Monday, November 7, 2011

An English Competition

Recently I went on a trip to help in a 3 day English competition sponsored by World Vision. When I was first approached by my English teachers to go with my students I thought “ugh.”
Now you’re probably wondering why “ugh” was my first reaction. Well, now that I have been here for a little over a year (pat myself on the back) I have a better understanding of how these competitions work in Mongolia. You go to this far off town and the students and teachers sleep in…a freakin….classroom. The teachers don’t even get their own classroom, nope. They share it with their students. And sleep on the floor.
On top of being uncomfortable, the schedule is always late; you never know what’s going on or how long anything will take. But, I put these thoughts aside and said disgruntling “FIINNEE”. After a nauseating 4 hour bumpy bus ride, we get to the town and walk up to the 1st school. The director comes up to us and says oops you’re in the wrong school, in fact you must go with all your things to the other side of town, which is about a 30 min walk, to the 5th school. “Oh poop” I think. So we grab all our things, and walk in the cold across town. We are all hungry and tired but we are actually the lucky ones. There are other students who will participate in the Math competition who had to take the train, which will drop them off tomorrow, at 3:00 AM.
We get to the 5th school, and they put us in a small classroom, with the tables and chairs pushed back and a thin rug rolled out. There is no running water in the town that day, and the bathroom in the school has a huge hole on the door. The students set up their sleeping bags and when they ask where is mine I timidly say I am staying at another PCV’s apartment that lives in that town. I felt a bit guilty for doing so but the thought of sleeping on the floor of a classroom with all my students and that gosh darn hole in the bathroom door did it for me. And we go off to find some greasy Mongolian food.
The next day, my teacher says we must be at the 1st school at 9:00am! Don’t be late! They will not start on Mongolian time! And I, foolishly enough, believed her. (Looks like I haven’t learned all that much my second year after all) I get to the 5th school on time, and we wait…for almost two hours, until it finally starts. First they entertain us with students singing English songs. Cute right? Only right after that starts the English song competition and, oh my…this is awkward, the same students who just sang are singing again- with a few extras added. After we had some lunch together, provided by World Vision (WV) which was very nice of them ;( side note: they made sure to feed these students for the entire 3 days, which is extremely rare here in Mongolia.) After lunch, the written test: students who pass this written test can move on to Stage two: Speaking about certain topics, and once they pass stage two, on to the final stage: debate! At the school, before their written exam began, this exchange happened with my student:
Student: Ellie teacher, please slap me on the back, 3 times.
Me: er….what?
Student: Please, 3xs on the back, it is superstition
Me: um…should I slap hard?
I awkwardly ended up slapping the backs of all the students, feeling like what I was doing was wrong, yet kinda funny. After the exam, dinner and you would thing we would all go back and hang out until tomorrow. Nope, not these overachieving students! They waited for hours for the test results to be posted. This took so long that they eventually went back to the 5th school, and when someone told them it was posted, a handful of students put on their boots and walk out to the 1st school late at night to see who got placed in the top 6. Now, when I asked why, one student said “I need to know if I can sleep tonight. If I get placed in the top 6, I can’t sleep. I must prepare all night. But if I didn’t place, I can sleep.”
I am proud to say that most of my students placed in the top 6 of their grades (9th, 10th, and 11th). I spent that night talking with my students about the different topics they will be presented with the next day; global warming, air pollution, child abuse, bad habits, Mongolian educational system to name a few. But after awhile, we just chatted and I let them ask me any questions they wanted to help practice their English and I have to say I truly enjoyed spending that time with the students.
The next day, I met the students at the school, all of them had only 2 hours of sleep the night before but no one complains and they don’t seem tired. The day starts late as usual. When the students start their speaking, some are so nervous they get to the microphone, say their name and nothing else. They stand for several brutal minuets, saying and doing nothing. Eventually, a judge has to tell them to go sit down. They go back to their seats, heads down, ashamed.
Final stage, several of my students make it to the top 3 of their grades. The debate is pretty uneventful with students not understanding the topics, but by the time 11th grade gets up, it gets pretty decent. One of my students’ wins 1st place, and a laptop, for the 11th grade; she cries from happiness. My 10th grade student gets 2nd place, she cries from disappointment. In the 9th grade, a student from our town also wins 1st place but she has a fever and even though she is happy, she just wants to go home.
And that wraps up my 3days of the WV English competition! The students who participated really did learn a lot and I have never in my life seen students who had to endure so much and who were so dedicated. An interesting experience after all, although...truth be told... I would be fine if I didn’t experience it again for a long time.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Well Friends & Family, it’s been a while since I sat down and written to you all about my Peace Corp’s life. Recently, I was able to travel to the Promised Land….also known as America. Oh how glorious it was! Toilet paper in all the bathrooms, organized roads where people follow the lines, and, best of all, hot wings cafĂ©! I couldn’t have asked for a better trip home. I would like to describe my trip, since I seemed to have established an outsiders perspective on American lifestyle as well as my first impressions when I got back.

