NOTE: Here are a couple of practice banners I created with Netstudio. Do you like 'em? Which one's your favourite? I actually have a third banner, based on the second one, in which the stork flies across from left to right, but Tripod doesn't appear to be able to read Flash files. Oh well... We'll see what we can do about that at a later date.
Sun-duk reminded me that our appointment with the obstetrician was next Friday, not today! Will the disappointments never end? ;-)
Khanda came by to give me her textbooks for the two classes I’ll be teaching while she’s away. It’s an extra four hours a week, and the courses are American Literature and Teaching Methodology. Well, it’s a change of pace, isn’t it? I’m just not sure the students are good enough to follow me in English…
The Russian school director showed up, but we were alone for an hour before one teacher showed up (with her daughter!). So we talked in Russian for thirty minutes, mostly about Cuba (!), before moving on to the Present Continuous. The time is going by more quickly now that we’re more comfortable with one another and I can crack wise. Still, I wish I hadn’t taken on this private; it robs Sun-duk and me of five weekend hours together. I will definitely discontinue this gig at the end of the semester.
Sun-duk joined me at Mercury Market after class, and with what we later bought at our local supermarket, we can claim, with faces red as beats, to have blown T35,000. To help you put that into perspective, that’s a month’s salary for most Mongolians.
I taught my American Lit class this morning, and found out what the difference was between ‘lecture’ and ‘seminar’.
Khanda, and then the students, told me that they spent two hours a week on lectures, and one on a seminar. This left me rather perplexed, especially since Khanda had told me that the lectures were for introducing the author(s), and the seminar for discussing their works. That’s not quite how I was taught literature, and certainly not the way I practiced it in Korea.
As it turns out, due to the high cost of print, paper and ink, these kids get no books or photocopies whatsoever; Khanda spent two hours a week DICTATING stories to them! The country’s best library is also lacking seminal works of literature in West-European languages, so writing everything down is their only option. Khandsuren’s lucky: she managed to find a collection of very short stories and speeches by American writers and poets. The specimen is ancient and dog-eared, but that’s par for the course here in Mongolia. If I’d known, I would have brought over a Norton’s Anthology.
The rest of the day was spent at the Soros office, trimming and sprucing up pages with extra pictures. I organised the articles in the In The News rubric by category: Culture, Politics, Economy, Briefly, and Odds & Ends, with internal links for people who are interested in one aspect of contemporary Mongolian life more than another.
Shock – Khanda will be gone for three months. Not only that, but they tacked on another five hours of conversation and methodology with the 3A and 3B groups. That’s a total of 26 hours: four on Monday (8:30-9:20, 13:30-17:10), six on Tuesday (8:30-10:20, 11:30-12:20, 13:30-14:20, 16:20-18:00), eight on Wednesday (8;30-11:20, 13:30-18:00), seven on Thursday (11:30-18:00 – that’s right, seven straight), and one on Friday (10:30-11:20) – not counting the ninety minutes’ teacher training later in the day.
That’s altogether too much, and I think it must have been planned with the knowledge that Buman is gone ‘til mid-December. I guess I’ll have to put my foot down and tell them to find someone in two weeks’ time, because I’ve got a contract, and no amount of overtime pay (it’s a pittance) will make me do for very long.
My work week has been bumped up to about forty hours, with a paucity of material and paper for photocopies. I actually prefer the more difficult courses to conversation, but I’m not willing to do both. So I’m angry… They must have known weeks, if not months, ahead of time that Khanda would be leaving: why didn’t they hire anyone? Why are they sticking me with most of Khanda’s course load?
I’d already made up my mind to tell New York and MFOS to withdraw their support of Onol until they started failing students - this business of only giving out A’s and B’s takes away all motivation these kids might otherwise have, and turns them into poorly qualified teachers and translators - but now I can honestly say that I will no longer hesitate in pulling the rug out from under them unless they change their act soon. Neither will I regard my decision as overly harsh, believing it to be in the best of interests of the nation that certain standards of quality be met.
More shocking news… Although, after four years in Korea, I should have known better.
These students, who will be teaching English, and even translation, next year, have never analysed a text – never. We dissected Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and looked at its content, its meanings, its style and its goal – and it took all the persuasive powers at my disposal to get even the best kids to emit an opinion.
I did a very good job with the four students sitting up front, but the rest just took down the notes I wrote on the blackboard. After class, I asked them if they had ever analysed a text, and they replied no. With Khanda, they spent two hours copying down poems or a short story, then a third hour going over the vocabulary and doing a quick word-for-word translation. What good is that, I ask you? What’s the point of having kids read any work of art if they only know the superficial meanings while remaining clueless as to the metaphors, imagery, and symbols? Asian education has such a long way to go… But I don’t hold out much hope for Mongolia – at least not in the short- or medium-term - when I see how developed neighbours like Japan and Korea are still wallowing in teacher-centred classrooms where students are spoon-fed all the answers.
The 4C group wondered where I’d been for the first hour of our conversation class. I told them that I was told to teach American Literature at that time, so now we could only meet for an hour a week. Second shock: they were told I would be teaching them Business English!!! Third shock: they said Khanda had told them that last week!!! Well, that was news to me. Khanda told me last Friday that I would only be giving taking over her American Lit. and Methodology courses; then yesterday, they came and saddled me with five additional hours; not once was Business English mentioned by anyone. What the heck’s going on here??? As I said before, it can’t be a coincidence that all this is happening while Buman’s away for a fortnight…
Have I mentioned how crazy this week will be? Not only do I have to prepare a ton of new classes; not only must I correct dozens of writing tests and homework assignments; not only must I edit Sun-duk’s translation; not only must we go to the hospital Friday afternoon; but I also have had to prepare a ninety-minute seminar to be given to intermediate English-language students at the Soros Foundation’s resource centre. I’ll be talking about Canada’s recent elections (since there was no way I could follow it, I downloaded a bunch of on-line articles from Time Canada on Monday) and the Two Solitudes generally. Then we can talk about the separation of Outer and Inner Mongolia, and rumblings of independence or adhesion to Greater Kazakstan in Bayan-Olgii, the country’s westernmost, Kazak-dominated province. Oh yes… And how could I forget my four-hour class at the Russian high school on Saturday?
After my last class, a young Mongolian woman whom I’d never seen before came into my office just as I was putting on my coat. Her name’s Bolormaa, and not only did she graduate from Onol, she taught here for two years. What surprised was her level of English, which is much better than that of the other Onol graduates currently teaching here. I soon found out that she had just spent a year in India getting a degree in computers, which accounted for her fluency. We basically bad-mouthed Onol for fifteen minutes, and suggested solutions to the myriad problems plaguing education here and in Mongolia before I went home.
Another surprising fact: there had been no foreign instructor during her entire six years at Onol. I had been under the impression that they’d always had a native English speaker, since in its first year of operation, Onol had two Brits under contract. I guess between them and Ian, there was a six-year gap during which the few serious students must have suffered greatly. Bolormaa said they promised a native speaker at the end of every semester the whole time she was there – a promise they weren’t able to make good on until she finally left!
A flash of hope – might she want to work here part-time until Khanda’s return and unburden me of this ghastly nightmare of a schedule?
NOTE: I am a widower tonight. Sun-duk and her colleagues are out in the countryside for a two-day, in-house seminar. Still, she gave me something to remember her by: the English translation of a Korean-language report that she wants me to edit by Friday!
So with Sun-duk gone, I spent the evening listening to music and trying very hard not to lose my mind. I tried calling Bormaa, Sun-duk’s colleague and bunkmate at the retreat, but I couldn’t get through to her cell phone. Finally, to top things off, a blackout suddenly hit the building at around nine, forcing me to go to bed early. (I couldn’t remember where we’d put the emergency candles and matches!) Naturally, an hour later, the lights all came back on at once, awaking me in a most abrupt and unpleasant manner. What a strange week it’s been so far!
I can breathe easy again! Bolormaa and Director Byambajav came into my office and asked which courses I would like to give up. I naturally ensured that I was back down to my normal eighteen hours a week, but screwed up my schedule so that I have to spend more time at school.
