School is in session

The students are like chittering little birds when I walk past them in the dimly lit hallways.

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

For most of these students, “Hi,” is the only English word they know. It’s like there’s an ethereal golden light surrounding me as I walk the school hallways. Girls and boys from 5th grade to 12th grade gawk and then proudly say, “Hi!” or say the greeting to show bravery amongst their school friends, like “Yes, I spoke to the American.”

I am serving with Peace Corps Mongolia as a Secondary English Teacher.

For the next two-years, I will help my eight Mongolian counterparts (CPs) to improve their lesson planning, to improve their English speaking in the class room, and to co-teach alongside them. In addition, I will help lead my school’s speaking club. I look forward to the challenge.

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There are four secondary schools in my aimeg. I am teaching at school #4, the newest school.

School began on 1 September. My yellow school was decorated with balloons and banners in honor of the new school year. Chairs were placed outside and students and faculty members sat outside in the sun to listen to speeches made by the  governor, the Director of my school, and student speeches; dances were performed; songs were sung; and achievements accomplished last year were proudly heralded. I wore my summer deel to the occasion.

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English teachers in a classroom that was funded by Singapore’s World Vision.

I’m teaching a variety of grade levels. We sing songs in 5th grade classes. We are learning the ABCs in 6th grade classes. 7th graders excitedly wave their hands in the air so they can write answers on the board. 11th graders are improving their writing and listening skills and we are preparing the 12th graders for the end-of-the-year Concourse Exam. Students can be quiet and stoic. It’s hard to know if they like having me as a new addition to their classroom but my CPs tell me that whenever I’m not there, students ask where I am. I take that as a great sign! There are more girls than boys. There is a heavy dropout rate due to boys leaving to become herdsmen out in the steppes or simply no interest.

My school is only a three minute walk from my apartment building. A distance I will be grateful for during the blustering cold winter months, (rumor is it might snow soon). Despite the twisting road ahead as I navigate myself through a Mongolian school and the high expectations for having a native English speaker in their midst, my goal is to take it nice and slow.

Here are tips for myself:

  1. To take it easy.
  2. To let things go. If one class goes poorly that doesn’t mean the other classes will.
  3. Don’t teach hungry.
  4. To always have stickers. Great for bribing students when the room is awkwardly quiet.
  5. Maintain organized even if everything else is a jumbled mess.
  6. And if everything goes to pot, take action.

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I’ll see you again

“Love you my family. Good luck. See you. Come back soon.”

A text message my host mother sent me the day I tearfully said goodbye to my host family.       

8 August was my last day and night with my host family. They took me to grandmother’s house for dinner. Ate grilled pork and it was scrumptious. My last act as a thank you for hosting me all summer was to give them thank you gifts. I made treasure maps for my host siblings and hid their presents in the yard. Their faces beamed when I handed them each a map and they instantly went running off. They carried their presents back like prized possessions.

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We finally departed our soum and our families the next morning. It was a sad farewell. Our families said good bye to us in front of the school. After 30 minutes of hugs and farewells, we finally piled into the bus that would take us to Darkhan. As we neared the boarder of our soum, we noticed little figures on top of a hill. Our families had driven ahead of us to intercept us at the border and once again we all hugged and said our good byes. This time, it was more difficult. I furiously hugged my host mother and my host siblings not knowing when I would see them again.

Peace Corps training flew by so fast. After our two-week Nadaam break, everything else torpedoed past me so fast that I panicked a little: “Is our summer already over?!?!” A lot happened during my last three weeks.

At the end of our last practice teaching at school, we awarded all the students with certificates as a reward for coming to our summer English classes. My host brother and his cousin now know their ABC’s and have been singing it repeatedly over and over and over again. I also passed my LPI (Language Proficiency Test). For 20-minutes, I sat in a room with my “interviewer” and talked about myself in Mongolian and answered questions in Mongolian.

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The last day at school was a bittersweet day. We took down all of our Mongolian language posters from the walls and swept the floors. It felt like it was the end of a school year. I had moments when I was too tired to be in school or I was getting frustrated with the language but I was sad at seeing the walls stripped bare. The school had become my second home.