The first thing that struck me as I exited the plane in LAX was the steady flow of English. Everyone spoke clearly and beautifully. No one dropped their prepositions or had past and present tenses in the same sentence. It was awesome to be able to understand and to be understood. The second thing was the diversity; what, I am not the only white girl in the room?! Then there are the obvious the sweet amenities; showers with good pressure, the smoothly paved roads, air conditioning…I could go on forever.

During my trip I also got to see my twin cousins’ adorable Bat Mitzvah as well as another cousin’s beautiful wedding. Even though I found both events to be amazing, fun, and with delicious foods that I haven’t been able to eat for a year, it was shocking to see such extravagance after living a slightly Spartan lifestyle in Mongolia. Having said that, I must say I adjusted to American lifestyle very easily. Other Peace Corps Volunteers, who visited home as well, kept warning me that I would have culture shock and feel strange. But truth be told, as side from what was mentioned above and a few other things (like waiters understanding my order) I fell right into the groove of things.

Visiting home, I realized that I really took my life for granted. I could have almost anything, or almost any craving, or satisfy any desire fairly easy. Here in Mongolia, it’s just sliiiggghhttly different (that was sarcasm). And for that I am grateful! I want to live a harder life cause if I didn’t, I would have never realized how wonderful life in America is. (don’t worry I won’t break out into song form West Side Story) Sure you hear about how you should be grateful, and people are starving in Africa, blah, blah. But it’s not until you live it, that you truly feel it.

On that note, I am glad to be back in my cozy little apartment in my small town in Mongolia, carrying toilet paper and hunting for fresh fruits and vegetables. I like that I can say, after a year Mongolia feels like my new home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reflections on the Past Year and Thoughts on the Year to Follow

As my first year here in Mongolia comes to an end, I can’t help but think about the year that has been and the year that will be. I reflect on what I have accomplished, what I still want to do, and what I could have done better. It is so difficult when people ask me how my service has been thus far. I want to jumble up 100 different ideas. It’s been interesting to say the least; I have conquered a language, I have faced fears, I have been sad and happy and lonely and excited and disappointed. It seems impossible to describe my year in Mongolia. The time went by quickly enough and when I think back on details, on certain events I realize how long the year has been and how much I have done. English Club, Advance English Club, Teachers English Class, teaching 4th and 5th grade, gave a time management seminar, taught the bank workers, gave a safe sex seminar, drama club and started a school dormitory project, all the while trying to integrate into my community and new culture. Not bad for the first year!

