Sun-duk packed two rucksacks laden with food and other goodies for her colleagues at FHI/M, so I went to work with her carrying her bags. I then helped put the finishing touches on the last of her NGO’s annual reports before leaving with Reverend Van, who was picking up his daughter and bringing her to Yonsei Hospital, just a block away from Soros. (Apparently, she’s suffering from a liver problem. The poor thing’s only seven years old.)
I decided to go to the Trade and Development Bank and withdraw $900, which, combined with the $620 we’ve kept at home, leaves Sun-duk with a tidy sum for her stay in Korea and, especially, at the hospital. (Korea does not have universal health care, another consequence of its Americanisation.)
By the time I walked into the office at 11 o’clock, Ganaa looked at me strangely and asked me where I’d been – I was late for the recording session scheduled at nine! I had agreed yesterday to do these taped dialogues, but no one bothered to tell me at what time it would take place; they just said to be here by afternoon.
On the off-chance it was not too late, we took a car to the recording studio of a local radio station, only to learn that our time slot had been cancelled, and that we would have to wait until Monday or Tuesday before another one would open up. This presented a problem, because the woman who was supposed to read the dialogues with me was leaving over the weekend. We gamely tried to arrange something for tomorrow or Saturday morning, but everyone’s schedule was different, so next week it is.
The woman, a middle-aged Minnesotan called Barbara, was very warm and friendly. She knew Canada rather well from having visited most of the western provinces. (She loves Winnipeg and Lake Louise.) Her husband was on a two-month consulting job in Ulaanbaatar, and they both loved the country. It was nice talking with her.
At one o’clock, Sun-duk and I had lunch at a Korean restaurant with Douglas and a colleague of his, Monique, from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). She’s a French-speaking Cambodian who’s seen her share of human misery in the performance of her duties, as one can well imagine. The reason she joined us was to enlist Sun-duk in a top-secret mission which we are not at liberty to divulge at the present time. Perhaps in a month or two, I’ll be able to write down and put on-line everything that went down this afternoon. It was probably Sun-duk’s most memorable day in Mongolia, and definitely one I won’t soon forget.
We finished very late, past 5:30, but Sun-duk wanted to return to her office to polish her reports, and we ended up staying until 7:30. We then had to wait outside with Bormaa a good 45 minutes before a minivan driving to Tavan Shar stopped and picked us up. For some reason, the women refuse to take the number 2 trolley, which is the only public vehicle to go through both Bayanzurkh and Bayangol Districts. Let me tell you, it was cold! The thaw has ended, and winter is back…
LEMME IN !! After we came back from the Seoul Restaurant, the other night, we ran into a serious obstacle: the locked door leading to our apartment. We rang the neighbour, but he wouldn’t come out and let us in. He kept asking us who we were, and with my limited Mongolian, I could only reply “the man with the pregnant Korean wife!” He either didn’t understand or didn’t believe us, because he would not budge an inch, leaving us stranded just three feet from our home!
I fetched the dezhurnaya downstairs, and she rang the old guy up. He wouldn’t open the door for her either, even after she’d explained our situation. He kept asking whether it was his daughter, Oyun. The dezhurnaya got fed up with him, and indicated that the man was senile. She attempted to jimmy the door open with a knife, but it was being kept shut with one of those sliding bolts, much more effective than a pickable lock in this case. Exasperated, she rang again and pretended to be Oyun… And it worked! He came out and unlocked the door. He was surprised to find us there, and to get an earful from the dezhurnaya.
Tonight, his daughter rang us up to apologise and explain that her father lives alone (although there’s nearly always someone there keeping an eye out on him). I learned that I had better come in before six or seven every night or risk being frozen out of my own home!
Sun-duk’s gone to a far, far better place, away from the Mongolian crowd… I am alone in the world…
We got up at five-thirty. Everything was proceeding in an orderly manner when the electricity suddenly went out. We waited over half-an-hour, and when it became clear (‘clear’ – how ironic) that this was a major blackout, I pulled out the flashlight and lit Sun-duk so she could make herself up and put on some clothes. The first rays of sunlight didn’t appear until almost 7:30, when Bormaa, Itchka, and Reverends Yoon and Lee came to pick us up in the FHI/M van.
The international airport in Ulaanbaatar is, as I had suspected, small. I realised that the Mongolians’ refusal to line up in an orderly fashion when getting onto public transportation extended to check-in counters, as well. What pandemonium! Worst of all, there was nowhere for the two of us to go say our goodbyes in private, so Korean custom, with its reticence towards any public show of affection, obliged us to simply gaze into each other’s eyes and hope for the best.
She crossed into the netherworld of duty-free shops, then disappeared from sight. Her plane wouldn’t take off for another hour, and since there was no area for observing departing passengers or even watching the planes take off, we headed back to the real world with tears streaming down our faces.
The Korean pastors tried to raise my spirits by fooling around in the van; then they advised me to keep busy at all costs. For the sake of conversation, I asked them what Koreans did to take their minds off their troubles, and they replied karaoke! That, and markets and shopping – all in the company of friends. Well, I know next to no one in Mongolia, so I just drifted into the office and found myself checking internet news until mid-afternoon, just to make sure there hadn’t been a plane crash at Kimpo or something.
I anxiously awaited Sun-duk’s call this evening, but it was her younger sister (due to deliver HER baby any day now) and mother that phoned me to say that she was all right. For some reason, she couldn’t call me from her cousin Hye-young’s home in Seoul (his wife is also expecting this week!), but she wanted me to know that I would hear her sweet voice Sunday night from Mokpo.
I went to bed early, still shocked by Sun-duk’s absence… though it won’t really hit me for another few days. We’ve been apart before on several occasions in Korea, for a few days at a time - she would stay on with her family while I returned to Seoul to honour prior commitments (remember, I had a lot of privates during my years with Kyung Hee) -, but I have the feeling that by next weekend, I’ll be pretty down in the mouth, and downright depressed next month when the baby’s born.
My few acquaintances here in Mongolia have promised Sun-duk to look after me, especially now that I have the time for socialising. Douglas, Monique, Egge, John, Kelli, Ganaa, Saynaa, and, perhaps, Marc Laporte and Audrey Bernard, two French-Canadians, will do their best to distract me. In fact, Saynaa, John and I will be at the Chinggis Club Sunday morning to watch the first race of the Formula One season, and I’ve already got three other appointments this week. We’ll see how it goes… Making the best of an awful situation is never an easy thing to do, but life’s a female hound, isn’t it?
The Russian high school cancelled class again, and it will be cancelled next week, too, probably, on account of an important meeting that’s planned later that afternoon. The middle-aged Buriat man I met last week at Buman’s told me this; we talked for about ten minutes before he had to go back to class. (Yes, children attend school five-and-a-half days a week, just as they do in many European and Asian countries.)
At that moment, I had the bright idea to go to the Taj Mahal and finally have myself some Indian food. Sun-duk’s tastes during her pregnancy were limited to Korean and American fast-food, so this was my first opportunity to indulge.
I’d read in the UB Post that they served brunch, but I wasn’t in the mood for a light meal, and decided to wait at Soros until lunch to roll around. I met John and Ganaa, who were going skateboarding somewhere downtown (John had his skateboard shipped all the way from America!), and Kelli, as well, who’d just stopped by to check her e-mail.
I spent a couple of hours downloading free on-line novels (Herodotus’ account of Egypt, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and some short stories by Dickens), then went to the Taj Mahal. Well, guess what: they close at two o’clock, which is the exact time at which I arrived!
Somewhat disappointed, and, after a minute’s hesitation, I decided not to eat at Pizza della Casa and instead went straight home, buying some meat and milk at the supermarket on the way. I ate like a pig, and resolved to continue packing it in until I’d regained my former weight of 90 kilos, as a surprise and favour to Sun-duk, who worries so over me and my health.
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC: BBC has been showing two terrific documentaries on rock ‘n’ roll on Saturdays from four to six. The first is rather straightforward: it deals with the history of rock. Okay. The second one is more interesting; it’s called Rock Family Trees, and traces the evolution of different bands and movements in the sixties, seventies and eighties. So far, I’ve been delighted with the origins and permutations of Fleetwood Mac, The Move, ELO, Talking Heads, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes, the Dolls, and lots more from British R & B, New York Punk, and the Birmingham Beat. It’s based on the book of the same name, so one of the first things I’ll do when I come into a bit of money in Canada is buy this worthwhile volume with its many never-before-seen photographs and recent in-depth interviews fo some of the brighter, and not-so-bright, musical lights of my youth.
