Monthly Archives: January 2011

Late January: A timely time to tell you about the holiday season

1. Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving surely was a long time ago.  And yet I can still taste ye, delicious Peace Corps dinner:

This was my first plate from the buffet line.  Look at that turkey.  I had my first acute food craving the other day when I accidentally let myself imagine what it will be like, two-ish years from now, to open a refrigerator, take out a package of thinly sliced turkey from the deli, tilt my head back, and slowly lower some into my mouth like a circus seal feeding itself a mackerel.  UGH GOD.

The turkey dinner was obviously good.  Almost all of the volunteers were able to come into Ulaanbaatar for it, so guesthouses were invaded,

beers were drunk,

warehouse parties were warehouse partied,

temples were visited,

lookalikes were reunited,

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and fun was had by all.

2. In-Service Training

Right after Thanksgiving, all of the M21 English teaching volunteers were bussed out to an isolated mountain resort for a weeklong conference thingy.  The conference thingy consisted of a lot of sitting in seminars about teaching and project planning (it also consisted of a lot of mutton).  A good chunk of this was review for the volunteers, but we weren’t the only participants.

Each volunteer got to bring along a counterpart, or CP, which is Peace-Corps-Speak for “coworker.”  That’s me and Khishgee up there.

I thought that, at most, a couple of my teachers would be interested in going to this (a week away from your family?  A week spent with a bunch of people you don’t know?  A week sitting in seminars, in a hotel, in the middle of nowhere?), but apparently this conference was a hot ticket item.  For about a month leading up to it, there was a not-small amount of intrigue at my school about Who Katie Would Take To UB For The Peace Corps Conference. I could be talking with a teacher in her classroom, in the hallway, in my office, wherever — if I mentioned the upcoming conference, said teacher would inevitably blurt “I WANT TO GO!” and then at least two other teachers would poke their heads around a corner and say “WE DO TOO!”

I was wringing my hands for a while, trying to decide on the best, fairest way to pick somebody. Drawing straws? Eeny Meeny Miney Moe? Oh god, how would I ever avoid the hurt feelings, the suspicions of favoritism? But then my supervisor walked into my office one day and told me that Khishgee was going with me, and she’d just informed her of this fact.  This produced some very confusing feelings in me (“How dare you!  Why I never!  Also: Thanks”).

So, anyway.  Khishgee is a peach.  It was great to have a coworker there, especially for the seminars that were all, Here Is How The Peace Corps Expects Its Volunteers To Work With You (during the Team Teaching Seminar, she turned to me and whispered, “I think we need to change your schedule.”  Then I married her).  It was also great how she got excited about the secondary project stuff — Trafficking in Persons (TIP), HIV/AIDS, alcohol abuse, etc.  Raising awareness about these things is part of my job as a volunteer, see, but Katie is my Name and TESOL is my Game and so obviously I’m a lot more interested in the language teaching part of my job. Khishgee, on the other hand, took home a bunch of TIP and HIV/AIDS materials and wants to have a few seminars for the high schoolers before the year is over.  This is awesome on many levels.

This concludes my summary of In-Service Training, which has made me realize that I haven’t spent a lot of time explaining my work life on this here blog.  I will now write a reminder to myself.

Future Blog Post Ideas:

  • What The Heck My Job Is, Anyway
  • Hierarchy And My Gigantic Ego: Adventures In The Mongolian Workplace!

3.  Christmas

Christmas was so great that our little plastic Christmas tree is still trimmed and sitting in our living room.  I predict that it will be Christmas in our apartment until at least March (our storage closet is in the ceiling and hard to access and we’re lazy).

Anyway, all the volunteers from the Greater Erdenet Metropolitan Area converged on the city on Christmas Eve.  We ate at a Chinese restaurant and did some karaokein’, as you do:

(There were carols in that there songbook!  It was a Christmas miracle, brought to us by Jesus and Mariah Carey)

Then we walked home to our apartment while caroling and falling down on the ice a lot.  The next day there were presents, and way too much food, and movies and cookies and it was all very American and yuletidey.