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Our language books and notebooks liter the tables.

 

I spent a lot of time in Darkhan. On 5 August at 6:30 am, all 47 PCTs traveled to Darkhan for a teacher-training seminar. Seven PCTs are going to be teacher trainers and they each gave a 40-minute lesson in front of Mongolian-English teachers. The rest of us were there to observe. I remained in Darkhan afterwards with Emma and her host family. I got to see more of the city: I walked across Darkhan’s bridge and gazed upon the big, golden Buddha statue, wandered around in supermarkets, and had dinner at a Korean restaurant. The following day, I  returned with my own host family.

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Mongolians praying in front of the large Buddha statue as the sun sets behind.

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We had our Host Family Appreciation Party down by the river. Our host parents bought a sheep and its dead body was strung up on a branch to be prepared for our dinner. This meal is called Khorkhog. As the sheep was getting chopped up and tossed into the pot, we had a relay-race, a water balloon toss, darts, and “beer” pong – (we used water), and played volleyball. We also gave speeches (in Mongolian!) to our host families, thanking them for their incredible hospitality. We ate apple and orange slices, bananas, and chips and peanuts as an appetizer before the main course was served: goat meat, including fatty stomach intestine, potatoes, and rice. After dinner, we splashed in the river and danced. Eventually, the mosquitoes became too pesky and painful bringing a stinging end to the party.

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During our Host Family Appreciation Party, only younger adults and children participated in the games while the adults preferred to remain seated in their circle talking and sharing vodka. However, Mongolians love music and they love to dance! Music was being played all night and after 8, our host parents weren’t shy in bopping and twirling around in the grass with each other. 

Mongolian hospitality is legendary. Never have I experienced such incredible generosity, warmth, and kindness. I was not just a guest but I was treated like I was a part of their family. My host siblings and all of their cousins referred to me as, “Anna sister.” They protected me while including me in their day-to-day lives.

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Unleash your singing voice

Mongolians love to sing!

We’ve been told by our language teachers and our cross-cultural team that we should learn a couple of Mongolian songs for when we are asked to sing. Fortunately, if we learn just the first few lines of a song, Mongolians will quickly jump in and sing along thus saving us from embarrassment. With my croaky voice, I will need saving.

Орчлонг хаирлаарай

Нандин цэнхэр тэнгэрийг хайрлаарай

Намрын будан бүрхчихнэ ай хөөрхий

Насан өндөр аав ээжээ хайрлаарай

Нартын жам нь булаачихна ай  хөөрхий

 

Гунигтай сэтгэлийг аргадаж хайрлаарай

Нулимстаи нүдийг арчиж хайрлаарай

Чи бидний орчлон ганцхан шүү

Амбдралыг зүрхэндээ тэврэн хайрлаарай

 

Гэгээн дорны сарыг хайрлаарай

Гэрэлт туяагаа хумьчихна ай хөөрхий

Зоргоор олдохгүй амьдралаа хайрлаарай

Зовлон жаргал хуваачихна ай хөөрхий

 

Here is also an example of throat singing:

Too Late to Apologize Throat Singing

Сайханы Хөтлийг

On 23 June, after our usual weekly trip to Suhbataar, we drove 20 minutes farther North to Сайханы Хөтлийг and the Mongolian-Russian border. To drive to this spot, we had to drive through a security checkpoint.

Through my awestruck blue eyes, I gazed upon the most beautiful sight.

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We hopped off the bus and immediately hustled ourselves up to the top of the hill to look out at the magnificent vista of clear, blue sky and lush green hills. A crisp breeze kept me from getting to hot from the hike to the top.

All along the Mongolian border you can find more oovos. These are made up of large pile of rocks with blue scarfs weaved through. This particular one had a ram’s skull perched on top.

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It’s these type of moments that remind me why I chose to serve with the Peace Corps in Mongolia.

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On our way back, we saved a car that got stuck in the mud and by “we,” I mean, just the men.

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One month wih the Peace Corps

July is here!

