I got up at five, went over my lesson plan – this time we’re dealing with actual medical writing -, and left at eight-thirty. Sun-duk, meanwhile, had made plans to meet Gana, another Mongolian student who was impressed by my Jagi’s personality, at two.
At the university, we wrote an abstract for an article I had printed out from the internet, doing much what we did yesterday with the Friendship article. Another simulation, another demonstration on how to get students to concentrate on a text and extract from it the most important information. Then we read a book extract on how to write case reports, a template equally useful for clinical reviews. (Interestingly, they didn’t know the difference between the two. The former deals with one patient, the latter with a disease and its manifestations in a group.)
The extract was from Robert L. Iles' book, The Guide to Better Medical Writing, the only volume of its kind to deal with this neglected topic. I found it after a lengthy Yahoo! search, printed out the extract and the table of contents, and wrote down the URL. I strongly urged the professors to order this book right away by whatever means possible, as it could do a much better job than I could at teaching medical writing.
For my own weak lesson on the subject, I used two articles: one from the British Medical Journal, another from my friend Doctor Park, written for an American journal and proofread by me two years ago. We compared the articles with the format preferred by Iles, found a few mistakes (no one’s perfect, but they were good enough for publication, weren’t they?), and went again and again over the principles of writing for medical journals.
That was it for me, and the ladies again told me that they would like additional lessons in the future. I gave them two homework assignments I had prepared just in case, and urged them to do them in their spare time. I suggested that if they wanted to practice their own writing skills in this field, I would willingly edit their efforts, stressing that improvement came only through practice.
For lunch this time around, we went to a German beer garden for fried chicken. I really wasn’t in the mood for ale or lager, so I ordered white wine with my meal. The only conversation of note was my explanation to a rapt and amazed audience that a third of Canada was French-speaking. Fond goodbyes were bid as we left the restaurant, and I walked back to the Soros office to meet Sun-duk and her new friend.
I was supposed to spend the next hour filling out an on-line application form for the Canadian Foreign Affairs exam in Beijing (I don’t think I’ll go – the logistics are incredibly complex and expensive), but the doors to the office were locked. I sat in the ground-floor entrance for an hour while Sun-duk and Gana took photographs of downtown Ulaanbaatar, and when they came back, we took the bus to Mercury Market. We bought lots of food and vegetables and invited Gana over for some good ol’ Korean bibimbap.
Of course, Gana found the meal a little too spicy for her taste, even though we put but a smidgen of kochu jang on her rice. The rest of the evening was spent playing a board game called Sequence and watching the Sydney Olympics closing ceremonies.
We never did get to see any of the Olympics, in spite of being almost in the same time zone. All of our cable channels were either too specialised to carry such programming, or too poor to afford to pay NBC for a feed. All we got were highlights on CNN, TV5, and the German and Russian channels.
The closing ceremonies were pretty good, though. Of course, the fireworks were spectacular, but my favourite part was the parade of Australian pop culture icons – Crocodile Dundee, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Crocodiles, Kylie Minogue, Men at Work, Waltzing Matilda, and, of course, Abba. Nice show!
I watched a very interesting documentary on macaws on the National Geographic Channel (anyone who knows me knows how much I love parrots) and set off for Soros to fill out that darned application form for Foreign Affairs and write to the Canadian ambassador to China to please let me write the exams in Ulaanbaatar (Canada only has a consulate here, and they cannot, under normal circumstances, administer any exams here).
At 12:30, we got a note from the post office saying that there were three boxes addressed to Soros, so I scooted over there with two interns – one who prefers English, the other Russian – only to find out that the international parcels counter people are off from noon to two. Well, that burst my bubble, since I had to leave at around two to give a report to the Russian school director about her English teachers and programme. I desperately want my suits!!!
At the Russian school, Buman, Buyanlkhan and I gave the teachers the results of their tests and offered a few suggestions on how to improve their curriculum and methodology. Then an hour in the director’s office, where we finalised my Saturday tutoring plans before discussing the programme and the teachers.
Buyanlkhan and I talked for about half-an-hour on our career paths, and she’s also looking to quit teaching. She mentioned that she saw ads in the newspapers from the UNDP, and that rang a bell. If I can’t even take the Foreign Affairs exam, much less be hired by the ministry, then I ought to look around at the various UN branches and larger NGOs in Mongolia or even Africa. (I would love to work in Senegal or Cameroon!)
We wrapped up the meeting at 4:30; the post office closed at four. I handed Buman the package slip and asked her to pick up the boxes tomorrow if she could. I could come and bring them home tomorrow evening, after our meeting concerning the Terelj seminars.
OBSERVATIONS: Autumn is well and truly here. The leaves – all yellow in Mongolia, no reds or oranges – have fallen to the ground or been blown away by the strong Siberian winds, and the weather has finally gotten nippy. The temperature was up in the low twenties ‘til the third or fourth week of September, but now it’s in the teens. Mornings and evenings are cold – almost at zero -, but afternoons are quite warm, so getting dressed is a bit of a problem: how many layers should we put on? Most people opt for a sweater and jacket over a tee-shirt, and add or subtract accordingly.
I was just about to start my lesson when Delgerjargal, one of the Onol teachers I train on Fridays, walked in, saying that the class was now hers since the change in our schedules. Yes indeed, the return of the seniors has meant a complete upheaval in our lives. In my case, I am now rid of my freshmen, and only teach the sophomores three hours a week (one hour a section). I continue teaching the juniors nine hours a week (three hours a section), while the three senior sections get me for two hours a week each. I’ve met some of the seniors – at least the more enthusiastic ones -, and am hoping for a motivated group of people.
Khanda and I talked about the various sections, and my evaluation of each coincided with the general opinion of the teachers with whom I share them. That was reassuring, if not very helpful. What was helpful was finding out that the “A” sections are majoring in translating and teaching – not just translation. This news also brought a shock to my system, since the “A” sections are not among the more fluent or diligent. I guess I’ll have to shame them into working harder. Maybe they figure that they’re already better than their aimag teachers (no great feat), and don’t need to do their homework or open their mouths.
Anyway, I finished at five-thirty and hurried over to our meeting on the Terelj camp seminar. It will last three-and-a-half days, from Tuesday to Friday evening. Because John is just starting his in-service teacher-training programme, we all thought that he should stay in UB, while the rest of us – Kelli, Eric (a middle-aged Dutchman with excellent EFL skills) and I – enjoy some time off from our regular jobs in one of the lovelier parts of the country. Each one of us will be teaching eight hours over the three days, and we’re going to cover quite a bit of ground: methodology, vocabulary, grammar, verb tenses, reading comprehension, text analysis – everything done through the prism of teacher-student interaction. The morning classes will concentrate on the new Soros-written, government-sponsored high-school textbooks, Blue Sky, which most of the rural teachers are now using. (By the way, they’re all from the west part of the country.) The afternoon lessons will be conducted through personal material, continuing and complementing what will have been covered earlier in the day.
The meeting concluded at a quarter past seven, and since the Soros driver had already left for the day, Buman called her husband and asked him to help me with the boxes she had picked up at the post office earlier. We waited over an hour while Buman talked with two representatives from the European Science Institute (I think that’s their name) who were looking for part-time teachers. I had to refuse, but did not exclude the possibility of teaching over the winter break.
Finally, at nine o’clock, Sun-duk and I were alone at home with our last boxes, and celebrated Christmas for the third time in four weeks. Yes, my suits did arrive, but wrinkled as prunes; I won’t be able to wear them until I get them dry-cleaned or iron them myself. (We’ve heard that dry-cleaning is prohibitively expensive in Mongolia, although Sun-duk said she saw a Korean dry cleaner two bus stops east of our apartment. Worth a trip…) All my ties save my favourite – worn at our July wedding – are accounted for, as are our winter coats, leather jackets, toiletries and foodstuffs. One problem: the bag of sugar tore open, and a jar of bulgogi (steak) sauce cracked, so that the contents were one sticky, gritty mess. Oh well, c’est la vie in Mongolia…
OBSERVATIONS: Three drunks got on my bus while I was on my way to Soros. One was blowing a whistle, another mumbling incoherently, and the third came and sat beside me, dead to the world. A young man standing in front of me with an obvious distaste for alcoholics wasted no time in shoving the guy next to me to the floor, punching and kicking him a couple of times. The drunk was too wasted to defend himself; earlier, in fact, he’d tried to spit, but didn’t even have the energy to make a proper ball and instead drooled all over his chin and chest. So he just lay there, napping, while passengers walked over and around him.
At last, the ticket vendor had had enough and dragged the man down the steps and onto the curb. He tried to get back on, but the vendor would have none of that, and shoved him back out rather roughly. The driver closed the doors and set off just as the drunk had fallen again, nearly running over him. One elderly gentleman criticised the vendor for the unceremonious, and dangerous, dumping. Interestingly, this old man was carrying a thin, eight-foot-long package wrapped in white canvas and string; what it possibly could have been is beyond my imagination.