There were two reasons for this: number one, I really enjoyed giving literature and methodology classes this week; that’s what I’m good at, and it allows me to exercise my intellect beyond figuring out a way to get lazy Mongolian students to understand the present perfect. Two, I did not want to give Bolormaa an awful slate of classes that had her coming in just an hour or two a day from Monday to Friday. As a result, I have less free time to spend downtown at the Soros Foundation, where I normally prepare my classes and make photocopies, as well as programme this homepage and read news from home. Well, it’s just for two or three weeks… (I still can’t get a straight answer from anyone; does the semester end December 24 or December 31? And when the heck do exams start?)
I gave Bolormaa my sophomore classes, since I only meet them one hour a week and their level is so low. (I once asked a couple of students, “Can… You… Un…Der…Stand…Me?”, to which they just looked at me blankly until I posed the question again in Mongolian and got a quick shake of the head.) Since I have two of these classes Thursday afternoon, from four to six, I expected to leave early; however, Dashmaa told me Bolormaa had already left and would not be back ‘til Monday!
Bummer, I thought, but sucked it in and readied myself for two more hours of hardship. Well, 2A went well enough, but come 5:10, 2B was nowhere to be found - even their classroom door had been locked. I hurried downstairs and found the remnants of the class donning jackets and mufflers, then cried out where everyone thought they were going. They couldn’t explain, so dragged me to the schedule board and pointed to our class, where my name had been clearly erased and replaced by Bolormaa’s.
It didn’t matter that I was still around and could give them fifty minutes of quality education – they just wanted to get the heck out of there! The battle was lost before I could even utter a word of protest, so I went back upstairs to my office and packed up my own kit bag to Tipperary.
I tried calling Bormaa again as soon as I got home, and was finally able to get a hold of her; they were on their way back to Ulaanbaatar. It’s my guess that I would have had to dial the area code where the retreat was being held for me to reach her cell phone, but I had no idea where they had gone.
Sun-duk came back at around eight and told me they didn’t go all that far – maybe forty kilometers from the city limits. They stayed in suites at a five-star tourist hotel and played role games of some sort. Apparently, the suites cost a US$100 apiece a night, leaving me wondering why the Korean bosses didn’t use that money to help starving Mongolians. These condescending, sanctimonious, utterly hypocritical Korean Christians get my goat every time…
I felt the baby for the first time, this morning. I mean, I’ve said before how I thought I might have felt the baby move in the last two weeks, but the bumps were so slight that I could never be sure whether it was a tiny foot kicking or a bowel gurgling in gastronomical approval. As I shifted to the side and rested my hand on Sun-duk’s belly, I felt a very sharp, strong knock against my fingers. Many more followed, though not quite as hard. Ah-HAH!
Sun-duk’s been feeling the baby every day since the end of November. A few days ago, she was getting back into bed after a trip to the bathroom when she actually a pang in her side. She thought I had poked her, playfully, but hard; however, I was sound asleep. We had to conclude that the baby was to blame, and wondered if it would keep it up for the next four months!
The funny thing is that it’s still early in the pregnancy game, so Sun-duk might experience stronger and more painful kicks as the weeks progress. Something else we’ve noticed: by Korean standards, she looks like she’s seven months or eight months pregnant. Is it a case of her overeating, or of the baby being a big ‘un? If it’s the latter, then the fearful prospect of an episiotomy rears its ugly head (if you’ll forgive the more-than-apt imagery). I’ve asked Sun-duk on several occasions to do her Kegel exercises, but since episiotomies are standard practice in Korea, she’s simply resigned herself to the fact that she’ll be cut, whether it’s necessary or not. Korea may have better medical facilities than Mongolia, but doctors’ attitudes are about where they were in the West forty or fifty years ago.
Be that as it may, today we were headed back to Yonsei for a check-up, a sonogram, and a possible confirmation of the baby’s sex.
Having ascertained that the mother was in perfect health, we quickly proceeded to the ultra-sound scan. Unfortunately, the baby’s legs were positioned in such a way as to prevent our seeing his or her doody, so we came up empty on that count. However, what the scan did reveal was amazing.
The baby’s features were clearly visible: big, round eyes, button nose, half-open mouth sucking in amniotic fluid, and tiny hands with all ten fingers attached to them! Most incredible was its constant moving about; it seemed to know we were looking at it! It kept turning its head from side to side, and shadow-boxing like Ali! Even the doctor was surprised to see it so active, and smiled approvingly, telling us the baby appeared to be very healthy!
We then made our way quickly to the maternity hospital just behind Yonsei to see if we could get a better look at the baby and determine its gender. Again, it seemed intent on keeping its secret from us ‘til the very end, frustrating Sun-duk no end! The machine was incredible, though. I could see the legs, feet and toes quite clearly; even the bones were visible. Then… The moment we had waited for...!
… It’s a boy!!! We can at last dispense with the it’s and the baby’s, and start calling our little treasure by its names: Jean-Noël and K’un-sol. Welcome, Son! ; - D
Believe it or not, the fact that I was able to make a son the first time around will actually raise my standing among the in-laws. Koreans are so fixated on male progeniture that abortion is the most common medical procedure in the country (followed by hymen reconstruction and cosmetic surgery to turn those almond eyes into round peepers). Right now, fully 55% of all schoolchildren are male – a skewing of natural selection that will have grave social consequences ten or fifteen years from now, when hundreds of thousands of young men will feel obligated to vent their frustration somehow.
In any case, both Sun-duk and I were pretty sure it was a boy; she because of her female intuition, me because of my mother’s uncanny knack for choosing the wrong sex whenever a relative is pregnant! Hey, Mom: that’s three grandkids, three strikes… YOU’RE OUT !!! : - D
So all in all, it was a pretty good day, wouldn’t you say?
P.S. I gave a talk at the English Club at Soros, this evening, but flopped. I wanted to talk about two prevalent, but opposing forces in the world today: self-determination and globalisation. I discussed separatism – Basques, the Baltic states, Yugoslavia, and Quebec in particular – as well as Mongolian independence, then asked them to form groups and pretend the Kazaks in their country wanted nationhood. How would they go about it? Peacefully, through negotiations and referendums? Or through violence, a la FLQ, ETA or KLA? Other groups were the majority Mongols, and yet two more the UN Security Board.
The problem was not their level of English (they were intermediate students), but their lack of imagination. The teacher-centred system discourages students to ask any questions; they just sit at their desks all day and write down their masters’ words as if they were gospel. It’s completely, terminally, maddeningly passive. They had no idea how to even pretend they were Kazaks, guerillas or politicians. It was a pretty discouraging sight, on par with what goes on in Japan and Korea.
… But who cares? WE HAVE A SON !!!
We spent the weekend more or less glued to the television set, as one incredible turn of events after another unfolded in the U.S. It’s great entertainment, and one day will make a hell of a movie-of-the-week! A horror story, perhaps? (You know, with lots of 'gore', like in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... Ooh, too many puns and facile references!)
Yesterday, we updated the Korean homepage in Sun-duk’s office, after service. (These Protestants are so long-winded! Who’s ever heard of two-hour services? And all that twangy, guitar-plucking music, along with the singing, the dancing and the hand-waving, is just plain ridiculous!) It takes ages to connect to the server (think back to Western internet services, circa 1994-1995), and it’s so s-l-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-w-w-w-w-w-w-w... We only managed to put in three months’ worth of diary entries and change the portal page a little bit before we got cut off and for half-an-hour tried to reconnect – to no avail, alas.
Last week’s weather was nice and mild: between –10 C and –20 C, with only the odd morning breeze to cool things down. The last few days have been incredibly cold, however, with daytime highs of –30 C and the wind chill factor dragging the temps down to –40 C, easily. My left ear and the tip of my nose have suffered partial frostbite, I think; I woke up this morning with both still red and sore to the touch. This happened last month, and the effects were similar to those caused by sunburn: peeling skin. I hope that’s all I get this time, too. The last thing I need is for nerves to die or gangrene to set in! Can you imagine me with bits of facial extremities missing here and there? ; - ) In any case, I’ve taken my headband out of the closet and put it on for the first time in four years! (Ah, I was so naïve back in 1996, when I thought South Korea was actually cold in the winter!)
SMILE, YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERA: We’ve finally had all our photographs from Mongolia and China developed. At some point in the next two months, we’ll scan the best and put them up on the site. Quite a few will end up in the Diary Archives as complements and commentaries to the text, so people may want to check these again when the time comes. Of course, we’ll also upload our traditional outdoor Korean wedding pics… They’re gorgeous, but we haven’t found a scanner yet to do them justice. If worse comes to worst, we’ll send them to my parents in Canada, who will in turn scan them and send them back via e-mail.
