Today, the last day of our orientation week, was a quiet one. The only thing on our schedule was a three o'clock language lesson, and our teacher Gundermaa had to cancel it. That was alright with John, who felt under the weather, and with Sun-duk and me. She copied down the names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails of many NGOs and charitable organisations, while I updated our homepage. (Have you noticed the changes? ;-)
At 6:30, Buman brought us to the Mercury Market and its slightly poorer backdoor neighbour. The selection of goods here is greater than that at our neighbourhood supermarket in Bayangol District, and the produce was eye-catching. A short list of things we ve only found at Mercury: green and red bell peppers, bananas peaches, nectarines, kiwis, lettuce, radishes, garlic, Gouda cheese, chocolate bars, CDs, and so on. Mouth-watering, yes, but it's probably just as well that these downtown markets are not easily accessible to us, penurious as we are! We'll come here once in a while when we feel like treating ourselves to some comfort food.
One more thing: the bus we took home was a used Czech bus. How do we know? There were still posters and ads stuck all over the walls, and dating from May and June! In fact, almost all of the city buses are donations from Europe and Japan. Most of the private cars in circulation are used, too, and sold to dealers at low prices by Japan, Korea and the West. Everyone, it seems, is pitching in and doing their part to help Mongolia recover as quickly as possible from its communist past. It's comforting to know that some countries - the social-democratic ones, I assume - don't care so much about the bottom line as helping out the less fortunate.
I left early to help proctor an exam John was giving to English high-school teachers. He is our full-time teacher trainer here in Mongolia, and the exam will give him an idea of his future students' strengths and weaknesses. Liz and Kelly were also present and accounted for, as was a teacher-training colleague of John's, Nicole of Vancouver. Fifty teachers were asked to take the exam, but fewer than twenty showed up. Each one of us corrected four or five exams with the teacher sitting next to us, running through their mistakes with them and elucidating any points relating to grammar and comprehension. Most of them are retrained Russian-language teachers, so John and I had to resort now and again to Russian for those whose skills are at a beginner or low-intermediate level.
However, half-an-hour before all this took place, I went to a Konica photo shop to have some passport pictures taken for Monday, when Buman will rob us of our passports and hold them for ransom at the Immigration Office. The shop is located just east of the main square, where a military review, marching band and all, was underway. I regretted having to leave for work, but when I returned three hours later to pick up my pictures, the review was just ending. There were about fifteen fifty-man units altogether (air force, army, and paratroopers, I believe, judging from their uniforms, notwithstanding my complete and utter ignorance of all things military), each with its own flag, and each with its own commanding officer who later stepped forward to accept something - I couldn't quite make out what it was from my distance. Flapping in the wind - another rainstorm was brewing - were three flags: the ubiquitous, and very pretty, Mongolian flag; another navy-blue flag bearing a stylised white eagle; and between them, a baby-blue banner with nothing on it, symbolising, I imagine, Mongolia proper, "The Land of Blue Sky".
Hungry, and with an hour left to kill, I decided to try out the food at Rendez-Vous, the French restaurant not far from the Soros office. Satisfactory meal, but not great. I then joined Sun-duk in front of Yonsei Hospital, where we awaited our ride to Ulaanbaatar College, where the Korean community meeting was to be held.
Ulaanbaatar College was founded in 1993 by an elderly Christian Korean. The three-year programmes focus on business, computers, translation and Korean studies. There are presently twenty full-time Korean instructors (many of them missionaries) and three full-time American ones; the student body numbers four hundred. The school is thus comparable to Onol in size, although their mandates differ considerably.
The Korean community normally congregates on Korean holidays, such as Chusok and the Lunar New Year, and on Sunday mornings for worship. Today, however, we walked right into a general assembly where the topic of discussion for one hour was the privileges of membership (non-dues-paying Koreans are apparently left out of the loop). Another ninety minutes were spent electing two new presidents and four new vice-presidents for each of the community's two organisations: one geared specifically to businessmen, the other for Koreans at large. The entire process became an ordeal for most of us, a dull, dreary, stuffy affair that often degenerated into shouting matches between 'factions'.
At six, the meeting adjourned, and our patience was finally awarded with a private, one-hour interview with the college's vice-president. His advice, and a list of phone numbers, indexed and categorised for easy reference, will allow Sun-duk to apply to NGOs and gain invaluable experience in her field. She was warned that she would not earn much more than the equivalent of US$100 a month, but that amount would quite satisfactorily supplement our current local income. In fact, once we got home, Sun-duk called a minister who seemed well-disposed toward us at the meeting, and they made an appointment for Monday morning.
The day ended with another trip to the supermarket, this time in preparation for the housewarming party we're having tomorrow evening. Money's growing scarce; gonna have to go to the well and change more dollars
It's interesting how sometimes a party just blows by its host.
Sun-duk and I spent almost the whole day in the kitchen while our guests got acquainted with one another. The sad thing: they were only able to stay three hours, because the buses stop running at nine on Sundays. The good thing: everyone enjoyed themselves - and the food! - immensely.
For appetizers, we served cucumbers, carrots, crackers, edam, cold cuts, juices and wine. The main course consisted of beef stew, mashed potatoes, curry rice, seaweed soup and kimchi. Then we moved on to dessert: chocolate-chip cookies, Pringles chips, cake, eclairs, and Mongolian bread and yoghurt. There were sixteen of us all told, I think, so it was 'quite a spread', as some guests put it.
Today was my first day of work. John doesn't start his teacher-training programme until October, and Liz and Kelly, because they will work at state universities, don't begin until next Monday at the earliest. I, on the other hand, was hired by a private institution - to wit, the Onol Foreign Language Institute, a.k.a. School of Translation, four-year programme).
I arrived a little late since my ride with Khanda fell through and I had to take the bus. Jige's instructions (he had told me to get off at the fifth stop) were short on accuracy, and I had to walk over a kilometre to Onol. As soon as I walked in, there were the director and Khanda, waving me into a large seminar room with thirty or so first-year students to give a one-hour lesson. I had thought I would only be teaching juniors and seniors, so this came as a shock.
The shock soon gave way to disappointment when I realised how little English these kids knew. Despite my best efforts, I got absolutely no response from anyone. Many students didn't seem to understand the simplest words and sentences, and I sincerely hope that their lack of participation was due to a combination of shyness, first-school-day jitters, and their first exposure to a native speaker. In any case, it brought home the point - one that I have always made - that with low-level, foreign-language speakers, a bilingual teacher is essential; otherwise, the learning process stalls, and everybody becomes frustrated. With this in mind, I determined to learn some basic classroom Mongolian to help move things along and encourage the students to try their tongue at English. (It's amazing how they can metamorphose from a clam to a magpie when they see their teacher mangle their language and ask them for assistance; a confidence booster if ever there was one.)
An hour later, at ten o'clock, I went upstairs to get a look at my schedule. Unfortunately, it, and all the other teachers', was still undergoing extensive revision. At ten-thirty, just when they thought they'd finished, I reminded them that they couldn't assign me any Monday afternoon classes on account of my monthly meetings at Soros. Half-an-hour later, another schedule was given me (six hours on Tuesdays, six on Wednesdays, and seven - all in a row! - on Thursdays), and I went merrily on my way downtown for a strategy session with my colleagues.
Buman thought that nineteen hours a week at Onol was too much; SPELT Fellows are only allowed twenty contact hours a week total, including seminars, teacher training and anything else Soros-related. I told her that it was just for a month: on October 1, when the seniors come back from their internships, I will lose my freshmen and shear several hours off my schedule.
We had lunch and our meeting, I puttered about the homepage, then called it a day. At home, Sun-duk told all about her day, which she spent with the Korean minister working for an NGO called Food for the Hungry International. They work with children, many of them orphans, and apparently have branches in thirty-five countries. They are recognised by the United Nations, and claim to be the fifth largest (most important?) NGO in Mongolia. The minister told Sun-duk that her talents and background made her an ideal employee for FftHI, and promised to do his best in securing her a job, with payment. He'll have an answer for her shortly.
I spent my first full day at work, ten hours' worth. I came much better prepared - I had a couple of games and some essential Mongolian stowed away in my bag of tricks. I taught freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and although it was rough going at times, I dare say the students came away with a favourable opinion of me. I feel as though I m fighting my predecessor's ghost. Ian was well liked and respected by his students. Will they eventually warm to the 'new guy'?