TIE A YELLOW RIBBON ‘ROUND THE OLD OAK TREE… My sub-titles are getting weaker, I know… This is about how I lost the buckle on my overcoat last Wednesday. Now, I have to tie my belt around my waist and suffer the ignominy of looking gift-wrapped, what with that big bow that’s permanently hovering above my navel. It just looks so odd…
JAGI’S ALL RIGHT! At ten o’clock this evening, just as I was finding relief in the little boy’s room, the phone rang. Following a very messy pulling up of trousers, I dashed out the toidy and picked up the receiver, only to hear a dial tone.
That’s what usually happens when we get international calls, though, so I stayed in the hallway, standing by the telephone; and sure enough, thirty seconds later, it rang again – first with an annoying electronic buzz, then with the dulcet tones of my beloved wife!
She told me she was okay, that she was in Mokpo now after two days with Hye-young and Sun-ju. It took them eight hours to make the drive to Mokpo, because not only is Hye-young a relatively inexperienced driver, but he had to cope with snowy conditions, as well – a rare circumstance in South Korea.
She then proudly announced the purchase of a $300 dollar digital camera (at Yong-san, natch), reducing her bourse to $1100. That worries me, because she might end up not having enough cash to pay the hospital costs next month, especially if she has to undergo a caesarian section. In any case, she regretted our not buying one in Seoul last June, because this homepage is practically devoid of any original photographs of China and Mongolia (the scanners here just aren’t up to snuff). If we’d had the one we almost bought, we could have uploaded dozens of pics already.
Sun-duk had read the anxious e-mail I sent her yesterday and told me not to worry about either her or the baby – both of them could now enjoy heapfuls of KFC chicken and Burger King whoppers! She’s going to the hospital tomorrow for a check-up – a proper one with high-tech Western gadgetry. She’ll probably see the baby perfectly through the ultrasound, and maybe even get a videotape of it!
F1: I met John and Sainaa in front of Mongolian State University, and we took a cab to the Chinggis Club to watch the Formula One race.
The club is a fairly large building, about 150 feet by 150 feet, and shaped exactly like a ger. The outer walls are guarded by replica statues of ancient Mongolian warriors, while the interior is decorated with a panoply of martial paraphernalia: shields, armours, swords, spikes, clubs, helmets, and the like, with the odd bear and wolf skin thrown in for good measure. The bar proper, that is, where the drinks are mixed, is also circular, and located directly under the pseudo-smokehole where one would normally find a stovepipe in a real ger. Surrounding the bar are a couple dozen tables and a stage for live bands to play on. The Chinggis Club also has a number of smaller, private rooms for groups, and a sort of outer ring for summer seating, with large pane windows offering patrons the sights and sounds of one of UB’s finest industrial districts.
We sat down near the stage, for that is where the giant-screen TV stood. Shortly after we ordered ale (not beer), a steady flow of about a dozen Germans – all Michael Schumacher fans - entered the club.
After an hour, we met the owner, Gunther, who speaks fluent, though heavily accented, English. A gregarious man, very outgoing, who sat down with us for most of the race and offered us free beer and food (finger sandwiches and khuushuur). A T5000 membership buys members free draft and munchies; so two weeks from now, when John and I go back to watch the Malaysian Grand Prix, we’ll fork over the dough and stuff ourselves silly. (The sandwiches have cheese and olives! Can’t beat that!)
I’m not a great fan of motor racing, but at least I’ve got the world’s most flamboyant and controversial F1 driver to root for – our own Jacques Villeneuve. To my great chagrin, he had a spectacular crash during the fifth lap which killed a race marshal ensuring fair play at one of the track’s turns.
I was surprised to see that they wouldn’t replay the crash more than once, and we didn’t know anything about the fatality until we watched the sports news later in the evening on BBC World. I thought that was a pretty cowardly thing to do, covering up that poor man’s death just to preserve a ‘clean-cut’ image and maintain a viewership that doubtless would have switched channels had they known about it.
Be that as it may, I appreciate John’s company, so I’ll probably keep on watching F1 with him every fortnight.
The day I’d been dreading since February 2 finally arrived; I went back to school this morning. I’ve got five more weeks with the seniors, and five or six more with the juniors. Exams must be administered, corrected and graded in a single week, then we have to help the seniors prepare for the state translation and teaching exams. In fact, Khanda and I are supposed to write up a booklet with sample questions by the end of March.
Khanda also informed me that we were to perform English teacher evaluations during the next two weeks. This is going to take a big chunk out of my free time, but it’ll be interesting to watch Mongolian methodology at work. Although most of the teachers are recent graduates (many from this very school) and teach the communicative methodology, I’ve a sneaking suspicion practice is ve-e-e-e-ry different from theory. The sad part is that the students prefer being spoon-fed than challenged, so it’s a vicious circle that’ll be very hard to break.
SHHH… Monique and I went on another secret mission, this afternoon. It lasted three hours, and my, but it was exciting! It’s the kind of job I would love to do for a few years, and I can’t help wondering whether she and Doug would be willing to help me pursue this line of work. If not, then the experience should serve me well in locating a job in Canada or another international organisation.
RETURN OF THE JAGI: My darling wife called again, tonight, to brief me on her visit to the hospital. It was a good-news-bad-news deal: good news is that the…
Jean-Noel has been pronounced strong as an ox – so healthy, in fact, and such the spitting image of his father, that the doctor pronounced him seven to ten days ahead of the average foetus in development! This, however, may be a contributing factor to the aforementioned bad news: he’s still lying in the breech position. That has us worried – Sun-duk’s never had any operation of any kind -, but at least it would be a legitimate, warranted caesarian, rather than the other 90% Korean doctors perform on pregnant woman.
Sun-duk did, as promised, receive a videotape of our son. She was delighted to relate that Jean-Noel has big round eyes and a big nose! For some reason, she wants our children to look more Caucasian than Asian, but I don’t really care, myself – although a fifty-fifty split would be nice!
After seven consecutive, and exhausting, hours of teaching at Onol, I had to hurry to Soros, where I was to rendez-vous with the people in charge of recording the dialogues for the new English textbooks MFOS has developed. They recruited an American, Mary, to read the female parts, as well as four kids for those dialogues involving schoolchildren.
The eight of us went to the studio in two separate cars. Since it was a school night, Mary and I decided to let the children record their bits before us. We waited in another room for over an hour and chewed the fat
Mary’s a southern Californian who’s been here for three years. Not only has she yet to get used to Mongolian winters, she’s even more frustrated than I am with the Mongolian educational system. We spent sixty minutes relating our experiences to each other, and basically agreeing that both communism and its successor, rampant capitalism, are to blame for the present, lamentable state of Mongolian schools.
Some facts which will shed light on the subject:
Teachers are grossly underpaid, when paid at all. Most moonlight just to survive. Driving a cab is a popular way to make extra cash.
Foreign language teachers, in particular, if they reach an acceptable degree of proficiency, will immediately bolt for better jobs with NGOs and travel agencies, leaving the unqualified and incompetent to misinform their young charges.
…And from the UB Post: ”Educators often compromise their position through bribery. It is a sad indictment of the Mongolian education system when any individual can buy their way through school. To ensure a favourable assessment, students or their parents can offer a bribe to school or college officials. Furthermore, less academically inclined students can simply purchase the degree of their choice. The market price for a Master’s degree is around T50,000 (US$50). This almost renders higher education worthless.”
Thus, it’s plain to see that the standards in every field of human endeavour have been systematically cheapened over the last decade, to the ultimate detriment of the country’s future. The hangover from communist laissez-faire, which discouraged ambition and intellectual inquiry, and the new addiction to capitalism, with its emphasis on instant material gratification, have completely perverted the Mongolian sense of values. If everyone, especially those in education, takes the easy way out, what possible hope is there?