Yet I can’t help but think I should have accomplished more. It is a good thing Peace Corps is two years instead of just one. Next year, I would like to continue the clubs and classes as well as work on more community projects. As to what they will be, it depends greatly on my school director and, of course, my community! Ideally I would like to start a green house project. I am starting to realize that whenever I am about to begin something, I become so overwhelmed. Like the task at hand is impossible; there is just too much to do. But I have also realized that the more I challenge myself, the better I become at facing challenges. And the hardest part is realizing the possibility of failure. There have been times when I didn’t want to do a project or class because I felt like I would simply do a bad job! It is something I truly regret doing this past year. I would like to change that about myself. I would like to have the courage to fail. It sounds strange when I say it that way. Why would someone need courage to fail? Yet, failing is so hurtful to your pride! You want to be great, at everything. And in order for that to be true, you need to be selective as to what you do. This next year, I hope I may face failure head on and be ok with it. Or even better, learn from it!

So overall, I am content with my first year in Mongolia and with the upcoming year, I hope to let go of this idea of perfection; whatever that may be.

Friday, March 25, 2011


There are some words in Mongolia that sound like another language. One of these words is 'gantsara' meaning 'alone'. When I first heard this word it reminded me of a Spanish name and I pictured a tan Spanish woman with a long black braid and a white lace shirt. However, now that name takes on a whole different feeling. As a general rule, Mongolians usually don't live alone. They mostly live with family and then few live with friends. This has to do with the hundred of years of herding together with their families. Also, living in a ger is hard work and having more than one person to share the burden makes things easier.

When Mongolians hear that I am living alone, I find their reaction very amusing. They usually respond with a concerned “Tiim yy??!” (Oh really?!). The men, usually shake their heads and say living alone is difficult and I shouldn't be living alone. Some women say this too, however I have also found that more women understand when I say I enjoy living alone. One woman said “Yes, I lived alone too once, and...” she pauses, looks at her husband, then says “I am sorry my husband but I REALLY enjoyed living alone!” She looks at me and laughs. There is a connection with women about living alone. Maybe it is because they feel the burden of having a family a bit more than the men do.

The truth is I really do enjoy living alone. I find that my apartment has become my escape from the outside world where it feels like everything I do is being watched. In fact a lot of volunteers feel this way. We are “gadaa hun”, outside people or outsiders. No matter how many buutz I eat or vodka I drink ( don't worry ima I don't drink a lot!) or Mongolian songs I sing, I will always be an outsider here. Which is fine and dandy but I can only handle so many stares in a day! When I come to my apartment, there is no one there to whisper about me or comment on my actions. Phew what a relief!

What I find interesting is the difference in which Americans and Mongolians view the idea of living alone. In Mongolia, people view this as boring and lonely. I always get asked if I am bored at home. I laugh at this idea since I look forward to my time alone! I can read for as long as I like, watch movies and just sit and think without being bothered. In America, we view living alone as a high state of independence. If you say you live with your family or friends, its usually not a big deal, until you get to a certain age! Imagine a 36 year old man saying he lives with his mother and sister. We would think it odd; does he have a job? Maybe his mother needs help. Maybe his sisters are very young. But in Mongolia they find a person living alone odd. Do they have family? Are they antisocial? Do they have friends?

So now I can understand their reaction and concern when I tell them I live 'gantsara'. And I no longer envision an exotic Spanish woman when I hear the word but instead have the feeling of cultural difference; while I feel independent and relieved to be alone, Mongolians see it as lonesome and difficult. It's a huge indication from the cultures we come from.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

