A Russian channel has recently replaced the Chinese Z-movie channel, which had itself unceremoniously booted out the incumbent Australian kanal just prior to the Olympics Games. (“Those bastards!”) Tonight, they actually showed an episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo, one of the greatest sitcoms in the history of English television. Ah, it was a nostalgic hour of grace for me. I hope the Russians are here to stay…
So you see, insomnia has its good points in Mongolia: you get to see quite a few interesting programmes not available elsewhere or at any other time. For example, the Hollywood Channel seems to run its best films – Evita, Raising Arizona, The Jackal - at two or three in the morning. MTV Asia and MCM devote entire one- and two-hour blocks of Asian music, which we seldom get to listen to, while the rest of us sleep: Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani – the whole gamut. I love it! I’ve in mind to learn Hindi if only to be able to understand those incredibly colourful, buoyant, and irrepressibly kitschy Bollywood flicks!
BBC World had a report this evening on Hong Chong-suk, a popular young TV star in South Korea who recently came out of the closet and has paid for his peace of mind with unemployment, general ostracism, and verbal assaults. This was indeed news to Sun-duk and me, who watch Arirang almost every day… So you can see how homosexuality is still very much feared and misunderstood in that country.
My parents and sister’s family have left for Florida, where the temperature is about fifty degrees higher than it is here in Mongolia. They’ll have nine or ten days to visit Disney World, Epcot Center, and all those other theme parks before returning – in time, I hope – for the Canadian elections. Have a great trip, you guys!
The day’s main event here in Mongolia was the Russian party, of course. At first, I didn’t even know whether there would be classes this morning. No one bothered to tell me anything – yet again. I called Khanda at seven-thirty, and she gave me the low-down on the shindig: be there at eleven for the cook-off, then boogie on down to a local disco for a dance contest and sundry jeux de societe.
I arrived at Onol a little late - at around noon. I hadn’t eaten all morning because of this cooking contest between class sections, and I did well to wait. We visited nine rooms, all containing tables garnished with the crème de la crème of Russian cuisine: borsch, pelmeni, pirogis, potato salad, vegetable salad, steak, Chicken Kiev, devilled eggs, blintzes with sour cream… It just went on and on! I was having ten or fifteen bitefuls the first three classes, but slowly cut my rations afterwards to ensure sufficient space was left in my stomach to sample everyone’s potlatch.
Narantuya told me that everyone had to speak Russian today, which was just fine with me – apart from Khanda, there were no other English teachers, making Russian our only common language. And in fact, each time we sat down to a table, the meal was described to us in Pushkin’s tongue; however, everything following the introduction was conducted in Mongolian, leaving me to my own epicurean devices.
By two o’clock, it was time to head down to the Chameleon Club for some song and dance. The kids had all gone by 2:30, but the rest of us were stuck waiting for a ride, arms full of leftover Russian food. I had the opportunity to take some close-up pics of goats eating the last remnants of yellow straw at the school entrance. They were so cute! One of them even made a bee-line for my briefcase while I was taking photographs! He would’ve chewed it up good, too, I’m sure!
I also spoke for half-an-hour with two of the more outgoing seniors. (It was who were in charge of organising the party.) We talked about family, Russian, English, Ian (my predecessor), translation, teaching… Fine fellows both. One of them is quite huge, and actually wrestles competitively in the summertime, during the festival season.
The Chameleon Club (which the students pronounced Ha-meh-leh-own) is located in the eastern part of town, rather hidden from view behind a host of nondescript buildings that house who-knows-what. We checked out coats and went upstairs, where all was dark – I mean, really dark. We could barely see the floor, and many people tripped on objects that were rendered invisible by the lack of proper lighting. I’ve a suspicion this was done purposely, to hide the fact that the students competing in the dance contest are not… ahem, professionals.
Be that as it may, the tables were fairly creaking with food, beer, and sodas, surrounded on all sides by groups of students who refused to mingle with peers from different years or even sections. This was not just a manifestation of the competitive spirit – it was a reflection of how things really are at Onol. Strange, but the scheduling has a lot to do with it. (I’ll explain at a later date.)
We teachers sat at the table with the best view, right in front of the dance floor, separating us from the stage about sixty feet away. At four o’clock, the festivities were officially underway when Khanda, Narantuya and I opened the contest in Mongolian, Russian and English, respectively.
The dancing was what you’d expect from amateurs; two or three couples stood out for being a little more accomplished than the others. The whole was punctuated by intermissions that included songs sung by both students and local pop stars; bouts of regular dancing to hip-hop music; a comedian; and a game in which I was made to participate on behalf of all the teachers!
One by one, we had to take the microphone, move over to the far side of the stage, then start walking and rattling off animal names in Russian. You have to walk at a normal pace, and the slightest hesitation, the tiniest deceleration, a mispronunciation, or simple repetition will disqualify you. The winner was able to take thirteen steps before faltering. As for myself, in spite of writing up a list of twenty animal names before taking my turn, I only managed eight before repeating the word ‘mouse’!
After all the winners had been declared, and the prizes handed out (paid for with the gate receipts, each ticket having sold for T1500), the lot of us left en masse to return to our respective homes. A wonderful surprise awaited us; flurries! Big, beautiful, fluffy flakes had come down to the tune of two inches and counting while we feted. This time, I do think the snow will stick around for a few months…
NOTES: I noticed today just how many Mongolians walk around with no gloves. I think they simply might not have the money to buy any. Luckily, most of them don’t carry anything, so they can stick their hands in their pockets and have a much better time of it than I do, carrying my briefcase around with nothing more than a pair of shamefully skimpy gloves.
FOR ABBA FANS: One class danced to parts of four songs, numbers two and four of which were Abba’s Money, Money, Money and Take A Chance On Me. Good choices, but poor execution – there was no synchronisation whatsoever.