A case in point: my 4A students, the next generation of teachers. Before this semester, they had never written more than two original paragraphs (about 150 words) in English at any one time. They have never written more than a one-page composition in Mongolian, either, much less an essay. To my great dismay, I would have to rate their intellectual development at the middle-school level… And some of them are going to be teaching university students next semester!?!?! As I’ve said on several occasions in this diary, the majority of these young people are indifferent to self-improvement; they just want to buy their degree and bluff their way through life…
The best and brightest Mongolian children attend Ulaanbaatar’s foreign-language schools – Russian, English, German, and Japanese - if their parents can afford it. These kids get a Western-style education, and quite a few of them eventually get scholarships to study abroad. Many of them will never come back, however - for obvious reasons -, and the brain drain will only prolong the poverty and misery which is everywhere apparent.
I know quite a few ex-pat Mongolians are reading this, and I hope my assessment is not too harsh or worse, insulting. I like to think my views have some validity; I have, after all, lived in the Soviet Union, and taught in East Asia for over four years. Yet I think most will agree with me; they wouldn’t be living/studying in any number of Western countries if they didn’t. If any of you have a different opinion, or would like to add to mine, please write me, and I’ll include it here, in our diary, and in my Mongolian Education section, too.
BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMME: All right, so after whinging for sixty minutes, Mary and I finally got into the studio to record our dialogues. To my surprise, it wasn’t a small sound-proof booth like the ones I was used to in Taejon and Seoul, but a large room filled with guitars, synths, and a drum kit! We had to sit on stools, put on a set of headphones, and speak into a mike two feet in front of us, as though we were singers.
Everything was going smoothly until a band next door started recording a real song. The bass was completely messing up our tape, so we had to stop for 45 minutes. Mary and I practiced the upcoming dialogues and horsed around; but by the time we finished at 9:30, my jocularity had vanished, replaced by a very real fear that the door to my apartment would be locked, and that my senile neighbour would refuse me entrance yet again.
But you know what? I played it smart this time ‘round. Before leaving for work this morning, I wrote up a little note in both Russian and Mongolian, saying that I would be coming home very late, and taped it onto the old man’s door, hoping his daughter would see it and tell him what to do. It worked! After a twelve-hour day, and with another ten-hour stretch about to begin at 6 a.m., I was in no mood to spend the night in the dezhurnaya’s grimy cubby hole.
MONGOLIA'S CYBER-REALITY: Here's an article which I found extremely interesting. I hope you think so, too. It appeared in the Mongol Messenger.
Information Superhighway Spans the Steppe
IN 1234, the Mongol Empire set up the world’s most sophisticated postal system. The Urtuu Alba post could take a letter from Karakorum to the Caspian in one week. Those days are gone, but now Mongolia is enjoying a second information boom. The World Wide Web has taken over where the Urtuu Alba left off, bringing information to one of the most remote corners of the earth. The heart and soul of this revolution is the myriad of internet cafés that have sprung up across Ulaanbaatar.
The cafés, which cost about T1000 an hour, make the net affordable for average Mongolians. [Our note: Not really.] A personal subscription to one of the three service providers would cost $50 a month [Our note: Very expensive.].
One of the pioneers in this business was the Epsilon Café, located on the Little Ring Road. On a Thursday afternoon, the place is packed with young people patiently waiting their turn at one of twelve terminals.
A deaf man is researching scholarship opportunities at American universities. A student is looking up information for a report on how to organise a business conference. Three others are getting market statistics for their studies on Asian economics.
"Our teachers advise us to use the internet rather than the library,” said Altantuya while scrolling down the International Monetary Fund web page. “All the newest information is right here."
Students are also getting involved with extra-curricular web surfing. Of Mongolia’s 230 web sites, the most popular is chat.Mongol.net, which serves as the new mouthpiece for young people.
”The chat room is a good way for young people to express their feelings. We talk about all sorts of things: music, basketball, school, and girls,” said 15-year-old Tsogoo.
Sh. Bayarsaikhan, the manager at Epsilon, said it’s not just students who are surfing. “We get all kinds of customers. Business people are making deals, some people come to get news, and everyone is e-mailing. This kind of communication is a lot cheaper than the telephone,” he said.
Bayarsaikhan said he has not been surfing the web to get ideas for starting his own business. “I’ve been studying the net and I think I want to get involved with recycling or maybe cardboard box production. Opportunities that are not yet in Mongolia,” he said.
Margreet can Doodewaard, a technology consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has a deeper outlook.
”The internet can support democratic governance. Already, there are centres that provide information on government activities. Anyone can research developments in other countries. This allows Mongolians to make well-informed choices with regards to their own government. This is the ultimate free press.”
For those who have not quite gotten the hang of it, aid agencies have been hosting web courses, and universities are offering internet and computer classes as part of their curriculum. A local radio station even broadcasts an Internet Hour, for listeners to call up and ask questions about the web.
The IT revolution is quickly expanding out of the capital. Over the past twelve months, several remote aimags have been wired with a handful of computers (there are just 5.3 PCs per 1000 people). Several centres were donated by the UNDP and the Soros Foundation, putting thousands of previously out-of-touch people in contact with the outside world.
Some have gotten the hang of it. In far-flung Bayan-Olgii, students e-mail their peers at sister schools in Turkey. Kazak, Russian, and Chinese traders check the market prices for cashmere and sheepskin.
Atai, the head of the National Park Office in Bayan-Olgii, says he uses the internet to contact potential tourists in North America and Europe. “It’s a great tool. The internet gives remote places like Olgii the chance to make itself known. It’s going to be the key to our success in tourism.”
But for others, the internet is more a novelty than a tool. One Western teacher in Olgii noticed how young people go to the internet café just to sign up for e-mail accounts.
”It’s all they know how to do,” the teacher said. “They sign up for as many accounts as they can, then spend hours on the computer to check their junk mail.”
T. Altansukh, the webmaster at the UNDP in Ulaanbaatar, thinks the naivete will quickly fade. He predicts that Mongolia’s large territory and crumbling infrastructure make it ripe for a giant leap into the cyber-world. Hinting at this forecast is the newly launched e-learning programme, which will provide distance education to children cut off from big city school.
”Distance education is just the start. In less than ten years, nomads will have internet access from their gers. They will be able to receive information on market prices and weather conditions,” said Altansukh. “The web is perfect for Mongolia, because it can by-pass old technology like landlines. Now, it’s just a matter of money and education.”
FOR THE MONGOLIAN READERS: I forgot to mention that at the studio, Wednesday, I ran into the lead singer of El Condor, a famous Mongolian pop group. The man was HUGE, with a long braid that made him look like a Cree from somewhere up near Yellowknife. I asked whether he was also a wrestler, and our Mongolian guide answered no. Pity…
EVALUATION DAY: I spent the entire day observing Onol teachers, and came to the conclusion that with one, maybe two possible exceptions, I’m better qualified to teach Russian than my colleagues are to teach English. It’s hard to be hard on them for their lack of proficiency or knowledge of English, though, given the country’s economic conditions, which are at the root of nearly every social and educational problem in Mongolia. Here are a few general observations:
Class is totally teacher-centred, with almost no participation from the students.
Teachers spend most of their time sitting at their desk, invisible and inaudible to all but those students sitting in the front of the class.
Teachers prefer to dictate than possibly ruining their clothes by using the terrible Mongolian chalk, a situation which leads to students misunderstanding and misspelling a lot of words.
Teachers refuse to make photocopies for the students, whence the need to misspend untold hours dictating. I think it’s a combination of three factors: lack of expensive paper; lack of available textbooks upon which to draw material; and laziness.
The teachers are all recent graduates, many of them with no pedagogical experience whatsoever.
The best teachers invariably fly the coop to take up better-paying jobs with NGOs, leaving inexperienced and unqualified personnel in their wake.
Some teachers prepare their classes just a few minutes before it’s due to begin. If insufficiently prepared, they just ‘wing it’.
They (and I) have given up on giving students homework, which they absolutely refuse to do. Thus, many more hours are wasted in silence, as we wait for students to finish an assignment that Westerners would normally complete at home.