Khanda changed my schedule again. No longer will I anticipate four-day weekends, as my Thursdays have dropped two hours of classes into Friday morning's lap.
Sun-duk, meanwhile, stayed at home all day and made not a few phone calls inquiring about vacancies and possible job opportunities at various NGOs. She's got two interviews tomorrow with the UNICEF and UNV (United Nations Volunteers), directors, and they both look promising. A position with either one of these organisations would be ideal for her, since her ultimate goal is to work for the UN. Normally, that would require many long years of experience in a variety of fields and locales, but with Mongolia one of the world's least known and ignored nations, in terms of investment and charity, she could quite conceivably find herself in the upper echelons of UN Mongolia management by the end of the week.
A marathon day - almost twelve hours at school. Not only that, but there are still a few bugs to work out regarding the schedule: it keeps saying I'm teaching in one classroom when my students are waiting for me in another. In all other respects, however, Wednesday was a carbon copy of Tuesday, with the exception that I finally had the leisure to set up my office computer and scratch out some homework on the word processor. I can't wait for the school to get hooked up to the internet next month, so I can read my newspapers and work on some cyber projects I've been discussing with Buman (more on that tomorrow). And since my desktop has been equipped with a sound card and 4GB of disk-drive space, I will also download various webphones and try to talk to my parents.
Sun-duk's interviews went well, although there's little chance of remuneration if she chooses the UN. Fortunately, the Korean director for FftHI called at nine to offer her an administrative position at about US$100 a month. She accepted it on the spot, and begins work tomorrow at nine!
Sun-duk got up at six o'clock this morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and left at 7:45. She wanted to be in extra early to impress the boss, but the office doors didn't open until 8:50!
Sun-duk will mostly be taking care of paperwork, and in particular correspondence. Today, however, she participated in a picnic for the elderly. It was an exceptional event, she was told, and two buses were chartered to drive about 70 people out to Gachuurt, an hour east of Ulaanbaatar. There, among all the other goodies, a sheep was skinned, skewered and cooked whole from the inside out by inserting fire-hot rocks into the animal. This is a traditional Mongolian barbecue reserved for special occasions, and I truly envy Sun-duk her experience!
Food for the Hungry International has established five projects in Mongolia. They provide food for the poor, specifically children and the elderly; free medical care for the destitute; greenhouses and agricultural technology; computer education; and extra-curricular activities for poor children. Sun-duk came away from her first day of work impressed and glad to be a member of such a worthy entity.
My day was no less eventful. For some reason, no one at Onol was warned of my impending absence this afternoon, and the four hours of class I would miss. (This, I think, is the reason that I have to share all my courses with a Mongolian teacher.) They were taken aback, to say the least; having to find several substitutes on such short notice is not a pleasant prospect at any time. Although I am expected to miss a lot of classes during the semester in order to perform other duties at Soros, some sort of coordination between the school and SPELT will obviously have to be implemented. Right now, my schedule at both is undetermined, so we're just playing it by ear for now.
At noon, we met for the first time with Erdenejargal, our deputy director (Buman is our program coordinator). She had been away on business trips, and came back only yesterday. We basically went over the same area we covered with Chris back in August, and were assured that any and all complaints, criticisms and suggestions would be heard and acted on.
At 12:30, we met with Enkhtuya, another well-spoken woman who coordinates a number of special activities in the name of MFOS. She came to us with a three-to-five-day workshop for 75 high-school language teachers - all languages, not just English. We would all be 'sequestered' at a ger camp in Terelj in October and February, and conduct seminars in methodology for different courses: conversation, grammar, reading comprehension, analysis and criticism. There will be two SPELT Fellows conducting each workshop, pro bono, and we will work jointly with translators in order to facilitate communication with the non-English participants. Everyone was in favour of the project: after all, it's Terelj; it s a welcome break from our routine; and it will surely improve the learning experience for those high-school pupils whose teachers will take the communicative approach to heart and apply it in class.
There is also a strong possibility that a Fellow and I will conduct a three-day seminar for doctors and medical students later this semester. Add to that another week out in the aimags (provinces) conducting special teacher-training workshops for high-school teachers, as well as a few other projects that I will be working on specifically for Soros, and my teaching time at Onol will be significantly reduced. Well, it's what I've always wanted, isn't it? A variety of experiences that will broaden my horizons and palette of skills (Oy! That's precious!), all the while contributing to society at large.
At two o clock, John held his EFL 'symposium', a gathering of the heads of various organisations who are also involved in pre- and in-service teacher training. It was a very informative meeting from my philistine point of view. Not only is my experience in teacher training, methodology and pedagogical theory limited - it's all based on the school of hard knocks -, but the extent of my knowledge of the general EFL situation in this country is almost nil. The main item on the table was the possibility of coordination and increased cooperation between all the EFL agencies, NGOs, university programs and the Ministry of Education so that we not only know who and what is out there, but also avoid any overlap and needless duplication of resources.
Although my place in the overall scheme of things is tiny by comparison with these esteemed individuals, I immediately imagined a number of ways in which I could lend a hand. For one thing, no one seems to be particularly computer literate, especially in the areas of data collection, information dissemination and the internet. I pitched several ideas to Buman and John, and they were particularly interested in three: the establishment of an on-line forum for EFL education in Mongolia; the creation of a database of all things EFL in Mongolia; and the cyber-transcription of the national EFL magazine and newsletter. Needless to say, I'm elated at having the opportunity to put my new-found programming talents to use in such challenging and worthwhile fashion!
I had given my two-hour class from 8:30 to 10:30, and was just about to leave when the assistant rushed into my office insisting that I had another lecture and that I was ten minutes late. I showed him my schedule and said, no, that's impossible; that would bring my weekly contact hours up to twenty-one one over the limit. But there was my name on a revised schedule sheet, and the students were waiting for me upstairs; so without any preparation whatsoever, I taught for another 120 minutes and wearily made my way to the Soros office after leaving Khanda a message.
I told Buman what had happened, and she was concerned. My combined teaching and teacher-training hours at Onol cannot exceed twenty, so we have to take care of this before a precedent is irrevocably set. I know the Onol director would like to make the most of me while I'm in Mongolia - after all, I will miss several weeks of work carrying out my other SPELT duties -, but having me at all is much better than having Soros withdraw his support to the school for misuse of funds and violation of contract.
Sun-duk left work early to come to Soros and give a talk to the English Club. She spoke of Korea - its political and education systems, its traditions, its corporate sector, etc. -, and, later, took questions from the audience, which consisted of low- to intermediate-level high-school and university students. She did very well, and now I know what to expect when my turn comes up in December.
The talk was thirty minutes overlong, ending at six-thirty. This made us late for an appointment Sun-duk had made with an American she met earlier this week, a man who's organised a Chinese club that gathers every Friday evening. We were supposed to get together soon after six at the Lenin Museum, and from there go to the club. We had no idea which bus to take, however, and there wasn't a cab to be had anywhere. I finally flagged down a private car, and the driver brought us to the museum.
(This practice of car owners accepting fares for rides is common among former communist countries. In fact, that's how I got around in Leningrad back in 1990, when I lived in the Soviet Union. All you do is stick your arm out, and eventually somebody stops. You tell them where you want to go, and if it's on their way, you get in; if not, they drive away and you try again.)
I started talking to the man in Mongolian and Russian, then found out he was a translator. After a brief self-introduction, I asked him what languages he translated, and he said he had a degree in Chinese. From then on, Sun-duk took over the conversation. We even ended up exchanging phone numbers!
(By the way, his car, like many others in Mongolia, is Japanese, which means the steering wheel is on the right. I wonder how difficult it is driving like that on the right side of the road, rather than the left, as they do, of course, in Japan?)
By now, it was 7:10, and the American was nowhere to be found. We looked all around, and even inside the building (no longer a museum, but a movie theatre), before giving up. Sad, true, but we met Khanda and her boyfriend! He's an international lawyer who's worked in Germany and, most recently, Korea, although he still speaks only Mongolian and some Russian. They gave us a lift home in their car since the movie didn't start 'til nine. I talked to her about the scheduling imbroglio, and she gave me more details on the teachers meeting to be held at Onol Monday afternoon, where we'll discuss, among other things, teacher training.
Yesterday, Buman had offered to take Sun-duk and me on a tour of the black market, just outside town. Everyone is worried that we have nothing but summer clothes to wear, so we agreed to go out and buy some fall sweaters, with the hope that our boxes - filled, yes, with warm clothing - will arrive in time for winter.
