the countryside, one has to love the job and be highly motivated. And this indeed appeared to be the case. In fact, three of the teachers here are only four or five years away from retirement; and yet, here they are, struggling with a new language at their advanced age, eager to enhance their children's and grandchildren's chances of finding employment in the brave new world.
All but a few are retrained Russian-language teachers, which will make my job a little easier should there be a "failure to communicate." My workshop, in particular, will be difficult for them: Writing. Mongolia's oral tradition is still very, very strong, and even today, with a literacy rate of over 90%, few Mongolians like to write even the shortest letter. Convincing them that this skill is as important as speaking - perhaps more so considering the country's isolation from those centres of power so vital to its future development and survival - has always proven to be a challenge. My task is to show them how to teach their students proper writing techniques that will produce coherent, well-structured paragraphs and compositions.
WARNING: The following paragraphs are pedagogical in nature! Emphasising both creativity and organisation, I begin by teaching the simple haiku: three verses of five, seven, and five feet, respectively. It is a good way for first-year English-language students to begin writing in a foreign tongue, with stress not so much on grammar as on vocabulary and stringing together small ideas. Teachers are urged to write several of their own haiku, as I walk among them and comment on their efforts. Together as a class, we look at the work of several teachers and try to correct scanning errors and facile words (e.g. "nice", "good", "like"). We discuss how more advanced students can be encouraged to write haikus with more complex, as opposed to everyday themes (family vs. love, hobbies vs nature, etc.), as well as rhymes and regular feet.
Next comes the simple paragraph. Structure being the key - one idea per paragraph -, I show the teachers how to brainstorm for a single theme, e.g. music. Selecting one teacher, I ask her what kind of music she likes, which artists she listens to, and so on. The white board is filled with notes which I label "details". This, I explain, is the paragraph's body; all we need to do to "dress" it up is form complete sentences with the details. Each teacher writes a paragraph using our brainstormed details, then are given the task to brainstorm for their hobbies. To help them, I hand out a sheet with concrete examples. A theme - hobbies - is followed by five ideas - music, television, cooking, reading, sports - beside which are a multitude of details, all very neatly organised. Two ideas are selected, and paragraphs based on their details are written at the bottom of the page.
I ask the teachers whether they have time to write some sample paragraphs in the evening for homework, to which they replied no. We thus conclude the day's lesson.
NOW FOR SOMETHING *REALLY* INTERESTING: Buman brought me to a woman she knows (she spent a few years as a child in Mandalgobi), a retired meteorologist who also happens to be an expert in deels, the traditional Mongolian costume. I say traditional, but the fact is that half the country still wears deels (pronounced dehls), and like other Asian clothes, they're much more comfortable than the straightjackets we've developed in the West.
I've wanted a deel since Sun-duk and I arrived in Mongolia, but Buman kept telling me not to buy one at a store or shop - she knows a number of elderly ladies who sew deels for half the market price. And so with Enkhbayar, we drive over to a ger, one among hundreds huddled closely together in a neighbourhood on the eastern side of town. Fences made of rotted, crooked planks surround each family's, or each clan's land, and dogs guard each entrance. (The traditional Mongolian greeting is "Call off your dog!" and outside Ulaanbaatar, it is certainly an apt one!) I don't want to disparage ger districts or neighbourhoods, but they do look like shanty towns.
Inside, furnishings like those in any other ger, including a television set, sink, Buddhist altar, family shrine, and so on. The former meteorologist then shows me a bolt of cloth that's exactly the same colour I described to Buman - a light sandy brown that one never sees on Ulaanbaatarites, but that is fairly common among the desert nomads. On our way to Mandalgobi, I pointed Buman's attention towards several horses whose coats were of the same colour.
When I was asked about the trim, I answered black right away, and surprised my seamstress - not only had I selected the colour material best suited to my complexion, build, and hair, but black also happens to compliment this particular colour best. Well, what can I say? I'm French and I have flair!
The woman was again shocked when I asked her to sew on Mongolian cuffs. These cuffs are funnel-shaped and extend beyond the fingertips; they help keep out dirt and sand, which are always blowing about in the summertime. I let her choose the colour and fabric of the lining, though!
