The students are like chittering little birds when I walk past them in the dimly lit hallways.
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.
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.
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:
To take it easy.
To let things go. If one class goes poorly that doesn’t mean the other classes will.
Don’t teach hungry.
To always have stickers. Great for bribing students when the room is awkwardly quiet.
Maintain organized even if everything else is a jumbled mess.
In the early hours of the morning at 6:30am, I sleepily departed my hotel in Ulaanbaatar with all my bags – my large winter and summer bags, my water filter bag, my 2 backpacks, and my enormous sleeping bag. One of my concerns that I voiced to my supervisor was:
“I don’t think all of this will be able to fit onto the bus…”
But at 8am, the bus departed The Dragon Station with everyone and everything on board. It’s a seven-hour bus ride from the capital to my new home in Övörkhangai. With an early start, little leg space due to my bags and having had no breakfast, I slept the entire way as a Mongolian comedy show was playing on a flat screen at the front of the bus.
My counterparts (CPs) met me upon arrival and they helped me move into my apartment. I live right next door to my school. I’m living in a brand new apartment on the outskirts ofmy aimeg. However, due to it being a brand new building, I have had to do a lot of shopping to furnish it. A lot of tugriks were flushed away in a single day.
My aimeg lies on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and on the southern tip of the Khangai Mountain Range and it is – according to the packet I got – the fastest developing sector consisting of carpentry, tailoring, auto-repair, houseware goods, and clothing amongst others. My aimeg is a fantastic example of modern-day living intermingling with Mongolia’s traditional past. Men and women, visiting from the countryside, stroll about wearing their vibrant colored deels, glimmering like shiny gemstones amongst more modern outfits.
“You are now the tallest person in the city.”
It’s a 10 to 15 minute brisk walk from my apartment building to the center of town. Auto shops and karaoke bars line up my little promenade as I plod daily upon a cracked and broken sidewalk. Trucks, cars, and motorcycles speed past me paying no heed to pedestrians. Stray dogs walk amongst humans. Mostly I’m ignored but sometimes my blonde hair will attract a hoot or a holler when they pass on by.
When walking across the government square, I can hear the excited voices of children as they race around in toy cars and ride their bikes, enjoying the last few days of freedom before school starts. Summer flowers have been planted on the walkway that leads you from the square to the market street. A person can find almost everything here. On the market street, fruit and vegetable sellers sit in their reserved spots where I can buy potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, cucumbers, and much more. Many stands have been selling school supplies and backpacks for the start of the new school year. “Frozen” is popular and I have seen the faces of Anna and Elsa on backpacks, notebooks, pens, caps, and t-shirts. Despite all the food being sold outside, there is no rancid or awful smell you would expect upon a market street.
The summer air is fresh and clean. Occasionally, gray storm clouds float overhead, spits the aimeg with rain, and then floats on to shower upon another region of Mongolia. It’s just like good ol’ English weather. The buildings aren’t pretty. They are cracked and run down but are like treasure chests. When you walk inside, you enter a well-stocked supermarket or a clothing store where there are clothing items ranging from Forever 21, H&M, and UNIQLO, to more unknown designers or even a home goods stores where you can buy your pots, pans, kettles, forks, spoons, and bed sheets. In addition, there are many hotels, restaurants, and a bakery selling scrumptious cake.
Surrounding the center of town and stretching all the way to the foothills is the ger district, where houses with their bright rooftops and gers have planted themselves. Steps leading up to the top of a hill brings you to a white deer statue where Mongolians have written their names – amongst other ghastly graffiti – believing that writing their names will bring them luck. At night, the stairs glow with white light.
My CP is trying to get me ready for winter. Snow can come as soon as September. I have been told to buy camel wool socks and a fluffy hat so I don’t fall victim to frost bite.
I am excited for my new home, the new school year, and to see what the fall semester brings.