SUMMERTIME BLUES: The prospect of returning to Canada for a couple of years as of June is slowly becoming ingrained in my mind and Sun-duk’s, but I honestly don’t know whether I can find gainful employment there. I’m not qualified to do anything except English-French and French-English translation; however, the fact that I haven’t practiced my craft in four years makes me unqualified in the eyes of employers. I won’t be able to teach, either, in spite of my experience, because I don’t have a degree in the field.
This means I’ll have to try to land a job that requires multiple skills – technical, pedagogical, social, financial. Being a jack of all trades is an iffy prospect in this era of highly defined niches, but streamlining (a.k.a. downsizing, a.k.a. budget cuts, a.k.a. “You’re fired, you one-trick pony!”) may be my salvation. Some Canadians I know, formerly of ESL Korea and Arts & Humanities U., are working for the public sector in Ontario (government and NGOs), while others, through a completely autodidactic approach, are in the lucrative tech industry. Will I have the same luck if we decide to strike out in Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto?
ONOL: They changed my schedule again, adding yet another hour (that’s twenty-two, total, now – two over the limit stated in my contract). I had a literature class at eight-thirty, then spent four hours at Soros before returning to teach another one-hour class at 4:15. Well, it turns out that I was ‘mistaken’, and one of the school managers ‘set me straight’. She told me that my lesson was at 5:10, with 3B, and asked me why I had missed this morning’s 11:30 class. I yelped, “What 11:30 class??”, and showed her my notebook with the schedule the director and I had agreed to last Thursday. She pulled out her schedule – a big piece of cardboard paper emblazoned with dozens of mysterious little squares - and sure enough, there was my name, scribbled in a jack-in-the-box that said, “4B, Speaking and Writing”. What could I do? I jotted down the class and time, and told her in Russian that nobody had bothered to tell me about this change… The whole thing made look like a fool, but I’m positive I got everything down right last week. They simply decided to turn the tables on me again…
WEB MONGOLIA: I found a wonderful site operated by an American who studied in Mongolia. It’s full of pictures, essays and information about the more intricate aspects of Mongolian life – the ones most books omit. The links will prove particularly useful. I’ve already saved a couple dozen pictures that will serve well on this page; and, for copyright reasons, I will likewise establish links to other sites containing very interesting photographs, fairy tales, legends, historical essays, recipes, and even sewing patterns!
You know, I just can’t believe these sites are not listed in Yahoo! It seems that they’re always more than ready to list the tiniest, most insignificant business – snot-removal, let us say -, but anything that smacks of culture is automatically dismissed as ‘useless’. When I first went looking around the web for sites on Mongolia, I was only able to locate two or three; through additional luck, hints, links and perseverance, that number has risen to two hundred. They all deserve to be listed, since there is so little about this country available to the average person. There has got to be a search engine somewhere for sites like ours…
CARTOON ZEN: Every week, Eagle TV, an American-run, Christian-based station which airs from 7 to 10 every evening in lieu of CNN, runs old episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Flintstones. They’re dubbed in Mongolian on weekdays, then all four episodes are rerun Sunday evening in English only.
The Flintstone episodes are the originals - that is, the theme song, and opening and closing animation are completely different from the ‘revised’ versions we know today and with which I grew up. Yes, you read right – the drive-in theatre and restaurant were added a few years later, during the syndication period, not long after I was born in 1968. The animation is much ‘cruder’ (for want of a better term), a la Yogi Bear, which more or less launched Hanna-Barbera’s television career in the late fifties.
The most intriguing thing about the opening animation is that it’s eerily reminiscent of a seminal nineties’ cartoon: The Simpsons. In fact, we see Fred driving on the interstate and through Bedrock (population 2500), stopped by a traffic cop, picking up a suit at the dry cleaner’s, and buying the evening paper before pulling into his garage, grabbing a huge sandwich Wilma has prepared for him, and sitting himself down in his easy chair for some TV. The last scene is a monstrous close-up of the television set, with Fred’s hand reaching forward and turning it on.
So Matt Groening, who was a boy when The Flintstones originally aired from 1960 to 1965, is actually parodying / paying homage to a favourite programme in the opening animation to his show. How many people knew that? I mean, I’ve often caught references that harkened back to the silent-movie era (Pickford, Fairbanks, Keaton, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Durante, etc.), but this one had completely slipped by most of us because of those darned reruns and their rejigged credits.
FROM THE AARGHH !! DEPARTMENT: I mentioned above how Mongol television breaks into regularly scheduled programming in the evening… Well, they do it mornings, too. I wouldn’t mind if these channels didn’t pre-empt BBC World, CNN, and MCM at those very times when Sun-duk and I are at home. I miss all of Tim Sebastian’s Hard Talk interviews on BBC (and they don’t offer transcripts on the official web site – I checked), and 7 to 10 is when Sun-duk and I get home, have dinner, and go to bed! Normally, I wouldn’t give all this a second thought,but the news these days is so very interesting!..
I asked a couple of the better students in 4A to show me the notes they had taken in Khanda’s methodology class, and saw nothing but definitions and brief instructions on how to teach verb tenses, vocabulary, writing, etc. I then asked them if they had been given any examples to draw on (activities such as games and group work that stimulate children’s imaginations and desire to learn), or if theory had been put into practice; they answered no.
Once more, we see here an instance of students being spoon-fed pre-chewed junk food. These future teachers don’t have a clue about how to proceed in the classroom.
It’s like having a cheap bilingual dictionary. If you look up the word akkida in an inferior Korean-English dictionary, you will get the following translation: “save”. But without context, you don’t know what you can save: lives, energy, money, souls, time?.. A student learning Korean might be inclined to use akkida in all the above cases, which would be wrong – it is only found in the collocation to save money.
This is what I’m faced with here. Most Mongolian teachers have very little in the way of textbooks – good dictionaries, lists of idioms and proverbs, interactive grammar and conversation learners, children’s programmes, etc. – and as a consequence, their level of English is sub-standard – a case of the blind leading the blind.
At least now I know I’ll have the chance to open their eyes somewhat, since I finally found out that the second semester begins in mid-January, a full 45 days before Khanda is due to arrive from Egypt. The fall semester ends December 22; exams begin December 25 and go on until January 13; classes start anew the following Monday, January 16, and continue for three weeks, until February 3 or 10 (no one’s sure); then there’s a three-week break until March 1. The winter semester would probably end the last week of May, completing a 16-week session. That means that if we were all to move back to Canada, we could do so in mid-June (or late-June, if I were to spend a bit more time in Korea to visit family and friends).
Hmm… I just remembered – I want Onol to hire a new teacher to replace Khanda until she comes back, becaused I’ll be damned if I teach more than 20 hours a week for four more weeks! Well, if I’m lucky, I’ll be rid of my sophomore classes and get to keep the seniors…
WHAT THE HECK’S DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME? No such thing in Mongolia, although the country is 1500 km long and – let’s face it – wa-y-y-y-y up north. Yesterday, dawn broke at around 7:50, and the sun didn’t completely come out for another hour. In fact, the moon (full right now) was still visible in the morning sky, resting at a 40-degree angle vis-à-vis the horizon. Dusk set in at around five o’clock; and by half past, the sky was pitch black. This is all very strange to Sun-duk, who’s not used at all to a mere eight hours of sunlight.
EAGLE TV OR DODO TV? This station is on nearly all day Sunday, pre-empting CNN in order to edify us viewers with overtly Protestant programming for young and old alike. They’re so lame! I’m glad Sun-duk and I are almost always out about town from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
YET MORE CARTOON CAPERS: The Mongolian channels also run quite a few animated shorts from 1930s’ America – some Disney, yes (I’ve already mentioned those), but lots of Max Fleischer cartoons, as well. We’re treated to both colour and black-and-white movies starring Felix the Cat, Koko the Klown, Betty Boop, and Popeye (my favourite). It’s wonderful, because I get to actually see these classics instead of always reading about them. One of my most treasured possessions is a 90-minute tape of silent Koko the Klown shorts; and I still vividly remember the afternoon I spent at the Bytown Repertory Theatre in Ottawa watching black-and-white Fleischer movies like the one I’m enjoying now for free on Mongolian television.
