A strange evening, the resolution of which is still being waited on with great anxiety…
Khanda and I went to the Chinggis Khaan Hotel for the annual Teachers’ Union banquet, held every February 1st or 2nd in honour of Teacher’s Day. I won’t bother going into details about the soirée; dinner banquets are the same all around the world. I’ll cut straight to the chase this time ‘round.
Jige was supposed to pick us up at eight, but his son took ill, and he asked us to take a taxi home. Khanda and I crossed the street (there are no cabs lined in front of the hotel, even though it’s the country’s biggest) to hail a private car, when a man and his German Shepherd seemingly leapt out of nowhere and grabbed her arm.
The two of them almost immediately began to argue. I assumed he wanted to offer us a ride home – people often do when they see foreigners -, but Khanda’s tone made it clear she was not going anywhere. The man then grabbed her wrists and started to drag her away into the park against her will. I moved with them and told the man in Mongolian that we would take a regular cab. I asked him why he was doing this. Khanda shouted some more, the man paid me no mind, while the dog was barking like mad.
I shouted again, Why are you doing this? Khanda told me it was okay, but I was getting worried. I yelled out for help in Mongolian, but at this time of night, the area was deserted, and the hotel was so far away, even though it stood across the road, that no one was able to hear me.
The man ordered his dog to attack me, which it promptly did, leaping at me, grabbing my arm, coat and legs. It tried biting Khanda, as well, and she began to scream. I calmly tried to interpose myself between both of them, asking him to let her go, when he sucker-punched me and sent my glasses flying into the snow.
Khanda then told me to go to the hotel, to go home, to go away… That she was all right. I was blind as a bat, and the lack of street lamps didn’t allow me to locate my glasses quickly enough for me to follow them as the man dragged Khanda away. As I combed the snow with my hands in search of my eyes, the dog, seeing me in a prone position, attacked me again, effectively keeping me from following his master. Khanda, who had been arguing throughout the ordeal, suddenly stopped all resistance and more or less followed her attacker.
The dog desisted when he saw his master had gone a considerable distance, leaving me to again sweep the immediate area in a state of near-blindness. It was another three or four minutes before a woman walked by and, after communicating my distress in Russian, found my glasses for me. They were intact, thank goodness, and I put them on and hurried over to the hotel.
I asked the reception desk to lend me their phone, and I tried calling Buman and Batbold. Unfortunately, Buman had just left the office and was going home, while Batbold’s daughter told me in Russian that her father was in Germany for the month. Since I didn’t have Khanda’s number on me, I decided to wait no longer and took the bus home.
I was in a neighbourhood of Ulaanbaatar completely unfamiliar to me, so I got directions to the nearest bus stop and left the hotel with the greatest trepidation. The area, as noted earlier, is fairly isolated, and I suspected a gang of Mongolians lurking nearby, just waiting for a stupid foreigner to leave the hotel late at night and mug him. I had no choice, though - Buman might not be home for another hour or so; there was no one to pick me up; and someone had to be warned of Khanda’s plight as soon as possible.
Luckily, I was at home within twenty-five minutes. I got my cell phone (which I had forgotten to bring), found Khanda’s number, and called her family. Her sister speaks fluent Russian, and I recounted for her everything that had happened, begging her to call the police. Ten minutes later, Buman called, and she asked for a description of the man and his dog. Not long afterwards, she called back, saying that Khanda’s family told her to tell me not to worry – apparently, this was an old boyfriend with a history of harassment. They even offered to take me to the hospital, but I told Buman that the only injuries I sustained were a bruised cheekbone and a slightly scratched coat arm where the dog had bit me.
Still, Khanda was unreachable by cell phone, and the worry kept me from sleeping for most of the night. In a country where 15% of all violent crimes end in murder, how could I sleep?
I had to go to school this morning at ten to administer an exam to a student who had been late with paying his tuition fee. Needless to say, I found it difficult to keep up appearances, especially after Dashmaa had told me that no one yet knew where Khanda was. She, too, told me not to worry, letting me understand that this was probably not the first such incident involving those two. But again, all I could think of was the memorial in downtown Ottawa erected in the memory of those women who, in the last twenty years, had been stalked and killed by jealous exes.