I have to write up some kind of report listing all my observations and criticisms by next week. I honestly don’t know what good it will do, since nearly all of these young women will not return next semester. I mean, the turnover rate is incredible…
BOJOUAL, LE HURON-QUÉBÉCOIS: I finally met Audrey Bernard, Kelli’s French-Canadian colleague at the Mongolian Technological University. She’s from Gaspésie, but she’s had a varied academic career in several countries, and is here in Mongolia doing research on… Education! She was supposed to be going to Ethiopia, but that fell through and her sponsor sent her here. She’s having a lot of trouble gathering data, since she speaks no Mongolian or Russian – the languages in which nearly all scholarly material is written and published. We had dinner at the Taj Mahal, and I spoke more French – three hours’ worth – tonight that I did in the last two years. My parole was uncomfortably wedged between Joual, the Québécois dialect, and Parisian French, since the only input I get in my mother tongue comes from TV5.
We didn’t leave until 8:30, and I was deathly afraid of being locked out again by my neighbour. Lucky for me that wasn’t the case... at least this time around!
NOTE: I became an uncle for the fourth time when Sun-hwa gave birth to her second child, a bouncing baby boy, to the great satisfaction of both her husband and her mother-in-law. The couple will probably stop at two, as Koreans, too, have adopted the latter-day Western notion of the ‘ideal’ one-boy-one-girl nuclear family. Sun-duk and I want three kids – the next two hopefully twins!
Yesterday’s class at the Russian high school was cancelled – of course. I asked one of the principal’s assistants to tell her I had come on time and waited almost half-an-hour, and that maybe she ought to call me on Fridays from now on to confirm our lessons. I took advantage of this ‘unexpected’ break to head on down to Soros and upload the dozens of articles I had copied from Mongolia’s English-language newspapers this February. (Click here to read them.)
This afternoon, I went to the countryside with Enkhbaatar and his two daughters, Anuu and Oyunjing. We went to a posh dacha district where Communist Party bigwigs used to hang out back in the good ol’ days. Enkhbaatar surprised me by saying that his father-in-law had been a minister back in the eighties, and that he and his family actually used to live there before the democratic revolution.
His daughters speak English pretty well, and they understand some Russian, too. Enkhbaatar offered to take me to see all of Ulaanbaatar’s major sights, including opera and theatre, if I just speak with his daughters in English. Well, that seemed like a pretty good deal to me, since they’re personable young ladies. Likewise, I get the opportunity to do the tourist thing with knowledgeable Mongolians and practice my Russian with Enkhbaatar.
At one point, we climbed up the side of a hill, just the two of us, and had a really interesting conversation – in Russian - on Mongolian politics and the country’s economy. As an accountant with very close ties to the former regime, he is still able to exercise a fair amount of influence on certain acquaintances within the government, such as the Minister of Finance. He possesses a healthy scepticism of both the ruling MPRP (the erstwhile communist party) and the recently ousted Democrats, and defines politics as “the art of making the right decision at the right time.” He’s an intelligent man who spent nine years in Moscow and has travelled extensively across the world, as far as New York City.
Thirteen-year-old Anuu and her older sister, 19-year-old Oyunjing, have also been to a few countries in their young day, including… North Korea. They stayed there for a month as exchange students, and visited quite a few famous spots outside Pyongyang, Kumgang (Diamond) Mountain among them. (Kumgang is where South Koreans are able to visit the Hermit Kingdom for $5000 a pop, a weekend cruise under the strict vigilance of fifty big brothers guarding against foreign contamination.) They confirmed what I’d read several times in the past: everyone must wear Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il pins on their shirts; tourists must pay their respects to a Kim Il-sung statue at the beginning of their trip, and remain under constant supervision until they leave; there are three currencies – one for ordinary people, another for party members, and a third for foreigners -, all bearing the beautiful likeness of the Great Leader; streets are barren of cars, save for the odd communist limousine and Russian tank; the country’s clean as a whistle, tended to by ‘volunteer’ garbage pickers; and North Koreans are all very thin, a fact doubtless attributable to the conditions of famine of the past few years.
Although most of the snow and ice have melted in the city, the countryside, dominated by tall, forested hills and sheltered valleys on gently sloping plateaux, still bear all the tell-tale marks of winter. It was quite a bit chillier than I’d expected, although the weather was, as always, beautifully sunny and relatively breeze-free, enticing several dozen day trippers other than ourselves to drive up for a picnic. It was a lovely two hours, as everyone will see once I get my photographs developed and scanned.
Next Saturday afternoon, Oyunjing and Anuu will probably take me to see the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s most important religious centre, a beautiful Buddhist temple built in the Tibetan tradition.
TOO SAD: I was checking my e-mail at Soros yesterday, reading Sun-duk’s letter first, as usual. It was heartbreaking. She told me how she went to an internet café and read the diary from the beginning of the month. The sadness expressed above was so palpable that tears began to stream down her face and would not stop for many minutes more. Reading her words made me equally despondent; and when she called me last night, we were both so relieved to hear each other’s voices. We mostly talked about the baby (kicking like a mule, and still seemingly intent on putting mommy through a caesarian), then attempted to convince ourselves that time would fly by and we would soon be reunited as one big happy family. Well, let’s hope so, eh?..
I hurried over to the Soros office for the high-school interviews, then learned from Kelli, another volunteer, that my name wasn’t among the three on the list she had been shown. I was understandably confused, and fifteen minutes later, Oyunaa, the head of this programme which sends students to study abroad for free, informed me that she had decided not to include me in the selection process since I would not have been able to talk with all the candidates. Fair explanation, and excellent grounds for my ‘dismissal’, but no one had bothered to tell me in the two weeks since I had accepted to help out.
I got a call late in the evening from the recording company guy who’d hired Mary and me to read dialogues for the new Soros English-language textbooks; apparently, we forgot to read a dialogue – a single one -, which we’ll have to go and do at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon.
P.S.: Khanda’s sponsor delayed her trip to Turkey yet again. She was supposed to leave this week.
SIGH… I miss having Sun-duk sit on my lap as we both laid our hands on her belly, feeling the baby move around… I miss walking up behind her in the kitchen, as she stood at the counter preparing food, wrapping my arms around her pregnant waist and nestling my chin in the crook of her neck, whispering sweet nothings in her ear… I miss the hugs and the laughter… I spend most of my non-working hours thinking about her, us, the family-in-waiting, the great happiness we’re bound to share for the decades to come…
It took two hours, but that final thirty-second dialogue was in the can! Mary’s 19-year-old niece, Elizabeth, a recent high-school graduate who’s decided to take a year off before pursuing her academic career in the ivory-towered world of higher education, accompanied us and even lent her voice to the dialogue, which, unusually, boasted a cast of three. We had a lot of fun just sitting around and shooting the breeze while we waited, though, the highlight being our warbled rendition of the Dick Van Dyke show’s theme song!
(A funny story: Mary, whose birthday is the same as Dick Van Dyke’s, once met her hero in a bookstore, just a week or so before they both turned a year older. Star-struck and bug-eyed, she approached him and wished happy birthday; he, dumbstruck, thanked her and asked whether they were acquainted!)
TROIS COULEURS: Perhaps the three best movies of the 1990s, Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s brilliantly poetic, philosophical trilogy on the notions of Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité, aired on TV5 on three successive nights – no commercial breaks, naturally. The next night offered a French documentary on Kieslowski shot in Cannes the summer Rouge was released (it won La Palme d’Or), featuring in-depth interviews with the Master himself and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irène Jacob’s co-star. Trintignant was both humble and illuminating, comparing Kieslowski’s work to Rimbaud – subtle, and sublime, beauty enhanced by an air of mystery which European sensibility considers essential to true art. Trintignant talked of how Kieslowski would ask him to turn his head a certain way, or quicken his speech just a bit, for nuanced effects which left actors bewildered. When the reporter asked him what was meant by the scene near the end when his character asks to see Irène Jacob’s ferry ticket to England, Trintignant replied he didn’t know, and that moreover he didn’t want to know. As a one-time literature major who has written dozens of critical essays over the years, I wholeheartedly agree with the opinion that the unknown – that which is hinted at in the most oblique of manners, and open to as many interpretations as there are participants - is much more interesting than the obvious. In all of his oeuvre, Kieslowski, does, in fact, not only make use of symbols and metaphors to suggest a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, but silences, too, in a way that really hadn’t been seen since the late ‘20s, in such silent classics as Sunrise, Pandora’s Box, and The Last Laugh.