I can’t remember when I found out about the Peace Corps. Maybe my parents told me about it or mentioned it in passing. Maybe at all the school career fairs, there was always a Peace Corps table. I can’t remember how old I was but I must have been 17 when I announced that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I can still remember it clearly. My family flew to Sweden for the summer and on our first night while catching up with my grandmother and uncle, I can remember spouting interest in joining the Peace Corps. I love traveling but I was also inspired by my parents. With adventures of their own and a wonderful upbringing, their sense of exploration and discovery seeped into me.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to join the Peace Corps.”
Now, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer of group M27. This year is also the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps Mongolia. On May 30th, we flew from Seattle with 52 Peace Corps Trainees and on August 13th, 46 were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar’s pink Opera Theater. Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and the US Ambassador of Mongolia, Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, were both present. This is the Directors second swearing-in ceremony that she has ever attended. We all looked splendid in our summer deels.
It felt very much like a graduation. We sat alphabetically in chairs as speeches were made by our Country Director, the US Ambassador of Mongolia, the Peace Corps Director, and Mongolia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. We took the oath that all government officials and workers must take followed by the Peace Corps oath. When my name was called, I walked across the stage, shook hands, and then took my seat.
Successfully passing my summer training, not doing anything stupid that would get me sent back to America, repeating both oaths and taking a short stride across the stage, is all that it took to make me a Peace Corps Volunteer.
What is Ulaanbaatar like?
Just like any other city, the outskirts of UB are more rundown with stores cramped together. There are lots of large, shoddy apartment complexes to accommodate the influx of people who are moving in from the countryside. The traffic was bumper to bumper. However, the city transforms when you reach Chinggis Khaan Square, once known as Sukhbaatar Square. Here is where you can see how Mongolia is attempting to become the next up-and-coming city.
There is a fantastic article I read written by Pico Iyer in “Travel + Leisure” that describes the capital as a…
“Love child of Shanghai and Las Vegas. The city’s streets, where only a generation ago wolves and wild dogs roamed, are today clogged with 700,000 cars, inching past glass towers and giant screens projecting footage of runway models.”
A Louis Vuitton sits on the corner of Chinggis Khaan Square. The State Department has an entire floor of gorgeous yet expensive cashmeres. The Shangri La Hotel is connected to another mall and an I-Max theater. More hotels and buildings are erupting in the midst of a budding city. Here the greater population speaks English and restaurants and bars are geared towards tourists and the wider-world. You can find Irish pubs, western restaurants, Indian restaurants, and Mexican restaurants. Despite the city’s push towards a more international stage, Mongolia’s history remains palpable. Similar to the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in D.C., a large Chinggis Khaan sits upon his throne continuing his immortal reign as he watches over his city.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is Mongolia’s celebration of the “Three Manliest Sports:” wrestling, archery, and horse racing. This is Mongolia’s largest celebration in the summer and it is to honor Mongolia’s ancient history and customs going all the way back to Chinggis Khan’s (Чингис хаан) time.
I wasn’t told the night before what time we were leaving or even when Naadam was starting. At 10am, I walked into the house in my pajamas.
“So, when are we leaving?” “IN 20 MINUTES!”
That got me sprinting back to my little house to throw on my deel, brush my teeth, and grab my camera. However, I should have known about Mongolian time because when I walked back into the house all ready-to-go, my little brother and sister were still running around naked and my host mom was getting her hair straightened.
I was excited to finally wear my deel that my mom bought me in Darkhan. People were staring at me as soon as I got out of the car. In fact, we all wore our colorful deels causing many eyes to be drawn to our group.
The deel I’m wearing is a 2-piece that can be warn separately from each other. The next time you’ll see me wearing this deel will be at my swearing-in ceremony in August.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. There was cloud cover so we weren’t sweltering from the heat but we also managed to avoid a potential rainstorm. We sat in small bleachers underneath an awning with our host families. All the children sported Mongolian flag tattoos on their faces and were waving sticks of cotton candy. Little girls flounced about in their dresses and the boys sported clean pants and shirts.
Before the competitions began, there were performances. There was dancing and singing. My host dad has an incredible singing voice and dedicated one of his songs in my honor. Regrettably, I couldn’t understand what the man and woman were saying over the microphone throughout the prelude. I just heard my name being announced before my host dad’s performance. It was a wonderful performance.