First, they cut to the third song just before the Money’s world-famous staccato piano ending, then they bowed out right in the middle of Chance’s chorus! I couldn’t help thinking that the four couples dancing could have ended their performance with Money, each man dipping his partner turn by turn, in a domino effect, to that song’s coda. That would have been beautiful!
The Russian school cancelled my lesson again, Saturday – for the last time, they assured me. I made for the office downtown to put the finishing touches on the Korean-Canadian couples section, read some fresh messages left in our guestbook (glowing reviews!), then watched the guestbook disappear without a trace! I tried contacting GuestPage.com, the host site, but large chunks of it were also off-line; apparently, it was a system-wide failure, and nothing, probably, would be done until today, Monday. Sigh… Just when we’re getting two dozen hits a day, nobody will be able to write to us publicly.
(By the way, the guestbook was still on the fritz this afternoon.)
One more notable note (if you’ll pardon the tautological barbarism): I installed – illegally, I might add – five web-design software programmes into our laptop - ostensibly to save some time by creating the Mongolian EFL pages at home. Unfortunately, one programme won’t work, even with serial number punched in; and another’s only good for twenty days - even with the serial number - unless you register on-line. So I’ll have to reinstall the latter every now and again - and I will, because it’s the only programme I’ve got that offers me a preview of HTML programming. (The rest of the software is for graphics, banners, buttons, applets, and the like.)
The snow is still here, but the weather has taken a turn for the Arctic. The high today was around –20, meaning that thousands of car-owners have left their stalled vehicles at home. As a result, the public transport system has moved beyond hellish during peak hours; and I have resolved to keep away from buses – at least those headed downtown - before 9 a.m. and in the 4 p.m. - 7 p.m. slot.
Sun-duk told me that GuestPage.com finally came back on-line – but that it had wiped out the last ten messages people had left us. I wasn’t upset (they were all very nice messages!), since, out of sheer dumb luck and vanity, I had made a copy of that very page onto disquette to show Sun-duk (it contained the first messages written by strangers!) I’ll simply copy and paste them back on Thursday morning…
What with the incredibly cold and unseasonal temperatures we’re experiencing this week, the apartment is now close to freezing. We were okay until Sunday, when the temps were between –10 and –20; but now, with all the air coming in through the chinks and cracks of the windowsills, not to mention our walls and floor, made of that most efficient of cold conductors, concrete, home has become unbearable, even for me. We have to seal these windows up as soon as possible!
I finished editing Sun-duk’s boss’ diary, which our darling Jagi had translated into English. It never ceases to amaze me how Korean Christians are so zealously bigoted – as though they have been Christians since Day 1. His criticisms of Mongolians were not only derogatory, but applied equally well to South Koreans – he spoke of corruption, dishonesty, deviant sexual mores, “pagan” customs, and on, and on. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
Luckily for him, I removed the most offensive bits (except for the one where he made fun of us “long-nosed” Westerners); otherwise, I think he just might get the pink slip from the big boss in Phoenix, to whom his diary is intended.
It was –29 this morning, and it didn’t get any warmer than –20 in the afternoon. I love this kind of weather… And when Sun-duk is well-bundled-up, she does, too. The cracking and squeaking of freshly packed snow underfoot; the crisp, clean air purging your lungs of all the stale, domestic brand you’ve been breathing for the past twelve hours; feeling the colour return to your cheeks after a brisk walk outside, then cuddling up with your loved one and a hot cup of cocoa …
Aye, there’s the rub – no heat in the house! We were fine until Monday, when the daily high suddenly dipped to –20; now, the deep freeze is unbearable. Our apartment feels like a cryogenic chamber: the heaters are barely emitting any heat, and you can actually see the curtains moving from the cold air coming in through the window cracks. We’ve been so busy the last two days (especially me – twenty-two hours’ work in thirty-six hours) that we haven’t had the time to go shopping for caulking, plastic sheets or sponge seals. We’ve been spending our evenings in the kitchen, boiling huge pots of water in the hope of being steamed back to life.
This morning at Soros, where I had stopped by to pick up the MFOS web site content on disquette (in vain, as it turned out - they won’t be ready ‘til Saturday), I immediately let Buman know that we wanted Bat or our building super to come up illico presto and seal those windows of ours before we turn into popsicles. I mean, we’ve been sleeping fully dressed this week (three and four layers), and avoiding staying at home as much as possible. Buman reassured me that she would take care of it, but I fear nothing might be done before tomorrow night or Saturday…
Sun-duk’s sister called her last night at one o’clock; that, and the cold, prevented us from falling back asleep, so we watched CNN’s coverage of the American presidential elections for an hour-and-a-half. I later tuned in to TV5, and witnessed a very interesting debate between both parties’ representatives to France. All of Europe is very interested in the fact that Bush Jr. might ascend to the presidency in spite of losing the popular vote to Gore. It does seem a mite undemocratic – the electoral college is, after all, a hangover from the country’s early days as a “landocracy”, when suffrage was only awarded to a few thousand men of wealth -, but this sort of injustice happens in parliamentary systems, as well (the winning party may have garnered fewer votes than the opposition, but taken more seats). I found it interesting that some pundits were entertaining the possibility that Florida’s 25 electors might go against the wishes of their state’s citizens and side with the country by casting their ballots for Gore; but I doubt very much that will happen. Most likely, it seems, the electoral college will be scrapped if Bush does become president.
I was teaching my second class, this afternoon, talking about Mongolian relationships – dating, engagement, marriage, wedding ceremonies, etc. -, when the students started to actually speak: they were asking me questions about my love life! I jumped at the chance of being able to pry their little mouths open for just a few minutes, and rushed downstairs to fetch our Korean wedding pictures. The fact that it was a Buddhist ceremony, with a few elements in common with Mongolian and Tibetan custom, intrigued them greatly.