The documentary ended with Kieslowski announcing his retirement from movie-making to a stunned crowd of reporters and cinema people, stating that he had become frustrated at trying, and always failing, to portray the psychological complexities of his characters within the very visual – ergo, narrow – confines of film. His ambition had always been to bring the novel’s full range of emotions and introspective musings to the screen, but he felt that in the end, and in hindsight, it was an exercise doomed to failure. I remember well reading this interview in the Globe & Mail, and felt with deep sadness that the world of cinema had nonetheless its great, most experimental, contemporary artist.
A few months later, Krzysztof Kieslowski passed away, a victim of cancer brought on by years of relentless smoking. We lost a genius on that day, and are much the poorer for his absence.
I had to cancel this morning’s classes: Monique called and asked me to help her out on that top-secret mission I mentioned two weeks ago. I had enough time to go to school and give my 4A kids some homework; then I found Narantuya, the teacher rep, and told her that the UN were in urgent need of my services in a matter significantly more important than the simulated education of lazy, indifferent cancres.
Unfortunately, I was nowhere near as efficient as last week; I quite embarrassed myself, truth be told. I know there were mitigating factors involved, but I should have been able to stay on top of the situation and acquitted myself in a matter befitting someone of my talents. Well, no permanent damage was done, and Monique (who’s just nine days older than I am, by the way) has been around long enough to know that no one can avoid tripping up now and again.
In fact, both she and Douglas encouraged me to persevere in my efforts to work for the United Nations, even though they, and many others here as well, have assured me that it’s not that great a place to work for. “Good career move,” they say, “Wonderful stepping stone, but nowhere near as fulfilling, exciting or prestigious as outsiders imagine it to be” - words that reminded me of what I’ve heard and read about the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. In any case, the United Nations do need generalists such as myself, but it can take years before they give you a call – Douglas waited almost five years.
All this talk – and with the additional “Go for it!” from Hein-Peter, a Dutch national who had lunch with us at a French restaurant owned by un propriétaire très sympathique - has renewed my resolve to complete and hand in my application form before leaving Mongolia. Who knows, eh? Especially if I make an effort to improve my Russian and Korean language skills, and maybe take some extra courses in poli-sci or something of that order while we’re in Canada for the next couple of years…
YAY !!! Sun-duk called tonight – at 12:30! She and Hye-young had spent the day in Kwangju. Hye-young had some business there, and Sun-duk took the opportunity to visit an old English teacher she hadn’t seen in four or five years. By chance, his office had a top-notch scanner, so she scanned last June’s wedding pictures and later sent me the files.
And so, here at last, are probably the most interesting wedding pictures on this site, in high-quality, colour format. All you gotta do is click on the Photos button in the frame on your left and then once more on the Wedding III link… Or you can be lazy and click here!
I’m writing this one entry with hindsight, since there’s no other way for me to do it. This homepage was declared dead and buried without any warning whatsoever, except to leave me with a big guilt complex by suggesting that I had committed some great crime on the order of intellectual theft. I had originally suspected one of my oft-quoted sources to have denounced me to Tripod, but six days later, on Thursday, March 22, I was informed that Peregrinations had been taken off-line by mistake. I had sent written them a desperate letter, pleading with them to give me a chance to take out whatever it was that bothered them about our page, hoping for a glimmer of sympathy and clemency…
The entries from March 17 to March 22 will thus read as though we were convinced we had lost hundreds of hours of labour… Enjoy!
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU… Enkhbaatar, Oyunjing, and Anuu took me to Gandan Monastery and the Bogd Khaan Winter Palace Museum, this afternoon.
Gandan is the first Tibetan temple I’ve ever visited. It’s rather dilapidated, as far as structures go, but the inside is rather nice. The walls are lined with hundreds of glass shelves containing thousands of golden Buddhist statuettes that represent different gods. People lay down small bills of five to one thousand tugriks as offerings and pray to their favourite deity. From the ceiling’s rafters hang dozens of rainbow-coloured hadags, those sacred silk cloths that are an essential part of Lamaism. And in the centre stood a gigantic statue of Buddha, about sixty feet (twenty metres) tall, surrounded by a dozen or so prayer wheels which the faithful gave a spin as they walked about.
I was not allowed to take any pictures inside the temple, and our next stop, the Bogd Khaan Winter Palace Museum, asked for 5000 tugriks, or US$5, per snapshot! As it turned out, I managed to take quite a few pics for free in one of the pavilions.
There were very few visitors – only us, in fact, for most of the time -, and our guide simply unlocked the various outdoor pavilions and let us roam about. She obviously didn’t pay close attention to where we were, because before we knew it, Oyunjing, Anuu, and I had been locked into the main pavilion!!! For five minutes, we pounded the at the door, screaming as loud as we could. When that didn’t work, we tried unlocking one of the doors or windows and effect an escape from there. Unfortunately, the guide did her homework as far as openings were concerned…
Finally, I suggested to Oyunjing that she call her father, who had decided to stay at home with his girlfriend after our visit to Gandan. He wasn’t able to reach the museum by telephone, so he had to come fetch us personally. We were stuck in there for almost 45 minutes, in freezing temperatures!
The four of us spent the next hour in the late Bogd Khaan’s residence, where most of the rooms and furnishings have been preserved for posterity. It wasn’t much different from the other museums in UB, although some of the artwork was impressive. Let’s just call it another feather in my cap…
I spent the whole day yesterday correcting and grading about 75 compositions. People think I’m crazy, but it would be professionally unconscionable – dare I say criminally negligent? – to let future EFL teachers and translators get away with even the slightest mistake. It’s true that half of them couldn’t care less and refuse to even glance at my corrections, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that the other half has the temerity to stare down their errors and learn from them. For my 4A class – a group of kids of whom I’m growing fond -, I even go so far as to rewrite their compositions, so they can compare and learn stylistics, as well as grammar. They really like that! After the shock of seeing four or five times more red ink on their work than their Mongolian teachers normally use, the students begin to appreciate the effort I put into trying to improve their skills. The same goes for my methodology class, but not, alas, British Literature…
In the future, I hope to have time to write down the syllabuses of each class I’ve taught in Mongolia. Who knows? It might be of use to someone teaching here one day.
WOE IS US… Sun-duk called at midnight, crying and breaking my heart. Her trip to the hospital in Mokpo did not go well at all. The doctor – out of lust for money, limited hospital bed space, or both – scheduled a caesarian for April 3, because the baby is still sitting in the breech position. She’s never had surgery before, and is worried about the financial ramifications: the procedure would cost C$2400, instead of $600 for a natural birth with no complications. In the West, doctors wait well beyond the onset of labour to make the decision whether to cut open or not; but Korean obstetricians, for the reasons mentioned above (on several occasions), perform caesarians at the first hint of trouble – which means that 50% of all births in South Korea are by caesarian. Sun-duk now wishes she had gone to my parents’ in Canada; the doctors would have given her every chance to deliver naturally, and the hospital bill would probably be smaller, too.
Before hanging up (still sniffling), Sun-duk made a promise to herself that she would insist on waiting for labour to begin before acquiescing to a caesarian, if need be. However, who’s to say the doctors won’t then simply lie to her and tell her there’s a problem, even if there is none? The Korean MDs have learned the lesson of greed well from their American counterparts, with the not-insignificant bonus of having to suffer almost no malpractice suits at all…
Apart from the monthly one-hour SPELT meeting with John, Kelli, and Buman, I spent the entire afternoon at the Soros office re-uploading photographs and graphics into a new website account – the very one you’re in now. It’s a long, drawn-out process, and I hope to recreate most of our homepage before the baby is born, so I can announce the birth here as soon as it happens.
NOTES: I’ll probably move to safer digs Saturday, March 31. Chingeltei District, in the downtown area, is my most likely destination.
John told me that SPELT Fellows are free to go as soon as their contract with their host school expires. I think that’s May 10 for me, so I might be able to return to Korea just five weeks after J-N's birth. (Oops! Have I let the cat out of the bag?)
Having read the message board at Dave Sperling’s ESL Café, as well as articles from the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe & Mail, I’ve become convinced that I’ll never find a decent job in Canada this summer, and am already planning on returning to Asia – Korea, Japan, Thailand, or Taiwan – by late August… February, if I’m lucky.