I watched another documentary on South-American parrots; Alec Baldwin and his wife Kim Basinger were part of an eco-tour in an effort, I assume, to lure a few prime-time couch-potato morons into tuning in to PBS. Anyway, I got my first good look at a Spix Macaw, a very rare species of parrot with only 32 specimens in world zoos and one couple in the Amazon wild. I had seen pictures of the animal before in Bird Talk, but they were not particularly big or of good quality. Tonight, I saw just how beautiful Spixes are, with their powder-blue bodies and ivory-grey heads. They look a bit like the blue mutation Quaker parrot (my own Quaker was a normal lime-green and grey). I can hardly wait to grow old and raise parrots myself! Sigh… I miss Pistache…
So far, all my classes have been going extremely well, this week – the exact opposite of last week’s frustrating fiascos. Maybe my fits of pique affected them – not just temporarily, I hope.
More importantly, I e-mailed Eric Swanson – the head of Sun-duk’s Chinese club, and a young big-wig at UNICEF here in Mongolia – from the Soros office and asked him to give me some tips or leads for a possible position with a UN branch in January or February. I went one better afterwards, visiting the UNDP headquarters nearby and making two important connections of my own: Egge (pronounced ‘Eggy’; his real name is Enkhamgalan), the receptionist, who speaks fluent English, offered me Mongolian lessons, told me about possible job openings, gave me the personnel manager’s e-mail and office number, and wrangled a short interview with one of directors, a Mme Mireille Guillou from France, who’s been to Mongolia all of four weeks. Since I had to go teach at 12:30, I asked Mme Guillou if we could meet again next week (Thursday at nine), and queried about possible vacancies within the UNDP. She told me what I already knew: that the UNDP needs scientific personnel – especially in agriculture, forestry and medicine – much more than it does translators, editors, proofreaders or writers. I answered that things might change by February, and she suggested that the UN volunteer organizations – especially UNV and UNFPA – might have something for me. That was encouraging, so I resolved to revamp my resume and make a stackful for all these fine folk to hand out in the coming weeks.
Nothing of note today; I had four straight one-hour classes from 1:30 to 5:30. However, I want to mention that our apartment building is being renovated – in a fashion.
Konica, the film and camera people, is sponsoring a new paint job. The doors of each entrance are graced with the blazingly bright Konica rainbow, and the walls of the staircase are being coated in lovely pastel pink. They’ve only gotten to the second floor, so far; I guess our storey, the third, is scheduled for next week!
Also, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Onol – the ticket vendor on the bus wouldn’t take my money, and even motioned me to get off the bus. For some strange reason, she wouldn’t take my money. After a minute of my trying to explain that I was a teacher at Onol, not far away, she gave up on me.
I had no idea what I did wrong until I reached back into my pocket at 5:30. There, in my hand, lay two 1000-won notes from Korea!!!
I had found these bills in a shirt pocket; their purple colour, as well as the one and the zeroes, had fooled me into thinking they were 100-tugrik notes – which, as you might have guessed, look very much like their Korean counterparts. What is even stranger is that the shirt came from one of the boxes we opened on Tuesday! I was so absent-minded that I didn’t realize that I had never worn the shirt in Mongolia, and so failed to stop and ask myself when I possibly could have left this “Mongolian” money in my pocket!
OBSERVATIONS: I sometimes wonder if these entries are of any interest to anyone but me. I mean, I often get the feeling that I’m just writing down what’s happened, but not what I think or feel, which may be of greater interest to the average person.
I like to think of myself as a writer, or as someone with the potential to be a writer, but my style is rather terse. Does anyone out there mind that I don’t describe Mongolia more vividly? I recently began these footnotes titled Observations in an effort to record the little things in life here, fully aware of the fact that it’s the details which mark one culture, or country, from another. I hope they will help future readers get a better feel for The Land of Blue Sky, especially when we finally find the time and money to have some photographs developed, scanned and pasted within these pages.
We woke up this morning to the news that the Milosevic regime had been toppled. Incredible news, since before going to bed last night, the police had just tear-gassed hundreds of protesters attempting to break into the Parliament building.
Like everyone else, I was scandalized by Milosevic calling a second round of elections following last week’s defeat at the polls. When Tuesday the national court declared the elections invalid, I was not surprised in the least – that’s what all dictators do when they practice pseudo-democracy, isn’t it? I admit to believing that the opposition and the protesters would eventually fade away, as they did so often in the past; but the people’s will was just too strong this time, and not even Russia could side with Milosevic anymore. (It was about time Putin gave the villain the kiss of death.)
Of course, the scenes broadcast on BBC World and TV5 were reminiscent of what we saw in the former East-Bloc countries ten years ago. The only difference, I suppose, is that there hasn’t been as much euphoria in the West as there had been back then, when the Cold War had finally been brought to an end. Still, Yugoslavia had been a black eye for Europe ever since, with Milosevic the only tyrant at large in an otherwise democratic body. Maybe now we can have a truly strong, united Europe, one which will show the world that socialism and cooperation are the best paths to success and happiness – in fact, the best political system man has yet devised.
There was one Serb pundit on BBC whose comments I found absolutely disgusting. He claimed not to be a Milosevic supporter, but defended every one of his actions, saying that he was just trying to maintain the status quo, and that no one can be judged a war criminal for trying to maintain the status quo. Bull cookies! Look at how tolerant, beautiful, and well-off the country had been under Tito. Remember the Sarajevo Olympics and all the tourists who flowed into Adriatic coast villas throughout the seventies and eighties? Yugoslavia back then was more of a socialist country than a communist one, praised for its beauty and freedom. After Milosevic took power and fanned Serb nationalism and racism, Yugoslavia imploded, and its rump, after ten years of economic sanctions, became a political, economic and cultural backwater. So Mr. Pundit (I’ve forgotten your name, and it’s just as well), no matter what kind of spin you put on this decade of Balkan misery; no matter how many times you tell us that the West is prejudiced; no matter how persistently you affirm that we never have and never will understand the Serbian people and their history, I still think you’re one deluded durak.
Okay, so I spent my morning watching breaking news on television until my one o’clock meeting with the English teachers at Onol. We chatted for half-an-hour before talking about this week’s topic, Phonetics.
I’d prepared a syllabus with a book I’d used in Taejon (the graduate course), but it turned out to be much too advanced for Zolzaya’s needs. She’s teaching basic phonetics to first-year students, many of whom know – get this - no English at all.
I knew the freshmen’s English proficiency to be, to say the least, wanting, but from my conversations with the sophomores and juniors, I’d gotten he impression that all Mongolian kids these days received at least two years of English classes in high school. Well, I was wrong. Out in some rural areas, there hasn’t been any money to retrain even one Russian-language teacher, so children must perforce learn Russian. Why Onol accepts these kids into a translation programme is beyond me. Oh, I know it’s all about money, but in any Western country – and even in Korea -, translation schools require at least an intermediate knowledge of the second language. It’s no wonder now that so many of my second- and third-year students simply skip my classes, no matter how simply or slowly I speak.
So you can see how we’re still at ground level here in Mongolia. We probably won’t see any significant change for another decade or so, if we accept Korea or Japan as a barometer and take into consideration the Mongolians’ generally higher language-acquisition skills.
We also talked about students’ behaviour, as well: not just their poor knowledge of English, but their lack of enthusiasm and sense of responsibility. I’ve explained the causes already in an earlier entry, so I’ll spare readers the same speech; but it remains a galling phenomenon, especially to us teachers, who not only love studying – knowledge for the sake of knowledge -, but accept it as a necessity if we hope to succeed in life. Fortunately, some students are motivated, and I told the others to concentrate on them and not feel guilty about giving up on the others, who obviously couldn’t care less – they’re adults, aren’t they?
For two weeks, there had been no rain in Ulaanbaatar – something I hadn’t noticed until last night. Well, wouldn’t you know it, we woke up to gale-like weather conditions, which later on, in the middle of the afternoon, turned to snow, if only for a bit. By the time I left the Soros office at seven, there was nothing but puddles – dangerous when you realize that there aren’t many streetlights in this city. I got several soakings, stepping into one watery crevice after another like the clumsiest of stickleback sherpas.
Best of all, though – at least from my point of view -, is that the weather tonight was as cold as it ever gets in Seoul in January; and for that, I truly rejoice! No more Korean Winter Blues for me, boy – real, down-home snow and ice, sleet and hail, with accompanying temperatures well below minus ten. That’s life! That’s happiness! (Screw the warm puppy, I’d rather hug a snow-capped fir!)