BYE BYE, BIRDIE: Two weeks ago, as I strolled toward my office window, as I do almost every day, to gaze at the snow-capped hills, I beheld a strange sight – that of a tiny brown sparrow lying lifeless between the double-paned windows.
I opened one of the windows and looked at the animal. It hadn’t been dead for more than a few days, but the cold had preserved it almost intact – only holes where the eyes had been marred this specimen.
I looked at the panes, wondering how this bird managed to get in, but not out. Sure enough, ‘way up high, there was a small hole where the sparrow had no doubt been perched before somehow losing its balance and falling almost five feet down to the sill. As it starved to death, it huddled into the far corner where it was warmest; and there I found it.
I kept forgetting to write about it until this morning, when I opened the door to my office and was welcomed by the joyful chirping of two dozen sparrows perched on both the outer sill and the opening of the broken window. In fact, even as I’m writing these words, there is a pair of birds watching me hard at work, all fluffed up and bathing in the warm glow of the sun’s rays.
MORE BIRDIES: Yesterday, the school’s ‘lawn’ played host to hundreds of sparrows gathered among a few select trees. The branches of one particularly tall larch were bearing the weight of at least two hundred birds. The din they made was deafening! Shades of Hitchcock…
EXAM WOES: My students in 4A told me that the professors don’t get to set the dates for finals; the administration gets to do that. Moreover, the schedule won’t be ready until next Monday at the earliest – exactly one week before the first exams are to be held. They’ll probably ask me to write up the exams for all of Khanda’s classes, including the junior methodology class and the Business English courses… They’d better not! Buman’s back this week, and I’ll have tell the people at Onol exactly where I’m putting my foot down next semester.
BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE SOME HEAT? The building super – a diminutive man with a smattering of Korean – has been coming in and out of our apartment – as well as those of our upstairs and downstairs neighbours – in an attempt to fix the dead radiators on the far side of the living room wall. Last night, at eleven-thirty, he finally finished connecting all the pipes after using a wide assortment of tools ranging from crowbars and jackknives to saws and horsehair. There still was no heat coming out of the radiator when we got up this morning, but we do have a fine mess of sawdust and plaster littering the floor.
With nighttime lows in the minus thirties, the house has again developed a certain coolness about the edges. Sun-duk and I are back to sleeping with our jogging togs on, and our ugly fuzzy slippers have come for an encore, too. Bravissimi !
HUZZAHS! Khanda’s not gone! Her sponsor has had to postpone her trip to Turkey (or is it Egypt?) until the beginning of March, so she’ll be able to write and give the American Lit. and Methodology exams while I concentrate on my own courses.
We also came to an understanding that I would not work more than 20 hours a week next semester, come what may. The school will have to find a replacement, and Khanda agreed, adding that they already had at least one person in mind, someone from a university downtown.
We then talked about the next semester vis-à-vis the juniors and seniors. We - Khanda, the other teachers, and I - have discussed about the abilities of each section, as well as each section’s students (they are well documented in this diary, in fact, and at every reader’s perusal), and came to the conclusion that next semester I would teach less conversation and more culture, literature, business, and methodology classes. Khanda will provide me with a list of the courses on the table for January, and let me choose the ones I want!
I was overjoyed at the prospect of molding young minds again, and wholeheartedly concurred. I reminded Khanda of the heart-to-heart chats I’ve had with most of my students, and how even the 3A group – the future English teachers – would still rather concentrate on vocabulary and grammar before grappling speaking and writing. In other words, they prefer a Mongolian teacher – and I’m sure they’ve told her the same thing on many occasions, as well.
How do I know? Three weeks ago, attendance in my some of my classes had shrunk to half-a-dozen or so. Then one fine day, the director and a couple of her assistants opened the door to several of my classes and noticed all the empty seats. Before you could say Jack Robinson, the classrooms were overflowing with new faces, an indication that all the delinquents had had a stern talking-to. I don’t know what sort of threat managed to bring these stray sheep back to the fold – “I’ll make sure you all get B’s?!?” -, but it won’t last long, of that I’m sure.
Finally, I was handed my exam schedule – two weeks off from December 23 to January 2, then I must roll up the sleeves and give exams almost every morning at nine from the third to the twelfth. Three days later, the second semester begins, heralding three or four weeks of classes before the Lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar (“White Month”) brings everything to a halt for two or three weeks.
HO HUM: I watched Gore’s concession speech live on CNN at ten this morning, then sat through Bush’s little speech. To their credit, both men were gracious to each other… And more amazingly, delivered their soliloquies with a fair amount of panache, in stark contrast to what we had seen from them in the last year! I only hope Bush is as conciliatory as his supporters claim he is, because outside the U.S., and especially in socialist Canada and Europe, there is a great deal of scepticism with regard to his views and abilities. British and German pundits on BBC and CNN all wondered whether Bush’s isolationist rhetoric during the campaign would give way to Realpolitik once he assumed the reigns of power. The Republicans want to pull out most of their troops around the world, but to do so would be in effect relinquishing their role as the planet’s sole superpower, moral leader, and prime disseminator of democracy. Is it worth bulking up the military just for national defense? Huhhhhh… If only Bush had travelled a little bit more. Did you know he’s only been outside the United States three times in his life? Well, at least he speaks Spanish…
AGHAST: I played Jeopardy! with the 3A group this afternoon, and they completely bombed! They couldn’t even get the easiest questions I had come up with, like “Who invented the phonograph?”, “Which city is larger – New York or London?”, or “Who was the youngest American president?” That last question brought forth the names of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. They’ve never heard of koalas or Thomas Edison, and JFK only rang a couple of bells. Is their primary and secondary education system really that bad??? I always used to knock Korean education, but third-world Mongolia has opened my eyes in more ways than one.
MOVIES: I watched a great Sidney Lumet film about a murder in New York’s Hasidic quarter. A fascinating look at a little-known and misunderstood segment of Judaism, where spirituality permeates every aspect of life in much the way it did in Ancient Egypt. Pittoresque, as we say in French. I don’t know the title, as I once again missed the opening credits. All I caught was “… directed by Sidney Lumet” before Melanie Griffith waltzed into the picture…
Twelve fifty-nine… I wonder if any of the English teachers will show up this afternoon. I want to go to Soros as soon as possible and prepare next week’s classes – photocopies and the like – since I have to teach all day Monday.
Eight pee-em... Nope, none of ‘em came. Met Buman and Kelli at Soros; Buman wondered if I would go to Sukhbaatar, in Northern Mongolia, for ten days in January; I declined. She wondered if I would consider giving an intensive four-week English course to a group of lawyers – good money, she said; I declined. I DON’T WANT ANY OVERTIME !! I just wanna teach at Onol and take part in a few MFOS activities (including the EFL site); I plan on having a lot of free time for creative writing, for studying Mongolian, Korean and Russian, and for mastering the Art of Designing Web Pages According to Flash 4.0. My future is at stake here; if I can’t find a job with the UN or an important NGO here in Mongolia, we’re heading back to Canada... with oodles of trepidation, might I add, on my part, for the reasons given above.
I forgot to set the alarm last night, and Sun-duk and I didn’t get up until 7:40. I hurried up and made her lunch, so she wasn’t terribly late for work.
MAC ATTACK : I was watching BBC Sports rather absentmindedly one evening when the sight of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg sitting next to each other very quickly pulled me away from my book. The interview was ostensibly to talk about old times and an upcoming rematch somewhere in Europe, but the reporter asked Mac what he thought about Venus Williams claiming she could beat his sorry, middle-aged ass, and The Mouth was off!
He put her down very colorfully, saying she was talking nonsense. When the reporter asked him if he would back up his words with actions, he replied that he had no interest in doing so – that it was pointless, adding that ever since Bobby Riggs "threw" his match against Billie Jean King, top female players have boasted they could beat men. Whether his comments were sexist or realistic remains a mystery to me, personally; but the tennis world has become so bland since McEnroe and Connors retired that his rant brought back very fond memories of the raucous seventies and early eighties.