And of course, there was the part when Ryan and I were tricked into recording this goofy commercial on Christmas Day (The director of a local NGO texted me on Christmas Eve, saying she had a Christmas cake for us [how nice! we thought] and could the both of us please come pick it up the next day at 10:30 am [and how suspicious! we thought].  Sure enough, when we showed up, she said, “Merry Christmas!  Here is your cake.  And some people from the TV station are coming so please put on these hats”).

4. Shin Jil

Otherwise known as the New Year.  New Year’s celebrations come in two parts in Mongolia. There’s the actual New Year’s Eve part, which you spend at home with your family, eating and watching TV and setting off fireworks and such.  Ryan and I had the night to ourselves.  We attempted to go out to dinner, but everything was closed.  So we wandered through the main square, where people were milling about, getting their pictures taken with ice sculptures and Winter Grandpas (i.e. Santa Clauses) and Christmas trees.

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(Ryan, with who we assumed to be  Snow Chinggis Dressed As Winter Grandpa)

But then there’s the other part, the Big Boozy Banquet With Your Coworkers part.

The question of What To Wear To The Shin Jil Party first came up in early December.  I spent at least two staff meetings in the back of the room with my laptop while a bunch of teachers huddled around and whispered for me to look up pictures of Shin Jil dresses (whenever I searched for “prom dresses” they would say, “No, SHIN JIL dresses” and I would be all “Ladies, please, trust me” and then the results would pop up and they’d all go “Oh yes these are very nice”).

The question of Who Would Take Katie Shopping For Her Shin Jil Dress came up in early December, as well.  I went to the market with two teachers one afternoon on a whim, but word spread fast — the whole time we were browsing, they were fielding phone calls from other teachers (“Where are you?  Are you out shopping with Katie?  WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME”)  (It’s not that I’m that popular; I think I’m just a convenient excuse to do fun stuff.  Like shop for dresses and drink beers).  This particular shopping trip was not so fun, however, once I found myself being taken on some kind of -25 F citywide treasure hunt for This One Girl Who Has This One Dress That She’s Renting Out And It Might Look Nice On Katie (it didn’t).

So that shopping trip didn’t work out.  After much hand-wringing on my part (buy a new dress?  Rent one?  Just wear something I have, and maybe BeDazzle it to make it more Shin Jil-y?), I ended up buying something cheap at the market, by myself, about three hours before the party.  The market ladies were horrified when I told them how soon the party was, and immediately started inquiring about what else I needed — why, did I have matching nail polish?  Sparkly accessories?  My god, had I not even purchased my fake eyelashes yet?

When my mom asked me about it later, I said the dress made me look like an ice skating sex worker.  A couple teachers said I looked “cool.”  I suppose I’ll let you judge for yourself.  Here’s a picture of me with my supervisor, Suvdaa:

Can’t wait to wear it again next year!

Also, check out my ‘do (although it looks almost normal, please bear in mind that at the time of the photo it had been deflating for at least eight hours).  On the day of the party, Suvdaa tracked me down at school and said she had a “surprise” for me.  She took me by the arm and led me into a classroom, where a hairdresser had set up her curling irons and hairspray.  She was french twisting a teacher’s hair.  Suvdaa sat me down next to them.

“You’re next.  Don’t move!” she said.

“But I’m supposed to meet –”

“No.  You need to fix your hair,” she said, and left.

When it was my turn, the hairdresser asked me what I wanted.  Lacking any and all vocabulary related to hairstyling, I tried to tell her that it was up to her (“I am teacher, but you are hairdresser!  So uuhhhhh your…idea? Your feeling?  Um…is good.  Is best.  I am thinking this”).  Apparently what I actually said was, “Please tease and crimp and spray me until the circumference of my head is doubled.  Then give me Shirley Temple curls.  Thank you.”