Oh, and before I forget: I also got word from the liaison in Beijing that I could not write the Foreign Affairs exam in Ulaanbaatar. (It was a long shot to begin with, but at least Mr. Thompson was kind enough to bring the matter up to his bosses and ask them to make an exception in my case.) Eric wrote back, too, with some helpful hints and contacts. In fact, he’s leaving in December, so if UNICEF decides to keep the position (the UN is ever more budget-conscious, these days), I might just be the right person in the right place at the right time. He writes reports, edits papers and communiqués, and helps with other office-related work. I think I might enjoy that, and Eric says it probably wouldn’t be for the three years the UN generally signs its employees to. Likewise, the UNDP has been looking for a communication officer for close to two months now, and I think I would fit the bill nicely. However, I can’t very well ask them to wait four more months until my contract with Soros expires. Oh well, there might be even better pickings after the new year, when winter starts getting to the weaker Westerners. Keep your fingers crossed…
One of the reasons I came to Mongolia was to take it easy – to stop working insane sixty-hour weeks. So why am I spending my Saturday afternoons teaching English to adults at the Russian-Mongolian joint high school? It’s four hours of lessons, plus preps and homework.
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? I’m sacrificing my three-day weekends to practice my Russian. These teachers are beginners, and my suspicion of what a typical lesson would be like was confirmed after today. Three quarters of the class was conducted in Russian, and I spent an additional hour with the director, sipping tea and eating Buryat chocolate in her office.
Some interesting notes: there will be ten people attending my classes in the future; one of my ‘pupils’ is the director herself; the director works for the Ministry of Education in both Mongolia and Buryatia, in Russia; she spent eight years studying in Moscow and Irkutsk, and liked Brezhnev (though she has since become a staunch capitalist with social-democrat overtones); she thinks the lot of Korean women is terrible, and dismisses the Koreans – at least the ones in Mongolia – as cheapskates and dishonest businesspeople; after six or seven years of not speaking any Russian, I found that my proficiency threshold is presently set at three hours, after which my brain shorts out and refuses to work in any other tongue except English and French.
At three o’clock, I met Sun-duk. We had to find ourselves a good iron for our clothes, but comparison shopping is useless here – everything’s the same price. We paid US$21 for an excellent, Mongolian-made steam iron, bought some chocolate muffins at a French bakery and went to Soros to check our e-mail
At five, we met Douglas Campos for an evening out at Le Marquis restaurant. Douglas is a multilingual wunderkind, a year younger than I, but having visited over one hundred countries since the age of eighteen. He’s a Costa Rican who has lived and studied all over Europe, Africa and Latin America; currently, he’s the programme officer for the UNV (United Nations Volunteers). He arrived in Mongolia two months ago and will stay here for at least a year. Yes, we talked a little business (I’m handing in my resume Monday morning with the hope that something will come up in January or February), but we mostly stuck to our wonderful lives of world travel and experiences. Douglas has benefitted from a series of circumstances, both self-made and happenstance, to rise quickly in the ranks of academia and the international aid. He’s a very easy-going and personable fellow, and the three of us appear to have a lot in common. We plan on meeting regularly as long as we’re in Mongolia.
Some notes: Costa Rica is one of the only countries left in the world to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than with China; Costa Ricans do not need a visa to travel throughout much of the world; Costa Rica is the only country in the world to have its Israeli embassy in Jerusalem.
I tried ironing my charcoal suit, this morning; the results were disappointing. I became convinced that I would have to pay an arm and a leg every month to get my jackets dry-cleaned and pressed, but decided to give it one more shot… And lo and behold!, a half-decent job! Hip-hip-hip…
Otherwise, the day was uneventful. Sun-duk went to church and her Chinese club, while I stayed at home working all day. I had a bunch of reports to write up, a letter for a pay raise, lessons to prepare – not just for the students at Onol, but for the Russian teachers, the Onol instructors, and next week’s high-school teachers at Terelj, too.
Sun-duk is bored every once in a while – prompting her recent (and highly successful, might I add) forays into cooking and housemaking -, but I’ve so much on my plate that I most likely won’t have a weekend off until January. But at least it’s different from what I was doing in Korea, so it’s okay for now.
Early to bed, early to rise, said Ben, and I was in the bus at 7:45, UNFAP-bound for my interview with Douglas and his bosses.
Feeling spiffy, comfortable and confident in my new, custom-made charcoal suit – I don’t think I’ll be mistaken for a student, anymore -, I went through the usual interview procedure with bonhomie and left happy forty minutes later. Everything went well, everyone got along; nothing to do now but wait and see...
The job Douglas thought might be right for me is in information and communication technology (ICT). Specifically, they’re looking for a half-dozen people to act as teachers/managers/computer technicians to Mongolians, helping them set up an information-exchange system in UB and the eastern part of the country (where, by the way, Douglas has just spent two weeks, close to the Chinese border where the Mongolians and Russians repulsed a Japanese invasion attempt in the late thirties; interestingly, there are many Japanese tourists who make the trip there to pick up mementos of that fateful battle: bullets, shell fragments, bits of clothing, and such). I think I’m rather well-suited for the job, but I refuse to engage in speculation, since there are many qualified applicants, some no doubt more so than I.
I went to Yonsei Hospital after the interview, and at 10:30, Sun-duk and I were with Doctor Kim (he speaks fluent Korean, Mongolian and English, and is returning to Korea for good after a three-year stint here). She gave him a couple of urine and blood samples, the results of which will be given us Friday afternoon, when we return to perform another ultra-sound on Jagi’s belly. The doctor said we could even print out the picture, if we wanted! (No, we won’t put it up on our homepage – that’s too corny, even for us! However, if you would like a look, we’ll scan it and e-mail you a copy! ;-) He also recommended an obstetrician and a mid-wife for when the baby’s born.
It took me three weeks, but I finally went to the finance office at Soros and picked up my US$120 paycheck (with an $18 bonus for the medical seminar and Russian teacher evaluation). Good news: Buman and Chris may be able to add another $90 to our monthly salary. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
There was a drunk sleeping in the street at the bus stop near Onol; he was stretched out on his side against the sidewalk curb. The bus had stopped right next to him, and people were walking right past him. It seems that Mongolians, a proud and self-sufficient people, have no sympathy for alcoholics; yet everyone agrees that drinking has become a serious problem. There are no AAs or any sort of counseling available, I fear, in Mongolia. I’ll have to ask someone whether this is due to a lack of funds, will or both.
Be that as it may, the drunk did not spoil the glory of a full moon hovering just above the mountain peaks outside the city. It was the brightest and clearest moon I’ve seen in years, unspoilt by scudding clouds or smog. I have to remember to take a picture of it one of these days. Maybe I’ll wait until winter really sets in; right now, the scenery is a mixture of frost-covered hills, brown grass and dirt, and belching smokestacks. Not quite as memorable as it’s likely to be…
I should add here that although we have had two rolls of film developed so far of our trip to China (the Beijing and Great Wall pics), we haven’t had time to have the others done (including the rolls we’ve used here in Mongolia), or scan and upload anything. Sniff..! What are we to do? Scanners, computers, and fast internet connections are so hard to come by. To be honest, I seriously doubt I’ll have done everything I want with the homepage until the semester ends in January.
Some notes: Sun-duk had her walkman stolen on the bus. It was very crowded, and for once, she didn’t keep her backpack in front of her to guard against just this sort of thievery. She’s sad, but she has a spare walkman – just not as good as the old one.
The temperature hovered around zero, today, with the wind chill bringing it down to –10 or so. Meanwhile, back in Seoul, it’s 26 degrees. Now I ask you, where would you rather be? (If you answered Korea, you’re plumb crazy!)
My schedule was changed again, but that’s okay; it was more fine-tuning than anything else. Khanda and I also made an appointment to meet at Mobilcom, near the State Circus, so I could sign up for a cellular phone, courtesy of Onol FLI.
The weather’s getting better and better: probably –15 or –20 with the wind chill, and the school heating system won’t start until the 20th. It’s actually not so bad in my office, since I’m more or less bathed in sunlight during the afternoon hours. I’m reminded a lot of Taejon University, where, due to budget constraints, the classes weren’t heated until a certain date (usually with a coal stove); so that if winter started early, as it has this year in Mongolia (late October-early November is more usual), students and teachers must muck along in boots, coats and frozen fingers. (I think the teachers have the better bargain, though, since we’re able to move around a lot – unless, of course, you’re Korean or Japanese; then you just stand at your lectern, blah-blah-blah’ing for two straight hours, until you die of either boredom or hypothermia, whichever comes first.)
I held my first seniors class, this morning, and was pleasantly surprised. Most of the two dozen students were quite good - and enthusiastic, to boot. This was 4A, though; we’ll see how B and C do tomorrow.
One surprising fact: there are seven mothers in my class! All but one are in their twenties (the exception is my age), and their children are quite old, corroborating the fact that many Mongolians marry right after high school.
Have I mentioned that they spent all summer and the first five weeks of school doing an ‘internship’? I’m using quotation marks because what they do is not actually an internship. They don’t get to work for a company or the government; instead, they (not the teachers) select a group of articles or texts, in both languages, and translate them. These are later corrected by the professionals at Onol. I guess this might seem strange to Westerners, but bear in mind that this is still a developing country, and that both translation and capitalism are in their infancy. Even Koreans, after thirty or forty years of experience, have barely moved on to the ‘terrible twos’.
