Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On the edge

The Lonely Planet guide compares the Mongolian language to the sound of two cats coughing up hairballs until one finally succeeds.

Not so.

To my ear, at least, the language here is musical. It moves freely from being spoken at the tip of the trilling tongue to deep in the throat will the carefree lilt of a Scandinavian storyteller. It is charming in every way except for its difficulty. Perhaps the Lonely Planet, usually encouraging to the adventurous traveler, was trying to spare me the futility of trying to speak Mongolian. But I would miss the piss-your-pants laughter that greets me whenever I try a new word. If coaxing the oral machinery to manufacture all these new sounds is half as hard for our translators, we need to leave bigger presents for them.

"It's a very difficult language."

This according to Starlight, a tall Peace Corps volunteer from Oregon. Barely able to maintain contact with the floor, Starlight is pure youthful energy and optimism. But Mongolian has been tough.

"Oh my God!" she said. "Native speakers." And after a torrent of English language washed over me, she apologized. "But it's just so long since I have spoken English outside of teaching it."

I quite literally bumped into her when I was observing a lesson in Choyr, a town perched on the last patches of withered grass before the Gobi Desert's sands take over and stretch to the Chinese border. It was a three hour drive with seven of us, Tracey and me, four other civics teachers from schools we had already visited, our translator, Sarnai, and the head honcho over here, Nara. Eight if you count our silent driver who, even though he was at the wheel of a van brimming with attractive women, never took his eyes off the road for more than a cautious glance in the mirror.

The lesson? I am stealing it. Zorga, the principal for the school, left her office and returned to the classroom to remind everyone that at the core she is a master teacher. Students, in groups of five to seven, clustered around desks. Their task; to match the symbol, scales of justice for example, with a brief description of a government action. Each group had about eight to match. Hard work but the students set about the task with the enthusiasm that I have come to expect from Mongolian students. They huddle, arm in arm, over the desk, deliberating, sorting, discussing and, this is important, LISTENING to one another. And then, like a flower, the huddle opens. They have made their decision.

"Final answer?" Zorga asks in Mongolian.

"San!" they say in unison. "Yes!"

And the lesson goes on like this for forty-five minutes with Zorga issuing a new task, each more difficult than the one before. But the students are equal to the tasks and the difficulty seems to energize them.

I am stealing this lesson.

And then, it's my turn.

"I'm up?"

It's a change of plan. We had arrived late at the school and the schedule, such as it is, has been reworked. Sarnai, my usually quiet and diminutive translator, has me by the arm in a tight grip. "We hurry," she says.

Suddenly I am in a class of ninth-graders. I instruct the students on how to complete the survey of citizen actions, the backbone of my lesson, but forget to introduce myself and have to go back and do it again. I am using words my translator doesn't know. The energy of Zorga's class is matched by the silence of mine. I wished I had a pin so I could hear it drop.

But things loosen up and, somewhat mercifully, the period is over.

At the end of the day, we are ushered back into a gymnasium that does double-duty as an auditorium. The place is buzzing with excitement and only after a moment to I begin to understand what I am in for. Standing in the corner are what look to be between twenty and thirty little kids, maybe six years old, all in sequined pink ballroom outfits. The girls have little halter tops and shiver in the early spring chill. The boys have white slacks and wide-collared leisure shirts open, disco-style, to mid sternum. Behind the little kids, high-school boys and girls watch from the darkness of a doorway, peeking out at the foreign visitors. We are not the only ones gathered here for the concert, but I feel that all eyes are on us.

The concert starts with singing and it is too much. My colleague, Tracey, has already decimated her supply and is now dabbing at her eyes with borrowed tissue. Traditional Mongolian singing, sweet even through the distortion of the PA, is followed by three boys playing the Morin Khur, the two-stringed Mongolian fiddle, who set my foot to tapping. But again I am fighting back tears as I watch a girl, maybe fifteen, perform a dance so energetic that at times she is leaping into the air and grazing the back of her head with the sole of her slippered foot. She jingles and jumps, shaking the medals of competitions she has won. Always smiling, she suddenly leaps into the air and crashes down, landing on her knees. She does it again, spinning this time. And again, again and again.

And then the little kids come out and do their thing. It's a kind of salsa-meets Asia number and my tear ducts are at it again.

If this is the future of Mongolia, nobody should worry.

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