We met in front of the State Department Store; Liz and Kelly had decided to join us, and were also there. Since Sun-duk and I had never been there before, we took a half-hour tour and bought a few things before taking a minivan to the market.
The market is mostly outdoors in a huge vacant lot, with one building for the food and a plastic roof over part of the rest. The specialty appeared to be clothes, as Buman had promised, cheap and plentiful, and we promenaded from one end of the market to the other, passing by hundreds of small stalls and kiosks catering mostly to the poorer Mongolian. Children walked around hawking ice cream and pine-cone nuts and elderly men carried trays of eggs about their neck, while others who could not afford to rent a stall wandered from aisle to aisle with a boxful of wares. It was a crowded, colourful display of humanity, unlike anything one might see in Japan or Korea, but reminiscent of the China we'd just arrived from.
Tourists here will marvel at the low, low cost of leather, suede, and lamb- and camel-wool products for sale in Mongolia. For US$200, you can buy yourself a full-length leather coat; for US$70, a suede greatcoat; and for US$20, you can deck yourself out in the traditional wool deel. Winter jackets sold for just ten dollars, jumpers for five, gym togs for four.
For people who work here, however, including almost all foreigners such as ourselves, twenty bucks can represent a month's salary. We shopped around, compared prices, tried on this and that, 'til Sun-duk found her long sought-after workout clothes, and I, a fall sweater, all at a cost of seven dollars. (Hopefully, we won't have to come back for winter coats and sweaters - you hear me, Mr. Postman?)
Sun-duk's coup de coeur came once again from stores selling Korean foodstuffs, such as steak sauce, seafood-flavoured noodles, and radish kimchi. The highlight for the rest of us was my trying on a beautiful, chestnut-coloured suede deel in the traditional clothes section of the market. I was also fitted with a herdsman's sash and pointed, burgundy felt hat, and surprised everyone, including the Mongolians, at how good and... well, natural I looked. In spite of my height and pale Caucasian skin, there seemed to be something nomadic in me just waiting to come out, which found its perfect expression in this age-old costume born of the Siberian steppes. The price was right - it probably would not have cost more than eighty dollars (a tenth of what it would have gone for back home?) -, but Buman told me that I could get a customized deel made for less. I then expressed a wish to buy a common, everyday wool deel, which come in a variety of colours and only cost twenty dollars; but again was told that one could be bought more cheaply at a tailor's, so I desisted.
One pleasant element about shopping in Mongolia: its relative civility compared to China. In China, merchants jack up the prices of their goods fivefold as soon as they smell a foreigner; and if the latter is smart, he'll manage to pay only twice as much as a native would. In Mongolia, bargaining is a less honoured practice, and a ten percent discount is usually the most one can expect. However, Mongolian merchants do not badger and hound, yell and scream at customers the way the Chinese do, and for that, I am extremely grateful and reassured. Sun-duk sort of misses the haggling and the shouting, I think, but I welcome this Western trait as a balm to my frazzled foreign senses!
Post-scriptum: I saw my second, third and fourth foreigners riding the public transportation system this morning. Two were obviously Russians, but rather aloof and standoffish with their sunglasses and condescending body language. Another was a young Czech whose English was so good he could probably teach it in my stead without anyone lifting so much as an eyebrow. He's been studying Mongolian language and culture in Prague for two years, and is here to perfect his knowledge of both. The former Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of Mongolian Studies, as evidenced by the many Mongols I've met so far conversant in both Czech and Slovak. Back in the seventies and eighties, not a few Mongols left their country to study engineering and other scientific and technical skills in Prague and Bratislava. (Readers may remember Batbold, my friend and landlord who was on such good terms with the Stastny Brothers before they defected to Quebec.)
Sun-duk made me go to her boss' church, this morning. He's a minister, as we've already pointed out, and I consoled myself with the thought that I could at least practice my Korean listening skills.
The service was held at the FftHI s headquarters, a low, powder-blue hued house quite dilapidated in appearance. An instance of just how thick I can be at times: I learned through the literature on the billboard that this NGO is a Christian organisation. Incredibly, I'd never put two and two together until today.
In any case, I was pleased to read that FftHI has donated US$29,000,000 worth of food, clothes, and medical supplies to far-flung countries across the continents. I'm not crazy about the missionary aspect of it all, but from what I've seen today, the conversion rate is tiny, so I guess the good done by FftHI outweighs its less savoury proselytising aspects.
Finally, a stretch of several days where nothing much happens! Until yesterday, that is...
As I met Buman, Kelly and John at the Soros office after a full day's work at Onol - we had an appointment with English professors at Mongolia's finest Medical Faculty to discuss special seminars on methodology -, I was given the shocking news that Elizabeth had just bolted Mongolia. The reasons are unclear as yet, but she apparently pulled what Korea vets call a 'midnight run'. It's too bad for everyone, but especially for Sun-duk and me; we had a lot in common as Far-East Asian vets, so there was a connection there between the three of us, a shared sensibility. (Japanese and Koreans are very alike in culture, despite what Koreans would like to have you think.) We'll know more about it at length, I assume. Kelly was entrusted with a letter from Liz, as well as two suitcases full of clothes and medicine which she has bequeathed to Sun-duk. We're all very sad to see her go...
A few things I've noticed and enjoyed this week... There are ger districts between apartment complexes just outside the downtown area, with lots of livestock grazing near sidewalks, on lawns, in backyards and courtyards, even on the green grass partitions separating two-way traffic. Every day, I see men dressed in traditional dels clip-clopping their way somewhere astride their horse, or cows and sheep munching on delicious chlorophyl victuals next to outdoor billiard tables at each bus stop. My favourite sight was a small herd of goats - black, brown, white, motley, spotted, striped, calico and checkered - mowing the lawn just under my office window, without a care in the world. I just live for this sort of thing! I'm becoming like my old man, I guess, longing for that 'natural life'. Sun-duk doesn't think much of it, since she lived like this as a child. It's amazing to think that South Korea is just twenty or thirty years removed from what we see going on up here in Mongolia...
I did do some work for the homepage, though I probably won't put it on-line for another week or two. I'm preparing an extensive Mongolian section, with excerpts from Lonely Planet and my Mongolian Language textbook. I still have to design the lettering and select appropriate pictures to make each sub-section a pleasant reading experience. I also hope to convince some visitors to work here in Mongolia, where EFL is, as I've mentioned before, virgin territory. If you're qualified in any way in this field, please come to the Land of Blue Sky; you can make a real difference.
At three-thirty, I left for Sun-duk's office; and at four, we joined the staff for their weekly physical fitness session at a local gym, which FftHI rents for two hours.
A dozen of us played badminton, ping-pong, hoops and volleyball. I was frustrated first with myself during the volleyball game: I was a pretty good player in my teens, but fifteen years have passed, and my timing was completely off - especially as we had no warm-up of any kind. Secondly, the better Korean and Mongolian players made sure we lesser-skilled chumps rarely touched the ball except to serve it. I complained, and it seemed to work; a second, smaller match, with four players to a side, was characterised by more fair play. However, Sun-duk and I preferred batting a badminton birdie back and forth between ourselves.
I reminded everyone that the opening ceremonies for the Sydney Olympics were on tonight, and that if we didn t hurry on home, we might miss the entrance of the united Korean team. Alas, by the time we did get home, at around seven o'clock, they were already on to the 'esses'. Myself, I grieved over not being able to catch a single glimpse of the Canadian team (our guys always have the best-looking official uniforms among the Western countries!), and especially over missing the Aboriginal performances. I did see some clips on the Mongolian channel later on, but they just made me want to kick myself even harder. It's the smaller countries that put on the best Olympic shows (Atlanta '96 and France '92 were gawd-awful, weren't they?), and they usually leave a very long-lasting impression - a good thing for both national tourism and the artistically inclined!
For televisual dessert, we watched Ca se discute (roughly translated as "Let's Talk About It") on TV5. It's a very popular programme in France, and has been for many years. I guess you could call it a talk show in the daytime format, a la Oprah, but much classier and more intelligent, as Sun-duk remarked after an hour of simultaneous interpretation on my part. For one thing, there are usually about ten guests, all from the rank and file - but with the singular exception that these people are actually well-spoken and quite often genuinely eloquent. Secondly, it's a weekly show, so the television crew has a chance to shoot a short documentary on each guest if need be. Thirdly, the tone is civil; objections are raised, but politely, and differing views tolerated and even respected.