Related to the above paragraph is my new-found interest in CNNfn, which has, you may remember, replaced CNN in the mornings and evenings. Watching how low the Dow Jones and Nasdaq indices will fall from day to day has become a grisly sport in itself. The entire global economy is going to pot, and Canada has no room or appetite for highly intelligent, cultured, well-rounded, experienced polymaths such as myself unless we’ve specialised in some techno-management niche and are willing to settle for minimum wage… It’s so-o-o-o-o depressing…
Khanda had me proofread the draft of a prospectus for Onol; it was filled with lies and inaccuracies which I won’t bother repeating here. Then I was forced to interrupt a class and undergo another modeling session! A couple of photographers hired by the school wanted photographs of me pretending to teach my 4B/C class, and, in another setting, giving a methodology class to the other English instructors – the very same people who refuse to ask me for any advice, who did not attend a single one of my methodology seminars, who never come to talk to me, and who pass on mistake after mistake to their lazy, gullible charges. What a laugh…
Short, brief, and to the point: OUR HOME PAGE IS BACK !!!
SPELT POPULARITY SOARS: In spite of Kelli’s and John’s near-constant putdowns of MFOS and the SPELT Programme, there does not appear to be any shortage of takers for next year. As I’ve mentioned before, Paul Laws has his heart set on joining OSI, with the hope of filling John’s position as teacher trainer. Kelli is staying on, but purely for doctoral research purposes; Audrey wants to be a Fellow here in Ulaanbaatar, though she has said that she is willing to relocate; and Cathy, who, after 18 months in Mongolia, has returned to Korea; might pull a midnight run this summer if she can land a job with SPELT. Who knows how many more candidates have voiced their desire – or at least readiness – to teach in Mongolia? I think with the slumping world economy, people are looking twice at the salary offered – US$9000 base, cash, plus US$4000 in travel allowance, local wages, and rent- and utility-free housing – all for nine or ten months’ work. It’s a heck of a lot more than what any EFL instructor makes in South Korea – illegal private lessons notwithstanding, of course.
A slap in the face, that’s what it was! The temperature yesterday went all the way up to ten degrees Celsius; but during the night, an inch of snow was dumped on Ulaanbaatar, and stiff winds cooled the air to –20 degrees. I took a chance anyway, and resolved to go through the day without my gloves or boots, keeping instead my comfortable loafers – a decision I would later come to regret.
At the Soros office, Buman made me spend an hour with a couple of fifteen-year-olds who wanted some speaking practice for tomorrow’s English Olympics; if they receive good enough scores, they’ll move on to the national championships. One of the boys spoke English very well (he had even lived a year in Munich), but was much too opinionated: loves Stone Cold Steve Austin, the WWF and Texas, loathes Chinese, Brits and Canadians. When I told him I was French-Canadian, he looked at me like I’d just farted. Little punk…
I was supposed to give a short one-hour lecture this afternoon at a high school near Onol - one of my colleagues works there, and she wanted the kids to meet their first native English-speaker (!) -, but everyone at Soros told me that it was located deep in the First Microdistrict, a notoriously dangerous neighbourhood, especially for foreigners.
I decided then to take the bus to the correct stop, near the Titanic Bar pedestrian bridge, and wait for Burentor to call me on my cell phone, thus reducing the risks to life and limb. I stood outside in the freezing cold for forty minutes before I finally packed it in and went back to Soros. My finger and toes had gone absolutely numb without the protection of my torn, raggedy black gloves and holey thin-soled Chinese boots.
Paul came to find me at my usual late Friday afternoon hangout, the small conference room across from the main office. It seems that he had a very good telephone interview with Laurie on Tuesday (he’d been worried about that, because his phone had been on the fritz for the last little while), and, in fact, had some very definite questions in mind for me.
You see, Paul’s situation at the Mongolian Technological University is even worse than mine: all of his students are majoring in some technical field and forced to take English. That means they’re about as lazy and unmotivated as one can possibly imagine, and Paul has just reached the end of his rope. He’s been finding some consolation in teacher training assignments at Soros and elsewhere, and has his heart set on John’s position – but is willing to take my place at Onol if he can teach methodology and literature.
And so I gave him the general lay of the land, especially as it pertained to next year’s seniors, and advised him to read this diary for a blow-by-blow account of life at Onol – “all the peaks and troughs,” I think were my words. If he does decide to replace me, I’ll write him a small report on each student and hand over all the material I’ve used, as well as suggestions for next year. (Indirect speech, the perfect progressive tenses, short-essay writing, and critical thinking top my personal to-do list.)
WHAT THE GUEST BOOK IS FOR: Some people – all female, oddly enough – have written some disparaging remarks in our guest book, which I’ve taken upon myself to delete right away. I know that on the portal page, we invite visitors to sign in and tell us what they think of our site, but it’s only common courtesy to leave friendly messages in a Guest book, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, a guest should not insult her hosts in front of other guests. If I invited myself to your parents’ golden anniversary celebration, then proclaimed in a very loud voice that I thought your party stunk and started criticising your loved ones willy-nilly, you wouldn’t be very happy, now, would you?
That’s why I’m telling the whingy and churlish - right here, right now - that if you have a bone to pick with either one of us, write to Sun-duk or me personally, or leave a message on the Korean-Canadian Couples discussion board – that’s what it’s there for. We don’t mind constructive criticism, but we will not let ourselves be the victims of verbal abuse and groundless insinuations within the confines of the guest book. This is a family site, after all, and the object of the Korean-Canadian Couples section is to join forces, share stories and experiences, and help each other out – not to bicker over petty differences of opinion in a tone beneath the dignity of any self-respecting adult.
A call from Sun-duk last night, saying everything’s all right now. She’s no longer worried about the probable c-section, and will happily undergo surgery if it’s in the baby’s best interests. She was actually more upset over the prospect of our losing this website! Sun-duk seldom gets angry, and even when she does, she doesn’t raise her voice or anything; she simply emits a palpable feeling of great annoyance punctuated by a few clicks of the tongue.
In one of the dozen e-mails I sent her this past week, I explained that after an initial feeling of injustice, I had come to terms with losing months of hard labour and starting anew. This page, after all, had always been her idea; and to be honest, it’s taken away a lot of my time that I would have preferred spending with her or in language study. However, I have learned a great deal about programming, and it enabled my family and friends to keep in touch with us and experience life in Mongolia in a vivid, albeit vicarious, manner. I don’t know how faithful I’ll be to the diary once we’re parents in Canada, other than uploading tons of baby pictures and writing the odd entry on the ups and downs of being a multicultural family. If we find that our ‘audience’ is very small, then that’s all we’ll do. If, however, our homepage, and the Korean-Canadian Couples Page currently under development, become focal points for many people in our situation, then we will make an effort to continue the detailed work already begun.
NOTES: Chinese television is showing a miniseries on Mao’s pre-1949 life, focusing, naturally, on the Long March. Did I say miniseries? I meant televisual hagiography… You don’t need to speak the language to see how good – no, perfect – the man was. The actor portraying Mao didn’t really look like him, in spite of the state-of-the-art (for 1980) wig and wart. The guy playing Zhou En Lai, on the other hand, was the spitting image of Big Guy’s main acolyte. Anyway, the overall effect was incredibly cheesy. The Italians and Spaniards aren’t the only ones to practice hokum on TV…
SOCCER: If you’ve read my Mongolian news section for February, then you know that Mongolia was squashed by its opponents in its World Cup 2002 qualifiers. Mongolian recently television broadcast each of the six games, two to three weeks after the sad events had occurred. They lost six-nil to the Saudis in their most lopsided match. I wonder how they would have fared against the French, who today pasted the Japanese 5-0…
P.S.: Despite our winning the North- and Central-American championship last year, Canada was eliminated from further World Cup qualifiers by the likes of Costa Rica and Jamaica. I think we’re ranked 67th by FIFA…
MOVING BLUES: Buman’s having trouble finding me a new apartment. The problem’s that I can’t go with her to inspect the places – landlords would double or triple the rent as soon as they saw me. Last week, I nixed Buman’s plan to move me into a building located beyond Bayangol Hotel, where fields and vacant lots abound, ideal for mugging or killing. I told her downtown, crowded, lighted, safe. Nothing less will do. I hope it gets done by the end of the week; otherwise, I’ll be stuck out in the suburbs for the rest of my time here. This weekend, I again had strangers banging on my door and ringing the blazes out of my bell. One trick these burglars/assassins have is to feign distress in order to get you to let them in; I simply pretend I’m not home.
