Monday, April 13, 2009

Vowels? we don't need no stinkin' vowels

Correct pronunciation of Mongolian words is best achieved by eliminating all but the first vowel. After that, run all consonants together at the back of your throat. No, that's not it. Try again. Nope.

It's impossible. I keep writing people's names the way they sound and then I realize I heard wrong. Lots of scratching out in my "I'm going to be organized, this time" notebook. Oh well.

So, I am beginning to get an idea of the second world. It exists. It's not just some placemarker between the first and the third. There is a layer that is definitely in-between. Apartment buildings root here in the bony dust of Mongolia but they are crumbling; a product of a system in which quality control was subordinate to quantity control from Stalin to Brezhnev. I end it at Brezhnev because I don't think a whole lot of building took place here beyond him. There is no part of the road that is not repaired. It is all repair. The repairs need repairing and any road off the main is a graveyard for differentials and exhaust systems.

And all the while it is beautiful. Colorful, from the vinyl signs that mix Latin and Cyrillic letters for effect rather than meaning to the faded pinks and greens of Russian-era apartment blocks. Traffic, struggling to make way like salmon to spawn, beeps and jostles, beeps and jostles another foot, another yard, another block further.

We weave our way down dusty roads and then backtrack. We can't find the school. All the buildings look alike, compains Sukhar, our driver. Is it here or further down? We call.
Eventually, in a canyon formed by identical, blue-tiled apartment buildings, the school appears.

It is a depressing building. There is no sign of life like a public pool in the dead of winter. There is a tangled wreckage in one corner of the school yard. Only after a moment did I recognize the twisted shapes as a swingset and see-saw.

Fort Apache.

But once inside the building, the mood is changed. The bright yellow painted wooden floors that seem to be the norm in Mongolia radiate a kind or warmth and security that contrasts sharply with the armored exterior of the building. Geraniums perch on the inside ledges of the hallways and the Mongolian sun pours in though the curtained windows.

The students are uniformed. Well-behaved, of course, they listen to their teachers at desks built for two. They work together and share their work, standing to announce the results of each groups' work. They seem at ease. Mature. Poised and conscious of their as inheritors of a fragile and newly forged democracy.

Time for me to teach. There is a feeling you get as a teacher when a lesson is working well. It flows and you are directing the flow perhaps like a Tai Chi master. But, when the lesson isn't working, YOU are. You toil. Sysaphus trying to roll a conversation here or achieve an objective there only to feel it slip away, degrading into aimlessness and wasted time. And you think, "Maybe I should stop right here."

A lesson in translation is the same only worse. You give instruction and then wait. You have no sense of undertanding. You must wait. Give more instruction and wait again. You are in a drunken driving simulation where each turn of the wheel, each stab of the brake, is met with...nothing until what seems like an eternity has passed and then the wheels turn or the brakes engage.

You smile. You listen and you soldier on. There's no looking at your watch, here. It's not like that because you are completely engaged in driving that lesson forward. Squinting your eyes and asking your ears, no matter how futile it is, to make sense of the Mongolian tongue.

And then, almost as soon as you have said "Sanbainoh," it is time for goodbye.

"Bayartai!" you say.

And the students say, "Goodbye!"

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