I tried on one of her husband's deels so she could have a rough idea of my size. It was a bit short and tight, so she took out her measuring tape, ran her hands over my limbs a few times, then, with a handful of candy, sent us home. The deel, which will be made out of German material (considered superior to all others), ought to be ready by Saturday.
Needing a roll of film, we drive to the town supermarket, which is ten times smaller than the one I'm used to in Bayangol. I am an object of intense curiosity - I may very well be the only foreigner here - as Buman and I look for film. I find some for T2700, then mosey on down to the book corner. There are no English books - only Russian and Mongolian, all used, and mostly for schoolchildren. I wasn't disappointed by the lack of choice, for two reasons: one, the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar is similarly barren of decent reading material; and two, I wanted to buy some easy Mongolian readers for the future (I still plan on learning Mongolian). I purchased several pamphlet-thin fairy tales and a traditional Mongolian alphabet learner, then go to the hotel for a well-earned nap.
Later in the evening, Buman, Suvdaa, and I went for a walk around town. An extremely interesting stroll, which I will describe in tomorrow's entry...
FIRST THE PAIN... 14:30-17:30 - We continue the previous day's lesson on paragraph writing. Teachers are given about an hour to brainstorm and write up at least three paragraphs, following the model I gave them on Wednesday. Again, I visit each teacher, offer advice, correct basic grammar, elucidate the technique, and explain the goals and merits of this method. In the evening, I will take their work home, correct it more thoroughly, and hand it back Friday morning.
After the break, I show them the benefits of group brainstorming. It is a more communicative approach then individual composition writing, involving all students and encouraging them to speak out loud. Using the bubble technique, the teachers are asked to organise the dozens of ideas we've come up with (in this case, the topic was Mongolian Sights) into more compact categories, such as Nature, Ulaanbaatar, Customs, and Food and Drink. Ideas are grouped accordingly, and additional brainstorming can fill out necessary details concerning each category.
For the last hour, the teachers claimed to be too tired to do any more writing, and beg me to show them a few nursery rhymes, songs, tongue twisters, and games. There was no overlap, as far as I know, with my colleague Suvdaa's lessons
... THEN THE PLEASURE: A series of Mandalgobi snapshots:
Our driver, Enkhbayar: portly, young-looking, middle-aged man, full of bonhomie... and unilingual. We communicate through a basic vocabulary and sign language. A immensely pleasant fellow.
My colleague from ESPI, Suvdaa: middle-aged mother of two (by c-sections, by the way), very fluent in English and Russian. She was a Russian teacher before switching to English, and has lived and received training in the U.K. and New Zealand. She has also, coincidentally, tutored Soronzon, the Russian high-school principal. Talkative, soft-spoken, unassuming, and very mel-l-l-l-ow - a woman after John Silver's heart?!
Facts about Mandalgobi: The name means "Prosperous Gobi", according to Buman.
The construction material industry for Dundgobi, Omnogobi, and Dornogobi was once centred here, before the free market reforms of the early nineties made quick work of its state-run factories. Home to 20,000 people just a decade ago, there are probably no more than eight or nine thousand inhabitants currently living here. Some have taken up herding in the wake of prolonged unemployment; most have fled to Ulaanbaatar in search of a better life.
Gonchigdorj, the Democratic Party candidate in next month's presidential elections, has his face plastered all over the town. There are only two DP members of Parliament, and one of them is from Dundgobi. Buman says the province is known for its "strongly democratic principles."
There are perhaps 40,000 or 50,000 people in all of Dundgobi, so as the capital, Mandalgobi is definitely a magnet of some kind for the other inhabitants of the province.
Dundgobi, and in particular Uulzit Soum, is renowned for its folk singers, among the best Mongolia has produced.
Every telephone I've seen (not that there are many) is a rotary phone - but with an electronic ring! Also, the telephone book a slight thing, slightly larger than a floppy desk and with 51 pages containing the names of Mandalgobi's businesses and private homes. All phone numbers begin with either a 2 or a 3.
Vehicles are few and far between: jeeps, trucks, motorcycles, and vans from Russia. I've only seen one car so far in these parts, of Russian make and at least thirty years old. Our Japanese jeep sticks out like a sore thumb!
There is only one television channel!
The provincial parliament building is an almost exact replica, albeit smaller, of the national parliament. It even has a square out in front, with a bust of Sukhbaatar! It's a strange sight when you look around and see nothing but sand and small, run-down two-storey buildings. This, by the way, is where we are holding our workshop.