At Soros, I told Buman what had happened, as well as my own private fears. In spite of the odds being stacked against me, I felt guilty at not having tried harder to save Khanda. Buman tried to reassure me, without much success. I requested a change of address somewhere downtown - being the only visible minority in my neighbourhood, at a time when violence and inflation are on the rise, always struck me as unsafe.
I stayed at the office, since Khanda’s family said they would call Buman as soon as they got word from her, and tried to lose myself in online Canadian newspapers. It didn’t work very well, and I went home, mentally and physically exhausted.
No word yet... I keep telling that no news is good news, reasoning that if Khanda were not home safe and sound, her family and the police would have reached me for more details. I start to relax somewhat, and Sun-duk tries to distract me further with a game of Sequence. We spend the day at home, watching television and playing games, cell phone constantly by our side.
Sun-duk’s come down with a nasty cold, but we’ve already cancelled dinner with John and Kelli once, so she sucks it in and we make our way to the Los Banditos Mexican restaurant.
With Sun-duk’s tacit agreement, we decide not to mention last week’s incident – at least not until it’s been resolved. No need to panic anyone, perhaps needlessly. The food was average, the conversation benign: I talked about moving downtown for greater safety and a more active social life; John informed us that he would leave Mongolia at the end of the contract (disagreements with Buman and other staff members apparently at the root of his discontent); and Kelli confirmed her continued presence in the country until the year 2002, for research purposes (she’s working on her doctorate).
The one thing that stuck out in my mind this evening was the two Americans’ long list of grievances against MFOS, which I could not personally understand. Sure, there have been some gaffs and delays, and sure, I’m stuck way out in the suburbs and don’t have much do to with administration; but the MFOS people are still much more professional and respectful than anything I’ve experienced in Korea, and most of my former Canadian employers, as well.
I then recalled what Laurie, the SPELT coordinator in New York, had said in passing during our telephone interview last April: that although the Soros Foundation for Open Society is American, she preferred hiring Canadians. In her experience, they adapt more easily to difficult situations and complain much less than their southern neighbours. This brought back memories of the ongoing debate – fight is perhaps the better word – between American and Canadian EFL teachers in Korea. Americans accuse Canadians of being too accommodating, of wimping out, while we always thought the Yanks were whingers, always expecting foreigners to be in awe of, and try to emulate, the American (i.e. “best”) way of life.
These are sweeping generalisations, of course. The fact of the matter is that both John and Kelli seem as mild-mannered as Canadians; perhaps their grievances are justified, or the differences they’ve had with management strictly personal. I don’t know, and I’ve kept my mouth shut on the whole matter, not wishing to needlessly stir up any bad blood. (Don’t fret, neither one has even visited out homepage, much less seen this diary.)
Sun-duk was sick as a dog all day, and I stayed home to take care of her. By day’s end, I feel a fever of my own coming on, an early Valentine’s Day present from my Jagi.
Still no word on Khanda, but four days have passed since the incident. No news is good news, no news is good news…
I went to school to give my student the second of his three exams, hoping to find Dashmaa in her office; she wasn’t.
An hour later, I ran into her and breathlessly asked her for news. She answered that Khanda was fine, but skimped on details. Not wanting to push her into telling me something that Khanda would perhaps not want known, I let it go at that.
At the Soros office, I worked with Buman and Baynaa, a high-school teacher, in preparation of the Annual Online English Olympics to be held tomorrow. We had to write up several dozen questions on English grammar and culture, which teams from a bunch of high schools all around the country would try to answer in an internet chatroom.
Finally, I got a call from Khanda herself. She sounded chirpy, and told me that apart from a bite on the hand from the dog, she was fine. I wasn’t able to pick up a trace of deception or concealment in her voice, but something tells me that she’s hiding something. If that’s so, then she’ll never tell me what it is, and I’ll have to live with her decision… and mine.
BABY NEWS: Sun-duk and I went to the hospital yesterday for a penultimate check-up. The baby’s doing fine, except that after seven months,
… Jean-Noël is still in the breech position. He’s got six weeks or so before he “drops”; otherwise, a caesarean will be necessary. Speaking of which, I read in the Globe & Mail the other day that 50% of South Korean deliveries are by caesarean, when a study shows that only 5% to 15% of all caesareans are justified. Standard practice in a country where most doctors, like their American counterparts, think nothing of needlessly slicing up their patients in order to line their pockets… In fact, according to Sun-duk, nearly all Korean women have episiotomies done on them, whether they need it or not.