Tomorrow, I get to stay at school for ten hours – eight of them teaching. At least I’m done with half the week in a single day!
Note: I made another stride in learning Mongolian, today. After an hour of confusion – no, not confusion that’s too harsh; let’s say uncertainty -, I managed to equate the Mongolian perfective converb –aad, -ood, -uud-, -eed with the Korean -oso of motion (e.g. Jibe waso, chonyok bap mogossoyo. = I got home and had dinner.). The authors did not make this clear in the book, and I suspect it’s a semantic point that has escaped them. I wonder if this observation is valid, since I am using a very small corpus of material? Hmm… Every now and again, I get to dreaming about doing a Ph.D. in linguistics, possibly Ural-Altaic. I have to find out whether anyone’s ever done an exhaustive comparative study of Korean and Mongolian. I guess I’ll go subscribe to the Altaic discussion board at e-groups this week and ask the experts, eh?
(In fact, just last Friday, I downloaded and saved several extensive Altaic glossaries from that very same board, and there were quite a few Korean words. Of course, I’m more interested in the correspondences between the two languages’ grammar, syntax and semantic system than straightforward etymology. For example, Mongolian Yadj? and Korean Ottokeh? (English ‘How?’), while etymologically dissimilar, both come from similar verb forms, Yakh and Ottot’a (Eng. ‘To be how’) – a totally (I think) un-Indo-European phenomenon. The only difference: Korean uses an adverbial suffix, while Mongolian, which lacks adverbial suffixes, makes use of the imperfective converb suffix. You see, that’s another use of -dj, -ch (an obvious palatalised reflex of proto-Altaic *-g-) in Mongolian whose semantic field I need to study and compare with Korean and a few other Altaic languages – Japanese and Buryat, for sure, but perhaps also half-a-dozen more, including archaic and extinct tongues. I could go on and on, listing one grammatical similarity after another; but I shouldn’t give too much away, now, should I? ;-)
I went back to the UNDP for my meeting with Mme Guillou, but expected it to be a short affair, since on Monday I had bumped into her as Douglas and I were visiting his bosses in the office next to hers. She no doubt gathered that I had applied for a position with the UNV, so I came in with my resume and nothing else but a prepared statement that if the UNDP in Mongolia had a vacancy for 2001, she could keep me in mind.
However, we got to talking shop, and I didn’t leave until well past 9:30. Mme Guillou worked in Africa for forty years before being assigned here with five days’ notice. She herself hails from Bordeaux, so her greatest concern about coming here was the cold. Luckily, everything else in Mongolia, has been top-notch – much better than anything she experienced in Africa. The degree of organisation, the cooperation between various levels of administrations, the warmth of the people, the restaurants, the cheap apartments and markets, the lack of pollution, and the wonderful sensation of freedom afforded us by the great, wide-open spaces have won her over. I concurred wholeheartedly (please refer to my earlier observations in this diary), and rededicated my own near future to the cause of Mongolia.
After this pleasant tete-a-tete, I set off for the Soros office, where I had another meeting concerning next week’s in-service teacher-training seminar at Terelj. Eric has dropped out, replaced by a seasoned, and very capable Mongolian teacher whose name escapes me at the moment (Erkha, I believe, but I’ve forgotten where she works). Kelli and I also ironed out a few things concerning the writing and text-analysis workshops, and that was about it. John, Kelli and I had lunch at the cafeteria downstairs, talked about baby names and the American elections (they both will be voting at the embassy), then everyone went on their merry way.
(By the way, I haven’t received any e-mail in over a week. Out of sight, out of mind, eh? ;-)
Classes are improving week by week, and it’s entirely due to my growing knowledge of Mongolian. (Notice I said ‘knowledge’, and not ‘fluency’!) The kids are understanding more and more (although they’ve usually forgotten everything two weeks later), and having more fun – not just with my still-pitiful attempts at proper Mongolian, but with the examples I’m thinking up in Mongolian, e.g. “When I get home, I always give my wife a kiss”, “My wife is prettier than yours”, “As soon as I get hungry, I go to a restaurant and eat twenty buuz”, etc. They still do so need a bilingual teacher; I was making up Mongolian sentences out of thin air five times faster than they were able to in English – and less derivative, too. They have a great deal of trouble with creativity, too, even in their own language; I tell them, in Mongolian, that if they’re having trouble, they should try thinking up a sentence in Mongolian and then translate it. That’s still too hard for most of them, though…
Sun-duk came home with a package – the one her cousin Hye-young sent by air mail two weeks ago. It was stuffed with dried Korean seafood – seaweed, anchovies, squid, kim, etc. – plus one book on pregnancy, a large thermos-cum-lunchbox, eight rolls of Kodak film and six six-millimetre video tapes for our camera. Yea! I can record my trip to Terelj, next week!
The food is traditional Korean yummies for pregnant mummies, although it’s also part of a post-partum regimen which Korean women and doctors swear is the best in the world. I’m skeptical myself – I mean, it all comes down to nutrients, doesn’t it? Western women just get theirs from different sources, that’s all.
In any case, our house is turning into a Little Korea. Apart from the weather and the strange language spoken on the streets, Sun-duk is pretty much living and working as she did back home – albeit more comfortably!
Laugh of the Day: Sun-duk laid a big fart in the office, driving her colleagues into hysterics! I wonder if she blamed her flatulence on her pregnancy? ;-D
Today’s teacher seminar was a non-event, since no one showed up for my carefully prepared verb-tense methodology lesson. One person came to my office: a teacher from the State Pedagogical Institute, with a very good knowledge and command of English. She had a request: could she and her colleagues attend my lectures?
I was game, but the problem, as we soon found out, was one of time. Friday afternoon at three or four, she affirmed, was a much more convenient hour for them. She also wanted to know whether the seminars could be held at the institute, rather than at Onol, which is quite a ways out. I answered that my first responsibility remained the Onol teachers, and that if just one (semi-)regular attendee objected, I would have to continue to give my lectures in my office at one o’clock. I also suggested that transportation would have to be provided for all of us, since I don’t think any of us is ready to part with T400 a week on the whim of an outsider.
Khanda was there with us during the ‘negotiations’, and she promised to address the issues I raised with Director Byambajav and Bumangerel. It still looks like a long shot from where I stand, but when I spoke to Buman later, she seemed all for the idea. (Anything to raise the Soros Foundation’s profile within the academic community!)
For those whom the intricacies of pedagogy leave cold, however, I will now relate the highlight of the day: Sun-duk’s and my trip to Yonsei Hospital for test results and the ultra-sound.
The obstetrician told us that blood- and urine-wise, Sun-duk and the baby were both doing fine. That didn’t surprise us very much, so we quickly moved the conversation towards the main item on our agenda: the sonogram.
Instead of going to the room just down the hall where Doctor Kim had performed the first ultra-sound test six weeks ago, we went down to the hospital basement, through a maze of rooms filled with rickety furniture and leaky pipes, and finally emerged onto a courtyard. To the left was a building even bigger than the hospital: the ‘maternity ward’.
It’s not actually part of Yonsei, but a separate entity which, I suspect, is subsidised by the hospital nonetheless. The fees it charges for delivering a baby and providing post-natal care to mother and child are much, much lower than at the other hospitals - by as much as 500%, in fact. The difference in price actually frightens me – why doesn’t every expectant mother come here if it’s so much cheaper? Is there an equivalent difference in quality? However, the Korean doctors at Yonsei recommended both our obstetrician and the ‘ward’, so there must be another reason that accounts for this strange state of affairs, and which I haven’t yet found.
So… Inside we went, into a room where the ultra-sound monitor is smaller than Yonsei’s and the printer is also out of order. No sonogram print-out again, but we were promised a free ultra-sound with print-out November 10, when we’ll be able to determine the baby’s sex.
The doctor spread some special gel on Sun-duk’s belly to improve the conduction of the sound waves, then took his emitter and moved to and fro over the surface. On the monitor, we could see her womb and the baby from almost every conceivable angle – much to my confusion, since the speed at which the entire procedure was being performed proved much too fast for me to discern the slightest detail.
At one point, the doctor stopped long enough to show me the head, then the tiny, beating heart – a black spot which stood out in the starkest of fashions against the milky-white background of the foetus’ body. At last, for his finale, the doctor gave us a full-length, right-side profile of the baby lying on his/her back; head, eye, torso and limbs were clearly visible, and flawless.
Sun-duk later told me that when she saw our baby for the first time, she felt ‘weird’ (the closest translation we could find for the Korean word ‘shimgihada’). The reality of the pregnancy is finally hitting us, and we’re growing excited. This evening, after we’d both attended her Chinese club and come home, we started reading our respective ‘expectant mother’ books, Korean and English. We also talked over names again, Korean and French.