I designed a couple of banners for our homepage. They’re just demos until I master the web-design programmes and can create a truly fantastic ad that others will, hopefully, put onto their own websites.
(By the way, if anyone reading these lines has created a page that touches on Mongolia, EFL or interracial marriage (Korean-Canadian, natch), please send me the link and/or banner/button; cross-pollination is the best way to reach the most people, especially when Yahoo! won’t list you.)
I’m sorry to say that I must give up my attempts to get my 4B students to improve their spoken English. Only three or four of them care enough to try; the rest seem barely able to understand my simplest utterances. Discouraging, also, is their lack of vocabulary; I’m having to translate so many English words and expressions into Russian, which a couple of older mothers then translate into Mongolian for their lazy peers. Seeing as they’re seniors, I tried to shame them into at least trying their tongue at English, but it was useless. There I was, once again, asking them in Mongolian why they didn’t want make the slightest effort; why I had to speak to them in Mongolian when I have only been here two months, and they studying English for years? No answer was forthcoming; so at the end of class I told them to expect nothing but grammar and vocabulary from now on.
The problem is not just that they are guaranteed good grades no matter how little they try or do, as I’ve pointed out before; it’s that demand for English in Mongolia outstrips supply by a thousand to one. They are assured a good job however poorly they perform, so why bother? All the teachers complain of the students’ complacency; and yet, what can we do? Nothing but wait - just as people are still waiting for South Koreans to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of fluency and competency in English.
Semi-good news: someone will come up tomorrow afternoon at four to seal the windows. We hope something will be done with the radiators, too. When Buman called me last night to discuss the details, she said that she was told our apartment had trouble with them last year, as well.
This news disappointed Sun-duk, who wanted to eat out Saturday evening. Due to a combination of pregnancy and a cold virus which has diminished her sense of taste, she has been on the prowl for food other than Korean, Mongolian or Western. We had plans to go to the French restaurant today, and a pizza place tomorrow; now, instead, she will have to hold her nose and swallow yet another spoonful of unsavoury stew…
IN PASSING: My parents asked me recently where I found the time to keep such a detailed diary, considering how busy I’ve been the last two months. The answer is: I don’t know! As of this writing, I haven’t updated my diary in exactly two weeks; in fact, I wasn’t able to write anything until yesterday. The Korean-Canadian Couples section required my complete attention for a few days; then I spent another three or four days editing that rogue reverend’s report; finally, there’s been the web-page project for Mongolian English teachers. Throw in my regular classes, teacher training, private lessons, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and so on, and you’ve got a man living life to the fullest – a development which I had hoped to avoid when I signed my contract back in May.
Back then, I had envisioned a year filled with thirty hours of teaching, supplemented with ten hours of language study a week; the rest of my time would be spent enjoying the company of my wife and future child. Korea had been so hellish on us; we were both working sixty-hour weeks to erase debts and make ends meet. We were both looking forward to less hectic lifestyles.
Well, at least our plans for Sun-duk have been successful: she’s gaining experience with an NGO that offers little in the way of hard work, and in a Korean environment, to boot. She has been able to take it down a notch, relax, and enjoy herself – which is just as it should be, since she’s the one carrying the baby! Well, I imagine I’ll have a lot more free time on my hands than I care for if/when my Jagi goes on maternity leave in Korea… Sigh…
You may have wondered why we didn’t mention Friday’s trip to the hospital; it’s because the doctor just happened to have a half-day off that afternoon. She couldn’t know four weeks ago that her schedule would work out like this, so we weren’t angry – just disappointed.
We thought of returning Saturday morning, but the hospital opens at 10, and I had to teach at the Russian high school at eleven, several kilometres away. That was cutting it too close (I loathe tardiness), so I asked Sun-duk if we could go Monday, when I’m free all day. She agreed, seeing as her husband is so nice! ;-)
The news we had been waiting for – the baby’s sex - was not forthcoming, however. The ultra-sound scanner was the ‘bad’ one, not the high-tech machine at the maternity ward you have to pay T3000 to use. The resolution on the older model is not quite as high, the image a little indistinct. There was no way we could determine the baby’s sex, but I could make out the brow, eyelids, and nose, as well as the ears and hands. Unfortunately, Sun-duk couldn’t; the machine has no freeze-frame or printer. But, being the ‘rich’ foreigners that we are, we’re going back December 1st for another check-up and ultra-sound!
Of course, all this is secondary to the baby’s health - which is fine, according to the doctor. I got the obstetrician to agree with me that our patient was not getting enough calcium in the form of dairy products. The reason that Mongolians are by far the biggest of all East-Asian peoples is their diet: meat and milk. They’re bulkier and have larger bones, as opposed to the tiny vegetarians south and east of them.
We’ve begun buying maternity clothes: overalls, big pants and sweaters, etc. Sun-duk’s being very picky, though, so we’re having a hard time of it! Besides which, there are very few stores in the country that sell ‘fat’ clothes!
Two weeks ago, Sun-duk told me that she’s finally feeling pregnant, i.e. like she’s carrying a weight around. Her belly has started to swell, too. Strangely, she has yet to feel the baby move, and she’s well into the fifth month. Well, it happens. Our book says that many pregnant women mistake slight foetal movements for bodily functions, such as (in)digestion and gas.
The Russian school was on holiday, this weekend (no one called to tell me), so once again, I travelled downtown for nothing. Actually, I came prepared for this all-too-frequent eventuality; I was armed with rolls of film - which I dropped off at a Kodak store - and floppy disks for the homepage.
At the Soros office, I was finally able to update our diary after a two-week furlough, and put the finishing touches on two Mongolian rubrics, In The News - which consists of clippings from the two national English-language newspapers – and Religion. Buman was there, too, but since she hadn’t transcribed all the things I needed for our website, I put off work on that ‘til Monday.