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING CHINESE: The CNN network this week broadcast a special five-part series on Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, which consists primarily of Muslim Uighurs. The Uighurs are Altaic, and so are ethnically and linguistically related to Turks, Kazaks, Mongolians, and Koreans. Beijing’s appallingly condescending and patronising attitude, as well as its assimilation policy (think Tibet), was epitomised in the words of a Han Chinese official hellbent on ending the Uighurs’ traditional nomadic existence:
"We must at all costs take these people off their horses and their land, and settle them in houses with television sets, so that they may become civilised..."
Isn’t that enough to just make you want to throttle the Chinese?
I found out Friday that my sister Josée was involved in a pretty bad car accident this week. She was driving to work in Ottawa early Wednesday morning when she hit a patch of black ice and slid out of control into a barbed-wire fence. The car behind her then slammed her rear end with such force that the car was totalled. Fortunately, she was not seriously hurt – only a few cuts and bruises. She had the presence of mind to call 911 on her cell phone; and because the weather was so cold – in the minus 30 degrees Celsius range – and she risked getting frostbite or even hypothermia, the police and hospital people decided to waste no time and send over a helicopter at the crash site to pick her up and bring her back for treatment.
Josée left the hospital later in the day, then – get this - asked our mother if she could borrow her car to go to work the next morning! Maman refused, for reasons everyone can guess, and her only daughter was forced to take a day off.
I am personally of the opinion that now that the kids are more or less school age, my sister’s family should pack up and move to Ottawa. The grandparents are not as vital as they have been the last few years, pinch-hiting as babysitters in times of need, and her husband Mike can easily find a job in the Nation’s Capital. She’s had to drive from Cornwall to Ottawa and back every day for, what? six years, now – a two-hour commute. That’s too much… Pense-y, Jo, pis fais attention!
THAT’S AMORE: Six of us – Buman, Enkha, John, Kelli, Sun-duk and I – gathered at an Italian restaurant for our first Soros Fellows get-together in three months.
We were supposed to eat a Mexican restaurant – Los Banditos! -, but the cook came down with something, so no food was to be had. No problem – Sun-duk evinced a craving for pizza, and so we ended up at a fine eatery whose cooks had been trained by a real Italian chef!
Since the meal was coming out of Mr. Soros’ rather outsized pockets, we were not shy about ordering a great many expensive dishes. Sun-duk had two cups of hot chocolate, a salad, a pizza, and dessert; I ordered a glass of dry red wine, a plate of gnocchi in cheese, a pizza, and a sundae. Delicious! I hadn’t had gnocchi in four or five years, and the wine was surprisingly good.
It took us until nine o’clock to catch up on one another’s doings. John and Buman told us about their fortnight in China and Dubrovnik; Kelli’s been quite busy with her musical and church activities; Enkha recounted in minute detail (in Russian!) how their apartment had been broken into during Buman’s absence (the burglars only made off with the stereo and CD collection, leaving the police to conclude that the culprits were children); and Sun-duk and I talked almost exclusively about the baby!
John, a confirmed bachelor, seemed rather bored by this last topic, but everyone else – women, of course – was able to identify with the Miracle of Life and drank in every aspect of Sun-duk’s pregnancy, making comparisons and sharing stories. They were very congratulatory upon our telling them that we would be the proud parents of a…
… boy. We explained the wherefores of our choice of names, then went on to expand on our plans for the coming year.
Finally, at nine-fifteen, we somehow managed to lift ourselves up out of our chairs and waddle our way to our respective domiciles. ; - )
Back home, we were greeted by the frowning face of our super, who had waited a number of hours for our return so that he could finish the repairs on our radiators. Well, I’d told him Saturday night, in a mish-mash of Mongolian, Korean, and Russian, that there would be no one home past one p.m., so he didn’t succeed in making me feel guilty. In any case, he went at it for thirty minutes, then told us we had but to wait a little longer for him to zip through the other neighbours’ radiators before we would at last be warm and toasty in our little Mongolian paradise.
Sun-duk came home at 9:30 tonight, ‘way past her bedtime; she had to attend a competition between the city’s church choirs. By the time she had eaten and washed, it was eleven o’clock. What with the ten to twelve hours’ sleep a night her pregnancy demands of her, she dreaded getting up the next morning! And wouldn’t you know it? As soon as she lay down, …
… Jean-Noel started kicking and punching up a storm. Every thirty seconds or so, we could both feel him striking his mother in the lower-right-hand side of her abdomen. The kid’s only five-and-a-half months old, and already as active as a foetus four weeks older than him! Precocious tyke, isn’t he? But then again, look at his parents’ pedigree!!! ; - )
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ARMIN! The great German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl celebrated his 70th birthday, today. Things about Armin that you probably didn’t know:
1. He was born in what eventually became East Germany.
2. His acting career began in 1962.
3. He defected to West Germany in 1980.
4. He is also a gifted painter and writer, having authored a number of successful books, both fiction and non-fiction, and held several exhibitions of his artistic work.
Sun-duk didn’t get up until well past eight. Hunnnhhhhh… It’s gonna be a long, tough haul today, girl…
I discussed exams with Khanda, this afternoon, and found out that she taught Methodology for the first time this year. Of course, she had doubtlessly been imitating her past professors, so she can’t be directly blamed for the ‘weirdness’ of her approach – all theory, translation, and no practice. She readily admits her inexperience, and wants advice; but she has so little time to devote to this passing profession (remember, she’s studying law at the Mongolian National University) that I don’t know whether my help will make a difference.
Many students in 4A are clearly disinterested in my methodology class. It’s obvious that they simply intend to return to their hometown high schools, grab an outdated textbook – Headway, for example -, and go to it by the numbers, teacher’s book in tow. Who needs to know English grammar or the communicative (interactive) approach, anyway when you’ve got the answer keys? And all that text analysis and critical thinking I’ve been cramming down their throats in American Lit? A great, big waste of time! They’ll just have their future pupils copy stuff down, translate the new words, and NEXT!!… It’s getting awfully lonely up there, talking to the same four or five serious students, while the rest occupy themselves with ‘more important things’…
Today was, hopefully, my last eight-class Wednesday. I don’t ever want to go through another four months of that…
The baby’s movements are growing stronger by the week. Back on December 8, with the help of the sonogram machine at Yonsei Hospital, I was able to see him/her (I’m getting tired of that big warning sign, already – can you tell?) move around every second – a wave of the hand here, a punch there, then a kick and a swivel of the head… Now, we can feel these stirrings, too. They’re still “soft”, as Sun-duk calls them, but even I am able to discern these gentle flappings of butterfly wings! It’s become a ritual, now, for us to go to bed and ‘commune’ thus with the baby before the three of us fall asleep together.
Because Sun-duk is not very busy at work, these days, she’s much more sensitive to the baby’s activity than she normally would be. Feeling this life beat so strongly and consistently within her has already produced a strong bond between mother and child; and although she professes to wish her pregnancy to end as soon as possible (the obsessive and debilitating Korean dread of appearing fat), I believe she’s thoroughly enjoying her new ‘companion’. Her hands are almost always resting on her belly, caressing the child, reassuring him/her, enjoying his/her responses...
BY THE WAY: The movie with Melanie Griffith and the Hasidim is called A Stranger Among Us; the gangster flick starring Christian Slater was Mobsters; I’ve seen bits and pieces of Raising Arizona the past few mornings; also on cable this month: Liar, Liar, Mr. Destiny, Celtic Pride, Hoops, The Photog, Alien Species, My Own Private Idaho, Fatherhood, The Vanishing, City Hall, Henry and June, The Accidental Tourist, Sayonara, Raintree Country; a Russian channel showed an hour’s worth of vintage ‘70s and ‘80s Elton John videos – great stuff; National Geographic is showing a series of absolutely fascinating documentaries, made from 1995 to 1999, on famed British mountain-climber Alan Hinkes’ attempt to reach the summit of each of the world’s fourteen 8000-metre-high mountains – only five have succeeded so far, and he’s only four peaks away; Melanie Griffith is Tippi Hedren’s daughter – I’d forgotten that.
FROM THE ‘SO WHAT?’ DEPARTMENT: Veronica Pedrosa on CNN Asia remarked on how the winter solstice generally marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere… HAH! Here in Mongolia, we’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures for two months, now – and we’re not even close to this merry season’s halfway point. In fact, the mercury hasn’t risen above – 10 C since October, I believe…
One good thing about the winter solstice, though: the days will finally be getting longer. It’s mighty hard getting up at 6 a.m. when you know sunlight is still three hours away!