Sun-duk will break with Korean tradition and give our children pure Korean names. Right now, she seems to have settled on the following choices: Kun-pyul (‘Great Star’), Kun-nara (‘Great Country’) and Kun-pada (‘Great Sea’). I don’t particularly like the sound of kun, but Korean is still a foreign language to me, so I trust Sun-duk and her selections implicitly. The same cannot be said for the reverse, however!
I have come up with a list of what I believe are very beautiful, euphonic names and middle names, male and female. They’re pure French, i.e. they have no equivalent in English, and yet are easily pronounceable by most, if not all, foreigners. I don’t want to say what they are, though – at least not until I’ve checked with my parents and made sure that no one else among the Séguins and the Roys bears one of the names I’ve chosen. Specifically, some of my cousins have had children in the past five years, and I have absolutely no idea what they were baptised. I’m awful, aren’t I? But then again, how many of you out there have close to thirty cousins to keep track of?
I dreaded teaching the Mongolian teachers, today; I even hated myself for accepting the job, since it takes away practically all of my free time. I mean, the class is from 11 to 3, so I lose both my morning and my afternoon. I really want to finish the special sections I’ve talked about for this homepage. If I were completely free on Saturdays, I might have been able to finish them by the end of the month; but as things now stand, January seems a more plausible date.
Coming back from the lesson at three, however, I realized yet again that working here was the right thing to do. I’m benefitting enormously from speaking Russian for almost four hours at a time. The rust is flaking off at a speed surprising even for me, leaving no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if I were to work/live in a Russian setting for just six months – near-total immersion, of course -, I would speak, read, know, and understand the language as I do French and English. (Notice I left out ‘write’ – I am fully aware and realistic of the extent of my abilities.) And I have to say everyone had a great time, too, so I appear to be winning at both ends of the pedagogical equation.
In the evening, I finished reading What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and came to the inevitable conclusion that Sun-duk’s diet needed a lot of fine-tuning. One big concern has been her month-long aversion to meat, particularly mutton, and dairy products. They’re an essential source of protein and calcium, two things which her essentially vegetarian diet lacks.
Now, neither one of us wants to be the progenitor of smurfs, so in order to give the baby the nutrition it so sorely wants, we made a list of foods found here in Mongolia that cover the spectrum of protein, calcium, iron and all the vitamins recommended by the experts. Then we looked at what Sun-duk liked, or might like, and came up with the following:
Meat: Right now, she only has a taste for beef, so we’re going to buy lots of steak and ton kasuh.
Dairy Products: She hated the Russian milk, which was 2,5%. We’re going to try to find the creamier 3,5%, of which she drank a lot in Korea. If she still finds the taste strange, I’ll put in some honey to sweeten the deal! In addition, we’ll get her Yoplait yoghurt and Edam cheese. The former is delicious; the latter, according to her, has no taste at all, and thus is acceptable.
Grain: I want to wean her off all the rice she’s been eating. According to my book, wheat is a heck of a lot more nutritious. This got me to wondering whether the smallness of Orientals is due to their dependence on rice – not to mention the rest of their diet, which consists principally of fish and vegetables.
Fruits and Vegetables: The choice is limited in Mongolia, and the more exotic produce, such as oranges, bananas and nuts, is very, very expensive. We’ll depend for the most part on apples, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, potatoes, raisins, carrots, and other indigenous fare which has no name in English. We have found snack-packs of sliced, dried oranges and bananas; they’re fairly priced. We also brought over from Korea a bottle of vitamin C tablets.
I myself created a diet for Sun-duk, one which will cover all her nutritional needs. Tomorrow, at the market, we’ll get her everything she needs; we can afford to spend a little more now that I’ve been given a US$90 raise (not to mention the $40 I’m getting each month for teaching at the Russian high school).
Last and least, I watched an eighteen-year-old movie starring Jean Rochefort and Jean-Pierre Marielle, L’Indiscrétion. It was a great spy thriller, full of ambiguities and unanswered questions. At the end of the film, you still don’t know who the bad guys were, or what they were after, or why they killed the people they killed. (Jean-Luc Besson’s Nikita was similarly riddled with question marks.) It was probably remade a few years later by some Hollywood hack, with all the eyes dotted and the tees crossed, and quickly disappeared to the B-movie shelf of your local video store.
At two o’clock this afternoon, Sun-duk and I met a group of fourth-year students at Sukhbaatar Square. It was an appointment we had agreed to last week, even though the students – all mothers, by the way, with two even bringing along their daughters – speak but little English. Still, we spent an interesting ninety minutes together at the Mongolian Museum of Natural History.
The most fascinating thing there, especially for Sun-duk, was the dinosaur exhibit on the second floor. Dinosaurs flourished 75 million years ago in what is today’s Gobi Desert. The showcase was a huge, twenty-foot tall, tyrannosaurus-type animal whose skeleton was about 80% intact. (Steel rods, bent this way and that, replaced missing ribs and other bones.) Also impressive were the triceratrops (they seemed to have been the dominant species in Mongolia at the time), the diplodocus, the armadillo-like lizard, and the various remains of small reptiles who eventually gave rise to birds (not the archeoptyrix, by the way).
Less edifying and a little scarier were the hundreds of stuffed animals displayed on the third floor. Because Mongolia has neither the resources to build a proper, humane, modern-day zoo, nor the tourist or population base to make it financially viable, the government has had to shoot its own wildlife – adults and young alike. Apparently, the capital of each aimag has its own museum of natural history, with pretty much the same animal exhibits – in spite of the fact that many of these creatures are endangered or even on the bridge of extinction. Something else I found very disconcerting were the stuffed, non-indigenous animals on display: kangaroos, moose, possums, geese, ducks, and so on.
The first floor was more politically correct, if boring: Mongolia’s geological history. One room was rather interesting, offering small-scale models of the country’s various eco-systems, but many of the others simply contained hunks of rocks and minerals. One exception was the space room, where patrons can not only see and touch actual meteorites, but admire the actual space suit of Mongolia’s one-and-only cosmonaut. I’ve yet to learn his name, or what exactly his was mission on Mir (this was ten or fifteen years ago), but I’ll to find out one of these days.
An indication of Mongolia’s dependence on more developed countries lies on the tiny cardboard cards at the foot of each exhibit: they were a jumble of Mongolian, Russian, English, Latin and Japanese. In fact, there was a small group of about ten Japanese tourists visiting the museum at the same time we were, enjoying a bilingual guide’s explanation of each facet of Mongolia’s crusts and beasties.
I did some work at home on the Korean-Canadian Couples section. There will be four rubrics: The Korean Perspective, The Canadian Perspective, Children, and a Forum. The first two will contain essays – by Sun-duk and me, of course, but by others, also, who would like to share their experiences and opinions. The rubric on children will deal with all the ups and downs – legal, social, cultural – we must face as families of a particular combination of heritages. The last, as you will have guessed, is a discussion board where people from our demographic group can gather for information, advice, and even jokes and stories. I created the forum three weeks ago at the e-groups site, but may switch to something better if and when I find it.
So there’s actually nothing to prevent me from putting the section on-line, except for the fact that I would like to have our essays up to sort of encourage others to participate. Sun-duk’s already been working on hers, but I haven’t had time to do mine. Although events in October wreaked havoc on my previous predictions, I’ll hazard a guess and foresee a grand opening two to three weeks from now.
My passion for perfection has also kept the Mongolian section off-line. I’d say 80% of the text has been written – that’s 16 rubrics out of 20 -, but I haven’t had the opportunity to find and upload accompanying pictures. I hope it’ll be ready sometime in December – maybe earlier if I’m lucky.
The EFL section only needs to be organized. I have most of the material for Mongolia, and it just wants to be copied or pasted in HTML form.. I’ve put this off for when I start making the EFL sites for Soros, since there’ll be so much overlap, anyway.
Okay, now for the rest of the day’s events. We had a final meeting on Terelj at one o’clock at Soros, this time with Erka, Eric’s replacement. She co-authored the new English high-school textbook sponsored by MFOS and the Ministry of Education. She’s also the Dean of the English Department at the University of Humanities, where Elizabeth was supposed to work.
I was all set to work on the homepage after the meeting when Buman asked me if I wanted to make an easy US$50. I said yes - it’s a quarter of my present salary -, and off we went to the Erel Television Station to record a voice-over for a ten-minute documentary. Unfortunately, the text was a pretty poor translation from the Mongolian – word-for-word, in fact -, so I offered to edit by five.
Alas, by the time five o’clock rolled around, I still had a page left, so we postponed the recording until noon tomorrow.
Marta, a young married man who accompanied me to the TV station, makes web pages for MFOS. Because MFOS is staying put in Ulaanbaatar and has some loose change, Marta is able to use advanced photo-shop and web-design software to create very sophisticated graphics and pages which he simply uploads into the local server and thence to the internet.