I have conquered my first month with the Peace Corps.

So much has happened since the last time I posted.

I was sick for 2-weeks with a sore throat and awful congestion. It made something as simple as getting out of my sleeping bag an unpleasant ordeal. By the 8th day when I realized that I wasn’t getting any better and it became painful to swallow food and drink, I had to call the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO). Dr. Maya saved me and I can now walk to school without feeling exhausted. In addition, I was feeling homesick but now I feel more comfortable with where I am…although I could live with less spiders invading my house.

Twice has my soum been hit by rainstorms. And both times we lost electricity. My little house even suffered from some flooding but my host parents were amazing and took quick care of it. The first storm came after a hike I took with 4 PC friends.

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An afternoon Sunday hike with my fellow PCTs. 

As we were coming down from the mountains and were re-entering our soum, little raindrops escalated into a fierce thunderstorm. I knew I would get drenched as I was still a 30-minute walk away from my house when suddenly, there was a honk. A white car was waiting up ahead – my host parents! I don’t know how they found me or if it was purely by accident, but they saved me from turning into a drowned rat. Mongolian parents have a sixth sense about their children or they just called around the town asking, “Have you seen the Americans?!”

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After the rain storms. Small lakes pop up everywhere.

My host family also took me out in the country to visit “my” grandparents. We all sat outside for dinner. What was for dinner? Well, let me tell you. Someone slaughtered a goat – (glad I was not there for that part) – and wrapped the bones and meat into a dough-like blanket. Potatoes and carrots were also added into the mix. Then the blanket was put in a pan and set upon an outdoor fire and left there for a couple of hours. When the meat was ready, the dough was pulled away to reveal all the meat.

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Mongolians are meticulous when eating their meat. Like eating ribs, they eat everything off the bone – (yes, even the fat) – until there is nothing left except for glistening white bones that get thrown to the dogs. Some even crack the bone in half to drink the marrow inside. I refuse to eat the fat. I also had my first taste of Mongolian made vodka. Not a fan. It tasted buttery but even if you don’t like it, you must take at least one sip to show respect.

The vodka was poured into a copper bowl which is then passed around to everyone at the table. I followed the example of putting my ring finger into the bowl and then flicking Vodka drops into the air. One flick for the past, a second flick to the present, and a third flick for the future. After our dinner, we played basketball – (with a soccer ball, I might add) – and went swimming in the river. It was a perfect day.   

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The summer nights are long with the sun not setting until after 11pm.

29 June was Mongolia’s Election Day. Peace Corps is forbidden to talk about politics or be in or around polling houses, so I’ve kept a tight lip since my arrival. The day was considered to be a holiday so there was no language class or afternoon classes. I saw many people dressed in their finest with older folk wearing traditional garb.

Micro teaching is now over. In July, we will now be practice teaching. In new groups of 3’s, we will teach 8 times throughout the month, to a variety of grade levels. The stakes are higher with more intensive lesson planning and more thorough evaluations. For our first two lesson plans, Peace Corps officials came to watch. We have also begun our community outreach program. After interviewing our host parents and after translating their Cyrillic script with the aid of our language teacher, we unearthed what the problems are in our town: poor dental hygiene, too much trash being thrown on the ground, not enough space in Kindergarten rooms for more children. They want a fitness center, indoor toilets at the school, better roads, drinking water in the school and more. Obviously, we can’t do anything about a fitness center, indoor toilets, or the roads. But we have come up with an excellent, long-lasting idea that we hope gets approved by Peace Corps. 

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On the road to Sükhbaatar. There is never a dull moment or a more beautiful sight then when driving through Mongolia.

 July will definitely be a busy month. I only have a month left until my swearing-in ceremony. It will be exciting to transition from a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) to Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I’ve received packages from my parents. My spirits soar every time I see someone walk into the room announcing, “Package for Anna!” Except one package was accidently sent to Singapore. Oops. Next time I update, I hope I will be wearing my own deel and telling you all about the Naadam festival that is in July. 

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My fellow Peace Corps trainees after a long day of language class and practice teaching.