Apparently, there is some grass in the summer, but I find that hard to imagine. The fact that I've not seen any grazing animals at all bears witness to the lack of more than a few, if any, blades of grass here. There are trees - stunted little things, no more than three metres tall -, but these are not indigenous to Dundgobi - they were transplanted from more salubrious climes, and are only being kept alive, though barely, by the well water.
There is a gas station near the hotel, and whenever someone, usually a non-local, we hear a shrill middle-aged woman's voice pipe out from a speaker, giving instructions to patrons, admonishing, insulting. She's too lazy to get out of her seat from inside the station and pump the gas herself!
I feel that if I were to walk alone, I would harassed, perhaps even attacked. Certainly I would be relieved of my briefcase. Poverty and misplaced nationalism (I really get the impression that they resent foreign aid) have transformed so many Mongolians from one of the world's most hospitable people to one of the most suspicious and desperate.
WALKING: With Buman and Suvdaa, I took a stroll through town. Most of the factories are deserted now, and what were once fine restaurants and handsome government buildings have become little more than glorified shacks. Mandalgobi has suffered tremendously since the Democratic Revolution, and there's a general malaise here that's very disturbing. Unemployment is rampant, probably well over 50%. Sand has taken hold of once-verdant parks, and its grip appears to be very strong. And yet, the teachers remain optimistic, if most of their fellow citizens don't.
We walked along the "main drag", a road on the north side of Mandalgobi that runs form east to west. In the middle is the main park, decorated with a dozen statues of Lenin, Sukhbaatar, conquering communist youths, and animals, such as sheep and camels. The pigmy trees are there, as are dozens of dead bushes. Sand is master here, too, and in the setting sun, it is impossible to separate the road from the park in their brownness.
We climb up the town's highest peak, just north. There's a Zaisan-type monument here as well, this too, for all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of its counterpart in Ulaanbaatar. A circular area is fronted by an obelisk proclaiming eternal Soviet-Mongolian friendship and bearing the ubiquitous Soyombo paired with the Russian hammer-and-sickle.
From our vantage point, the entire region is visible for miles around. Apart from the hill we're standing on, everything is flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see. All of Mandalgobi is spread out before us in all its smallness and meanness. In the centre lies the husk of a factory town, consisting of deserted buildings and the remnants of an attempt at urbanisation; virtually no one lives there anymore. On either side of Mandalgobi, stretching out like wings for two or three kilometres, lie the ger districts, twin hubs of human activity and the true heart of this once-proud settlement. Beyond these - emptiness, an unvarying moonscape of dirt and sun and wind and silence. The effect, as I took all this in, was one of incongruity. Why had men dropped, seemingly from out of the sky, into this bleak and unforgiving landscape in such huge numbers? They had lost a battle they could never hope to win; and here I stood, gazing in wonder at their death throes.
MORE PEDAGOGICAL MAYHEM: 9:00-13:00 - Writing activities are the order of the day, of the fun variety. I begin with a six-picture story that the teachers have to unjumble. Next, they are asked, individually or in groups, to write a single sentence for each panel; this represents a task for first-year EFL students. Finally, they must write a whole paragraph (at least two sentences) for each panel, a task reserved for intermediate and advanced students. Finally, I add how I normally ask groups of students to create their own picture story, to be handed to classmates. These students unjumble the story, put it in writing, and are graded by the story's originators. This, I explain, is an example of student empowerment, a vital element in communicative teaching.
Next come "fuzzies". Each student must write down his or her classmates' names on a sheet of paper and then write something nice about them (e.g. "Bat has a good sense of humour," "Gerelmaa is very smart and outgoing." The anonymous "compliment sheets" are picked up by the teacher and compliments read out loud and at random, to everyone's delight.
Chain stories with first and second conditionals are next on the agenda, with emphasis on the strange and the funny ("If I were an animal, I would be...", "If I could become a man/woman, I would do...", "If you had US$1,000,000, what would you do with it?". Teachers come up with at least a dozen topics.
Interviews through pair work stress, with subsequent reporting, either oral or written, stress all four basic communicative techniques. Here, quickness of mind is most important; students, according to their ability, can either be innovative or stick to rhetorical English.