Myself, I’m too poor to buy all that expensive software; and even if I had it, where would I upload my creations? Not into a local server, considering our peripatetic lifestyle; and not to an international host site, because the good ones charge a lot for the privilege. So we have to make do with free host sites like Tripod, where users are limited to HTML, a somewhat primitive programming language that forces one to create pages in two-layer (background and foreground) blocks.
It’s a shame for the homepage, but at least I’ll have fun using the software to create the MFOS EFL sites. I had Marta do some tricks for me; the programmes are very user-friendly.
I woke up at 2:30. An hour later, still wide-awake, I decided to polish the documentary translation.
Apart from the editing and re-writing, I also had to make sure each paragraph was shorter than its Mongolian counterpart. As I watched the video yesterday in Mongolian, I noticed that the narrator was reading at quite a clip – much faster than English-speakers are used to. So I had to make sure my own text was faithful to the original, but in the briefest, most concise manner possible.
I didn’t go back to bed. I also had to prepare this morning’s class and Friday’s seminar; then I packed, polished my shoes, ironed my suits, swallowed breakfast, made Sun-duk’s lunch… Crazy. The class turned out to be a breather.
I was afraid the dubbing might take a very long time – the bus to Terelj was to leave at 3:30, and I wanted to check my e-mail and find out about the baby names from my parents! Luckily, it was all over by 1:30, and I even had enough time to create the link you see on our site’s portal page (the one that brings you to the discussion board for Korean-Canadian couples). The link is only temporary, to be replaced in a forthnight’s time by the fuller section I described yesterday.
ONE: The Documentary. Soros, through MFOS, has helped establish a Community-Policing Programme in Ulaanbaatar that includes citizens in a kind of neighbourhood-watch type of project. The video will be presented in America at an international symposium for policemen… I think.
TWO: The TV Station. It’s brand new, and won’t go on the air for another month or so. It’s owned by Erel Corp., Mongolia’s largest conglomerate, a chaebol-like entity that’s grown from its roots in gold mining to a true Far-Eastern octopus with its tentacles in many fish pies: construction, schools, hospitals, housing, media, etc. The station is located in an Erel ‘ghetto’, a neat neighbourhood of year-old brownstones that is a self-contained city in its own right.
THREE: The Taping. They sat me down at the news anchor’s desk, with a mike and a TV set in front of me showing the video. Whenever I read too slowly, and my narration spilled over into the next scene, I either sped up or trimmed the text even further. At other times, having dispensed with the flowery Mongolian prose, I finished a section ahead of time, leaving a pregnant pause that didn’t seem to concern the producer all that much. To make sure I didn’t start reading the next part before my cue, I asked Marta to poke me at the appropriate time, thus allowing me to keep my eyes on the text and stay focused.
I slipped up twice, and the engineers, who were operating the machines in the room across the hall, had trouble locating the flubs, since they didn’t know any English. We would pick up where I had blundered, and keep on going until the next error. The actual recording thus only took about twenty minutes.
I listened to myself later on, and of course found fault with everything: my pronunciation, my intonation, my delivery. My tongue tripped ever-so-slightly on two words (both in the same paragraph, if you please), but no one noticed except me – it will, however, scrape the ears and nerves of the hundreds of native English speakers who will be forced to watch the thing. Luckily, Westerners expect a certain degree of amateurism out of Mongolia, especially in light of the fact that trained English actors are a rare, perhaps even non-existent, commodity in these parts.
And so ended my second star turn for Mongolian television. I set up the K-C link at the office, checked my e-mail (no word from les vieux -, and at four, Buman, Erka, Kelli and I, along with forty or so teachers and assistants, set off for a two-hour ride to Terelj.
There were two buses; I sat alongside Kelli, Erka and Mira. (Mira will be handling the Russian-language seminars, although her English is very good, too.) We took the same route as last time ‘round, and even drove by our idyllic “dinosaur” camp. I looked fondly upon the hills which had born me and my “steed”. From afar, I was amazed at just how steep and treacherous our path had been. Mongolian horses definitely have thicker, shorter, stronger legs than their Arabian cousins.
The highlight of the trip, apart from the forever awe-inspiring, untamed countryside, was watching a man in traditional del, boots and hat sit quietly in his wooden saddle until he suddenly clucked his horse into a full gallop. He stood stock straight in his stirrups, covering several hundred metres in thirty seconds flat; then the horse slowed down, crossed the road, ran up a hill and disappeared with its master. It was a breathtaking sight, like an apparition; one had the impression man and beast had been snatched by a time machine at the very moment Chinggis Khaan and his Golden Horde were invading Samarkand or Tashkent.
We also saw yaks and snow once we’d reached a higher altitude. I don’t know how far above sea level we are, but I believe it’s higher than any point in South Korea.
At six, we arrived at our hotel, the UB-2. Buman gave me the choice of bunking with someone or going solo. I thought I might enjoy some ‘alone time’, so I opted for the latter.
My, oh my! What a room it is! Or should I say rooms? It’s almost twice as big as our Seoul apartment, with a living room, bedroom and bathroom. The inventory included a large closet, small fridge, bar area, huge desk, TV set, coffee table, three chairs, twin beds… Warm, too, with a Western-style bath and shower. (It’ll be my first shower in two months; I’ve been taking baths at our apartment, since the shower fixture, as you will recall, is irreparably damaged.)
Dinner was a very agreeable affair. Apart from having two large helping of rice and stewed beef, the conversation was lively and witty, with repartee spanning five languages and cultures. (I must admit that being in the company of fellow travellers and polyglots is a joy that has been denied me the last four years.)
We retired to our room at 7:45. I did a bit of work for tomorrow’s lesson, then turned in at 8:30; I hadn’t slept in eighteen hours.
Breakfast at 8:30: bread, jam and eggs. We, the seminar teachers, are introduced to the ‘students’ in the conference room on the third floor, then the lessons begin. The score or so of Mongolian-language teachers stayed in the conference room, while the smaller English- and Russian-language groups left for cozier confines downstairs. I went up to my room and worked some more on my lessons while Kelli had the honour of giving the first class.
During the coffee break at eleven, Kelli gives me a pretty good idea of our group’s abilities and motivation: they’re both good. They are all from the Western aimags – Bayan-Olgii, Bulgan, Khovd, Khovsgol, and Bayankhongor. They are all retrained Russian-language teachers, and the cream of their respective high-school crops; whatever they learn here will be passed on to their colleagues back home. Interestingly, most flew in to UB, as the rail- and highway systems in Mongolia are rudimentary at best. (The first only runs north-south, while the second has a total of 1500 km of paved road.)
Lunch: Wow! At one, we had a tangy cucumber salad and a great, big bowl of vegetable soup (with chunks of beef to satisfy the finicky Mongolian palate). I was getting ready to leave the table when suddenly before me was laid the main course: roast beef with rice, potatoes and sliced bell peppers. I think I’m finally going to gain some weight this week…
My seminar on text analysis went rather well. I used one of my favourite and user-friendly textbooks, Short Takes in Fiction, to show the teachers how to get their students to begin the crucial process of critical thinking. We simulated a class, during which we went through the various steps of pre-reading discussion, reading comprehension (reading the story several times, going over vocabulary and idioms), answering simple questions concerning plot and character before going for the jugular (interpretation of plot, character motivation and the author’s intention, followed by justification of one’s answers), then finally asking student-centred questions. The idea, of course, is to relate the story to the students’ own lives in order to stimulate interest and participation, as well as prepare them for academic writing at the post-secondary level.
As I said, the seminar seemed to be a success. Kelli sat in because her seminar tomorrow will deal with the mechanics of text analysis (Bloom’s taxonomy, in particular), using today’s text and questions. Hopefully, the teachers will be able to pick a text and think up questions that will lead students from one conclusion to another in a natural and logical manner.
We both attended Erka’s 4:30 lecture on textbook methodology, which focused on the new series of textbooks she helped design. Erka and I will be showing how to use the books as efficiently as possible; but as Kelli noted this morning, the teachers already appear to know most of the strategies used in communicative teaching. I drew up a list of activities in my room (about a score), and hope that several will be new to them.
Dinner: Mashed potatoes and hamburger steak. This is Beef Central! I’m so full! By seven, however, everyone had done eating and was looking for something to do. It’s too dark outside at this time of year, so there’s no hope of our being able to take an evening constitutional without the threat of severe bodily harm in this area where street lights (not to mention streets) simply do not exist. There’s a snooker room upstairs, but they’re asking T4000 an hour for the privilege; that’s a day’s wages for many Mongolians. Myself, I took a bath and went right to bed.
NOTES: The wall sockets here – most of them, anyway – are Chinese! Why is that?
The TV sets are really nice, with stereo and remote, but you can’t watch anything! The broadcast towers in UB just can’t reach this far up, even with the mini-antennas that grace the top of each boob tube. The mighty set sitting comfortably in the lobby is able to get all of one snowy, colourless Russian channel, but it appears to serve more as background noise than actual entertainment.