White Month Part 2

When I think back on what was the Mongolian holiday Tsagan Sar, I see a blur of milk tea, buuz (meat dumplings), and different types of vodka. It was much like how I thought it would be; visiting houses, eating and drinking, yet I didn't realize how it would feel. Pretend you are walking into someone's house or ger. You feel a rush of warmth from the fire crackling on the stove and see the beautiful Turkish carpets hanging on the walls. You Mongolian host smiles at you and hold out their arms. You embrace them by putting your arms underneath theirs, as if you are supporting them. They press their soft cheek against yours and they breath in. You find yourself doing the same thing while you say the traditional greeting “Amar bain yy?” (I think it means “are you resting well?”) You sit down next to the table which is filled with different types of candy, salads, and sweet rice. There is also an entire steamed goat stacked on top of each other in the middle of the table and a bread tower with different types of white candy on it. Your host sets a bowl of salty milk tea in front of you and says “tse oo” (drink tea). You sip the hot salty tea, knowing you will have to finish it if you want to respect your host. They are busy pulling the steaming dumplings from the stove top. As you nibble on the candies and salads, your host sets the hot dumplings on the table to cool off. While you wait, tiny glasses are passed around and your host pours a clear liquid into the tiny glass cup and boast that this is homemade Mongolian vodka, made in the countryside. You glance nervously at the cup, worrying how much it will burn as it goes down your throat. Your host has their own cup ready and they reach it into the air and say “tuuluo!” You raise the glass and take it back leaving only a little in the cup. Your surprised; the liquid didn't burn at all! In fact, if it wasn't for the slight aftertaste, you would have thought they gave you water. You smile, feeling relieved. Your host passes the dumplings to you and you take 3 on your plate, any less would be insulting. You host then gives you a dark red juice and they tell you its Mongolia beer, homemade of course! You see tiny floating berries, which came from the countryside, and you cautiously take a sip and smile; its delicious! The beer-juice is sweet and bubbly and you eagerly chug it down as you eat the greasy meat dumplings. Your host then takes out the store bought vodka bottle and pours it into those tiny cups and raises them into the air. You raise yours, knowing this one WILL burn and have your beer-juice ready. “Tuuluo!”. Chug, burn, beer-juice. Your host slices your a piece of meat from the table and re-fills your beer-juice. Then its time to go,you stand up and feel a bit sluggish from all the beer and vodka. Your host hold out both their hands and gives you gift (usually T 1,000, or minutes for your phone) as if it wasn't enough that they fed and entertained you! Then you put on your layers, say your goodbyes, and head to the next house to do it all over again.

It's the 5th house. You walk in; its too hot. You eagerly peel off the layers till you can take off no more. You greet your host with a quick touch on each of their soft cheeks. “Amar bain uu?” you ask. You plop onto the chair and stare dismally at the table full of food in front of you. Your friendly host smiles and passes out plates and those dreaded tiny cups. “Eattara!” (eat please!) they say as they pull the tray of the greasy meat dumplings onto the table. You have already eaten 20 meat dumplings since your previous hosts were just not satisfied with you eating only 3 at their house. You regretfully place yet another 3 dumplings onto your plate and you swear you hear your stomach say “Are you kidding me?”. It groans in protest. Your host places in front of you hot milk tea, a tiny cup of vodka, and beer-juice. They raise their tiny cups and say “Tuuluo!”. “Tuugoulth” you sputter out. Hey, at least you tired to say it correctly. This is the eighth (hm, maybe ninth? ) shot of vodka your taking down. Chug, dull burn (hell your used to it by now) and you take a bite of your fatty dumpling as greasy slips down the corners of your mouth. You feel sloppy and a bit drunk at this point. Your thirsty but the salty milk tea, which you must finish, only makes you more thirsty. The beer-juice, although its refreshing and sweet, makes you feel even more groggy. You gotta get out of this house before they feed you anymore. You get up quickly, put on the layers, receive the gift but still feel unworthy for it and rush home; for once the cold air feels good. You roll onto your bed, your stomach is upset with you and isn't afraid to show it. The scary part is that you know that you will have to do it all over again, for the........ next …...three …..days.