ENGLISH OLYMPICS: They lasted two hours, with me typing everything into the chat room while Buman and Bayanjargal kept score. One team swore when it just missed out on a point, and I gave them a stern warning (in red!) that one more cuss word out of them and they would get a demerit. An hour later, another team wrote the SOB word, and before I could react accordingly, a dozen rivals chewed them out and were begging me to deduct a point from the offenders’ score!
Three schools from Ulaanbaatar and one from the countryside won first, second, and third prize, respectively. I didn’t check the transcript, but I have a feeling that those outside the city were at a disadvantage if only from the standpoint of modem and connection speed. In fact, two of the local teams were sitting right under us, on the ground floor, in the internet café!
We made some mistakes, of course, but nothing very serious. The next two Olympics, to be held for high-school teachers and university students, will doubtless go without a hitch.
SPREADING THE WORD : Two good things happened to us while we worried about Khanda last week. One was my finding and subscribing (for free) to ineedhits.com, a site that allows you to register with about three dozen search engines. After you fill in a form, you go to each individual search engine and decide whether you want to register with them or not; some of them have themes, such as business or computers, so I skipped those and went straight for the ones I knew, such as Lycos, HotBot, Magellan, Google, and Canada.com. I also had our homepage listed with a dozen lesser lights, just to make sure.
Just one problem, though: by bypassing the regular registration process, you’re not able to enter a short description of your site, so all you see is your page title, and nothing else. It’ll have to do, I guess; a Québécois television show on computers and the internet, called Branché, confirmed my worst fears by affirming that the most popular search engines, such as Yahoo!, Lycos, and Infoseek, have so many applications that it usually takes up to a year for a poor shmuck like me to get listed… Unless I pony up some dough on the order of $200!
Another interesting event, again concerning this homepage, was a result of being listed on Google. Several Mongolians across the U.S. and Britain came upon our site and wrote in telling us how much they loved it! One man with close ties to Friends of Mongolia, one of the better-known U.S.-based NGOs operating in this country, liked us so much that he’s listed us on his links page. A Mongolian student from Nebraska asked for a links exchange, to which I agreed – another good way of increasing awareness and traffic of our first on-line baby.
Finally, when I checked our page this morning – just two days after first being contacted by these fine fellows -, I was amazed to find, via our WebCounter, that over fifty people had been round to see us in the last 24 hours! I suspect word of our site quickly made its way through the small, but tight, Mongolian grapevine. We really must thank Amraa, Patrick, Tserenbat, and Hundaga, in particular, for their encouragement and spreading the word about this page.
Amraa especially likes our diary. While our section on Mongolia is nothing to write home about, this diary is probably the first and only of its kind on the internet – a daily, blow-by-blow account of life in the Land of Blue Sky, warts and all. Other sites are dedicated to various aspects of Mongolian culture, and other Westerners have written short travelogues, but we are the first to give on-line readers a taste of the country as Westerners living and working here. There are, of course, any number of books that do this in a much more detailed (and better-written) manner, but they’re not available for free on the net, are they? ;-)
A quiet weekend; I spent four days at home and only stepped out of the house once. That’s because I came down with a nasty cold that’s left me with a drippy nose and a hacking cough – hand-me-downs from Sun-duk. Two notable notes: Sun-duk went to the black market with Borma and bought a HUGE suitcase for $15; and I proofread the manuscript of an English textbook that the Ministry of Education is publishing for drop-outs and street children. One of the minister’s assistants lives just a couple of buildings away, and she came over last Wednesday to drop off the thing and chat me up in Russian (she can’t speak English) So while Sun-duk was busy dragging home a bag the size of a Korean one-room apartment, I edited a decently written, and conveniently short, English textbook that will probably bear my name on the inside cover. Another nice feather in my cap!
This homepage reached another milestone on Saturday with its one thousandth visitor (or hit, I should say). I can take some of the credit, this time ‘round, because I joined a couple of webrings last Friday, and they’ve already paid dividends by steering two dozen people over here (there’s a stats page that tells you all this at Bravenet).
This gave me the idea to join other webrings, this time relating to mixed couples. Unfortunately, there are very few such rings, either directly or obliquely touching on multi- or cross-cultural pairings. Some were too specific (Western and South-East Asian marriages, for example); others dominated by America’s obsession with race (black and white); and a couple more simply too small, with only one or two sites listed. So I decided to start our own webring. I’ll design some banners, search the net for multicultural couples (any two people from different cultural, linguistic, religious or racial backgrounds), and invite them to join the party.