The bathroom is wonderfully modern, but only a single, tiny bar of pink soap and two white towels are provided. It’s a good thing I brought my own toothbrush and toothpaste, but I’ll have to live without shampoo for four days.
I didn’t step outside of the hotel once today; but tomorrow, I’m off until four-thirty, and I plan on taking a good, long hike.
Kelli was free until 2:30, so we spent most of the day up in the mountains and along the river that flows just behind the hotel. Atop one hill stood an ovoo (stone burial mound) overlooking a small village in the distance. Kelli and I remarked again how odd it feels to walk on steppe: the ground is spongy, and the grass grows in tufts one or two inches apart, creating a polka-dot effect that is not visible from afar. The grass itself is only an inch long; livestock eat up everything but the roots.
As for the river, over 80% of it is exposed at this time of year, so we were able to criss-cross it at different points, exploring a dozen temporary islands as well as the banks. The varying depths mean that the river sometimes branches off into unusual directions, snaking its way a bit everywhere, with slender fingers of water ending in tiny frozen puddles or simply orphaned into ponds for cows, horses and goats to drink from. Where there was no ice, one often found tiny rapids, where water ran several feet deep and flowed in a deceptively strong current. No matter where we looked, though, we could see the bed. The water was crystal-clear, just achingly beautiful. Good enough to drink, I should think…
We had trouble fording the river at some places, however. We sometimes found convenient stepping stones, or walked across fallen tree trunks, like a couple of high-wire artists without the benefit of a safety net. There was one island we really wanted to get to, but we could see no obvious bridge. I tried one precariously perched trunk and promptly got my left foot soaked for my efforts as a branch gave way beneath me; it was as dry and brittle as balsa wood. Undaunted, I convinced Kelli to help me drag a dead, four-metre-long tree to the edge of the river, and together we flipped it across the water. Unfortunately, it was a full metre short; with only one end anchored to the far bank, the current quickly got ahold of the trunk and swept it away, even though the water was but a foot deep!
Well, we had to come in for lunch by this time, so I personally chalked this failure up as another of life’s great disappointments. A marvelous fall stroll, nevertheless: crisp autumn air, a springy bed of fallen leaves, and not a soul about, save some bovines and the skeletal remains of cows past.
As for my writing seminar, it didn’t go quite as quickly as I’d hoped, so we’ll have to finish it tomorrow. They seemed tired today, too, and their attention may have flagged somewhat.
Dinner: Cow’s tongue, sliced thin. Saruul-Erdene, the Mongolian-language methodologist, gave each of us, his colleagues, an abridged bilingual edition of The Sacred History of the Mongols - Mongolia’s very own Aeneid, written in 1240, experts believe. We discussed comparative linguistics and Altaic languages, which helped clear a few points for me. Useful…
There was a big party after the meal, but I was too tired to participate. Kelli told me it was a lot of fun, with teachers singing folk songs and performing traditional dances well into the wee hours of the night.
The highlight of the day, surprisingly enough, was not my very successful four-hour seminar on teaching vocabulary and speaking through the new textbooks (the teachers stayed thirty minutes into lunch, asking me all sorts of questions and looking at some supplemental books I used in Korea), but my first-ever real Mongolian snowfall.
When I awoke at seven, there was frost, but no snow. By the time I came out of the shower at 7:30, there was an inch of powder everywhere. It was gorgeous – picture-postcard perfect. You hope for this kind of weather on Christmas Eve, when the temperature is just below zero, and the snowflakes as light and fluffy as angels’ wings. I hurried outside and took some photographs before settling down for breakfast and the lesson.
After lunch, I went out again in the company of Kelli, but the snowfall had ceased and the temperature fallen to –10. With the wind chill factored in, though – and I’m relying on my past experience in Canada, hoping my years in Korea haven’t dulled my instinct or senses -, it felt more like -25. Not cold enough for frostbite, so not cold enough to be donning a hat or toque, either. Almost two years have passed since I’d had the pleasure of being tossed smack-dab into real, down-home winter weather, and for two hours, we walked across fields and valleys, followed by a yellow dog and a herd of cows.
I don’t know enough about cattle raising in Canada to make a comparison, but it struck me as odd and intelligent on the part of these cows that by four o’clock, they were all making their way home in a queue, without the aid of a herdsman. They’d travelled several kilometres to find decent pasture, and had somehow remembered the route. Do Western cows do this, too?
We had trouble finishing our early dinners, and I felt sort of sick to my stomach in the bus two hours later, as we rolled, bounced and slid to Ulaanbaatar. There was one instance where a bump literally lifted me up out of my seat a good eighteen inches; I lose hold of the seat bar in front of me, twisted leftwards whilst in the air, and landed, back first, on the corner of a metal toolbox. That prompted a change of seats with a Kazakh teacher, but I remained in the grips of nausea.
A dozen teachers up front spent the whole trip singing folk songs, some of them, I was told, generations, if not centuries, old. It was quite a contrast from Korea, where folk songs are the repertoire of museum artists and a very select group of university music majors. What passes for ‘traditional’ there these days is the ultra-fast, hyper-kitschy, chipmunk-voiced songs that were so popular in the sixties among people of Sun-duk’s mother’s generation. (Still, it’s a hoot watching the old-timers dance to that ****, trying to keep pace to a 16/16 beat!)
I stayed at the Soros office for an hour while Buman’s family came by to pick me and two other assistants up. Her children were fascinated by our homepage, and I got to show it off just a bit. Buman’s got great kids: really bright, fluent in three languages (Mongolian, English and Russian, which they use interchangeably, often in the same sentence), inquisitive and outgoing, but always polite. Bright future, they have…
Sun-duk was really happy to see me back home. She admitted to being lonely – four days by herself, and with no one to cuddle up to for three. The old saw is true: parting is always harder for the person staying than for the one leaving. I was so busy in Terelj, and had so many new sights to take in, that my mind was constantly occupied, and usually fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow at night. Sun-duk felt the same way during her two-day trip up north – the only time I felt lonely in Mongolia. Ah, love!..
A quiet weekend, marked by Saturday’s cancellation of my English class at the joint Russian-Mongolian high school. Due to the arrival of a state inspector this week, all teachers spent the weekend taking acting lessons and fine-tuning the most perfect lectures of their careers. The director had tried to reach me earlier, but to no avail. I hastily bid her not to worry about the slight inconvenience, as I had some errands to run at the Mercury Market just next door. However, I lost my left-hand glove at the school foyer, so that cast a shadow over the rest of the day.
No need to fear, however – I bought some edibles at the market and took the bus home. I also made a detour to the local shopping mall to pick up a pair of cheap new gloves and an extension cord. Then I helped Sun-duk prepare for tonight’s dinner party with Egge, his wife, Bormaa and Itchka.
Egge, you may remember, is security guard/receptionist at the UNDP building. I had asked Sun-duk to invite him to our house this weekend. He had called several times last week to make a date, but for some reason could not get through, even though I’m sure I gave him the correct number. Boorma and Itchka are colleagues of Sun-duk’s at FftHI; the former is a mid-wife, the latter a secretary. Everyone speaks English, with a smattering of Russian and Korean (Egge spent 1997 in Korea working for a Hyundai sub-contractor in Inchon and Puchon). We had a pretty good time; but the party had ended by eight, just as our housewarming did, due to the buses, which stop running early on weekends.
Today, Monday, I decided to stay at home. I’m exhausted, need some time to myself, and a little feverish from… something, but I don’t know what. Wow… That’s two whole weeks with only about three hours of cyber-surfing, mostly answering e-mail; so allow me to apologise to everyone out there still waiting for me to reply to a message or finish the new sections I promised you so long ago. I know it’s nigh-inconceivable for most people to imagine life nowadays without instant internet access at home or at the office, but that’s my case here in Mongolia. With my present schedule, I’ve only got Mondays and Thursday mornings free; those are the only times during the whole week when I can go down to the Soros office and indulge in what you take for granted.
NOTES: The fourth time was the charm. I finally got to see the ending to Apollo 13 Saturday afternoon. What was really strange was watching a Nova documentary a few minutes later on the National Geographic Channel about NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes, with footage of, and interviews with, the real astronauts, including Jim Lovell.
Third coincidence: the man playing the mission controller in Houston – the one with the blond crew cut – was a main character in the ten-o’clock movie, called State of Grace, starring Sean Penn and Gary Oldman. He played a misbegotten Irish gang leader in modern-day Hell’s Kitchen, and ended up being shot in the head by Penn. (By the way, John Turturro was in this one, too!)
Other excellent films playing on the Hollywood Channel this weekend: To Russia With Love, quite possibly the greatest Bond installment ever; The Brothers McMullen, a critically acclaimed independent movie from the early nineties, and The Photog, with Joe Pesci in a forties-era New York gangland mystery.