The morning smog in Bayangol is unbelievable – it’s so thick, you can cut it with a knife, as the saw goes. Even the mountains have been hidden from view in a whitish shroud of pollution emanating from nearby Tavan Shar, the factory district. It’s even worse at school, since Onol lies smack-dab in the middle of Tavan Shar. In fact, the biggest, tallest, ugliest, smelliest smokestacks are just across the road from us.
It’s still not as bad as the ger districts, though. There, people have no electricity, and so must heat their tents with coal. I used to have trouble imagining Dickens’ squalid, industrial England, but no longer – the air in some parts of Ulaanbaatar is choked with tar-black dust, and the walls of buildings and gers are inky-slick with the grime of spent fuel.
(P.S. Tavan Shar means “The Five Yellows”. Nobody can explain to me where the name comes from, but they all seem to agree with me that its origins are most likely religious.)
I helped Khandaa with her 3A Methodology exam; then we discussed a subject dear to my heart: grading. I asked her to confirm the fact that I could only hand out A’s and B’s - which she promptly did, to my utter dismay and complete pedagogical horror.
I told her if that was the case – that if C’s, D’s and F’s were totally out of the question -, then no more than a quarter of these kids would receive an A. Apparently, Ian, my predecessor, gave A’s to almost everyone last year, showering himself in glory and praise. A B grade, however - even that given to kids who only attended a couple of classes -, is seen as a failing grade, and cause for rebellion and talk of lynching.
Khanda was glad to hear me speak so sternly (!), and found no problem with my ‘failing’ 75% of the school body in my custody. I’ve already earned the reputation of a taskmaster (which makes me laugh my bloody head off, since very few students actually hand in their weekly homework assignments, or open their mouth to utter the faintest English sound), and they will find out next month that I mean business. Personally, I hope this approaches chases away all the lazy and/or stupid students out of my classroom next semester, leaving me and my more intelligent wards to our own devices…
I AM THE CHAMPION, MY FRIEND!! While waiting for Khanda to come in with her questions on how to administer the methodology exam to the juniors, I decided to amuse myself with the bundled Windows games, “Free Cell”, “Solitaire”, “Hearts”, and “Minesweeper”. As incredible as this may sound, I actually beat all four games in one try, one after the other! Un quadruplé, as we say in French…
SMALL FAVOURS: Buman and I went down to the internet café on the ground floor of the Soros Building to ask whether I could use their facilities for free, as Kelli and John already often do. I explained it would only be for a few days, until the repairs upstairs were completed.
During this time, I plan on writing up and uploading my Chinese diary for the homepage (but not before scanning dozens of pictures for our dear readers’ consumption!), and maybe dot the eyes and cross the tees on a few Mongolian rubrics.
THE MUTTON DUMPLING GANG: Sun-duk made half-a-dozen buuz for her NGO’s Christmas dinner. Buuz (pronounced bowdz) are like Korean mandu, only bigger, stuffed with chopped mutton, and usually garnished with ketchup, as opposed to soya sauce (at least in the city; I don’t think herders out in the countryside put anything on their buuz). I wish I could’ve seen my little mommy in action, and brought a camera, too! Hundreds of buuz were made in all…
Yesterday, I arrived ten minutes late at the Russian school, waited half-an-hour, then received a phone call from the director that due to a year-end bash the night before, people were too... ‘hung-over’ (my word) to attend class this afternoon. She said there would be a class next week, but took that statement with a grain of salt.
It was so cold, even for me – minus 30 degrees Celsius, at least. It seems the coldest days of the week are always Saturday and Sunday, when I have to be outside for an extended period of time. My nose and left ear fought and lost another battle with frostbite, last weekend, leaving me with first reddened, then peeling facial extremities. The pain is similar to a sunburn’s, as are the effects, it would seem – at least when the frostbite is superficial. Still, it’s embarrassing to have to talk to students face-to-face and have them look away for fear of staring at your big, ugly, Western nose with various bits of skin hanging from the end of it…
I came back home and helped Sun-duk clean our very dirty apartment. Three weeks of radiator repairs had left their mark: scuffed and greased kitchen floor, chunks of plaster and plaster dust all over the living room and bedroom carpets, furniture and curtains to put back into place… Sun-duk won’t let me do the laundry, so she was exhausted by day’s end. In fact, as I write this entry (9 a.m. Sunday morning), she is still in bed, having already slept 12 hours and in danger of missing today’s service. She’s asked me several times to wake her up, but she keeps falling back into the warmth of our sheets. And while I may be somewhat anti-religious, my reason for letting her sleep lies in her belly, not in my aversion to dogma!
Okay, Sun-duk’s just got up… Let’s follow her into the living room… Oh, it’s TV5, and there’s a show on called Vie de famille (“Family Life”). It’s a young couple with what looks like a nine- or ten-month-old boy. We’re both fascinated; a year from now, our own child will be the same age, delighting us with his/her antics and insatiable curiosity…
Our social card is unusually crowded, this week: Christmas Eve dinner tonight at church, Christmas dinner with Reverend Yoon tomorrow evening, two New Year’s parties – one by Onol, the other by MFOS – on Tuesday, and something else Wednesday, I think…
First, Sun-duk and I would like to wish everyone Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année ! Now, onto business, since it IS a business day in most of the world, including Mongolia (remember, Christians only comprise 20% of the planet’s population).
We spent five hours yesterday updating the Korean homepage at church. It was slow, frustrating work – the connection speed to the server not quite up to 1995 standards, if you ask me. Be that as it may, we managed to upload thousands of Sun-duk’s words: five months’ worth of diary entries, two very long essays on Mongolia and the differences between Mongolia and Korea, and a journal in which Sun-duk periodically speaks to our unborn baby. There’s sufficient material to keep readers entertained for two or three hours, depending on your fluency in Korean. We’ve also subscribed to a new Korean guestbook service, although we’ll probably exchange it for a nicer-looking one at the beginning of the New Year. Sun-duk has expressed dismay at the lack of Korean-language messages in our English guestbook, sensing that visitors from her homeland are afraid of making face-losing mistakes.
To visit the Korean page, just go to our portal page (click on the big button to the left marked “Home”) and click on that funny purple writing in the upper right-hand corner, next to the title and above our picture. Alternatively, if you just can’t wait that long, you can click on the big red graphic to your right, which will take you promptly to the site in question:Bookmark us!
THE NEEDY: Sun-duk is at work, today, but I finally have a week off, and am enjoying some time alone at home. BBC World and CNN Asia have been broadcasting a number of reports from developing countries, including one very interesting 20-minute documentary on Ulaanbaatar’s street children. The journalist didn’t show me anything I hadn’t already seen, but it was harrowing viewing, just the same. Most often, the children are pre-teens whose brothers and/or father beat them (alcoholism seems at the root of most domestic violence in Mongolia). They don’t wash for months on end, and live in sewers, where it’s warm. (And they are warm, with huge billows of steam spewing out of open manholes early in the morning and late at night, when bathrooms are most busy.)
The report had been taped in September, when the weather was still mild, but children were roaming the streets in tattered clothing and shivering at night. Some were lucky enough to have found sheets of plastic to wrap their bodies in – an improvised form of thermal underwear meant to keep out the wind.
We haven’t seen many urchins downtown, the past couple of months: the days are so bitterly cold that I think they spend most of their time in the relative protection of the sewer system, venturing out at the height of day to beg or rummage through the rubbish bins. I think there must be some in our neighbourhood: it’s a lower-middle-class area, with huge apartment complexes. Although we haven’t actually witnessed kids climbing in or out of a manhole, we see a lot of very dirty children walking around or taking the bus; they obviously do not attend school.
All of this reminded me of Save the Children, an NGO whose Mongolian branch is headed by a Québécois by the name of Marc Laporte. I still haven’t managed to meet him: he’s been on extended business trips to the countryside and Thailand, while I’ve been overworked by Onol. There seems to be no end to Mongolia’s social and economic ills – at least not in the foreseeable future -, and it’s the kind of charity work I would like to be part of. If I can learn Mongolian, I think I might like to come back here in several years’ time. Living in a third-world country opens your eyes; and I can’t see Sun-duk and me, with our talents, background (consider my Jagi’s Master’s thesis on developing nations), and genetically altruistic nature (can’t I brag a little?;-), contenting ourselves with a métro, boulot, dodo kind of life.