OH, MY DARLIN’… Oh yes, today was Valentine’s Day. According to Korean tradition, Sun-duk is supposed to get me something to celebrate our love! (In Korea, March 8 is the date men spoil their better halves – all in the name of consumerism.) Happily, neither one of us is in thrall to these artificial holidays, so we just kissed and went to bed!
CHEZ CHEESE Cathy, a fellow Canadian from Saskatchewan, came back from a trip to Korea. She’s about my age, worked in film for ten years, went to Korea at about the same time I did to teach, then came to Mongolia and taught some more before freelancing as a video-maker/editor. The money was neither very good nor steady, so I learned today that she signed a one-year contract with Kyungsang University in Chinju.
We’ve spent several hours over the last two months swapping stories about Korea and teaching, and with the economy there about to go down the toilet yet again, she wondered aloud whether she had done the right thing – especially in light of the fact that there will be teaching positions with SPELT right here in Mongolia, and that we’re paid in cold, hard, Asian-flu-resistant, American cash. Then I told her that I will have made more money this year, over a ten-month period, than I would have if I had stayed at Kyung Hee.
Anyway, Cathy was nice enough to bring me several boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese which her mother had sent her – quite forgetting that her daughter can’t really stand the stuff. Yummy! Although as a Canadian student, I too was forced to eat the ubiquitous pasta meal on a daily basis to survive financially, I never did tire of the scrumptious combination of noodles, milk, cheese, and a dash of black pepper!
THE WEBRING: It took a couple of days of painstaking work, but with the help of Adobe Photoshop, Netstudio, and rummaging through dozens of internet sites for just the right pictures, I was finally able to conceive decent-looking banners for the Multicultural Couples WebRing, established February 14, 2001 – a most propitious date, don’t you think? I’ll start inviting other sites to join Monday. In the meantime, I’m also revamping our Korean-Canadian Couples page in the hope of getting it listed as an entity separate from this homepage – we’ll attract more people from our targeted demographic group this way, we hope. It’s not done yet, but it’s shaping up beautifully, with fancy graphics and flashing hover buttons… Click here to see what they all look like.
Another weekend upset by illness of the snotty kind – Sun-duk again falling prey to a cold bug. I think I’ll take the opportunity to write down a host of small events which I’ve thus far glossed over in favour of more important things.
MOVIES: I know some of you are probably bored with my lists of movies, but cinema plays an important role in my cultural inner life, and I write them down for me; if you don’t like it, just skip the following paragraph.
Cible emouvante, with Jean Rochefort, Marie Trintignant and Guillaume Depardieu – a promising black comedy that degenerated into conventional slapstick; La Vengeance d’une blonde, a comedy with Christian Clavier, about an anchorman’s brush with the underworld; Roman Holiday and Love in the Afternoon, with Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Maurice Chevalier; Primal Fear, with Richard Gere – a courtroom drama with a twist ending; Liar, Liar, Ace Ventura, and Dumb and Dumber, in a Jim Carrey triple-bill for the terminally retarded; and The Bridges of Madison County, with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood – everyone knows this movie, I’m sure; but did you know Eastwood also directed it? Not as good as his work on Bird, his Charlie Parker bio-pic; in fact, Bridges was pretty pedestrian stuff, cinematically speaking.
TELEVISION: CNN has been replaced by CNN.fn. We hate it! And sometimes – too often -, the Hollywood channel gets the axe for a day or two, with some half-baked religious Chinese station in its stead.
Good news: MTV Asia is showing two hours of classic videos every day! Bad news: it’s mostly Top 10 dreck like Crowded House, Pet Shop Boys, the Cult, Poison, and Bryan Adams. No Pogues, Sting, XTC, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, Hall and Oates, UB40… the ‘80s thinking man’s music.
We videotaped the apartment today, for the sake of posterity and nostalgia.
Buman is spending ten days in the hospital for her kidneys and high blood pressure. She’ll be out by Tsagaan Sar, though.
Sun-duk bought her plane ticket on Friday. She’s leaving March 2, a week later than I would have liked. But she wants to leave with one of the interns, and experience the Mongolian New Year, too.