Finally, I bring out two writing boards filled with various activities - crosswords, What Does This Picture Look Like?, News, Riddles, etc. I explain that these are to be hung on a wall; students, before and after class, can participate for a few minutes each day by writing in answers, guesses, bits of news, jokes, and so on their own time. After a couple of weeks, the teacher can supply and explain answers to those activities requiring them, then replace the board with brand-new activities. The teachers seem most impressed and enthused with the board idea.
P.S. We won't be teaching Sunday morning, as originally planned; a snowstorm warning for that day is in effect, and everyone agreed to end the workshop on Saturday, so we could all skedaddle home as quickly as possible.
LAST AND LEAST: 14:30-17:30 - I hold a grammar and stylistics clinic for three hours, concentrating on those elements of written English most problematic to Mongolians. These include articles, adjective order, capitalisation, reported speech, abbreviations, numbers, pronouns, punctuation, needless repetition, and sentence length. Examples and exercises are doled out at a furious, but manageable pace. The teachers find this clinic very useful as a means of polishing up on their own writing skills, more so as Mongolians, generally speaking, seem inordinately fixated on grammar, for reasons stated above.
At six o'clock, the remaining teaching materials (pens, markers, paper, flip charts, etc.) are divvied up among those attending, and a draw is held, with a dozen books, textbooks, and cassettes as prizes. In an area where even Russian books are a rare commodity, the prizes are greatly appreciated indeed. In fact, most of the books are bilingual, Russian-English. It was a lot of fun, and we took a lot of pictures of one another. Best of all, they really did seem to appreciate the things we taught them; Suvdaa and I both got excellent marks from them. You all should have seen the alacrity with which my flip charts and writing boards were torn off the walls and stuffed into purses and bags!
With farewells at an end, Buman, Enkhbayar, and I rushed over to the ger where my deel was being made. As we entered, the meteorologist was putting the finishing touches on a sleeve with a hand-cranked sewing machine. That's when I realised just how much hard work she had put into the deel; for some reason, having seen a phone and T.V. in her ger, I automatically assumed that her sewing machine was also electric.
Slipping on my very own deel at last was one of the most fulfilling moments of my year in Mongolia. I borrowed an orange sash, which I tied around my waist, and paraded for my hosts, who were lavish in their praise. Everyone else in the family - wife, husband, and three sons - donned their Sunday deel, and together, we posed for posterity. A very satisfying moment, indeed.
Click here to see more deels, with me and other Mongolians inside them!)
(Before I forget, I would like to say that readers should come back here in a month or two, when I am finally able to put up a few of the fifty or so photographs I took of my trip to the Gobi.)
Back at the hotel (more gushing from staff and Suvdaa), we were served a celebratory dinner of buuz - eight each! None of us had stomachs big enough for all of them, so we took them upstairs and, with a couple of guests from the provincial Ministry of Education, we polished them off with a few glasses of arkhi, wine, and beer before turning in for the night.
P.S. The town seemed deserted for most of the day, as the TV station ran a marathon of "Dirty Face", a Venezuelan soap opera that almost every single Mongolian is hooked on. Reminds me of that Brazilian soap which swept Russia in the early nineties.
An uneventful return to Ulaanbaatar. The day was overcast, heralding the arrival of snow. All the way back, Enkhbayar played his traditional Mongolian music tapes, and everyone but me sang along. It was... trying. East-Asian music sounds the same to me, whether it's from Mongolia, China, Korea, or Japan. I can never tell one song from another. This music is long, droning, and monotonous, and the singing lifeless. One might say it's too civilised. I simply shut my eyes and ears, and played in my mind's stereo some African and Brazilian music - songs that celebrate life and make you want to move and feel the pulse of the universe beating inside you.
I saw two ravens - or crows, or rooks - alight on the ground with steppe mice in their beaks. I knew these birds were omnivorous, but I had no idea they hunted. We came across some ger guanzes at one point. These are like truck stops, but the diners are separate gers. We also drove through dozens of tiny settlements. A couple were several hundred strong, but most consist of a clan, or related families, gathered in a dozen gers or so, with shabby pens for livestock and water holes to collect rain. Very picturesque, but I did not take any photographs, so anxious was I to make it back to Ulaanbaatar before the snow came and the road conditions worsened. I did not want an accident now, just one week away from my destiny.