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By the time she was done with me, there were at least ten other women waiting to get their hair did — teachers, cleaning ladies, the director of the high school.  They all pronounced me “goy” (pretty), so I tried not to feel too weird walking around like that for the next few hours.

Anyway.  What else?  As part of the party’s opening ceremony, I stood up with some other teachers and sang the one song that is the bane of every Peace Corps Mongolia volunteer’s existence in December — I speak, of course, of ABBA’s “Happy New Year.”

There was drinking and dancing and merrymaking (and a raffle!  I didn’t win anything, though, gd it).  I thought the whole thing was swell.

The only downside was how the party was on a weeknight, and how I had an early class the next day, and how I was seemingly the only person who cared about being functional in the morning.  When I started making moves to go at midnight, teachers started to crowd around me, grabbing me and yelling over the music, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?  ARE YOU GOING HOME?  HOW WILL YOU GET HOME? WHY ARE YOU GOING COME DANCE COME DANCE ONE MORE DANCE YAAAAAY.”  So I went out to the dance floor one more time in my coat and hat, and after convincing everybody that I was going to find a cab and everything was going to be okay, they let me leave.  Later, I heard that the dance hall shut down at 1, but some people just went to school and kept partying until 3.

I was complaining recently about how the Shin Jil party shouldn’t have been on a work night.  Somebody told me not to worry, because Teacher’s Day is soon, and on a Friday.  I have no idea what we do on Teacher’s Day, besides have the opportunity to sleep in the next day. I’ll let you know how that goes.

And finally, there was the most important holiday of them all,

5.  My Birthday

which I didn’t really plan anything for, because who cares, I am an old person now.  But the fam sent me real nice care packages, and my teachers took me out for beers and gave me presents (A little ger! A little herder boy with a little camel!), and Ryan got me a cake and a mug with his face on it, and to repay this kindness I made him go on an Extremely Long, Extremely Cold Hike Over The Mountain To The Forest, Which Was Not As Pretty As I Remembered It Being.

So that was the end of 2010, and the end of me being 27.  I don’t have much else to say about those two things, and I’m not sure I have any exciting New Year’s resolutions.  I want to do good things at work; I want to be appreciative of the time we have here; I want to not grow back into my American pants.  In that order.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my buns await their workout.

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Dead dogs and xenophobes

Right now I’m home on an unexpected afternoon off from work.  About fifteen minutes ago I looked out the window and noticed a dog sprawled unnaturally in the snow, on the shady side of the street.  Because I hate myself, I stood there and watched him for a good five minutes.  First he struggled to get up, then he staggered around for a while, whining and looking around, and then he crumpled onto the snow again.  This sequence repeated itself a few times before I muttered “oh fucking jesus christ” and threw on my coat and shoved a slice of bread in my purse and left the apartment.

I went downstairs and was just about to walk out the building when I looked to my right and saw him there, under the steps, lying on the floor and drooling and wheezing.  He’s a big German Shepherd-type dog and he looked at me like I was going to kick him.  By this point it was kind of obvious that he wasn’t starving, but I tossed the bread towards him anyway.  He looked at it, looked back at me, drooled, wheezed, and put his head down between his paws.  I stared at him for maybe ten seconds and then came back up here.

So happy 2011, everybody!  My only resolution at the moment is to get rid of my blog post backlog.  I think I might work on that right now, to distract myself from the horrorshow going on downstairs.  We’ve seen plenty of strays since we got here: Dead dogs, dead puppies, screwed-up looking dogs, soon-to-be-frozen puppies.  Whatever.  But this is my first encounter with one that’s actually in the process of dying what looks to be a long and painful death.  I can’t wait to walk past his corpse, and that stale piece of bread, tomorrow morning.

But more importantly, for christ’s sweet sake I did things and saw things over the last couple of months that you don’t even know about! This shameful situation cannot go on.  And so:

November 25, 10:31 p.m.