We played Monopoly a second time, and within three hours, I had bankrupted my poor wife. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on Boardwalk and Park Avenue thirty minutes into the game, and then concentrated on buying up pieces of land that would prevent her from setting up houses of her own. Sweet revenge! But I’ll get my come-uppance next time, I’m sure!
We both forgot to celebrate Sun-duk’s lunar and solar birthdays, last month, but didn’t realise it until this week. Her ‘real’ birthday is January 30 (we only found this out two years ago, when I located a website with a built-in calendar converter), and this year, her Korean birthday was January 20. I’m glad to have found someone who puts as little importance on such occasions as I do!
SAVE THE CHILDREN: I met Marc Laporte, head of the Save the Children, last Friday afternoon. A very nice man and life-long NGOer who seems to have left his heart in Africa. :-) He’s in his mid-fifties, graduated from the University of Ottawa, has a home in Hull, has worked for a number of non-profit organisations and the federal government… Told me some unflattering things about Food for the Hungry, Sun-duk’s employer. We also have in common a distaste for religious entities who try to blackmail poor people in Africa and Asia into converting to Christianity for a few measly crumbs.
SAVE ME, I’M MELTING… After four months of intense cold, we had a spring thaw, today – only temporary, I’m sure. The temperature hovered around zero, and the greater part of the snow and ice covering the roads and sidewalks just evaporated in the heat and sun. I don’t know whether this weather covered other parts of Mongolia, as well, but if it did, it will have saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of livestock animals. If it can last one or two weeks, the zud’s effects will have been severely limited.
President Bagabandi spent four days in South Korea in the company of Kim Dae-jung. Korea has become Mongolia’s third-largest trading partner, after Japan and China, and this country’s fifth most important investor.
Mongolia had its clocked cleaned in World Cup 2002 qualifiers in Saudi Arabia, where they’re took on the Saudis, Vietnamese, and Bangladeshis. Mongolia is ranked 196th out of 203 soccer nations. (Canada’s 63rd, in case you’re wondering!) They lost all but one match - they managed a 2-2 draw with Bangladesh in their final qualifier. Watch out for February's In The News, coming in early March, for more details.
Two weeks ago, Western Mongolia saw the birth of triplets and experienced an earthquake of 4.0. Out east, a new lake is forming after a meadow collapsed in on itself. Wowsers!
Yes, things are slow this month: I’m on vacation! Nothing much happening; Sun-duk’s translating a large report into Korean for her bosses, while I putter about at home and downtown. Little room for excitement, which is just as should be after some of the strange things that have happened to us since we got here. So without further ado, here’s an interesting article on a family who’s got it much worse than us…
Eyewitness: The Dolgorsuren Family
Bayanjargalan soum, Tov aimag, is 160 kilometres south-east of Ulaanbaatar. The soum is home to 483 families, 1842 people, and 93,000 head of livestock. It is one of Tov aimag’s worst zud-affected areas.
Herders literally live off the land. Their animals are their money, their trade, their food, their clothing, their clothing. They are utterly dependent on them for survival.
The Dolgorsuren family are the poorest family in the district, and live on the outskirts of the town centre. The ger this family live in is surrounded by snow, and the ‘man’ of the household, a 64-year-old grandmother from whom the family take their name, shows me the fourteen dead sheep and goats piled up outside, along with the assorted carcasses of cows dotted about.
The Dolgorsuren family consist of the grandmother, her daughter and her four children, all under the age of fifteen. Two of the family are living away from home; Dolgorsuren’s son is doing military service, and an older child is studying in Ulaanbaatar.
The ger is grey, dim, and cold. There is one bed. Dolgorsuren explains that the children sleep on the floor, on the remains of the tattered felt covering that was saved from their other ger, which was destroyed in a storm.
There are no men in this household, which is why the family have not moved in search of better pastures for their livestock – they need a man’s strength to pack up the ger and erect it somewhere else.
Dolgorsuren receives a pension of T60,000 (about sixty dollars) per month. They try to feed their skinny animals with this money, to keep them alive, and ensure the family’s survival. The family had forty head of livestock, comprising cows, goats, and sheep. Of their 33 cows, they now have two, and they will die soon, says Dolgorsuren. They cannot afford to buy coal, so every morning, she and all but the youngest of the children scavenge for firewood. The twigs they find heat the stove in the ger, which is essential in temperatures permanently below –20 Celsius. They used to sell sheepskins to survive, but now that their animals are dying, this opportunity is lost.