Khanda gave me my cell phone today. For anyone who’d like to reach me, you may dial the following numbers:
Home phone #: 976-11-68-74-32 or Cell phone #: 976-11-9616-3505
You’ll have to dial 011 to make an international call; then you can dial the other digits. Nine-seven-six is Mongolia’s country code, and 1 is Ulanbaatar’s city code.
IN PASSING: The temperature today reached a high of –10. I saw that it was 17 degrees in Seoul and about the same in Montreal. I guess there aren’t any Indians in Mongolia, eh?
Sun-duk’s belly is noticeably bigger. From the pictures in What To Expect When You’re Expecting, the baby grows the most, proportionately speaking, in the fourth month. Right now, it’s at fourteen or fifteen weeks, and Sun-duk ought to feel it move by mid-November.
I found out that two weeks ago, there’d been a big bash for the entire school – staff and student body – held at a disco until the wee hours of the morning. Somehow, everyone forgot to invite me, or even tell me about it. Sigh… I don’t understand. All the teachers know Russian; there’s no reason for them to ignore me. Do I really scare them that much?
In any case, there was a staff meeting today at one, which was postponed until three; so I spent most of my free time working on my essay for the Korean-Canadian Couples section, and chatting with one of the younger English teachers who’d come to the office to chat.
This poor girl just graduated last spring, and does not really want to be a teacher. In fact, she’s finding it a very hard profession after just one month here. I told her not to give up; every job has its bumps along the way. Besides, if she hopes to get a graduate scholarship to an American university, she’ll need experience in the field, because a Bachelor’s degree in Mongolia is not quite up to par to a Western one.
I was aghast to find out that although she’s been hired as a part-time instructor, she teaches twenty-one hours a week! Composition and translation, at that! (Luckily for her – but not for the country-, most of the students are lazy, so she doesn’t spend all that much time correcting homework.) To compound this deplorable state of affairs, she’s only paid T30,000 a month! That’s less than thirty American dollars. I didn’t ask her where she lives or how she eats; presumably, most Mongolians must survive on such meagre earnings. I have to admit I’m ashamed to be getting a thousand a month teaching basic grammar and conversation, but I guess it’s worth it for the school: none of the other teachers have anything close to my knowledge and fluency of English, and they seldom, if ever, use communicative methodology.
The meeting was a dull affair, enlivened only by some home videos. I was told that the school puts on two shows a year: one celebrating Russian culture, the other Great Britain and the United States. The students participate by dancing, reciting poetry, singing songs (usually nursery rhymes!), and so on. I found it interesting that last year, small groups of students had to represent a foreign country – the bigger ones, of course, but also such ignominiously ignored nations as Zaire, Wales, Scotland, Liberia, and Egypt. All they had to do was make a flag, maybe dress up in something resembling the local dress, and introduce themselves with a microphone. These were sophomores, and their English skills were so low… A few are good, but as I’ve noted before, my own Mongolian – at least the grammar part of it – outstrips their knowledge of English. Some are obviously way in over their heads, while most are just plain lazy.
Khanda gave me a lift to the Soros office at five-fifteen, and I worked there until eight. I helped Buman and one of her friends type up a cover letter for another friend looking to study in England. Then Buman gave us both a ride home, and I found out that her friend (I’ve forgotten her name, but she’s very personable) works for Save the Children, whose boss happens to be a man by the name of Marc Laporte – a French-Canadian!
I told her that I haven’t met a single French-Canadian since coming to Mongolia – and in fact, have only met two in Asia in my four years here. It would be wonderful if I could meet him and others like us. Koreans, Americans and English-Canadians simply cannot understand what it’s like for me to be apart from my native language and culture, since they can always find a compatriot, no matter where they are or where they travel to.
NOTES: In a quirk of fate, I was able to watch Apollo 13 again last night, just twenty-four hours before tuning in to the second half of the Nova documentary on the space race – including a ten-minute segment on the actual near-disaster, and interviews with Lovell and Haise, the astronauts aboard the Odyssey.
On the way to Soros, I saw several people selling big plastic jugs of anti-freeze. There are practically no car garages in Mongolia, and no electrical sockets at all to keep batteries functioning.
The other night, I couldn’t sleep and got up to watch a bit of TV. The National Geographic Channel was showing a French documentary, dubbed in English, on Kazakh hawkers in Eastern Mongolia. It was incredibly interesting how they trained these birds, who follow them around like dogs, hovering high above their master’s head as he and his horse trot or gallop across the mountains in search of prey. When a hawk catches a rabbit or even a fox, it just kills it, then stands and waits for its owner to arrive. Amazingly, these birds are released after about ten years, to go out and raise their own families. (I talk about hawking in one of the rubrics of our upcoming Mongolian section.)
The English lesson was cancelled again at the Russian-Mongolian high school (too much work), but I stayed and talked in Russian for an hour-and-a-half with the secretary, a very nice woman from the Don-Bass region of the Ukraine. Then I walked downtown to the Soros office and worked on the Korean-Canadian Couples section, which is nearly complete.
I finally found a real discussion board – one that does not require posters to register or sign up for anything. I visited Teach Korea, a website for EFL teachers in South Korea, and noticed that the forum there was free from Bravenet, a great host site that offers all sorts of free interactive software. As the board moderator, I only had to choose a user name and password, and voila! Our very own forum for Korean-Canadian couples! I was even able to customise it, so it matches the look and feel of our homepage. Best of all, it fits right into the main frame, which the e-groups board can’t do.
I also downloaded a feature which I had thought ultra-cool on Teach Korea: a little image that lets the surfer know the time and temperature in Seoul. I went to Weather Underground, the site that makes these scrolling weather forecasts, and put one for Ulaanbaatar at the bottom of our portal page, just above the Webcounter. It looks really neat! Now folks from back home can find out exactly what time and temperature it is in UB the moment they log onto our site.
The Hollywood Channel is running Raising Arizona! Hurray! Great early Coen Brothers movie. They also reran Lawrence of Arabia, but again, I was unable to watch the denouement on account of work. Sigh… Other flicks: My Own Private Idaho, Scent of a Woman, The Abyss, and a comedy with Martin Short and Danny Glover.
There was no water for over 24 hours Friday and Saturday. Sun-duk even had to bow out of a luncheon at her minister’s because she felt she was too ‘grimy’. (Not even the promise of seafood could lure her away!) When the water finally came back on in late-afternoon, Sun-duk grabbed all the spare plastic bottles she could find, filled them up, and stowed them away next to the oven in case the plumbing is cut off again unexpectedly.
I guess it’s Hallowe’en today. Funny I remembered it, since I haven’t celebrated any Western holidays since 1996 (you tend to forget these things when you’re living in a completely different culture). Heck, I wouldn’t even remember my own birthday if my parents didn’t send me an e-card every year! Anyway, Hallowe’en has become a grand occasion at my sister’s house, so I wish her, Mike, Carl, Annie, my parents and everyone involved a terrifically spooky Hallow’s Eve!
I hope everyone has noticed, and perhaps even visited, our new Korean-Canadian Couples section! I spent all day Monday putting the finishing touches on it – fishing for images all over the internet, mostly, and resizing, reformatting, transparifying and cropping them every which way I can for maximum effect. That’s what takes a long time, not the actual programming - which, trouble-shooting included, only takes twenty or thirty minutes.
It’s not all that pretty or sophisticated, but it’s clear, legible, and user-friendly. We also hope that the whole thing – not just the discussion board, but the other rubrics that focus on family, children, and personal experiences – becomes a place where many couples like us will congregate. In fact, if the number of users ever grows to several dozen, I might even include a live chat room.
We didn’t go to church Sunday morning – yay! Sun-duk wasn’t feeling well. Later, though, she had sufficiently recuperated to go to the black market to shop for winter boots and tights!
BABY: No, we don’t know the sex, yet; that won’t be for another two weeks at least. But we have narrowed the list of names to a few. Here they are:
Korean: K’un-byul (‘Great Star’), K’un-bada (‘Great Sea’), K’un-nara (‘Great Country’), and K’un-sol (‘Great Pine’).
As I’ve said before, Sun-duk is breaking with tradition by selecting purely Korean names. Thus, the child will not be able to write his or her first name in Chinese characters, as 99.9% of Koreans do.
French. If it’s a boy, Jean-Noël (Noël means ‘Christmas’); if it’s a girl, either Mireille Sophie or Pascale Genevieve – I haven’t made up my mind yet which one I like best. Except for Sophie (which is Greek, but also common in English), all the names are pure French or Romance; and apart from Genevieve, they’re very easy to pronounce, no matter who the speaker is. (Besides which, Genevieve is just a middle name.)
Speaking of babies, Sun-duk and I have been talking about sending her to Korea for three months so she can give birth there. I personally would much rather not have her leave, but her doctors think there’s a greater risk of something going wrong here in Mongolia than in Korea. More importantly, Sun-duk thinks she’ll feel safer in Pusan. We’re not crazy about being apart for so long, especially for the birth – but we have to think long-term, I suppose.