I also watched a report on Crossroads, a Hong-Kong-based NGO that collects furniture, clothes, computers, and even heart machines from the city’s status-conscious wealthy (‘faut être à la page, mon coco) and then donates them to Tadjikistan. This struck a chord in me for two reasons: one, Tadjikistan was one of the countries in which Soros offered me a position (Uzbekistan was the other one); two, in May, a Soros Fellow from Tadjikistan will be making a two- or three-week trip here to Mongolia for a cooperative teacher-training effort.
TEACHER’S PET: I was a bit jealous of this Fellow being able to travel in this manner in the middle of the school year, and asked Buman why he was thus being favoured. She told me that most second-year Fellows are eligible for work-related exchanges; and that if I decided to stay with MFOS in 2001-2002, I could probably make two such all-expenses-paid trips – one to Central Asia, and another to Europe, for the annual SPELT conference. (Recall, if you will, that John and Buman have recently returned from two weeks in Dubrovnik, a city so beautiful it’s been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.) Unfortunately, that kind of arrangement and opportunity only suits single people.
LAUGH-IN: The title is a bit disrespectful, I admit, but to anyone who has ever had to attend a children’s Christmas show, there is a very large grain of truth in it. This afternoon, after service and before the lunch of buuz (of which I ate eight!), we were entertained, in every sense of the word, by little Korean and Mongolian Christians. The theatrics were the same here as they are every year in many other parts of the world, with perhaps two exceptions: one number had four very young girls dancing to Yuletide, Mongolian-language, hip-hop music (lukewarm applause by a confused audience), while another, much more traditional, featured an eight-year-old practitioner of that age-old Mongolian art, contortionism. Now, how many times have you seen that at a Christmas show?? ; - )
A summary of what’s happened in the last four days:
Monday: Christmas dinner at Reverend Yoon’s – the evening was pleasant, the food good, the company agreeable… and convinced me yet again that I would benefit enormously from just three months of intensive study of the Korean language. That’s all – 60 work days of study, six hours a day, would suffice to treble my vocabulary, my fluency, and my listening and speaking skills in Hangoog-uh. If I knew a good job were waiting for me in Canada, I would spend July and August doing just that in one of Seoul’s better university language programmes. Unfortunately, according to my calculations, I’ll only have C$10,000 to C$12,000 worth of savings in Canada at the end of my contract with Soros – just enough for six months of job hunting.
Tuesday: MFOS New Year’s party. No one bothered to tell me it was a formal affair, so yours truly - normally the best-dressed man at the Soros office (certainly the only one to wear a suit five days a week) - arrived in a pair of dirty jeans and an ill-fitting sweater, hair unkempt and face all stubbly, the only person among a century of colleagues to look like something the cat dragged in. How ironic! The food wasn’t bad – not great, certainly, with the exception of the coconut chocolate cake. They were recording the party for posterity, and had employees from each MFOS department perform a dog trick on the reception hall’s stage. Lame! Kelli, John, and I looked at one another with a puzzled look (the frequency of which has been increasing the last two months) of “Why didn’t anyone tell us about this earlier?” All the other groups had rehearsed songs and playlets, while we somehow had to improvise a palatable presentation in two minutes’ time. Kelli and John recited the first few couplets of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, while I simply wished people Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in French – first, in a Parisian accent (“Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année à tous,”), glass of red wine in hand; then in salty Joual, the Québécois accent (“Hoyeux Noël et Bonne Année, tout l’ monde! Pis l’ Paradis à ‘fin d’vos hours!”), holding a can of beer and wiping my runny nose on my sleeve! What an embarrassment!
Wednesday, I went to the Internet café on the ground floor of the Soros building and stayed there for four hours. I had intended to work on the homepage, but Tripod was down for some reason, so I ended up reading, newspapers and journals, mostly. I found The Gore Vidal Index, the most comprehensive website on Gore Vidal, whom I consider America’s greatest writer of the twentieth century - certainly the wittiest, most astute and eloquent of the last fifty years. But then, I agree with nearly all of his views on politics, religion, and history, so my unswerving admiration of, and devotion to, Vidal and his ideas are not very surprising. I saved a score of interviews and essays on disquette and savoured them at home later in the evening.
I discovered two things I had not realised before today: one, Vidal has written two novels since I left Canada, including an alternate version of Washington, D.C., called The Golden Age, which completes his American Chronicles in a manner more consistent with the path he eventually took; and two, I’m absolutely starving for learned literature. I don’t care to get into the dearth of critical thinking in Far-East Asian society again, other than to reiterate my humble desire for a few exceptional students.
Speaking of which, I neglected to write about a little experiment I conducted last week with my juniors from 3A, the teachers’ class. Having told them I would henceforth follow their wishes for less conversation and more passive education, specifically composition, I showed them a few examples of Haiku poetry on the blackboard and asked them to write a couple themselves, alone or in tandem with a partner. I told them my teachers had made me do haikus for the first time when I was a wee bairn of ten, because it’s such an easy form of poetry - it’s incredibly short, it doesn’t have to rhyme, and scanning is a cinch: three verses of five, seven, and five syllables each.
To demonstrate just how simple and fun haikus could be, I created four of them on the spot, in Mongolian, despite my tiny 100-word vocabulary and limited knowledge of Mongolian grammar. Sure, I made mistakes, but accuracy wasn’t the point; I wanted them to exercise a bit of creativity.
Sigh… When will I learn? Six people out of a class of 25 actually tried. Apart from Oyunbileg, they made many more mistakes – metrical, orthographical, grammatical, syntactic, and semantic – than I did in Mongolian. Maybe when they see how many B’s they get from me, they’ll look upon their future profession of educating impressionable young minds in a more sober light. I’ve got to learn enough Mongolian to shame them into realising just how pitiful their attitude and education system are, and how far behind they’re lagging, intellectually, even with respect to other East-Asian countries. It’s just incomprehensible to me that university seniors should never in their lives have analysed so much as a single poem…
OUF! I guess I really am exhausted. I haven’t done much writing at all in the last three days; I’ve been mostly reading, letting intelligible, and intelligent, words soothe and balm my dumbed-down brain. The cable’s been out for over half that time, so finding alternate sources of entertainment, in the absence of Larry King, Riz Khan, and Tim Sebastian, has become a matter of urgency. I’ll have to find some classics on-line and download them onto disquette if I’m to survive spring without Sun-duk.
NOTES: Chris has grown a full beard – doubtless out of a surge of virility that simultaneously conspired to make his wife pregnant. Both events were news to Sun-duk and me. Chris already has a daughter from his wife’s previous marriage, so the couple, like us, are curious about what their first child together will look like. And since both enjoy surprises, they have decided not to find out the baby’s sex until Nature revealed it to them. I wouldn’t have minded that myself. In fact, I wanted to wait; but Sun-duk, not known for her patience, insisted on more detailed ultra-sounds. What she lacks in forbearance, though, she makes up for in readiness.
I went to Sukhbaatar Square to take pictures of the ice sculptures, only to be stopped short in my tracks: they were HORRIBLE!!! For starters, each team was making a fort! The forts, moreover, were unqualified artistic disasters – misshapen blocks and tiles of ice piled haphazardly one on top of another, with no concern whatever for symmetry, beauty or precision. They honestly looked like sculptures young Canadian children are wont to make as they take chisel and axe in hand for the first time. Readers will doubtless conceive that I desisted from committing these frozen monstrosities to film!..