Dolgorsuren says that she has never seen such a severe winter before, and she has been tending sheep since she was nine years old.
They are due to receive government aid tomorrow, and in the meantime, have borrowed some flour from a neighbouring family to tide them over. The children are busy rolling out dough to make khuushuur, the flat, deep-fried concoction of dough filled with mutton.
Government aid of 2kg of rice and 13kg of flour will last the family several weeks, and the two packets of hay will feed one cow for two days. I ask the mother of five, if she were offered an apartment in Ulaanbaatar tomorrow, would she take it? Yes, she replies, but only if she had no animals to take care of.
Most herders have travelled north to Khentii aimag for winter, where the weather conditions are less severe. Soum Governor Mendbayar explains that because they are experiencing the zud for a second straight winter, and two consecutive droughts in the summer, animals were not able to fatten up, and are now dying because they are just too weak to survive.
Young cows belonging to a herder called Batmonkh amble about the town dressed in ‘coats’, in an attempt to fend off the searing cold. Because he lives in the town, he has access to cow byres, and lights fires at night to keep his animals warm. He has been a successful herder for ten years, and the refrigerator, television and stereo in his homely ger attest to this. But he has spent all of his T300,000 ($300) savings on buying hay for his animals, and it’s now run out.
Dorijbat is a Government Husbandry expert based in the soum. He explains that herders don’t usually prepare much hay as the animals are able to forage for food. Because of the severity of this winter, and the 20 snowstorms they have endured since October 2000, the only animals that can penetrate the rock-hard surface of snow are horses. In some pasture areas, ice measures 15 to 20 centimetres deep.
FUNNY BUS-INESS: As my bus made its way downtown towards the Soros building, the driver unexpectedly turned right when he ought to have gone straight ahead. He parked next to a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field fenced in by six-foot-tall boards bearing the words “2005 Expo”. The passengers wondered what was going on, but then we saw the driver hasten towards an outhouse in the middle of the lot, where there was some construction going on! I guess he just couldn’t wait ‘til the end of his shift! A side effect to this bladder problem was a very long queue of cars who could not pass the bus, since we were parked in a narrow alley meant for smaller vehicles.
In the evening, our bus was being held up by an unusually long traffic jam on the main road to Tavan Shar. We were obviously going to have to wait a while, since only an accident could have caused such a line-up. Well, the driver didn’t hesitate to take a detour – he turned right, drove around two blocks, turned left again, and hopped back onto his route ahead of the accident (a car and another bus, as it turned out). He didn’t miss any stops, since they’re so far apart; and I could see in the faces of those around me that everyone thought the driver had acted pretty shrewdly, and silently applauded him for saving us time and aggravation. Could you imagine what the passengers’ reaction would have been in the West, though? Especially from the elderly and the lazy? Oh no, can’t have drivers behaving in such a sensible and independent manner, now, can we?...
Paul Laws, Kelli’s middle-aged VSO colleague at the Mongolian Technical University, came to me this afternoon to ask for my help with his application to SPELT. He hadn’t written up a résumé or cover letter in many years, and wanted to make sure they were ‘up to snuff’ for New York. He needn’t have worried, I told him; although the name Soros had somewhat intimidated me, too, the very low number of qualified candidates wanting to work here in Mongolia means that the head office can't afford to be overly concerned with form or appearances.
Paul has been here two-and-a-half years, and is ‘engaged’ to a Mongolian woman (they’re currently living together). Naturally, he would rather stay here than be shipped to Central Asia... Although Russia remains a possibility, as his partner speaks fluent Russian and wouldn’t mind living there. He’s also friends with a number of international EFL ‘bigwigs’ and teacher trainers, and has done some subbing for SPELT, so there’s a good chance of him being hired by MFOS and staying put in the Land of Blue Sky.
We shared a number of interesting anecdotes. For example, Paul and a Canadian friend (a young man named Eric who’s actually doing an M.A. here, in Mongolian) were out gallivanting in the countryside up north when they were arrested by the border police and held prisoner in army barracks for ten days. He assured me it was much more boring than harrowing; they weren’t mistreated or anything, but the days passed very slowly, with only paperwork and bland food to break the monotony. And last New Year’s Eve, he was jailed and interrogated for a night when he accidentally wandered onto the Presidential grounds!