This week's show was about machismo. Both men and women, divorced and married, shared their life stories, defended their choices and viewpoints, and generally agreed, by programme's end, to live and let live. Sun-duk was amazed to discover how one couple switched traditional roles, with the wife leaving for work every morning, and her husband staying at home to take care of the kids and chores (her job paid more, and she can't stand being cooped up in a house; his employment prospects were more iffy, and he's more of a homebody). Another wife said she wanted a man, wholly macho and take-charge, and that she felt much better following orders and having decisions taken for her. Another wife had threatened her to divorce her husband if he didn't stop treating her as an inferior being; this opened his eyes to what he was, and he's been slowly changing his ways ever since. (One thing he said absolutely shocked Sun-duk: "I never used to listen or talk to my wife; there was no communication between us. Now, I realise just how strong she is, in a way different from me, and that there are so many things I know absolutely nothing about. I went from ignoring her to pestering her with questions about everything under the sun, learning about her, myself and us at the same time. I feel that this new knowledge has helped me fulfill my own potential, find strengths and abilities that had remained untapped.")
Sun-duk shook her head in disbelief at these 'feminine' men; she had never heard or seen anything like it in Korea, one of the most patriarchal countries in the world (remember, I wrote earlier in this diary that the quality of life for women in Korea is ranked 76th by the United Nations?); and before going to bed, she thanked her me for being me!
EMERGENCY !!! Sun-duk ran out of kimchi yesterday, and with so many Koreans and Korean restaurants, she was not about to go wanting for very long.
She called Family Shikdang, the Korean restaurant just across the street from the State Department Store, and inquired about buying a kilo of Chosun comfort food. When told this was possible, we left at three, and by four o'clock, we were savouring chigae, bibimbap and various scrumptious side dishes. For some reason, we had about twenty tablemates in the form of flies. Why they weren't bothering the other patrons escaped logic.
We spoke with the couple who own the restaurant. They've been here for two years, and their elementary-age children go to a private Mongolian school. They like it here, but they worry about their kids education. In fact, they wondered whether we would consider tutoring them, but we politely refused, what with everything else going on. I mean, one of the reasons we came here was to have more free time to ourselves. We worked ourselves ragged in Korea, and now we feel we re entitled to your average Joe's 35- to 40-hour workweeks.
After paying nearly T15,000 for our meal and kimchi (a whopping T4300/kilo), we crossed the street to explore the State Department Store, of which we'd only gotten a taste last week.
There are four floors: one for food and books, one for clothes and cosmetics, one for furniture and electronics, and one for souvenirs. Needless to say, the prices were exorbitant, and the customers mostly foreign, at least on the upper floors. We found and bought some red-pepper powder, radish kimchi and soy sauce in the Korean food section, as well as some Tupperware and processed cheese slices for her lunches. I searched in vain for an English-Mongolian bilingual dictionary. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that there is no proper bookstore in all of Mongolia, judging from what I've seen in Ulaanbaatar. But then again, we have to remember that this is still a 'third-world country' by our standards, with a small population of two million and an underdeveloped transportation system. No matter, we have everything we need for leading a comfortable life, and I can ask Khanda for a dictionary on Tuesday.
One final trip to our supermarket made our day complete, as we settled down to a Korean meal of rice, soup and cabbage, radish and cucumber kimchi before Sun-duk went to bed and I watched a French programme called Union libre.
I speak of this show because it's hosted by the legendary Christine Bravo (of Frou-frou fame). This woman with a singularly prominent proboscis had been on hiatus in Mexico for a couple of years, I believe, and now she's back with this weekly show, which is unlike anything on English North-American TV, but whose format hasn't changed since Bravo first took to the airwaves in the early nineties. She sits at the head of a round table (an oxymoron, I know) and presides over half-a-dozen cohorts and a weekly guest. In this new programme of hers, there are six correspondents from different EU countries: Greece, Germany, Italy, Belgium, England and the Netherlands. There are regular features where the nations are compared to one another and to France (the most equal among equals, as they would say!), and interviews and verbal jousting with the guest (this week, it was Patrick Sebastien, well-known imitateur and, strangely enough, film director). It's all in good fun - in the French style, of course -, and, as a matter of fact, the bits can get quite physical at times, with correspondents getting dressed up in funny costumes, holding cooking contests or pig races, playing truth or dare, and so on. Well, I like it, anyway! ;-)
We were supposed to meet a student who'd attended Sun-duk's talk last week, and with whom we had made an appointment, but Sun-duk's boss sort of insisted, right after the service, that a mere hour from then, he expected both of us to accompany all of FftHI s Korean employees on a picnic in Gachuurt, forty minutes east of Ulaanbaatar. Sun-duk called the girl, cancelled our engagement (it s an Asian thing which Mongolians understand - hierarchy has its privileges), and off we went.
The scenery was simply gorgeous! Fall at its gaudiest, with catwalks of yellow-garbed larches and birch trees marching up and down the Tuul river. Herds of horses, sheep and goats dotted the landscape, quietly filling their stomachs alongside campers and day trippers. The day was warm, sunny and inviting, and the Koreans had brought with them a basketful of dried squid, chamehs (small yellow melons), grapes, kimchi, apples, and other assorted victuals.
I was enchanted by what I saw, and deeply regretted not having brought our camera. The priest, however, lent me his - a manual, big-lensed thingie -, and a roll of film, besides. I snapped twenty pictures until we finally realised that the darned thing was empty! I had been under the impression that the camera was already loaded, and that the roll of film was a spare (Koreans normally use up two rolls up of film per outing, enthusiastic shutterbugs that they are). Oh well, they told us they would go on another picnic next Sunday, so all is not lost - unless the Mongolian autumn is as short as we've been led to believe. In any case, I was glad to be able to practice my Korean in a more informal setting; apparently, the language used in church is almost as dated as that used in the King James Bible! Is it any wonder I nod off?
A busy, busy day at the Soros office.
First, because of our six o'clock meeting with Chris, I had to leave at the same time as Sun-duk, who will need our one and only key to the apartment an hour or two before I get home. She takes the number 2 trolley, which stops by our apartment complex and drops her off in front of her workplace ten kilometres away. The trolley is incredibly crowded; people were crammed in like sardines, until it actually hurt. I really fear for Sun-duk and the baby, and told her we would have to find her another way to get to work. The problem is that she can't get a ride - all of her colleagues live in "Korea Town", near the FftHI headquarters -, and that she can't get a travel allowance for, say, a taxi or taking a less crowded bus and transferring downtown to another bus or trolley.
Reaching the Soros office, I bid Sun-duk goodbye, got off, and once inside, worked for the next four hours on our homepage, discussed my Onol contract with Buman, lined out my vision for the various EFL and newsletter web pages, and answered e-mail. Then John, Kelly and I went to a really nice pizza place a block away and talked about a variety of topics which would be on the table during our monthly Monday meeting.
We discussed Liz first, of course. John and Kelly knew quite a bit more about the affair than I did; Liz, in fact, spent her last night in Mongolia at Kelly's apartment. Neither of them, however, could pinpoint what it was exactly that spurred her to abandon ship. It's my feeling, from what I knew of her, that she lives her life according to her intuition, a sort of vibe she believes comes from the universe - a new-agey thing a lot of women I've known subscribe to - and advises her from time to time. (If I'm mistaken, Liz, and you're reading this, please forgive me and tell me what went wrong.) The problems she was experiencing were not insurmountable, especially given the fact that Mongolia is so poor. All things being equal, I thought two-and-a-half weeks were not sufficient time to condemn a program or a country, but if my theory is correct, then nothing could have prevented her from leaving.
This sudden defection worried a number of people in SPELT, MFOS and New York. No one seemed angry or frustrated, just disappointed (this is not the first time something like this has happened); and so Chris called a meeting to make sure the rest of us are okay. John got the impression that our bosses wanted to know how they could improve our living situation and ensure our continued happiness and presence, and asked Kelly and me if we had any demands. A number of suggestions were made, including more money (John was getting US$500 a month in Azerbaijan, as opposed to the two hundred we're being paid here), a longer training period, more language lessons, an extra computer, easier access to paper and other office supplies, etc. All this was eventually brought up at six, and the response was fairly positive. We'll see...