As it turned out, I worked all day Sunday designing the pages, headers and banners with my new software; writing the programme codes; and generally having a miserable time. I didn’t create any animation, since the users of these sites will be countryside teachers equipped with old computers and obsolete modems, all served by an outdated telecommunications system. Animation would just slow the download time to a crawl, when information – simple and legible – is the order of the day.
Monday morning… I really didn’t want to leave the house. I’ve been working every day of the week for almost the past two months, and I need a break. However, I wanted to get the Soros web thing out of the way as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Buman still hadn’t finished writing up the content; nor were the computers at the office able to read my HTML programming codes – and I had forgotten to copy them in plain .doc and .rtf formats. And so another day was lost. I couldn’t go back home on account of our afternoon hospital appointment (I also had to pick up the pictures from Kodak and deposit money in the bank), so I stayed and finished three more rubrics - Reckoning Time, Names, and Festivals - in the Mongolian section, which is now on-line. Readers will be getting these tidbits one or two at a time for the next few weeks, until they’re all done. I will not release anything that has no pictures!
NOTES: Buman called Bat on Friday and had him send some guys to seal our windows. (It was getting so we could see our own breath inside the apartment!) That probably brought the temperature up to around +10 C – still not very comfortable. However, Bat brought us an electric radiator this evening to compensate for the one on the blink (apparently, the pipes on the whole side of the building, where the radiator is, are irreparable, so we’re not the only ones suffering). If this doesn’t work, and neither does steam (we still keep a big pot of water boiling in the kitchen when we’re at home), we’ll have to think of moving out. I mean, it’s only mid-November - it ain’t gonna get any warmer, folks!
I also spoke with Uldzi, Buman’s predecessor as English Language Co-ordinator at Soros. She felt frustrated at the way things were going two years ago and quit, just as she was discouraged by the administration and inter-departmental squabbles during her time with the UNDP. I know next to nothing about the other programmes, or the myriad details involved in Buman’s job, but I still feel that the organisation and the attitude here is much, much better than what I experienced in South Korea. And I still want to work for the UN!
Uldzi also told me that she held a methodology seminar at Onol a couple of years ago, and was intrigued by the instructors’ demand for a ‘magic bullet’ that would get students to fly straight, as it were – paying attention in class, doing homework, coming in on time, etc. She asked me whether it was the same this year, and I answered yes and no. Yes, the students’ attitude is still lackadaisical, but no, the teachers haven’t approached me about solving the students’ behavioral problems. It may be because most of the teachers have themselves just graduated, and so know from personal experience that those who want to learn, listen, and the rest don’t.
Last week, I free-talked about dating and marriage in some of my classes, and described the traditional Western and Korean customs, giving all the whys and wherefores. I learned a lot about Mongolian dating habits, but most interesting is the old Mongolian wedding ceremony as practiced by nomads. What my students told me is worthy of a rubric in the Mongolian section of our homepage, so you’ll all just have to wait for the fascinating details!
THE ARTS: South Korea cut me off the French mainstream culture but good, so I’m discovering all this great new music on MCM, and tons of wonderful movies on TV5. A marvelously quirky, multi-ethnic, self-mocking group called F.F.F. is making the funniest, funkiest music I’ve heard in a long time – a blend of Les Rita Mitsouko, Sly and the Family Stone, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’ve got to find a copy of their latest album, whose first hit is titled Yaourt- ‘Yoghurt’!!
Saturday night, I watched Quasimodo d’El Paris, a hilarious, latter-day send-up of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Fool’s Day was replaced by Hallowe’en, the Gypsies by Cubans, Phoebus by an incompetent buffoon of a cop, and Frollo by a sado-masochistic bisexual who turns prostitutes into gargoyles for his church! The humour was uneven, with some scenes falling back on rather facile jokes; but other parts made my sides ache, so witty was the dialogue. Sun-duk was busy making kimchi in the kitchen, and wondering why the heck I was laughing out loud all alone! (And for the true French-movie connoisseur, Dominique Pinon played the Cuban leader – a diminutive, foul-mouthed, moustachioed man with huge shades and an even bigger pompadour!)
FINALLY: The weather let up over the weekend. We’re getting daytime highs of –5 C and nighttime lows of –15 C or –20 C; a vast improvement over last week’s minus-thirty-degree temps. BUT… January and February are traditionally the coldest months of the year in Mongolia, so don’t hold your breath waiting for spring!
I was seized today by a fit of extreme exhaustion, and had to cancel this afternoon’s classes (luckily, just four fifty-minute lessons).
I think it’s an accumulation of several factors that did me in: near-constant work, little sleep, poor nutrition (I normally eat just one square meal a day), a five-degree-Celsius apartment, and stress from incessant demands on my time, not to mention the possibility of losing my wife and child for three months come spring. I had felt very listless Monday, and after Tuesday and Wednesday’s teaching marathon (24 hours’ work in a day-and-a-half), I collapsed.
I called Buman, who promised to have the windows blocked (hopefully with plastic) and bring another heater for the refrigerator-cool living room. Sun-duk said I looked like living death, and both advised me to stay at home all weekend.
I wish that were possible, but I’ve got classes tomorrow, with both students and teachers. (Narantuya shuffled the other teachers’ schedules so they could attend my seminars; they’ve been absent for the last four weeks.) I also want to go to Soros to pick up a package from Canada and upload the beta version of the EFL website. After all that’s done, maybe I’ll have a lighter workload, with more downtime to relax, eat healthy, and study Mongolian, Korean and Russian.