And that is how White Month felt like for me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

White Month Part 1


Hey friends! Soon it will be the highly talked about Mongolian new year, Tsagan Sar which literally translates into “White Month”. I get the feeling that the color white symbolizes purity since they also eat a lot of dairy (white) food during the summer as a way to cleanse their bodies from the meat-eating winter days. This holiday is such a big deal that Peace Corps has given not one, but two classes on what to expect and how to behave during Tsagan Sar. Its times like this I wish I invested in a Mongolian deel which is their traditional clothing, mostly worn by the older generation although there are few younger ones who sport it. During important holidays or ceremonies I always get nervous about saying, doing, and wearing the wrong thing. One of the things that I find the most interesting about Mongolia is that there is many, many social rules. For example, you shouldn't whistle or hum in doors, you shouldn't shake someone's hand with your glove still on, you shouldn't step on the threshold of a ger,if you accidentally tap someone's foot you have to immediately shake their hand and say your sorry, and the list goes on. When a holiday comes around, the stakes go hirer thus my nervousness. I know what your thinking, “hey Ellie, your a foreigner and everyone who sees you will know that! No one expects you to know all these hidden rules.” FALSE. I actually truly don't mind the rules, I find them extremely fascinating and I want to impress/respect the Mongolians who are kind enough to take me in during a holiday.

I remember reading an M20's blog about celebrating Tsagan Sar before leaving for Mongolia, and its strange that now I will be celebrating (and later blogging about) it.

How is Tsagan Sar Celebrated you ask?

Well, from what I understand, its 3 days long and the younger generation visits the older generation. Each house has a table that is set-up with these huge bread/cook things that are stacked up very nicely, and tons of candy, vodka, juice, fruits and a full goat. When you visit a house/ger, you must greet you host by putting your arms underneath theirs and give them a sniffing kiss on each side. A sniffing kiss? Hm, sound strange, you say. But its not! They believe that when they do this, they take in a bit of your essence (beautiful, isn't it?). So after the greeting, I am not sure what happens but I know that you must take at least one shot of vodka and at least 3 bootz. This may not sound too bad, but after visiting 5 houses or so, those all start to add up.

So I have had the excellent idea of leaving my soum, a place of 10,000 people, and head over to my host family's house in Erdene; a soum of 2,000 people. Why, you ask? Simply because I wanted to experience Tsagan Sar in a more traditional setting and it will be awesome to see my host family again as well as some of my fellow PST training group who have also decided to venture over to our small summer training site. It should be interesting since my old ger, which I stayed in during the summer, was taken down so chances are I will sleep with my host family in their one room house and their family of 6. However, if there is no room , I will stay in my friend's ger who happens to live in Erdene. I am extremely excited to see what this holiday will bring and how the adventures will unfold.

Until next time!

Ellie the Great

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Cold

As we all know there are different levels of being cold. There is the 'I wore a short dress and heels to the night club but now that I am outside waiting for the car to get here, I am freezing' cold. There is the 'ugh its morning, I am tired, and the house is a bit chilly' cold. There is even the 'Hm, I wore a jacket, jeans, and sneakers but that damn cold wind just goes through it and I am freezing' cold. THEN there is – 40 degrees Mongolia Cold. You wear two pairs of long underwear bottoms, two pairs of thick socks, then squeeze on your jeans while swearing to yourself that you need to lose some weight if this is going to work. You then put on your long underwear wool shirt, then another long sleeve shirt, fallowed by a wool turtleneck and then you fleece. You put on your wool hat and your huge, puffy, knee-length jacket, zip it up and put your hood on. With some difficulty since you can't reach up too well, you then wrap a scarf around, so it covers your mouth and nose, and put on your gloves. At this point you feel, and look like, a marshmallow and you walk with a slight waddle. You step outside and the freezing cold hits your face first and you curse yourself that your body needs to breath because the cold makes you nose drip like crazy and your breath makes your scarf wet and thus more cold. You try to waddle as fast as you can to your next destination since your nose is slowly becoming numb. Your hands, despite the gloves, are in pain due to the cold and you shove them in your pockets hoping that it will help; they're numb. Your toes are also starting to go numb from cold but when you stumble on a rock it send shooting pains from being so cold! Your legs feel like thick frozen Popsicles. Finally you get to your destination, and slowly your body starts to thaw; first your face, nose, mouth. Then your fingers and lastly your toes and you think to yourself “huh, it wasn't THAT bad.”