Our two o'clock meeting with Buman focussed on our SPELT activities in the coming months. Number one on our list of priorities was the Medical College seminars next week. We visited the English staff last week - they almost all have Ph.D.s, but not in science and medicine -, and toured the department. George Soros has donated dozens of computers, hundreds of textbooks, and loads of software to help teach medical English, but the teachers/professors feel overwhelmed by the immensity of it all, and asked us to do several things, including integrating all the material into a comprehensive series of syllabuses, giving some methodology seminars, and teach academic writing. John, Kelly and I decided to split those three tasks amongst ourselves; John, the teacher trainer, will obviously hold forth on methodology, while Kelly will concentrate on syllabus and computers, and I on drafting articles and essays for journals and graduate dissertations. Because the funding is limited, the seminars have to be held before the end of the month, or else the money will be withdrawn. This leaves us short on time, but we'll do our best. The staff is actually pretty fluent in English, so I look forward to working with them.
Other items on the agenda included the in-service teacher seminars in Terelj next month and in February (a three-day retreat where methodology will be taught to high-school teachers of English toiling in the countryside), and another junket, planned for December to Dornogov province, on the eastern fringes of the Gobi desert. I, for one, cannot wait to visit more of Mongolia!
We had a bit of down time between Buman and Chris, so Kelly and I went to her apartment to pick up the suitcases Liz had left for Sun-duk and me. She was very kind in giving us two bags worth of clothes, almost all of my Jagi's size, and a boxful of medicine which we can use and/or donate to a local hospital. Thank you, Elizabeth!
Last, but not least: Buman received a notice from the post office that they had received a bunch of parcels from abroad! I tried to contain my excitement, since the boxes might have been sent by Liz back in June, or contain nothing more than textbooks for the various MFOS programmes. However, both Sun-duk and I have our fingers crossed that tomorrow, possibly, we could be celebrating Christmas early!
P.S. The central heating system was finally turned on today. I guess they'll turn it off in April. Like Russia and other Eastern European countries, building tenants have no control over how hot or cold their apartments or offices are - it s all decided by the building supervisor.
Buman came to Onol at two to talk over my contract, perks, and responsibilities with Director Byambadjav and Khanda. A pleasant meeting, marked by good will and trust. (I m still in shock over the shabby way Koreans treat their employees, so normal employer-staff relationships are something of a novelty for me after four years of being buggered senseless.) My office is still as big as my Seoul apartment; there will soon be a printer and telephone, as well as an internet connection, in the weeks ahead. I will be given the use of a cell phone, paid for mostly by Onol, and a bilingual dictionary - an essential classroom tool when teaching kids whose proficiency in English is still wanting. I'm to receive an additional ten dollars a month for travel expenses (I take the bus to work), and time off to work on several Soros projects, such as the methodology seminars to beheld in Terelj and Dundgov. We discussed in-service teacher training, as well, especially for the crop of young new English teachers Onol has hired this year. They mostly work part-time, giving lessons on British and American Culture and Geography, Legal Translation, Business English Translation, Grammar, Writing, Conversation, and so on. I'm to work with them every Friday afternoon from one to two-thirty. This gives me a total of nineteen-and-a-half contact hours a week (one two-hour class with low-level freshmen was chopped off my schedule), meaning I will be compensated for almost all of my other work for Soros, in particular the web pages.
Buman left just before my three-thirty class, but I saw her again at six, when I went to the Soros office to join her and the other teachers for a visit to Zaisan Memorial. Oh, and did I mention that three boxes were waiting for us by Buman's desk?
We loaded the boxes into two cars, picked up Sun-duk and drove straight to the memorial, which sits atop a hill outside the city, offering a very nice view encompassing all of Ulaanbaatar.
The monument was built by the Soviet Russians in the seventies - ostensibly to honour unknown soldiers and heroes (there are several graves of Mongolians who fought the good fight) -, and is a prime example of socialist-realist architecture. There's a giant concrete soldier holding an even bigger concrete flat bearing a hammer and sickle. They're both connected to a huge concrete ring bearing a boggling - no, absolutely incongruous - assortment of images: medals, seals, emblems, Lenin, Alexander Nevsky, Stalin, and - get this - several Russian admirals! What the heck are Soviet naval officers doing gracing a Mongolian monument? Everything is written in Russian, with Sukhbaatar the only sop to the local populace.
The inside of the ring is a little better, lined as it is with a colourful mosaic of seminal events in communist Mongolian history. They depicted the 1921 revolution, the wars with China and Japan, a few other things I m not sure about, and, finally, a depiction of the first and only Mongolian cosmonaut, who went up into space in the early eighties, according to Buman.
I didn't take any pictures for two reasons: one, it was too dark (past seven, actually); and two, I'd forgotten to bring my camera! We'll go back some other time, though. It's an interesting place, and an excellent vantage point, as I've noted, to view Mongolia's largest city and its surrounding countryside.
(One last remark, and another reminder of just how close still Mongolians are to their roots, despite Ulaanbaatar's relatively big size: Lonely Planet, in its directions to Zaisan Memorial, tells the traveller to "catch bus No 7, which goes past the Winter Palace; Get off at the Agricultural University, walk across the fields, up a goat trail to the car park and then up the steps to the top." (p. 132) As a matter of fact, herds of livestock graze all around the city, just outside its perimeter. It's incredible just how thin the veneer of 'civilisation' is in this country. I hope it never changes, because we in the West can only dream of such symbiosis with Mother Nature and our "bestial brethren".)
Anyway, on our way back home, I chatted with our driver, a friend of Buman's. His name is Tsengel. He's an engineer, educated in Bratislava, like so many of his compatriots, in 1970s Czechoslovakia. He didn't speak English, so it was another wonderful opportunity to go at it in Russian. I sometimes surprise myself at my degree of fluency after six or seven years of this part of my brain lying fallow, but I yet wish I could go beyond small talk and take part in more learned discourses. All in due time, I imagine...
At home, it was indeed Christmastime! We opened our boxes and reacquainted ourselves with old friends: my Korean and Russian (!) textbooks; a few books for Onol; some others that I brought from Seoul and Taejon; most of Sun-duk's clothes, and almost none of mine; Talking Heads and Beach Boys CDs; three dozen music tapes, some irreparably damaged; kochu jang; red-pepper powder; sandwich bags; utensils, including our beloved metal Korean chopsticks; and other sundries. Still five or six boxes missing, and we're very worried: half of them - and particularly the big one containing all my expensive new custom-made suits - were packed in less than sturdy cardboard containers; and judging from the state of today's parcels, we may have to downgrade their status from AWOL to either MIA or RIP.
I'd planned on going home right after my six-hour marathon ended at three-thirty, but Buman called to tell me that two more packages had arrived for us; so I took the bus to the Soros office, went over my contract with Buman, then with an assistant and the MFOS driver, brought our loot home.
None contained my suits - much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of all who must look upon me and the pitiful state of my garments -, but there were a number of items which will nonetheless prove useful in the immediate and long-term future. More favourite textbooks from Korea, others for Onol, the balance of Sun-duk's wardrobe, my overcoat, a sweater, pictures (pre-wedding and modeling), toiletries, paper, tapes, etc. Three boxes worth.
I ate alone, this evening, a dinner widower; Sun-duk's boss' wife cooked up a batch of fish, that one thing which our expecting mother really misses in landlocked Mongolia. (Of course, I myself am jubilant at the fact that seafood here is as common a sight as flying pigs.)
Okay, now I'm about to rattle off a series of observations and private thoughts that have just been itching to get out.
Both water and cable are cut off for minutes or hours at a time during the day - usually to effect repairs, I'm told, not for any kind of rationing or conservation purposes.
I love the Chinese movie channel! No, Kirstie and Matthew, they don't show films from Hong Kong - they're all Western and Japanese. But my goodness, they're so much better than the movies on AFKN! Sure, there are duds, time-fillers like Scanners III and Eve of Destruction. Then there's the rest: movies such as Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility, The Man Who Went Up a Mountain and Came Down a Hill, Quiz Show Working Girl, Unstrung Heroes, Vertigo, Toulouse Lautrec, Lawrence of Arabia, and others. Average flicks from September include True Lies, The Glenn Miller Story, Waterworld, Jungle Fever and The Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia were shown in the same time slot one week apart, and it was very interesting to compare these two movies shot only a year or so of each other. The first was a Hollywood production from beginning to end, all shot in a studio with kitschy sets, stilted, puffed-up dialogue and static cinematography. It really didn't differ a great deal from movies made in the thirties; it's as though the innovative twenties, the German UFA school, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and the French nouvelle vague had never happened. Lawrence, on the other hand, was an English effort, shot on location in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with wonderfully naturalistic characterization and speech, and gloriously fluid, even subtle camerawork. The fact that its artistic integrity was preserved on television - i.e. it was broadcast in letterbox format - made the four-hour journey through this prime example of Le Septieme Art, a pure delight for the mind and senses.