I finally finished the Beta version of the Soros EFL website. Other than that, the day was pretty awful, with nothing going right at all. Best I stop here, but I will add that I was informed that I had to work at Soros Thursday and Friday morning, giving and proctoring written and oral exams to Mongolian doctors wishing to attend an international seminar where medical experts from North America and Europe will be holding forth on topics in their respective fields. It’s fifty dollars, but it means close to forty hours’ work in four days. Aigo! When Kelli called this evening to remind me that we had all forgotten our monthly meeting, I told her that she was welcome to take the next few surprise jobs off my hands… My body just can’t cope with thirty-day months…
In spite of feeling like doo-doo last Friday, I went ahead and taught my class at Onol, then free-talked for ninety minutes with a trio of English teachers, two of whom graduated from this school just last spring. I would have gone home directly afterwards if Buman hadn’t called last night to tell me that my parents’ package had arrived; but since the box contained two bottles of pre-natal and post-partum pills (vitamin and mineral supplements) and a book on a baby’s first year of life, I dragged my sorry bum on over to Soros, picked up the package, saved my new e-mail messages without even reading them first, then took the bus back home.
Last and least, my string of four consecutive cancelled classes at the Russian high school came to an end, Saturday. We spent three-and-a-half hours studying English – no break.
P.S. Sun-duk just had to go to the Seoul Restaurant, the most expensive eatery in the country, for some Korean food; no other place would do. The buffet, dessert, drinks, and tax brought the total to T28,000 – a month’s salary for too many Mongolians. The food isn’t even that good, but Sun-duk really wanted to ‘pig out’! (She wiped her plate clean five times!)
Sun-duk thinks she may have felt the baby move for the first time this afternoon!
She was working on the computer at Food for the Hungry when she experienced a sharp, short twinge on the left side of her lower abdomen. She immediately told Borma – her colleague and professional mid-wife - about it, and while she couldn’t confirm it was the baby, she did reassure Sun-duk that it was to be expected. We think she’s around eighteen weeks pregnant, which would mean the ‘awakening’ has arrived a fortnight earlier than our book predicted – although it does make allowances for smaller women.
Last week, our obstetrician told us that the husband is often the first to feel the baby, so I’ve been keeping my hands on Sun-duk’s belly as often as possible (especially when we’re watching TV and Sun-duk uses me as her favourite easy chair!). Alas, les mains frustes de l’homme ne valent pas le sein de la femme…
Sun-duk arrived home in a state of agitation: while walking over from the bus stop, she was sure of having felt the baby kick twice more, in the same place as yesterday! My hands remain skeptical, but then, I’m just a man.
Some heartening news: I’ve regained my appetite, and been eating almost twice as much a day as I had been since October. I don’t think I’ve put on any weight yet, if I’m to believe my belt; but with a bit of effort, I might be back to 85-90 kilograms by the end of Tsagaan Sar - ‘White Month’, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, in February.
Jige was supposed to bring an extra heater over to the apartment, but when I left school at six, his car had gone. It seems we’ll have to wait a little longer before we can venture outside the bedroom barefoot and scarfless…
APOLOGY: I’m sorry for writing so infrequently, these days, but I’m simply overwhelmed with work and worry. Accept my apologies, also, for having such short entries, this month. Once I’m over the hump, I’ll go back to offering exceptionally interesting, in-depth observations of Mongolian life.
Today, John and I administered the written exams to the doctors wishing to attend a medical conference in Salzburg, Austria, early next year.
John had called last night to tell me the exam would start at eleven, and that the majority of applicants were gynecologists and obstetricians. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with the Mongolian in charge, and we were to be at the Soros office at 9:00. We both came in at around 10:15; after the staff had made several frantic phone calls. Good news: the last of the applicants didn’t arrive ‘til we did!
It was pretty straightforward stuff: we thought up an essay question (“After your return from Salzburg, how do you intend to share the information you have learned?”), they had an hour to answer it, and we read them over, grading them from 0 to 5 (with half-marks). The best will win a trip to Europe! Two of the applicants live our west: one in the forests, another in the desert. They faxed us their essays. Tomorrow, we’ll have the orals – two by phone, naturally.
Egge called and invited us for dinner at his house, Saturday. Last Sunday, he participated in a Mongolian-language staging of “The Sound of Music” (he was an extra), and I really wanted to go; but Sun-duk didn’t feel up to it, so that plan was nixed. In any case, we’ll get a chance to see our first newborn Mongolian!
The students from my 4B class invited Sun-duk and me to go downhill skiing at a mountain not far from Ulaanbaatar. This fact may surprise some people, but Mongolia’s peaks are much, much taller than those in Korea: over 4000 metres, in some cases, absolutely dwarfing Sorak and Halla. Of course, there’s no ski lift at the mountain: you’re cordially invited to climb up to the top on foot!
CARTOON TIME: On Saturday and Sunday nights, the Mongolian and Chinese channels run some old Warner Bros. cartoons from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and they’re great!! That’s because none of them can be seen or rented in the West – each short is chock-full of topical references (Hitler, FDR, Mussolini, Gable, Lindbergh) or racism. Yes, racism! I mean, it wasn’t perceived as racist at the time, of course; but in these politically correct days, the only way Warner Bros. can make any money off these forgotten jewels is by selling them to poor countries or bootleg collectors.
A couple of examples: Bugs Bunny is in Canada, making a fool of Elmer Fudd, RCMP. At the end, as he’s stood before a firing squad of red-coated Mounties, he suddenly pulls out a banjo and starts singing Dixie; next thing you know, Bugs, Elmer, and the rest are all in blackface, making a killing on the vaudeville circuit!!! In another cartoon, Bugs torments a short, slow-witted, big-lipped African-American who walks and talks like Al Jolson. Another short depicts ‘black mammy’ chicken who loses her chick to a white fox. And the list goes on…
A few cartoons are innocuous, but never rerun nowadays because they’re not part of a ‘serial’, a la Sylvester & Tweety, Pepe LePew, or Roadrunner & Coyote. These one-off shorts include “The Lion and The Vulture”, “The Bear and The Fish”, and others. To an animation buff such as myself, this is exceptional stuff! If I could tape them, even in their altered form (the primitive dubbing lets some English dialogue escape), I would make a killing on the black market in America!!!