I’m on the overnight train to UB with Ryan and our aimag-mates Laura and Carolyn.  Ryan’s in the bunk across from me; the ladies are below us.  One of my coteachers is on the same train car as us, randomly — she’s going to the city to see about her sister’s new apartment, or something.  And elsewhere in the car are a few new friends, ranging in age from 1 to 4.  I’ve forgotten everybody’s name except Temujin, the little stinker with Chinggis Khaan’s childhood name.

He was the first one to toddle over to our compartment, hoisting himself onto a bench and busying himself with our empty tea cups.

Then the rest of them invited themselves over to our compartment and set up camp for a good hour.  One guy was wearing a sweatshirt that said “BEST blue KIDS” and “AMERICAN competitor EDUCATION.”  Our Mongolia Lonely Planet was on the table, so we pointed at the pictures and had a nice round of What Is This, Mongolian Language Edition.

US
What is this?

KID
Horse.

US
What is this?

KID
Rock.

US
Good!  What is this?

KID
IT’S MINE.

US

(Look at that face!  He had a laugh that can be most accurately described as ‘demonic’)

Earlier, the tea lady came through, then the sheets lady, and finally the juice lady.  Now it’s quiet and hot and dim.  People are curled up in their bunks and kids are padding around in their long underwear.  The windows are black, ice and snow roll beneath us, and we’ll be in the city by morning.

When our train started to pull away from the platform in Erdenet, Ryan pointed out the window and said, “Look.” There was a jubilant-looking middle-aged lady outside.  In one hand, she had a box of milk from the supermarket; in the other hand, a spoon.  The train slowly moved forward.  We all crowded around the window, craning our necks to watch this woman send off a loved one, throwing spoonfuls of milk on the train and calling out her farewells.

December 4, 1:50 pm, on the bus, waiting to leave for Erdenet

UB men and Erdenet women seem to do a lot of long-distance relationships — many a boyfriend/husband has dropped off his ladyfriend/wife on this bus.  I’ve heard “I’ll text you!” at least seven times already.

Outside my window, a father-daughter pair is standing by a pile of luggage, passing the time by playing rock-paper-scissors.  When he loses, she gets to punish him by flicking him on the forehead.

HOLD THE PHONE: We’re pulling out of the bus station right now, and everybody just put on their seat belts. My seatmate looked over and motioned for me to do it, too. Two questions:

  • What country am I in again, and
  • Exactly how dangerous must a bus ride be perceived to be for 40 Mongolians to buckle up?

8:03 pm

A funny thing:

We’re watching a video of a lady singing old Mongolian standards, but jazzed up and syncopated.  She is also scat singing, here and there.

Less funny things:

We’re barreling along.  There has been maybe four inches of snow in the last few hours, and the road is completely unplowed.  Things are rattling.  The bus is oscillating.  The driver is taking the turns pretty fast.  When I look out my window, there is nothing but blackness.

In an attempt to distract myself from how we are all about to die, I started looking through the pictures from this week on my camera.  Guess what I noticed?

I took a picture of neo-Nazis!  That’s right: Neo-Nazis.  I saw a bunch of uniformed dudes pose in Sukhbaataar Square on Independence Day and I thought, “Oh hey, it’s some policemen or whatever, I think I’ll just wander over there and snap a picture.”  And then I did that, and walked happily, stupidly away, like a big foreign dumbass who had just stuck her camera in the faces of a dozen (violent? Douchebaggy, at the very least) nationalists.  And then it took me a week to notice the non-Buddhist swastikas and the SS uniforms.

Oh god please don’t let me die on this stupid bus.

[Editor’s note: I didn’t]

December 9, 1:30 p.m

Alone in the middle school teachers’ lounge, reading, waiting for the bell to ring.  One of the Mongolian language teachers, on her cell phone, marches into the room.

TEACHER, INTO PHONE
No, there’s nobody here.

ME
?

TEACHER, WITH PANICKED EXPRESSION, STILL ON PHONE
UUUUUH I mean, the American teacher is here!  But, uh…nobody else is here.  Heh heh.  Sorry.

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