I'm also lucky, even overjoyed, to have TV5. Every night, there's a new movie on, invariably one I've never seen. France makes a lot of movies, for both theatres and TV, but not many make it abroad, not even to Quebec. They're always much more interesting than anything you see on English North-American television - but that's Europe for you. Apart from a deeper tradition in, and respect for, literature and the arts in general, the lack of money European filmmakers have to waste on special effects and big-name stars, all in the hope of attracting the lowest common-denominator viewer, translates into engrossing character portrayals, disturbing psychological dramas and thought-provoking philosophical musings. What more could a discriminating celluloid palate ask for?
There are no fast-food chains or Western restaurants in Mongolia. I like that!
Deposits and withdrawals at the bank are written down and then stamped in the customer's bankbook by the cashier, just like they used to do back home before the computer revolution hit in the early eighties. I like that!
There are no ATMs, thus no bank cards; so you'd better make sure you have enough money to last the weekend. Remember when you were young, how crowded the bank always was on Friday afternoons? I liked that!
Mongolian supermarkets have real bread, real cheese, and real cold cuts unlike Korea. I like that!
Czech Disko cookies are absolutely delicious! I love them!
Chris and Buman have observed on several occasions how much Ulaanbaatar has changed in the past five years. It took six or seven years for Mongolia to recover from the shock of globalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were basically told by the entire world that they could no longer barter for goods: US dollars, please. The entire economy grounded to a halt for several years, as constitutional reforms were made and billions of dollars borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF. Until 1996, there was almost no advertising anywhere: buildings, highways, and even stores were barren of all signs and billboards. Nor were there any cars to be found on the road back then, in spite of the wide six-lane streets that criss-cross the city; now, there are actually small traffic jams at some intersections in the mornings and evenings.
I had my first teacher-training session this afternoon at Onol; only three part-timers showed up, plus half-a-dozen seniors back from their internship. I was disappointed by the turnout, and so was Buman when I told her later in the evening. I'm very busy on Fridays, but this day and time (1:00-2:30) were chosen because it's the only time most of the English teachers are free.
Anyway, first, we got acquainted; then we talked about what we all wanted to accomplish this semester. I encouraged specifics, because Soros requires a syllabus. It was finally decided between the four of us that we would hold weekly discussions on textbooks and methodology for all the different English subjects taught at Onol: Business English, Legal English, Grammar, Culture, History, Geography, Phonetics, Conversation, General Translation, Lexicology, and a couple of others I can't remember.
At 2:45, I left school to meet Sun-duk at her office; today is Exercise Day at FftHI. However, there was practically no one there when I arrived, and for ten minutes, it looked like this week s sports-a-thon would be cancelled, and I would have a couple of hours to play on the internet! At four o'clock, the ministers and their interns all returned from their business trip, and I wound up learning something just as valuable: how to use the scanner they've got there! In fact, nobody there really knew how to use it, so they turned to me for help. I only have limited experience with scanning programmes myself (I had a scanner for a few months in 1996 in Ottawa), but I'm a quick (self-)learner, so I took my seat before the monitor and had at it.
What they needed me to do was scan pictures, edit them and paste them onto a Word document that would eventually be turned into a sort of pamphlet. They had absolutely no idea whatsoever how to go about it, but I had everything figured out in half-an-hour. Of course, I suggested that if they wanted to do further editing - more sophisticated effects like lighting, blurring, sharpening, etc. -, they would have to get a real image editor like the one I have on my Acer; so I'll give Sun-duk a copy of my XN Viewer on diskette for her to install on her boss' desktop.
Lucky for me, everyone left at around 5:30, so Sun-duk and I were alone with the internet until six, when our stomachs just couldn't stand being alone anymore - they were crying out for food, docile playmates for their little acidic children to push around the schoolyard.
We watched Spike Lee's Jungle Fever on the movie channel, a film I'd only seen once, in 1992, when it had first come out. I remember the stink Lee had raised at Cannes when he lost the Palme d'Or to the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, going so far as to insinuate racism was involved in the judges' decision. Well, I ve seen Barton Fink, and after reviewing Jungle Fever, I have to say that the much better film won. Jungle Fever is a heavy-handed, clunky effort, with cinematography that can best be described as pedestrian. It's not a work of art as Barton Fink is, as all of the Coen Brothers' films are. That's not to say that Lee's movies are bereft of any merit; their function as consciousness-raisers in America's ongoing battle against racism is powerful and effective. Just not artistic, 's all.
Before the movie came on, I got another call from Buman. A Russian high school in Ulaanbaatar approached MFOS today for a SPELT Fellow to evaluate their English-language teachers. I told Buman John, the teacher trainer, was better suited for this task than I, but he's too busy, so I get the nod as a Russian speaker. I'll get some advice from both John and Buman on what to look for while I sit in on classes Monday and Tuesday afternoon. (Yes, that means I will be dispensed from my own classes at Onol next September 26.) I'm excited about acquiring new skills, spreading my wings, taking on greater responsibilities, blah, blah, blah That's why I came here, right? To avoid stagnation, keep off the moss, see the light at the end of the tunnel, blah, blah, blah Cliches, anyone?
After church this morning, four of us - two interns, Sun-duk and I - went to the beauty salon next door for our very first haircut.
For reasons that we poor mortal men can only pretend to understand, Sun-duk and the female intern desisted after a quick perusal of the premises. The male intern and I, however, didn't have much to lose from a bad haircut in these days where bald is in; so onward we pushed, all the way into the barber's chair.
It was fast - fifteen minutes at the most. Sun-duk stood beside my tonsorial torturer, gesturing what she wanted done on this portion of my head and on that. When my glasses were returned to me, and I had put them back on, I was very pleased with the result: short, yes, but stylish. Everyone had feared that my (female) barber would butcher my fine, and all-too-seldom-seen Caucasian hair, but I wasn't too apprehensive, for the reason mentioned above, as well as the fact that a Russian had preceded me and walked out in good follicular shape. For you see, my brethren, his neighbourhood is not only known as Korea Town among Chosun expats, it also harbours most of Ulaanbaatar's remaining Russian population. Et toc!
Tomorrow morning at 6:30, Sun-duk will leave with her FftHI colleagues to northern Mongolia, just below the Russian border, for a mission of charity. She'll be gone two days and one night. Everyone thought that since she was going, I must be going, too, since no Korean husband would ever let his wife travel without him, i.e. afford her the least bit of autonomy. Another lesson in gender equality for the good folks of Misogynist Central.
In any case, I really wish I could accompany Sun-duk into the Siberian wilderness of larches, birch and lakes. I'm sure it looks a lot like eastern Canada. And for the anthropologists among you (and in whose number I include myself), they will be visiting the Buryats, whose spiritual beliefs and lifestyle are the stuff of legend in learned circles. (Most Buryats live in Russia, and they are the Mongolians' closest ethnic and linguistic relatives.) We made sure she packed the camera; if all goes well, we will have two rolls' worth of beautiful pictures developed within a fortnight, after which we will scan the best and upload them onto this homepage.
Speaking of this site, you may have read the announcement at the portal page that we have been working very hard on expanding the scope of Our Peregrinations into the realms of EFL and bicultural marriages. The former is still a ways off - we'll probably put it up in bits and pieces, extensive a subject as it is -, but the latter has gone through the planning stage and is almost ready for execution. We hope it will be ready by November.
As for the Mongolian section, it's still a couple of weeks away. I have several more themes I need to research and write down, and I also want to find a couple dozen photographs and graphics to complement the text. It'll be nice, we promise you!