BY THE BYE: The last week has seen a return to daytime highs of –25 C; that’s about + 5 C to + 10 C in our apartment. It’ll take half-a-dozen extra heaters to make it toasty in here!
Well, live a little, learn a little. On CNN this morning, Sohn Ji-ae had a report on South Korea’s ‘love hotels’. I thought she meant the tallan joojums, the bars-cum-massage-parlours frequented by middle-aged alcoholics; but Sun-duk disabused me of my erroneous assumption: Koreans actually call these places luh-buh ho-teh-ruh, and they’re frequented almost exclusively by people cheating on their spouses. They even have private parking lots, and take great care in screening off the vehicles and covering up their license plates.
I was shocked: not because of these extra-marital affairs (some estimate that over 90% of Korean husbands are regularly unfaithful), but because I had no idea these hotels existed! You live in a country for three-and-a-half years and think you’ve got a handle on the people and culture, then realise you’ve only scratched the surface. I guess I’m a naif in a way: my bachelor friends in Taejon used to tell me of these special ‘barber shops’ scattered everywhere about the city, but I never did see even one; and people who have lived in both Japan and Korea have said that the latter is just as depraved as the former – just less open about it (no vending machines selling used teenaged girls’ panties, for example, as there are in Tokyo). What’s up with Asia, Doc? VD, most likely...
The doctor interviews went well, although the phone interviews were difficult on account of bad connections. It was also boring asking the same questions over and over again, but it wasn’t as bad as asking dozens of Korean students the same questions at final exam time! Since most of the MD’s were OB/GYN specialists, I used the opportunity to tell them about Sun-duk and ask them which problems were most prevalent in their field. Answer: high infant and maternal mortality, during and soon after delivery. I guess Sun-duk should go to Pusan in February or March... Sigh…
Only the director and her Ukrainian assistant came to class at the Russian school, today. Pretty boring; too small an audience to have fun with. I did a bit of shopping and headed home at three o’clock to get ready for Egge’s swarry.
Sun-duk and I went to a nearby market, bought a box of chocolates for our hosts, and walked all the way up to the Third District. It’s a thirty-minute walk, but the temperature was down to –30 by five o’clock, and we were going uphill. We couldn’t find the Orgoo Theatre, where Egge said he would meet us, so I called him with my cell phone, and he came to fetch us at a mini-mall.
The theatre was actually just across the street, but the only Orgoo written on it was not in Cyrillic, but in traditional Mongolian script! There was an English name gracing the building, but it read Las Vegas, not ‘Orgoo’ or ‘Theatre’. No wonder we were confused!
We had a lovely evening. Bogie, Egge’s wife, cooked up some delicious spaghetti with meat sauce, along with steamed carrots and potatoes. We finally got to meet their three-month-old daughter, Dzoo-dzoo (remember, I’m using everyone’s diminutive, or nickname!), a cute, incredibly placid child who was in a good mood the whole time we were there. The parents assured us that this was her usual behaviour, so we were astonished… and envious!
Dzoo-dzoo loves to dance; Egge put on some Santana, while her mother stood her up on the floor, held up her tiny hands, and presto! Dzoo-dzoo was bending her knees up and down to the rhythm of Latin music! She went on for half-an-hour, and got upset when either her mother or the music stopped! Apparently, Santana is the parents’ favourite musician, and they listened to Supernatural throughout the pregnancy.
Egge and Bogie showed us their photo albums. Egge had a lot of army pictures, since the draft was in effect until 1990. He told us how he’d been a bad egg (if you’ll forgive the pun) and hung out with the wrong crowd; some are in prison, some were killed, some even made it big in America (the US loves cheaters!). He himself was a musician, and in the ultimate show of anti-authoritarianism, grew his locks ‘til they reached his shoulders. It was quite striking – not only because he’s so very clean-cut today, but on account of his light brown hair.
(It’s not uncommon to see Mongolians with light, even blond, hair and eyes, what with all the intermarriages that have occurred over the centuries during the imperial era. Imagine seeing an Asian with green eyes and dirty-blond hair - very striking, let me assure you.)
We talked a lot about music, since Egge has recorded some of his own songs, both in Mongolian and in English (on tape, and never released – but still hoping for a lucky break!). Back in the mid-eighties, he would go out to the black market and spend a week’s wages on smuggled Queen albums. He drove his parents crazy, but artists (and I should know – hum, hum!) need spiritual nourishment much more than real food, so he just went on buying Western, and especially British, LPs. I told him that if he brought his collection to America, he could fetch a good price for them; but of course, he would never think of selling them!
When Sun-duk mentioned a recent episode we’d had with a drunk (he tried to follow us home, and I had to slug him into submission), Egge told us how just a few weeks ago, he had been beaten up by a group of five drunken men. He managed to escape thanks to a couple of cops who just happened to be walking by; otherwise, he thinks they might have killed him. Alcoholism is a big problem, nowadays, in Mongolia – because of unemployment, it’s true, but also due in large part to the Russians, who introduced vodka here in the sixties and seventies. I haven’t heard of instances of stalking – either by lone individuals or in gangs -, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially in our neighbourhood, where, for all intents and purposes, I’m the only noticeable foreigner for kilometres around. My suit doesn’t help, either, as it makes me look rich. We’ll almost certainly ask Buman to relocate us downtown after January 30, when our current lease ends. It’s much safer (and interesting!) there, although I would have a long commute ahead of me every morning and evening.