My 4A students told me this was our last week of lessons, making a mess of my syllabus. This means that the four remaining methodology projects must be presented this week, ending my literature class at English Romanticism – and I didn’t even get the chance to discuss Austen, Dickens, or the Brontës, much less twentieth-century authors like Huxley and Orwell.
So the seniors have had their exams moved up a week… I wonder if it’s the same for the juniors? I’m fantasising that this might be the end of the line for them, too… Oh, that would be too sweet!!
I met a Mongolian opera singer at the Soros office, this afternoon. He was accompanied by a Belorussian ‘representative’ who presented his case for financial support. At first, they were both surprised that I could speak Russian, but when Sukhbaatar, the opera singer, found out I was French-Canadian, he spent half-an-hour talking to me in French! Very affable middle-aged man, who has sung and performed in Mongolian, Russian, Italian, French, German, Korean, and Japanese operas. Right now, he’s trying to get Soros to sponsor Pagliacci. He gave me his business card (he used the old-fashioned term carte de visite!) and even invited me to his house one day to listen to his opera records!
John and I were working at our computers when quite suddenly we were surrounded by a dozen middle-school-aged children peering over our shoulders in a most indiscreet manner. MFOS is doing a lot of grass-roots work with children, and they often come to the office to participate in special events; however, the novelty of seeing foreigners working at modern computers with internet connections proved irresistible for them, and disruptive for John and me. We shooed them away after five minutes of non-stop giggling.
NOTES: I received a call from Borma, Sun-duk’s best friend here in Mongolia, this weekend. She’s been too busy to write, so she called me for some news. It’s so weird talking with her on the phone, though; we speak in snippets of Korean, English, Russian, and Mongolian! I told her I would visit FHI/M when classes finished.
Paul’s invited John, John’s girlfriend, Kelli, Audrey, and me to a small dinner party at his house this Sunday evening. Apparently, Paul’s apartment is near where I quite likely will be staying as of Saturday. (By the way, Buman is taking me to visit a couple of apartments tomorrow afternoon. Cross your fingers!)
TWO THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO "HOLY S***!!" One: the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the two giant, 1500-year-old Buddhas; an act beyond the pale. Two: Tiger Woods’ incredible putt that helped him win the Players’ Championship. Double-break, snaky-snaky, oh-so-slowly, bang-in… credible!
SAY IT AIN’T SO: One of CNN World Sport’s anchormen believing that Wang Zhi Zhi’s surname is Zhi Zhi!!! (Wang is the 214-centimetre-tall Chinese basketball player who will debut with the Dallas Mavericks next week – the first-ever Asian to make it to the NBA.)
HARD TIMES: BBC World has presented two more slightly out-of-date reports on Mongolia, this week. One focused on a widow in Ulaanbaatar, trying to make a living on a US$16 monthly pension. The reporter painted a rather bleak picture, citing 33% unemployment (not according to official Mongolian sources, though) and half the population living below the poverty line. Viewers were shown the factory and ger districts, circa October 2000, in all their coal-grey ‘glory’.
The second report was shot maybe a couple of months back, during the worst part of the zud. Our intrepid television man visited a nomadic herdsman’s family out in the middle of nowhere, whose livestock numbers dwindled from 160 to only ten. They were on the brink of starvation, with only some old frozen cheese to sustain them until aid arrived. In the area where they had resettled, animals were actually able to forage through the snow and ice; however because of last summer’s drought, the steppe yielded not tough little tussocks of cold, cold grass, but hard, inedible dust. Elsewhere in the country, animals have trouble breaking through thick layers of ice and damage their hooves until they bleed.
MONGOLIAN LINE DANCING? As I’ve pointed out before, the snow in UB has melted, leaving nothing but bare ground everywhere. Whenever the wind picks up, great clouds of dust come pelt you in the face. You can actually see these clouds form and then take off from a distance, almost like miniature tornadoes. And so, as pedestrians walk along the sidewalks, they all do a nifty half-twist the moment a cloud comes whirling by, then just as neatly turn back forward when the air is clear. It’s a funny sight, especially when you’re walking behind a dozen or so people: the movements are all seemingly synchronised, everyone in lockstep, as though we were playing a command performance for fickle Mother Nature!
THE MOTHER OF ALL DEPARTMENT STORES: I was watching Radio-Canada news on TV5 when well-known reporter Maxence Bilodeau, presented what is surely the suburban wave of the future: department stores with daycare centres for kids, dads, and hubbies!
A department store in Markham hired a ‘marketing anthropologist’ (I swear, that’s the word the guy used to describe himself) who demonstrated, through choice videotape excerpts, how restless children and bored husbands can impede women’s spending power. (Scenes showed a child dragging his mother out of a clothing store, while one middle-aged husband boiled in frustration as his wife tried to find that perfect panty.) In order to get these shop-happy moms and wives to part with just a bit more of their money, the department store manager built a supervised indoor playground for kids, and a combination coffee shop/reading room/massage parlour for husbands. For C$150 a year per family, children get to frolic in mountains of games and toys, while the men get all the free coffee, magazines, and neck massages they could possibly desire!
Mark my words: this stroke of genius will sweep North America – and I’ll be first in line with my $150!!! ;-D
ARE WE BORING OUR CONSTITUENTS? This page, and this diary in particular, is having to cater to a variety of interests: Mongolian, Korean-Canadian, and parental are among the most prominent. Right now, it’s probable that those interested in the Korean-Canadian equation feel a little left out; what with Sun-duk and I having to live in two separate countries this spring, I’ve been concentrating on my work to keep away the blues.
Fret not, though, fair followers! The baby will very soon be with us, and the three of us reunited. Then, we will attempt to describe the wonderful world of Korean-Canadian families as it has never been described on the internet before! Lots and lots of pictures and details galore, we promise!!
PIRATES IN MONGOLIA: … Video, that is. Bootleggers. UBS shows movies all day long every Sunday, and most of them are worn, illegal copies that had originally been smuggled out of the Hollywood studios prior to the movie’s original release in America. Last weekend, we were treated to The Green Mile with Tom Hanks, and every fifteen minutes or so, a block-letter message appeared at the bottom of the screen: “If you have bought or rented this videotape, please call 1-800-NO-COPYS.” How do these tapes make their way to Mongolia, I wonder? And in under a year!
Sun-duk called at midnight, as she had promised to, following today’s check-up. She did two things before seeing her regular obstetrician, however.
First, she went to see a Buddhist fortune-teller, something she does before every important event in her life. (She’s done this twice before since I’ve known her: once, to find out if we would make as great a couple as she expected; and again shortly before our marriage. The results were mixed: the first man predicted everlasting happiness, the second foresaw her doom if she joined her fate to mine.) She asked to know the most propitious days for the birth of our child, and the third and fourth of April were deemed very worthy, indeed. The eighth was considered ill-omened; the fifteenth, not bad. The best time of day: between three and five o’clock in the afternoon. Well, this made Sun-duk happy, as the doctor had chosen the third for a caesarian section as early as two weeks ago.
Still wary of possibly needless surgery, she then moseyed on down to the Catholic Hospital for a second opinion - apparently, the doctors there are much more altruistic and prepared to do everything in their power to prevent c-sections. In this case, she received a confirmation of the first diagnosis: considering the baby’s size and breech position, mother and child’s best interests would be served by a caesarian a week before the due date.
With both the spiritual and temporal worlds seemingly conspiring against her, Sun-duk resigned herself once and for all to the fact that a natural childbirth was not in the cards this time around. She has lost all feelings of resentment and anxiety, and quietly accepted nature’s verdict. I must say that her equanimity far surpasses mine.
Sun-duk had another reason to be chirpy: she bought herself an insurance policy that will save us over C$500. Hey, every little bit helps when you’re as poor as Job…
I spent the afternoon at Soros, but in near-total idleness, I must confess; I was simply waiting for Buman to take me on a tour of several apartments. She was overwhelmed by last-minute emergencies, though, and we had to cancel. Tomorrow, six o’clock, definitely.