I want to mention one thing which happened to me three weeks ago, and which I keep forgetting to note. On my second day of work at Onol, I was quietly working in my office when Khanda burst in, breathlessly relating how a camera crew from a local news station had come to shoot a report on the school. Apparently, they wanted me to go downstairs into the lab, where they could film me pretending to give a lesson. I was also given one question to answer, to wit: Why did you come to Mongolia, and specifically Onol? I plugged Soros' Open Society Institute, and said that as a translator myself, I had asked to come to Onol, a school for translators. And that was it! I was told this news programme is broadcast all over Mongolia, but no one could tell me exactly on which channel or at which time the report would air, so I didn't even try catching myself on television. In fact, apart from Sun-duk, no one else, not even Buman, knows about this! I mean, it's nothing to brag or get excited about; Mongolia is a poor country, and there are probably fewer than fifty thousand TV sets across the land.
Sun-duk's boss picked her up at six-thirty, leaving me in a state of temporary widowhood (widowerhood? And no, definitely not bachelorhood!). So...
... I spent the morning working on the soon-to-be-released Mongolian section for the homepage, and on my upcoming seminar on medical and academic writing. That was sort of boring, since the connection to the internet was so slow, and I barely got anything worthwhile done. However, my first day at the Russian school was very interesting.
There is a joint Mongolian-Russian high school in Ulaanbaatar, near the Mercury Market. (You may remember that Enkha, Buman's daughter, goes there.) It's one of several foreign-language schools in Mongolia; there's also a German high school and a Korean elementary school, but I don't know whether they're as good as the Russian one. In any case, I must say I was impressed by the quality of the education I witnessed, and which is heads above the local public schools, I'm told.
First, the school is a two-storey, brown-brick building, attended by several hundred teenagers from the ages of twelve through sixteen. Most of them are native Mongolians, but there are not a few Russian kids, as well. They're much better behaved than in the West: they stand and greet the teacher at the beginning of each lesson; they pretty much stay quiet during class; they often get up to answer questions; and they're much more enthusiastic about learning than any schoolchildren I've ever seen. Maybe the cutest thing I saw there were the cloth slippers - they almost look like cheap handbags - everyone puts over their shoes to keep from tracking in mud and dirt.
Buman and I were joined by Buyanlkhan, one of the directors of ESPI (English for Special Purposes Institute). Her English is very good, and best of all, she believes experience is more important than theory - an especially comforting thing to hear for a man without a degree in education.
Our task today was to administer four exams in two-and-a-half hours: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The school has five English teachers, and we spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes with each one while the others concentrated on their exam.
It was interesting to note that all the teachers were women, and that all but one were middle-aged. Two were Russian, the others Buryat. All are from Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude, the two closest major cities outside Mongolia's borders (both lie on the shores of Lake Baikal, but Ulan-Ude is the capital of the autonomous Russian republic of Buryatia). Only two spoke English as second languages; the other three had originally majored in either German or French.
The youngest teacher there was, of course, the most fluent, but three of her colleagues speak English better than I do Russian. Still, using the UNDP's criteria for foreign-language speakers, we had to give all of them lower scores than they had received last year (the examiners then were Mongolians, not native speakers). They seemed to have trouble with the exams, too, as a cursory look at the papers showed. Saranchimeg corrected the listening and reading tests, while I performed a pitiless editing job on the short essays, whose topic was, "What do you think of the Mongolian education system?" Scores to be announced tomorrow.
Afterwards, the three of us went to the school principal in her office, and following a thirty-minute conversation Mongolian and Russian (most Mongolian, unfortunately), the principal offered me a part-time job teaching English to Mongolian teachers and advanced students for four hours on Saturdays. Salary: T10,000 a day, or about US$10. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's very good by Mongolian standards - enough to buy about five kilograms (thirteen pounds) of beef. She also lent me a two-volume Mongolian-Russian dictionary, hot off the press. If I decide to buy it, it'll cost me T30,000. I took it, since I haven't been able to find anything even remotely better anywhere.
So I've increased my monthly earnings by 15%-20% - not a bad deal, and I get to practice my Russian to boot.
At home, I celebrated by watching some Russian television (my listening skills are still pretty rusty - I'd say I only understand 60%-80% of what's said, depending on the speed and register. Then I watched two movies on the Hollywood channel: The Accidental Tourist, with William Hurt and Geena Davis (didn't she win an Oscar for this role?) and Grace of My Heart, a pretty kitschy TV movie-of-the-week about a girl who grows up to become a successful songwriter in the 1960s pop scene.
Grace of My Heart is a tacky compendium of every cliche and music personality of that era. I can't remember the star's name, because she's been a life-long second banana, but the supporting cast consisted of Eric Stoltz, John Turturro (the guy's everywhere!), Matt Dillon, and Patsy Kensit. Stoltz played a bohemian songwriter whose only hits were with what's-her-name (Ike Turner?), John Turturro acted a lot like Motown's Barry Gordie, Dillon played a combination of Brian Wilson and Brian Jones (drugged-up genius behind The Riptides (!) who eventually drowns in the ocean fronting his beach house). Names are dropped: Phil Spector, John Lennon, Joan Baez; and we get glimpses of facsimiles of The Supremes, the Everly Brothers, and Jefferson Airplane, just to mention a few. This piece of mind-candy kept me up 'til one in the morning, for Pete's sake, and I've got to get up at seven!
I added comments and suggestions to the teachers' essays, and graded them at the school at ten o'clock, with Buyanlkhan's help. She showed me the results of the other three exams, and they were very nearly disastrous. Although they're good enough to teach English to high-school students without committing too many errors, it's obvious that their own skills are far below college level. Again, we opted for strict grades, the better to shake them out of their complacency - although I know that if one of them had evaluated my own Russian-language teaching at the University of Ottawa back in the early '90s, I probably would have been eviscerated, as well. (And I won't even think about what my own peers might think of my present performance at Onol!)
Then came the actual teaching evaluations, where we had to sit in on each teacher's classes, observe and judge. None of them were bad; they all used the communicative method to varying degrees. Some had no warm-up; no review; accepted incomplete sentences for answers; jumped from topic to topic, grammar point to grammar point, without much continuity; or adhered too closely to the textbook. All of them, however, conducted their classes much too quickly, we thought. Maybe they were told to go through the whole book in ten months, regardless of the pupils' level; I don't know. Yet even though they're teaching children whose linguistic skills are far above that of my own university students, I felt they should have lingered on a theme and given additional examples for the purposes of ease and consolidation. Still, I'm far from being a perfect teacher myself, and I wasn't too keen on criticising my peers, especially since their third language is better than mine.
Buyanlkhan and I discussed each teacher's case with Buman at three, and an hour later went downstairs to give our results to the principal - but she had gone somewhere. We spoke to the secretary and agreed to meet again on Monday, during which time we will have type up a proper report.
If I haven't said this already, I want to mention it again: the students at this school are bright. They nearly all graduate with the ability to speak four languages fluently, and the education they receive in all other subjects is much better than what they would get outside the capital. And they're such a pleasure to be with! Polite, eager to please, hungry for knowledge... I almost wish I were teaching there!
Sun-duk didn't come home until 10:30 at night. She said she was sick to her stomach for most of yesterday, and didn't have anything to eat today. A combination of greasy meat and bumpy roads, I suspect. Mongolia only has 1400 km of paved roads, most of it in and around Ulaanbaatar; the rest of the country makes do with thousands of miles of dirt roads (it's easier on horses' hooves).
We were down to our last T2000 (US$2) when Sun-duk finally got paid - in dollars! I've been paid as well, but whenever I've had time to go change the money in to tugriks, the banks are closed. Fortunately, Sun-duk had a friend go to an exchange office nearby (she was running an errand, and it was on her way), and we now have one hundred and eight big ones for a whole month's work. (One hundred dollars, remember?) This will last us at least two weeks, and with the T100,000 Onol's giving me, we'll be able to set aside the US$120 (about T130,000) I get from Soros each month for the baby.
Sun-duk also got her business cards today - one set in English, another in Mongolian. Check it out! 'Administrative Coordinator'! I wonder when I'll get mine; we ordered them last week...
I went to Sun-duk's office after classes to do two things: to scan our traditional outdoor Korean wedding photographs, and to bring back home a sack of potatoes which Sun-duk had bought on her recent trip (they were 66% cheaper than the spuds here in UB).
The scanning didn't go so well. The quality of the images wasn't quite up to our expectations, no matter how much I tried tweaking them with the Microsoft Paint and Imagine programmes, and with my own personal favourite image editor, Xnview (from France, natch). We could have scanned the pictures and uploaded the whole lot, but we like to think of our homepage as a 'classy' site - so friends will have to wait, unfortunately (my family has the originals, which we shipped to Canada).