Finally the games were underway! All three were happening simultaneously. Mongolian men were wrestling on the field inside the stadium while arrows were being fired nearby in a separate field. Young children and teenagers raced their horses for 30 km outside of the soum. Women and girls can participate only in archery and horse racing. Gers were erected all around the stadium where we could sit and eat kebabs. There were also carnival-like games that children and even adults could play for prizes. Women had set up their own refreshment tables with large Coke Cola bottles which they poured into cups and sold at a small prize. All in all, it wasn’t a crowded event. My soum is a large soum with 6,000 people but the stadium wasn’t jam-packed and swarming with people like it is in UB.
My fellow PCT, Andrew, got permission from our country director to wrestle. He had been training for weeks before Naadam and managed to stand his ground for a couple of minutes before he was taken down. An astounding feat and surely a very cool story to tell everyone back home about.
A 10-minute drive took me out to the finishing line to watch the horse riders come to a galloping finish. The winner was a young boy who looked to be only 8 years old. It felt like I was in the movie “Hidalgo.” We were all dressed in our finest, waiting in the dusty warm weather for the horses to make an appearance. All that was missing was a horn being blown.
I have now made it over the hill into the final two weeks of Peace Corps Training. Our community project was a success. We gave our school’s Director and the English teachers flash drives with various recorded scenarios – how to order food in a restaurant, formal and informal conversations, how to ask for a taxi, and when talking about travel. We also recorded children books for beginners, intermediates, and advanced English learners. We hope that our project will be fun and can help Mongolian children to learn English and that the English teachers will distribute the surplus flash drives to other English teachers around Mongolia.
Here are some more PCT highlights:
My house is getting invaded by animals. My host dad has already killed four mice. I had a bird get stuck in my chimney and a long rat-like rodent scurried into my room and then back out. My host mom asked me if I wanted a cat to which I swiftly said, “NO!” Just what I need, another animal prowling about.
There was a planned three-day electricity black out in our soum. So we had to build a fire to cook our meals over. I always have to make sure that my filter is full with water when incidences like this occurs because the machine that pulls up the water runs on electricity. Chika and I watched “Easy A” on my computer to pass the time.
Practice Teaching is over. The number of students had dropped since teaching resumed after the Naadam break. For example, we went from 30 5th graders to three. We were still able to teach the limited number of students but the atmosphere was way less formal. My host brother and his cousin came and were excited to learn their ABC’s. My host sister is too young and was crying when I told her that she was too little.
We had a Karaoke night. One of the host mother’s organized the whole event and we had our own private room supplied with bowls of chips and peanuts and lots of beer. Our host parents came and were sitting outside like our chaperones, laughing at how horrible we were. But they all came in when we sang, “Аяны Шувуу.”
For a week, the hills surrounding my soum disappeared under a blanket of fog and smoke. I found out that Russia had raging forest fires and all the smoke was being blown into Mongolia. It at least helped to bring the temperature down.
I went on a hike with all the children. At one point, I was carrying two children up at once when it got too steep or they got too tired. I have grown to enjoy their company. I have never been around so many kids before. At first I was overwhelmed. Now, I look forward to spending every possible minute with them. However, I still have trouble remembering most of their names so I have assigned them with animal names; “Little Bear,” “Little Monkey,” “Little Goat,” “Little Cat,” etc. They love it.
On TV, I’m been watching UK’s CNN in an attempt to keep up with the news. I have to say that I much prefer UK’s news coverage over U.S. coverage. More events and incidences from around the world are being covered and reported.
On Independence Day, I was given my Mongolian name:
It means #1 or winner.
Now, whoever said, “Don’t pack shorts! You’ll never wear them!” should be strung up by their toes. The summers here are sweltering. I’m thankful that I brought a pair of running shorts that I always pull on once I’m back from school. At least the sun has given me an incredible tan that is offsetting my blonde hair.