Egge and Bogie told us that they owned their apartment – paid around US$8000 for it, although its value is presently estimated at US10,000. It’s about the same size as ours, with the same number of rooms, albeit differently arranged. It’s warmer than our place, for sure, but perhaps less salubrious. The living room has no furniture except for a large audio-video entertainment centre, reminiscent of the Korean homes we left behind - which was only fitting, since Egge worked in Korea for a year (the money he made there helped pay for the apartment).
At around nine o’clock, Sun-duk, fearing another late-night encounter with undesirables, asked to leave, and had Egge walk us to the main road and find us a proper taxi. We were home in no time flat, and went straight to bed, happy.
NOTE: I want to direct everyone to the Mongolian section we’ve recently put up. It’s got several completed rubrics to date, with more to come in the following weeks. One rubric which should be particularly interesting is titled In The News, and contains articles culled from the country’ two English weeklies, The UB Post and The Mongol Messenger. It’s got everything: finance, culture, folk tales, murders, sports, entertainment… Frequent updates, so go there often!
After today’s service, we went to a Chinese restaurant where they served authentic Chinese food, just like what we had in July and August during our honeymoon – not the Koreanised or Westernised stuff. It was delicious and cheap! We’ll go there again, especially since they have dozens of dishes to choose from. It’s not far from the Turkish restaurant, either, so we might make this a regular part of our Sunday schedule.
We relaxed the rest of the day – fine by me, since I’ve had so few days off since September 1. I’ve been using my extra time catching up with our homepage, diary entries, and e-mails. I’ve written to several people I’ve neglected for too long: Matthew, Keenan, David, Devin, Suellen, some Korean students… As a result, I’ve been receiving some lengthy missives of my own. So thanks, everyone, for writing to us and making us feel special!
I spent the day at the Soros office, reading and writing more e-mails from Korea. I replied to one kind fellow, Lorne Oliver, who promised to tell as many Korean-Canadian couples as possible about our site. Our discussion board is dead right now, since so few people know about it and are wary of posting something that may not be seen by anyone for a lengthy period of time.
The homepage broke the 500-visitor mark over the weekend; it now stands at 515. At present, the page is not big or ‘useful’ enough to be considered for listing by any of the popular search engines, such as Yahoo! and Lycos; but after the Mongolian and EFL sections are finished, who knows? We’ll try Yahoo! Canada and Yahoo! Korea first, then go knocking on other people’s doors (i.e. homepages) and ask them to plug us (I’ve already created a couple of banners with my new software). Exposure is the key to success!
I finished three additional rubrics - on Gers, Flora & Fauna, and Climate & Geography – for the Mongolian section. Nice pictures, too, so go read some more about fascinating Mongolia, folks!
Sun-duk’s starting to hate the weather! She also feels bored with her routine, but I keep reminding her that having a regular job will do this to a person no matter where they live. In fact, unless I find a good job here next summer with the UN or a high-profile NGO, we might be headed back to Canada. What I’d do there, I have no idea; maybe start a Ph.D., like Sun-duk would like me to do (Ural-Altaic linguistics, perhaps? I’d have to go to Europe for that!); find a relatively good, and good-paying job; or hit rock bottom and toil away in retail at minimum wage. Whatever we choose to do, we won’t have a lot of money to do it with; what with the baby, the plane tickets, and finding a place to live in and furnish, we could be down to our last few thousand before the job search even begins.
Okay, that was a bit of a downer, but I learned over the weekend from Egge (I forgot to mention this in Saturday’s entry) that the United Nations are slashing their budget and eliminating hundreds of jobs this year; he himself expects to be unemployed by March. In other words, my future with the UN is not quite as bright as it was just a couple of months ago...
Last week, when my students and I talked about traditional Mongolian customs, a strange game involving the ankle bones of livestock was brought up. They couldn’t explain the game to me in either English or Russian, so this morning, they brought over a pile of bones and taught me how to play this pastime, which is popular with young and old alike. (In fact, they had a championship tournament just a few weeks ago; I saw the picture in The UB Post.)
THE ANKLEBONE SHOOTING GAME
1. Number of players: Unlimited 2. Number of bones: Unlimited 3. Types of bone: sheep, goat, horse and camel, in that order (although many sets only have sheep and goat bones) 4. The youngest player is the first to begin. 5. The first player picks up the bones and tosses them up into the air onto a flat surface (usually a table or the floor) 6. With any finger, the player must try to knock one kind of bone with another of the same type (sheep-sheep, goat-goat, horse-horse, camel-camel) 7. If the player fails to touch the second bone, or hits a third bone, or hits a bone of a different type, he loses his turn. 8. If the player is successful, he picks up and keeps either one of the two bones with his other hand - which must be empty – and takes another turn. If the player picks up a bone with the hand he shot with, or if he is already holding a bone in the other one, he must forfeit his turn. 9. When a player loses his turn, the next player must pick up the bones and toss them up into the air. 10. When there are just two to four bones left, all of a different type, players take turns tossing them up into the air until two have fallen into a similar position. The player then attempts to knock them successfully. This goes on until the last two bones have been knocked out. 11. The player who knocks out the last two bones receives two extra bones from each player. 12. If, at the end of a round, a player has no bones, he is eliminated. 13. The rounds continue until one person captures all the bones and his opponent has none.
It may appear impossible, in a final match, for one person to collect all the bones, but like professional pool and snooker players, good anklebone shooters can often ‘run the table’.
The Anklebone Shooting Game resembles Croquignol (Pichenotte in the Quebecois dialect) in technique and style, if not in rules. The most amazing thing about this game is that all the bones look alike to me, but Mongolians are able to tell a sheep bone from a goat bone without batting an eyelash!
P.S. If you withdraw four bones from a bag, and they’re all different – sheep, goat, horse and camel -, then you’ll have good luck!