The cable made a welcome return to our house after two days in snowy, crackling limbo. Sun-duk watched Korean news, and I gorged myself on French quiz shows. The quiz shows are copies of the $25,000 Pyramid and Jeopardy, with a slight twist - they're even brainier, the host is chattier, and the winners get what Americans would consider pitiful consolation prizes: encyclopedias and dictionaries. But ask a Frenchman if he would prefer money over books, and he'll invariably choose the latter. (I mean, look at me!..)
The Onol students will be the death of me. Half my classes - that's sophomores and juniors, for those who've lost count - are in desperate need of a bilingual teacher. Even though they've been studying English for at least three years, their vocabulary and knowledge of grammar - never mind speaking skills - are hopelessly wanting. It's not really their fault; most of them are from the countryside, where almost every English teacher is a (poorly) retrained Russian-language teacher. Some kids - my best - were lucky enough to have been taught by native speakers working for ELI or the Peace Corps, but they are in the decided minority.
Still, it's beyond me why half of them can't speak, write or understand English better than I do Mongolian. I spent two weeks going over simple questions - What's your name? What do you do? Who's your favourite movie star? What are your hobbies? What are you doing after school? -, then asked them to prepare and perform a short group interview with a famous Mongolian personality (Chinggis, Sukhbaatar, Kamerton, etc.). I gave them forty minutes in class and a whole week to get themselves ready. So of course, when the time came, none of them had done their work; worse yet, not a single one was able to improvise. I ended up doing one of two things: either whispering Mongolian questions and answers for each student to try to translate into English, or chewing them out for being so lazy.
The real problem is that this is a private institute, and the only grades given are As and Bs; nobody fails. Kids (or their parents) pay money and are assured a degree four years later. The onus is on the students to behave responsibly, but unfortunately, too many of them don't. They skip half their classes, don't do their homework or write exams, sleep or put on make-up during classes... You name it, they get Bs, regardless. I've told them that if they're serious about being translators - good translators -, they'd better get their act together, or I'll take their jobs away from them in no time flat. I stressed the importance of being able to not only read, but also write and speak English, if they care to succeed in the least way. The result has been a decrease in class size: where I used to have twenty to thirty students per lecture, I now have between eight and fifteen. So it's getting a little better, for both me and the more serious students.
And there you have it - a sour note, the first to be struck. If I knew more Mongolian, I wouldn't be frustrated in the least; but as things now stand, I often find myself spending ten minutes trying to explain words like 'exception' and... 'frustrated'. The fact that I speak four languages doesn't help, either, since these students did not attend the Russian or Mongolian high schools. Oh well, nothing to do but keep on studying Mongolian - and I am making significant progress. So please don't despair for me; on the contrary, rejoice, as I soon will be fluent or semi-fluent in no fewer than five tongues!
Nyah, nyah! (dit-il en tirant sa langue!!! ;-)
At six o’clock, there was a birthday party at the office – or should I say a mass birthday party. Back in the days when there were only a dozen employees, everyone’s birthday was celebrated individually, but with a staff presently exceeding fifty in number, the parties are now held on a monthly basis. It just so happened that five people wee born in September, so this time, there were five cakes, half-a-dozen pizzas, bananas, grapes, beer, red and white wine, snacks, chocolate, and so much more awaiting us. Kelli had an appointment, and Sun-duk went to her Chinese-language club, so John and I were the only new kids on the block.
It so happened that this was also a farewell party for two ladies moving on to better things. One, in fact, got a full three-year scholarship to study in Germany – and she doesn’t even speak German yet! (Wish Sun-duk or I could wrangle that kind of a deal!) What surprised me was Chris’ Mongolian-language skills. He had led us to believe, the first time we met him, that he was only a beginner; but from what I saw and heard, as he addressed each departee and thanked her for her hard work at Soros, is that Chris is overly modest and knows Mongolian better than I do Korean. If I hope to work for a UN branch here after SPELT, I guess I’ll have to put my nose to the grindstone to increase my chances of being hired over a local or an insider.
I couldn’t remember where the medical university was located, having gone there only the once, so I asked Buman last night to meet me at eight-thirty and walk me to where the seminars were to be held. She attended part of our classes (John’s and mine) to observe and take pictures; apparently, she has to make a full report to OSI. In fact, yesterday, I was asked whether I knew how to operate a video camera; they wanted to film us, if possible. I answered in the affirmative, but when I saw that their camera was a big, ancient, TV-type dinosaur, I balked and offered ours instead – if they supplied the tape. They didn’t think there were any six-millimetre videocassettes, or that if there were, their budget wouldn’t allow such an expense, so I looked more closely at the camera and saw that I could operate it with a tripod. Unfortunately, they didn’t have one, so the whole plan was scrapped.
Be that as it may, I went ahead and began my first four-hour class. After a brief introduction, I asked the teachers what they were concerned with the most vis-à-vis their students’ writing skills. They promptly answered 'Everything', leaving me to pose just a few more questions until we had determined that the biggest problem was organization; their reports, essays and theses lacked all cohesion and structure. That helped me narrow my approach, and I immediately reached for my Words in Motion composition textbook for low-intermediate EFLers. (I know some people, especially at Kyung Hee, don’t like this book, but it’s great if you take the time to supplement the lessons with material and quizzes of your own. My Taejon University students benefitted a great deal from my year-long course with it, and their compositions improved significantly in form, content and grammar over an eight-month period.)
I mentioned first how I have students describe a series of pictures – Who’s in it? What are they doing? How do you think they feel? What do you think they’re talking about? What’s the weather like? What smells and sounds do you think they’re experiencing? And on and on… I simulated a lesson so that they could better understand the technique.
After this, I dove into the terrifying world of the paragraph, and then the five-point essay. Using the well-known, well-worn Idea Bubbles method to show how I help students brainstorm, then focus their ideas into paragraphs containing a single theme. We all had a great time creating the skeleton of a short essay devoted to the budget Western traveller on a trip to Mongolia. They really liked the technique, and felt it would suit their needs to a T.
After a short break during which I made a pile of photocopies for the second half of today’s seminar, we got into the summary. Here, I brought out the Writing Workshop textbook I had used at Kyung Hee with sophomore English majors. We spent two hours summarising an interesting article on the different kinds of friendship between women, then I gave them several abstracts from actual medical articles to read for homework. Again, they felt they had learned a lot from my having simulated actual classroom conditions, and told Buman, who’d been snapping away for the last hour, that they would like additional seminars after this weekend. I was very gratified to hear this, of course – especially as it comes from seasoned pros with Ph.D.s.
(Maybe I should mention here that only one of the seven professors actually has a degree in a scientifically related field. The rest are mostly linguists, but the dearth of qualified English-speaking professors in the medical field has forced the university to hire people with tangential skills. Korea does the same – look at the year I spent teaching Medical English at Kyung Hee. I’m not putting them or myself down, because we do a good job, and work very hard at it; however, it’s still a case of fitting a square peg into a round hole.)
We had an hour for lunch before John gave his seminar, so all of us – professors, Buman, John and I – went to the ritzy Ulaanbaatar Hotel Restaurant for some fish. Fountains, chandeliers, live band, spacious hall… and rotten fish, according to Buman, who sent hers back. I can’t smell a good fish from a bad one, so I just pecked at my plate until it was clean. Later, Sun-duk came round and smelled the remains of my meal, and declared it… fishy-smelling! Buman was vindicated, and everyone looked at me, waiting for me to keel over in a fit of botulism.
Sun-duk had had an appointment with a Mongolian girl who had come to her seminar three weeks ago. They talked for a couple of hours, then parted, and she and I, after a couple hours’ preparation at the Soros office for tomorrow’s lesson, went to try out the grub at Happy Happy House, a Korean restaurant not far from the State Department Store.
I wasn’t really hungry, but Sun-duk ordered a large serving of chapchaebap. We talked for twenty minutes with the owner before leaving. She’s been here under a year, and is feeling kind of low. She’s alone, hates the weather (of course, I love it) and what it’s doing to her skin – but affirms that her employees are kind and generous people who help get over the troughs. We promised to come back; the food here is cheaper than at Family Restaurant, but not quite as good. A rock and a hard place, you see…
At home, I had planned on watching a couple of movies and Union libre, but was exhausted by the day’s events, and we both turned in at nine again.