I got home at about three o'clock, just before the first flakes began to appear. It snowed for a few hours afterwards, but much of it melted as soon as it hit the ground. We'll likely have snow for the next few days, but it'll be gone again - hopefully! - by next Sunday.
Sun-duk took the bus all the way to Kwangyang, 200 kilometres away, with Jean-Noël and her mother in tow. There were no problems to report, as Jean-Noël normally sleeps like a log during the day. She had wanted to register our son with her hometown officials, but had forgotten that as a result of our official (as opposed to symbolic) marriage in Seoul, all of her files were transferred to the capital. For some reason, a Korean baby must be registered in one of his parents' hometowns. I'm not sure why that is, but perhaps it's to ensure against marriage within one's clan, i.e. inbreeding. Can anyone illuminate me on this point?
So while the main purpose of her visit to Kwangyang became a non-starter, Sun-duk and her mother were able to console themselves in the company of relatives, of whom many still make the city their home. Everyone thought Jean-Noël was very cute, and, in their opinion, the spitting image of his father! Well, I don't quite agree with that. However, I was able to see most of the new baby pictures Hye-young had taken and sent me during my absence, and Jean-Noël certainly appears to be more Western than Asian. Right now, only his eyes give his mother's origins away. Later, as he loses his baby fat, we may see some more prominent Asian features, such as high cheekbones and straight hair.
Hye-young took twenty new photographs in all, and they offer a much greater variety in settings and moods. We see in them Jean-Noël sleepy and sleeping, cranky and crying, eating and resting - with his mother, on Hye-young's lap, and on the "yo" my sister bought us. No bathtub pics yet, but I did get several snapshots of Jean-Noël's hands and feet! I really wanted to see whether his fingers were as long as mine when I was born.
Sun-duk had more trouble breastfeeding while I was gone. No one at the hospital had bothered to mention that she would probably have to express milk at some point to relieve occasional painful engorgement. She stopped nursing Jean-Noël for a couple of days until she found a doctor that told her what the problem was and gave her (well, probably sold her) a pump to relieve her of the extra milk. Everything's fine now, though Jean-Noël will continue being bottle-fed at night - his mother is just exhausted from lack of sleep.
TEE MINUS SIX DAYS... Sun-duk reserved tickets to Canada for the 23rd. Unfortunately, she was only able to book one, but the travel agent assured her that there would a cancellation soon enough. I certainly hope so, because there's no way the three of us are going to Canada on separate planes! I asked Sun-duk to reserve a pair of tickets for the longer, alternate flight (Seoul - Tokyo - Toronto - Montreal, instead of Seoul - Vancouver - Montreal) just in case.
IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Both of us were worried about my getting a visa in time. After all, without a visa, the customs people might send me straight back to Mongolia, and make me pay for the ticket, too!
This morning, I had Ganaa call the Korean embassy, and they told him that a visa could be obtained by Thursday. We hustled over there and got a form, then were told that the visa wouldn't be ready until next Thursday! I panicked! My exit visa was for the 6th, and an extension might cost an arm and a leg! And what about my plane ticket? Would the agency reschedule my flight or charge me US$353 for another ticket? Oh, how I rued my trip to the Gobi! Ganaa asked whether it was possible to speed up the process, and was told that if the Canadian consulate made a formal request on my behalf, it might be done.
Fast forward to the consulate. Citing a family emergency, I am given an officially stamped and letterheaded request from the Canadian representative to Mongolia, signed by the consul himself, to get me a one-month tourist visa by Friday. Whew! I was afraid my fellow compatriot might not want to cooperate (not everyone's as nice a diplomat as I would be! ;-).
One Turkish lunch later, and following a 45-minute wait in a queue (I use the term loosely, as Mongolians never line up peaceably for anything), the man in charge of processing visas tells us that Canadians don't need visas - they can enter Korea and stay there for six months!!!
Not wanting to dwell on the incompetence of Korean diplomats, I would just like to say one thing: Live and learn... Ironically, Sun-duk had managed to get a hold of the Canadian embassy and was told the same thing. She tried to phone me at home at around 11 o'clock, but of course I was gone.
One thing only bothered me, now: a copy of my ticket reservation to Canada. Without proof that I will leave the country within six months, customs might think I've come not as a tourist but as illegal worker. Sun-duk has to call the travel agency and tell them to fax me the reservation as soon as possible.