After a couple of hours, we printed out the finished results: a beautiful résumé written up in the clear French-Canadian style, and a one-page cover letter to die for. Somme toute, a pretty nifty collaboration.
Sun-duk is pretty sick; she missed work yesterday, and even though her condition has actually worsened, if anything, she felt compelled to go to the office and complete the translation of a report that has to be sent to the U.S. next week. It’s unfortunate that her last month here has to be so very busy; she has a great deal of trouble moving about, and tires very easily. She is, after all, in the eighth month of her pregnancy.
The Soros office has been rather quiet, this week, as people take some days off from work to prepare for Tsagaan Sar, which begins tomorrow. Sun-duk and I will be with Buman’s family tomorrow night, and with Khanda’s Saturday or Sunday. We plan to take some really good photographs and put them on the homepage. I wish we could just whip out the camera downtown and snap away, but Mongolians consider this very rude behaviour, so few tourists, even in the summer, are seen playing the role of shutterbugs.
John hasn’t been in all week. Is it because he did all his prep last Friday, or because he’s in mourning over that NASCAR driver’s death? (He’s a motor sports aficionado?)
We spent New Year’s Eve at Buman’s apartment, in the company of her husband, two children, and two Buryat teachers from the kids’ Russian high school.
The table in the living room was groaning under the weight of food (see February 24 below for a detailed description) - it was delicious! I have to say that I really like Mongolian food, though Koreans usually can’t stand the dairy products and red meat which comprise nearly 100% of the natives’ diet.
The Buryats only spoke Russian and, naturally, Buryat, a close kin to Mongolian. (In fact, it’s part of the Mongol-Tungusic tongues of the Altaic family. The two languages are about as mutually intelligible as, say, French and Spanish.) Nearly the entire evening’s conversation was conducted in Russian, so I got an especially good workout. I felt I spoke rather fluently – better than usual -, and my suspicions were borne out by the comments everyone made in my direction: “Considering you’ve barely spoken a word of Russian since 1994, you’re getting by remarkably well!” I even managed to sneak in some literary turns of phrase, and mostly avoided mistakes, lexical and grammatical.
The man, maybe 55 years of age, did get drunk, though, and soon was trying to goad me into admitting to the existence of a god (I just replied maybe) and the evil ways of the West (my rebuttal: to each nation its own socio-political system). His wife kept poking him in the ribs with her elbow, begging him to keep quiet, but I handled the situation in a very debonair manner, deflecting criticism and making my own irreproachable suggestions, so that offence was taken by none and warm feelings had by all.
Sun-duk and I didn’t get home until eleven o’clock, and tomorrow promises to be a very busy day, with two visits planned on Tsagaan Sar proper.
NOTES: Buman will be returning to the hospital on Monday. It seems that her blood pressure is very high, indeed, and that she’s experiencing kidney failure. More tests are needed, but she didn’t seem very optimistic. Do Mongolian doctors perform dialysis?
It’s traditional on Tsagaan Sar for the hosts to give presents to their departing guests. And so it was that Sun-duk got a bottle of shampoo, and I a beautiful red paisley tie. In return, we offered Buman a bottle of red French wine which I never got around to quaffing.
Sun-duk felt much better, today, and at twelve, Khanda’s taxman friend, Enkhbaatar, came to pick us up with his 12-year-old daughter Anuu (who studies at a private English-language school) and his ‘girlfriend’ in tow.
We thought we were going to his house, but instead, he brought us an old friend’s ger not far downtown. It was luxurious! The ger was bigger than any we’d ever seen, and was furnished with two beds, a couch, a television set, a stereo system, several wardrobes, a sink, a stove, some decorated chests... And carpets covering every inch of floor and wall space. The man, whose name I didn’t catch, was a big fellow of about sixty, and he served us, along with his dozen guests, traditionally prepared bread, mutton, salads, buuz, and bansh.