Currently, my host mother’s university friend and her 8-year-old son are visiting from UB to avoid the Nadaam crowds in the city. She told me that she works for “Монгол Сайхан” – “Beautiful Mongolia” – a 30-minute show illuminating Mongolia’s nature and beautiful scenery.
Nadaam, consisting of the “Three Manliest Sports” that are archery, wrestling, and horse riding, began on 11 July. Only recently have women been allowed to participate in only archery and horse racing. However, very few do. Nadaam in my soum will start on the 20th. I will be wearing my brand new deel.
On 9 July, with my host mother and two other PCTs, we took the minibus into Darkhan to go deel shopping. There were a plethora of stores that you could enter filled from top to bottom with lively and vibrant colors. Being almost 6 ft. tall and slim, I was the last one to finally find a deel that fit without any major adjustments made to it. It felt like I was shopping for a prom dress. You can just ask my parents how long that took. There were no changing rooms so we were changing in any empty corner we could find. Now that I have my first summer deel, I can’t wait to buy my winter deel. We wandered some more around the markets. I kept my backpack pulled tight to my stomach to avoid any fingers that could squirm into any pockets.
I have also recovered from my first bout of food poisoning.
The cause of it?… ICE CREAM.
On 16 July at 1:30pm, my host mother came home from the supermarket with popsicles. Within 10 minutes after eating mine, it felt like little mice feet were skittering about in my stomach. For the entire day, I felt nauseous and was knocked out cold. To make it even worse, we drove out to the countryside to the grandmother’s house to swim and eat dinner. After swimming, I fell asleep for three hours as everyone was tiptoeing around me. The following day, I was attacked by diarrhea. Every 10 minutes, I had to trek out to the outhouse. At one point, it felt like I was squatting in there long enough for me to carve my name into the wood. But my host mother whipped me up some rice water.
1/4 cup of rice
3 cups of water
Boil 1/4 cup of rice in 3 cups of water for 30 minutes. Leave to cool for another 30 minutes and then sprinkle in some salt.
This really helped in my recovery but I had to force it down. In the end, I emerged from my little house to live another day. But enough of this.
Finally, it is strawberry picking season and the berries are so itty bitty tiny. I helped to make 8 jars of the most delicious strawberry jam. First, I had to pluck off all the stems and leaves. Then my host mother placed a large pot over the fire and poured in a small ladle of water followed by 4 kg of sugar. Then we poured in 4.5 kg of strawberries. The whole process only took 20 minutes as we took turns stirring the sugar and jam until it liquefied into a delightful aroma of fresh home-made jam.
Here are some more succinct highlights:
We had a mock language test to prepare ourselves for the real test at the end of training. I wasn’t awful but I wasn’t good.
We began practice teaching at the beginning of July. It’s very similar to our micro lessons except we teach for 40 minutes with more thorough planning. Currently, we’ve been on a two-week break from teaching because of Nadaam.
The river is our only reprieve from the heat. Like a Viking, I go jumping into the cold water.
I finally finished watching Game of Thrones season 6. That finale!
All of our host families came together and had a volleyball tournament. It was also a sneaky way to get us all together and remind both host families and PCTs of the 8pm curfew.
I have replaced my Illinois license with my new Mongolian ID, a Certificate of Alien Registration.
After two weeks of the same breakfast, two sausages and bread dipped in egg batter, my mouth was salivating at the thought of oatmeal with lingonberry, Swedish pancakes, and toast topped with my favorite cheese. Luckily, my host mother has become attuned to my thoughts and bought me Choco Chip cereal. Now, I haven’t eaten cereal in over a year, but I rejoiced in the change. She also gave me two jars of peanut butter. I’ve never been a fan of peanut butter but I’ve got to eat what is available.
I taught my host siblings and their cousins, “Round a round a circle like a teddy bear…” It’s what my Granny always use to do to me when I was little and now I’m constantly having all the small children running towards me with their palms stretched out yelling, “TEDDY BEAR, TEDDY BEAR!”
Now what do I do in my free time when I’m not bogged down by PCT work? I’m reading the 8th Outlander book, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” off of my Kindle.
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.