TV5 was about to carry the Canadian elections live just as I had to leave for work this morning! Voting had stopped in Newfoundland and the Maritimes as I left home at 8 o’clock. I’m interested in finding out whether the Conservatives make big gains with Joe Clark back at the helm, and whether both the Progressive Conservatives and the right-wing Alliance Party could form a coalition government. I wonder, too, if the Bloc quebecois is a spent force, especially with whiny Gilles Duceppe at the head. (I once walked past him in Ottawa, and the guy is tiny: around five-foot-six and 140 pounds.) Although I haven’t been able to really follow the elections from Mongolia (just enough time for headlines, actually), I know all the players very well, with the exception of the Alliance’s Stockwell Day (that’s his name, right? What a hoot!)
I found out this morning that Jean Chretien not only won yesterday’s elections, but that the Liberals increased their majority, as well. I got a quick glimpse at the number of seats the other parties won: 60+ for the Canadian Alliance, I think; 39 for the Bloc quebecois; 15 for the NDP; and 11 for the Progressive Conservatives. Wait… That can’t be right! Only eleven seats for the PC? Maybe they really are dead…
I didn’t even bother to vote, since my riding, Stormont-Dundas, has been sending Liberal MPs to Ottawa for the last forty years. Since turning eighteen in 1986, I think I’ve only voted three times. That’s because I’ve always either been abroad or moving to a different riding/province whenever an election’s been called. Shameful, isn’t it?
Sun-duk hadn’t mention the baby moving in the last six days, so I asked her about it. She told me she feels the baby every day, now, usually at work. I think I may have felt it on several occasions, but between Sun-duk’s heavy breathing and the gurgling of her digestive tract, I cannot absolutely confirm that I have.
Sun-duk’s finally moved beyond pants. During the last three weeks, she wore unbuttoned, unzipped corduroys, with the last holes of her belt and a large sweater keeping her decent. The belt no longer does the job, now, so she’s taken to wearing jogging pants and overalls. She looks so cute!!
Sun-duk also hit upon a cute idea, that of writing letters to our unborn child. This Sunday, we plan on finally updating our Korean homepage, which has lain dormant for nearly five months. Aside from some diary entries, we’ll create a special page just for the baby. I might write the baby letters in French, but I can’t see myself posting something so intimate on the internet for everyone to read. It’ll be for our child’s eyes only.
Director Byambajav just asked me to take over Khanda’s classes for two weeks while she’s away in Egypt (for a seminar or something, related to her Law degree, I think). I guess it’s one way for them of getting back all the hours I’ve missed in the last three months on account of Soros (Terelj, teacher evaluations, testing, interviews, etc.). I just hope I don’t get all of her classes – just a couple. I don’t want to be teaching 30-35 hours a week for a fortnight.
So you see how if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Something always pops up, and because there are so few EFL teachers in Mongolia, it’s kind of hard to say no. I was looking to a relaxed month of December, but I guess it’ll have to wait ‘til the new year.
MORE CARTOONS: The Mongolian and Russian channels show a lot of classic Soviet animated films from the fifties and sixties. They’re just as beautiful as their Disney counterparts, but so different, too, both stylistically and in terms of narration. These are ‘cartoons’ that are completely unavailable in North America, and it’s a shame: they’re a heck of a lot better than that Japanese anime crap, imbued with a respect and sensibility for folk tales that Disney never did manage to capture – in my humble opinion, of course.
Watched Larry King, this morning; interesting turn of events in America. Florida’s state legislature, dominated by Republicans and prodded by Jeb Bush, is going to pick new electors, presumably similarly partisan individuals who will give Brother George all of the state’s 25 votes and not cast their ballot for Gore, the winner of the popular vote – as someone with a sense of fairness would quite likely do. In any case, the Supreme Court might very well decide the matter this Saturday; and if they ask for a hand recount of the four contested counties, or of the entire state, with strict guidelines, then Gore will probably win.
John McCain struck me again with just how ‘Democratic’ he really is, with his talk of social welfare reform. Both he and Dole are pretty socialist, as far as Republicans – maybe even Americans – are concerned, and they always impressed me with their degree of intelligence and level-headedness, as opposed to Simple George.
Michael Dukakis finally said out loud what every non-American already knew – that the electoral college is anachronistic, and was created by the Founding Fathers because they did not trust the common man, or even the propertied man, with the responsibility of electing presidents and senators. The Founding Fathers are such sacred cows in the U.S. that any mention that they were all rich atheists who despised the lower classes will get you a rap in the head. Quote dozens of contemporary sources that confirmJefferson was far below genius level, and Washington an incompetent military strategist, and you’ll likely be shot at. Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, an intellectual fluent in four languages (Greek, English, Spanish and French), told it like it is. He’s always told it like it is, which no doubt cost him the presidency in 1988, when in mid-campaign, he admitted to being socialist, a la Canadian and European. Oh, these poor, benighted Yankees!..
There was also a humourous report on how the number of American flags the candidates wrapped themselves in grew exponentially as the weeks wore on. Gore seems to be the leader there, with a high of fifteen – one better than Dick Cheney when he gave a press conference on Monday.
The CNN report even had a clip of graying, middle-aged John Roberts making fun of the whole situation. Who’s John Roberts, you ask? For people of my generation, perhaps the name J.D. Roberts will ring a bell. Remember MuchMusic’s first-generation VJs? Remember the guy with shoulder-length hair and earrings, reading the music world’s latest scoops with such earnestness? Well, it looks like he’s made it as a newsman in the States.
He’s not the first, of course; there are dozens of Canadians working as reporters and news anchors in America’s biggest cities. Peter Jennings is only the most famous; I seem to recall Keith Morrison (Canada A.M.) working in L.A., a few people from Global and CTB in New York and Chicago… Wolves in sheep’s clothing or willing lambs to slaughter? Seeing as they’re English-Canadian and not comedians, I opt for the latter.
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.