FAME! The CD recordings I did for Soros earlier in the month came in, freshly pressed and ready to teach high-school kids proper English pronunciation. I didn’t want to listen to them because I hate my voice: there are still traces of French in it, not to mention a froggy croak (no pun intended) which will no doubt follow me to the grave. John liked it, though; so bless him, whether he was sugar-coating his opinion or not. It’s strange to think that my voice will be branded in the minds of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of schoolchildren as that of the definitive “American”.
Buman and I talked at length yesterday about Onol – do they deserve another SPELT Fellow next year or not? She’s not at all sure, and neither am I. Buman’s taken a lot of heat from my Bayangol landlord and the utility companies because the school was often up to a month late with rent and bills. These people call her at Soros in the mistaken belief that the Foundation was being delinquent, and continuously heap abuse on her. Buman is not one to gladly suffer fools, so Khanda got a frank talking-to, last week.
Another concern was my working ten times harder than my unappreciative students – or as I call them, “The Lumps”. With the sole exception of my 4A group, all the other sections are unmitigated disasters. (Well, in their defence, I must say that there are several individual exceptions.) I haven’t experienced this sort of apathy since my first semester in Taejon, over four years ago.
I made it clear to Buman that if a SPELT Fellow were sent to Onol, it would have to be in the capacity of, principally, a teacher of methodology, literature, writing, and grammar. Having another Ian Vincent aboard - someone who refuses to teach anything but conversation - would be a gargantuan waste of time and resources, both in terms of results (virtually nil) and potential. SPELT’s mission, after all, is to train teachers and teacher trainers.
However, with this proviso firmly established, I cannot in good faith recommend Onol in light of next year’s 4A class. There is a core of just four or five students that regularly attends my lessons (I always attract fewer than ten altogether), and only one girl for whom I hold out hope. They are, without a doubt, the laziest, most unresponsive “lumps” in the whole school, and, yes, believe it or not, they want to be teachers!!
I tried to improve their conversation skills, last semester, and all but two or three kept their mouths shut: “We need more grammar!” they whined. This semester, I’ve attempted to develop their non-existent writing skills: not one of them can compose a single, error-free English sentence, and they know absolutely nothing of organisation. I indicate their mistakes, rewrite each one of their pitiful compositions, give them constructive criticism, and all I get in return is, “We don’t want to write anymore! It’s boring!” They retain almost nothing, and represent everything that is wrong with the Mongolian education system today, with its emphasis on the “magic bullet” in lieu of hard work.
APARTMENT HUNTING: Buman shortlisted two places, and we didn’t bother visiting number two; the first one was fine. In fact, it’s twice as beautiful as the apartment Sun-duk and I lived in for seven months. It’s located just behind the UN buildings, in Sukhbaatar District. Lots of foreigners live in the area, including John. There was quibbling over the rent and utilities, and the woman renting it out wanted the two months’ rent by mid-April. Buman tried very hard to get her to change her mind about this, considering Onol’s poor record, but I would have none of this: I told her I would use my own money, which Onol could reimburse me at a later date - knock on wood. If I don’t move this weekend, I never will. Time is of the essence, and something I simply cannot spare this week.
I hope I’ve settled the issue once and for all, but who knows? This could still end very badly for me. No one really takes my concerns into account; it somehow becomes a contest between two proud Mongolian factions intent on winning at all costs.
One bright spot: Buman dropped me off at the State Department Store, whence I crossed the street to La Belle France and bought two cans of chilli and cassoulet (French franks ‘n’ beans). What better way to celebrate my move downtown by actually varying my diet?
The seniors’ exams are next week, but nobody – not me, not the students, not even the administration – has the schedule. I think Narantuya is supposed to draw it up, but she obviously hasn’t gotten around to doing it. The situation as it stands is completely ludicrous! It means I’ve got to come up with a dozen exams (I use alternate copies so students can’t cheat on one another) by Monday in case one just happens to be scheduled for Monday. It’s even worse for the students (at least for those who actually care), who don’t know what the heck they’re supposed to study this coming weekend. Aigo…
A lot of seniors are also asking me whether I’m to give some special preparatory classes in view of their state exams in May. I know I was supposed to help write a booklet with sample questions two weeks ago, but Khanda’s been dragging her feet again in providing me with material and copies of past exams. Has she promised them I would teach extra classes without my consent?
Still no word from the government people for whom I edited that EFL textbook… I told them I didn’t want any money, just a simple recommendation. I didn’t think getting a piece of paper rubber-stamped was such a hard thing to do…
HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL: I finally made it to Burentor’s high school, this evening. I arrived at the pedestrian bridge at five o’clock, then waited for her to call me. This done, she despatched two of her pupils to come fetch me, which they promptly did. They led me through a maze of streets and alleyways; I never would have found the school on my own.
There were about twenty kids, and for an hour, I held a Q & A. Some were genuinely pleased to see an enthusiastic and kinetic teacher at work – such a big contrast from their normal sourpuss educators -, but it was obvious that just as many were thinking to themselves, “Who the heck is this clown?” Be that as it may, I was presented with two small tokens of appreciation – miniatures of a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and ger (felt tent), along with two postcards signed in both English and the traditional Mongolian script.
Burentor and I had a nice long talk, afterwards, regarding the much-maligned 3A class. It looks like their absenteeism and incredibly poor work ethic are not limited to my course, but to others, as well. - though I pride myself on having the lowest attendance rate, an indication, if ever there was one, of just how good a teacher I really am. Burentor speaks English well, but she seems to believe that my Russian is better, so that’s the language we used.
Two odd things: I noticed that School 81 is, for all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of the Russian-Mongolian Joint High School. I asked Burentor about this, and she said that most of Ulaanbaatar’s schools were built by the Soviets in the seventies. Well, that answered my question; cookie-cutter architecture was, of course, the Russians’ strong point in the latter half of the communist era.
Secondly, I was almost the victim of petty theft. As I stood by the bridge waiting for Burentor’s call, I kept my briefcase on the ground, tucked between my legs, for the sake of convenience. At one point, I noticed a group of four unemployed young men about to walk by behind me, staring at me the whole time. In the blink of an eye, one of them had picked up my briefcase and was coolly walking away with it! I shouted an accusatory “Hey!”, and he quickly laid the bag down, laughing, and continued on his merry way, the butt of his pals’ jibes. I almost smiled, too; in this period of economic transition, with half the population living under the poverty line, it’s catch-as-catch-can, and foreigners are fair play. One of these days, though, I’m going to let that bag be stolen and then gleefully watch the expression on the thief’s face when he opens it and finds nothing but reams of paper and homework!
Actually, I should point out that the First Microdistrict does look dangerous. I walked the two kilometres from Burentor’s school to my apartment in the neighbouring Tenth Microdistrict, and I was stared at and even insulted more times than I care to recall… And I was on the main road sidewalk, with hundreds of people around me. Brrr…
MY SUNNY ANGEL COMES A’ CALLING: Sun-duk, as per my e-mail request, made Wednesday just before I visited my future apartment, called to ask my new phone number so that Hye-young or Sun-hwa could call me Tuesday after the caesarian to assure me that wife and child are all right. She’s making the best of the situation by telling herself that she’ll get to see our rejeton two weeks ahead of time! Sun-duk isn’t the patient type when it comes to things she wants very badly, so her newly returned sunny disposition and ebullient optimism were wonderful to hear.
I am NOT in my new apartment.
The woman renting out the apartment changed her minds several times, leaving Buman and me exasperated. At first, she said she wanted the two months’ rent by mid-April; then next week; then today, when I moved in. She then phoned and asked whether I could wait until next week to move in, to give her time to clear out her stuff. We acquiesced, then she called again to announce she didn’t want to move, period. At that point, I’d pretty much resigned myself to staying in Bayangol until the end of my stay in Mongolia, with the hope that I hadn’t already used up my nine lives for the remaining six or seven weeks. Finally, she called back, saying she had reconsidered, and that I could move in this evening, if I were so inclined. Well, the Soros van was no longer at my disposal by then, and the driver refuses to work on weekends, so we settled on three o’clock Monday.
Let’s hope it’s for real, this time…
BAD SON: … On several counts. My mother’s birthday was February 20; my father’s, just last week, on March 21. Joyeux Anniversaire, les vieux! They have also recently returned from a four-week trip to Spain and Gibraltar, although thus far have failed to reveal the slightest detail, except to say that the weather was cool. I am a goujat, to use a suitably Moorish word…