The bread is actually a circular tower of baguette-type pastries - some Mongolians refer to them as cookies - arranged in odd-numbered layers (alternating layers of Happiness and Misfortune, with the top layer being Happiness), and crowned with home-made cheese and curds. The pastries are not eaten until the end of Tsagaan Sar, but the dairy products are always the first thing to be tasted by guests, followed by the other dishes. (The bread layers
Before settling down to eat, we of course had to perform zolgokh, the traditional Mongolian greeting at this time of year. Young people tuck their forearms under their elders’ and kisses are given: one on the left cheek to nearby friends and relatives, two - left-right - to those who have come a long way to visit. As foreigners, Sun-duk and I got two kisses. (We were careful not to kiss the French way, right cheek first!) Then snuff bottles were exchanged; it’s not important to actually take a pinch, though – going through the motions is polite and perfectly acceptable behaviour, as is the toast with vodka afterwards.
Enkhbaatar speaks some English, but he studied accounting and statistics in Moscow for nine years, so we communicated in Russian. After an hour or so, we were taken to Khanda’s and parted ways.
At Khanda’s I got the shock of my life: it seems Dashma and Director Byambajav are Khanda’s older sister and mother, respectively!!! They never, ever hinted at any family ties, referring to one another as “The Assistant”, “The Secretary”, “The Director”... It explains a lot, doesn’t it?
We spent the rest of the afternoon, about four hours, eating, talking, watching TV, and looking at several family albums that contained pictures dating back to the 1920s. Byambajav’s family must have been pretty well-off to have so many photographs; even today, a camera is a luxury in Mongolia, and just getting film developed can cost a week’s salary.
As we left to go home – it was past six, almost Sun-duk’s bedtime! -, we exchanged gifts. Sun-duk received some Mongolian dolls (a family of three!), and I a blue dress shirt (perfect fit!); we gave Khanda’s family a set of teacups and saucers. (Oh yes, I forgot to add that we presented Enkhbaatar with a small set of teaspoons!) One five-minute taxi ride later, paid for by our hosts, we were in bed, brimful of buuz and cake.
NOTES: Khanda told me that school for me would end May 10 – the last day of exams for juniors. After that, I do some odd jobs for SPELT, and can be on my merry way to Korea and thence to Canada.
Some of the best students at Onol are too poor to pay tuition, so they are granted exemptions by the director. That’s very nice of her, and only fitting that the worst, laziest kids should be made to cough up the necessary dough or else repeat a year.
I was asked by Onol to cooperate with the writing of a how-to guide to state translation and pedagogy exams. The school’s reputation is enhanced by having as many students as possible pass the exams. Last year, five out of forty flunked, which I thought was a very good ratio, all things considered. I secretly told myself that if last year’s seniors were like this year’s, at least half should have failed! The state exams must be exceptionally easy – and forgiving - by Western standards...
Khanda emphasised on several occasions the importance of Enkhbaatar, and of treating him with respect. He does a lot of... "things" for Onol, as she so delicately put it! Hmmm... I wonder what these "things" might be?..
Sun-duk called this morning in a fret: she needed documents from Soros in order to obtain her exit visa. I called Buman at the hospital, and she told her assistant Ganerdene to write up a couple of letters to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Emigration Bureau. We got them signed (Buman’s John Hancock was forged by Ganaa!) and stamped, and tomorrow, Sun-duk will pass them on to Itchka, who will take care of everything at the Bureau... Just two days before Sun-duk’s plane takes off! I asked her to take care of it last week, but her mind was taken hostage by that awful cold... So here we are, cutting it oh-so-close yet again.
SPRING? While the temperature has never reached zero, it has remained between -10 and -5 degrees Celsius during the daytime, allowing the sun to melt most of the snow and ice in Ulaanbaatar. Has spring finally arrived, or is just the February Thaw? Remember, it's the Year of the Snake, and Mongolians usually have it pretty good when this particular animal slithers onto the pedestal of the Chinese zodiac...
My bad wife stayed out until nearly ten o'clock this evening, dining one last time with her boss and colleagues from work. She was actually quite pee-oh'ed at all three of her bosses for their unprofessionalism. Not only do they refuse to learn much Mongolian or English, they leave all the paperwork to the underlings and are usually unable to answer questions which the head office in the U.S. consider of the utmost importance. She blames it on Korean society, its insouciance to details and "palli, palli" (rush, rush) mentality. She can't wait to start work in the West!
The last day of the month... Sun-duk's bosses gave her a farewell party at the Seoul Restaurant, and we pigged out on the buffet. It's only the third time I've ever been there, and although it's expensive, it's worth the money! I ate four full platefuls, since I hadn't ingested any sustenance since the previous evening, having skipped both breakfast and lunch.
Tomorrow's our last day together, then she's gone...