SUPER MARIO: I caught the Fox sports news on Star Sports this afternoon, and was glad to see that these people, at least, have got their priorities straight: they led off with Mario Lemieux’s comeback against Toronto (one goal, two assists!) and devoted a quarter of their show to him. What a contrast with CNN World Sports! Okay, I’ll admit that cricket and soccer are more popular than hockey, worldwide, but baseball, the NFL, and the NBA, too??? Come on!!! It’s an offence against (wo)mankind that the hockey scores are always the very last ones to be shown. Hockey is easily the third biggest international sport…
It was only a matter of time: another mass murder in the U.S. Rather than repeat my own thoughts on what ails American society, or lend them weight and credence by quoting Gore Vidal (although it’s nice to finally have an a propos source close at hand!), I’ve decided to call on 47-year-old Andy Partridge, éminence grise of the world’s greatest existing English-language band, XTC, to comment on the event through a song written in 1982 for their classic album, English Settlement :
MELT THE GUNS
Programmes of violence as entertainment
Brings the disease into your room
We know the germ, which is man-made in metal
Is really the key to your own tomb
Prevention is better than cure, bad apples affecting the pure
You'll gather your senses, I'm sure
Then agree to
Melt the guns, melt the guns, melt the guns
And nevermore to fire them
Melt the guns, melt the guns, melt the guns
And nevermore desire them
Children will want them, mothers supply them
As long as your killers are heroes
And all the media will fiddle while Rome burns
Acting like modern-time Neros
Prevention is better than cure, bad apples affecting the pure
You'll gather your senses, I'm sure
Then agree to
Melt the guns, melt the guns, melt the guns
And nevermore to fire them
Melt the guns, melt the guns, melt the guns
And nevermore desire them
I'm speaking to the Justice League of America
The U.S. of A., hey you, yes you, yes you, in particular!
When it comes to the Judgement Day
And you’re stood at the gates with your weaponry
You dare go down on one knee, clasp your hands
In prayer and start quoting me
’Cos we say… We say-ay…
Our Father, we’ve managed to contain the epidemic in one place, now
Let’s hope they shoot themselves instead of others
Help to sterilise the race, now
We’ve trapped the cause of the plague
In the land of the free and the home of the brave
And if we listen quietly we can hear them shooting from grave to grave
Another great day spent in the company of my burgeoning family, The Economist’s millennium issue, and The Pickwick Papers - what more could a man want?
Jige dropped by late in the afternoon, saying the administration at Onol was worried about me: I hadn’t been to work all week! Well, why would I have been? I’m not giving any exams ‘til January 3. The conversation, as always, was in Russian, although Jige likes to practice the little English he knows for the space of ten seconds!
We watched Larry King and Julia Child have an extremely interesting conversation about food, especially French. Did you know she worked for the OSS (the CIA’s precursor) during WWII as a clerk, in India, China, and Sri Lanka? She met her husband Paul in Kunming (my favourite Chinese city), and basically learned to cook from him, since he’d been raised in France. They then lived in Paris for six years, and that’s when Julia attended the Cordon Bleu School of Gastronomy. She recently received the Legion of Honour Medal from France, the first American cook to be so decorated.
Tim Sebastian interviewed Jerry Springer on Hard Talk. The latter surprised me by freely admitting the stupidity of his show, avowing he would never appear on it, much less watch it, if he had a choice. But he believes in the democratic calling of television, and that it should cater to all grades of folk, high- and low-brow alike. His Jewish parents, by the way, left Germany for England just a couple of weeks before Hitler invaded Poland. Jerry was born and spent the first five years of his life there. He’s slightly miffed at being ineligible for either the presidency of the United States or the British throne!
The Russian channel that showed the old Elton John videos not long ago aired a documentary on the recording of Sting’s latest album. I think the poor guy’s lost ‘it’: his ballads were as generic as Brian Adams’, and every one of his pop tunes were rewrites of Rock Steady, from his …Nothing Like The Sun album (1987). Can anyone out there confirm or deny this for me?
A few days ago, Sun-duk found out that “La Bonne France”, across from the State Department Store, was not a restaurant at all, but a shop that imports goods, mostly culinary, from l’Hexagone. I asked her whether they sold camembert and brie, but she didn’t know what those were; so the next evening (Tuesday, I think), we went back together, and sure enough, there were the cheeses most important to La Francophonie. I snapped up the brie for T2900, and tried a bit at the Soros party, since there were complimentary glasses of dry red wine. I am most happy to report that the brie was suitably pungent to the olfactory sense and agreeably piquant to the palate. A pity there was no bread on hand…
Sun-duk returned home from a New Year’s dinner party with her NGO colleagues carrying a two-year-old bottle of Bordeaux (Cellier Yvecourt, to be exact). It was a present, bought especially for me! Wasn’t that sweet? She knows me well!
One of the principal’s assistants at the Russian high school called me tonight to tell me that class would be cancelled on account of another important affair. Wow! Two whole days alone with my Jagi at home! This is the way it was supposed to be, before I acted the idiot and took on all these extra jobs…
We played Sequence, then watched Ca se discute on TV5. There was a fascinating collection of hermaphrodites, pseudo-hermaphrodites, transvestites, and transsexuals on hand to tell us about their experiences in a very elevated, unprepossessing, and decidedly un-sensationalistic tone that would shock Americans. It seems that the verisimilitude of today’s genital constructs is such that even gynecologists can no longer tell the difference between patients born woman and made woman. In the case of male transsexuals, individuals are now able to have erections and lead the most normal of love lives. Sun-duk was simply amazed, and tried to vaguely grasp the psychological underpinnings of each individual’s choice. She was particularly engrossed by the story of one couple whose husband is a full-time transvestite. They’ve got four apparently well-adjusted children (including a seven-month-old baby), and each indulge in a couple of homosexual flings a year while pledging eternal love to each other. There was a ten-minute, ‘a-day-in-the-life’ report that showed the two, among other things, dressing each other, preparing breakfast, and grocery shopping with the family after work.
Perhaps I forgot to mention that three weeks ago, Ca se discute grappled with the nature of celebrity with, among other guests, Julie Snyder. She’s apparently become every bit as big in France as she was in Québec... Well, good on her, I suppose… although I still don’t much appreciate her style, which is all mouth and stunts.
The last day of the Christian millennium… For those who want to argue that 2001 is NOT the start of the twenty-first century, let me remind you that if those silly church fathers had had a notion of naught and begun counting anno domini at Year Zero, we would presently be in 1999, not 2000. Got it?
Sun-duk was shocked to learn that January 1 has only been the Christian new year since the seventeenth century (mid- and late- eighteenth century in most Protestant countries, including America and England). Prior to that, the new year was celebrated, for as long as Rome could remember, on March1, the beginning of spring. I can’t rightly recall why the date was moved by the Pope, but there you go – arbitrary is as arbitrary does, so why bother ringing in the ‘new year’ when even Christians keep bouncing the day around?
Reverend Chun invited us to his house to join the rest of Food for the Hungry International in Mongolia’s Korean staff for some steak. Needless to say, everyone stuffed his or her face. The reverend had bought several kilos of steak, which we barbecued on Korean bulgogi grills. Sun-duk told them how much weight I’d lost in Mongolia, and everyone was concerned that I eat more than my fair share – until I virtually exploded (à la Mr. Cresoti (spelling?) in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). All washed down with dry Bordeaux, much to my surprise…
We rode by Sukhbaatar Square on our way home and saw thousands of people readying themselves for a proper bash. We wanted to attend, but there was very little chance of our being able to get home afterwards, so we just watched bits of the events on television. Too bad… we had our camera this time! Oh well, it’s just one of the many disadvantages of living out in the suburbs. John eats out practically every night (like I said, he’s a confirmed bachelor), while I make do with one or two restaurant outings a month. There’s just nothing at all in the way of entertainment in our neck of the woods – no restaurants, no movie theatres, no internet cafes, no malls… Nothing but a supermarket and a bunch of kiosks selling snacks and detergent. It’s pretty bleak, but we’re experiencing a lifestyle more in tune with the majority of the populace, whereas the other Soros teachers live like the richer elements downtown.
NOTES: Sun-duk and I were flipping channels, yesterday afternoon, when suddenly, on TV5, I heard a Quebecois accent. This was odd, I thought out loud, since the Canadian shows don’t usually come on at this time. Shock number two: the word “Cornwall”, my hometown, was pronounced by a woman knee-deep in the St. Lawrence River. Piqued, the remote stayed put in my hand, despite Sun-duk’s protestations, as I listened to a ten-minute report on scuba-diving near the Long Sault region of Eastern Ontario, where anyone so minded can visit dozens of sunken ships that have fallen prey to storms there in the past two hundred years.
We watched Picnic on the Hollywood Channel this weekend, a fifties movie starring William Holden and Kim Novak. A pretty risqué romp, in places, but the conversation and story were generally of a very banal and predictable nature. Fatal flaw: Middle-aged Holden was ludicrously casted as a man in his late twenties. Today’s Mary Poppins was much more captivating – but then again it would be, since I own the video in Canada and have watched it at least two dozen times! It’s my favourite musical after Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story…