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The Observer

December 30, 2010

I’d come to feel like I was perching on the edge of my life here in Mongolia. My default setting has always been “observer,” usually stemming from a cautious streak in my childhood that has mostly carried itself into my adult life in the form of indecisiveness, often annoyingly so (ask anyone that’s ever casually asked me where I want to go out to dinner). I’ve been doing much the same here in Mongolia, spending my time from the outside looking in. I was feeling a bit of an armchair PCV, the way you might criticize an armchair anthropologist.

Last Sunday was my students’ Shin Jil concert. Shin jil is the phonetic Mongolian for “New Year,” and it is a big deal around here. I arrived a little late to the show, and found a good spot to watch from the back of our gymnasium. I’m usually about a head taller than anyone else in the building, so I had a pretty good view even from the back.

For Shin Jil concerts, the Mongolian version of Santa (a sort of Father Winter-ish figure) usually presides over the whole event. My Counterpart was dressed up in the necessary white robe, blue cape, white beard, and jolly red cap. A particular surprise however was his processing through the gym to the stage on the back of a motorcycle, loaded down with sparklers—yes folks, a motorcycle shooting plumes of white phosphorous being driven through a crowded, wood-floor gymnasium. That childhood cautious streak certainly caused me to look on the whole thing rather incredulously, but I guess I figured that they’ve done this every year since people can remember and no one’s been run over and the school hasn’t burned down, yet.

The concert itself was pretty typical, lots of dancing, Casio keyboard music, and oh so much tinsel. The gym continued to fill, and my American preference for personal space and abhorrence of pushing and jostling eventually forced me to the very back of the crowd. One of my teacher’s came up and tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to follow him out of the gym and up the stairs at the end of the hall. We came up into a dark and unused no-man’s land above the gym. I was surprised to see such a large unutilized room in the school since indoor space seems at such a premium around here, but it was actually a sort of observation deck that looked out through tiny portholes on the entire gym. Sitting on a milk crate up there, I had the best seat in the house, and exactly the kind of anonymity an observer like myself so desperately craves.

I started to feel a bit guilty though. Here I was hiding from my own town, my “tribe” of sorts, preferring instead the comfort of staring down through a porthole at my students putting on a show. It’s difficult to not retreat like that though. For people that aren’t used to seeing you every day, like my fellow teachers are, the constant staring and whispering is completely exhausting. You remember how your mother told you it was rude to point and stare?…well she was right, and it is, because being looked at and examined this much is excruciating, so when the opportunity to hide myself and stare back through a hole in the wall presented itself, I took it.

My guilt was short-lived however. Accompanying the students’ New Year concert is of course, the teachers’ New Year concert. Being an observer in this respect is pretty much out of the question, and as most things are around here, my participation in the concert was decided with very little input from me.

Part of Mongolian culture is the practice of singing together over copious amounts of vodka and airag (fermented mare’s milk). The tradition goes that everyone is usually sitting in a circle, and one person pours vodka into a single bowl for each person to drink from. You take the bowl with due ceremony, that is with your right hand and your left supporting your right arm at the elbow. When you’ve received the bowl, you must stand and begin singing a song, and usually after the first line or so, the rest of the circle will join in with you. When you’ve finished your song, you may drink, and then pass the bowl back to the server to allow it to move to the next person. Part of our Peace Corps cross-cultural training was to learn at least one song in preparation for this tradition. My bread and butter has been Ayyni Showyyd (Traveling Bird), a schmaltzy but lovely love song comparing the singer’s beloved to a migrating bird. I know it well enough to begin singing it in a circle full of drinking Mongolians that will then join me after the first line and cover my rather spotty memory for verses two and three.

(To hear a couple of PCV friends actually sing it at out swearing-in ceremony, follow this link:

This was the obvious choice for my participation in the teacherss New Year concert, and that conclusion was arrived at by my fellow teachers and then passed on to me. Teachers: “Good morning Rob! Happy Monday! By the way, we have you singing Ayyni Showyyd as the 15th act during the teacher’s concert on Tuesday,” Me: “Oh you mean next week?” Teachers: “Oh no we mean Tuesday as in tomorrow. We’ve been planning this for weeks, it’s going to be a great show.” Why yes, yes it is.

Where had my nice wall gone, my nice porthole through which I can view Mongolia unscathed?

I came into school the next morning with my songbook in hand, having spent most of the previous evening listening to the song through my computer on repeat. I passed the morning sitting in the teachers room in something of a cold sweat, mouthing lyrics over and over again, asking myself how in the hell I’d gotten myself into this mess—questioning not even my predicament with respect to the concert, but really wondering what in the world I was doing in Mongolia.

The ray of light to me in all of this mess before the show was my costume. The teacher’s scraped together some traditional Mongolian clothing for me to wear, which I’ve really had my eye on since I arrived. I haven’t had the chance to find my own yet, but there is something really magical about the full Mongolian dell, a shoulder to ankle robe, usually made of magnificent silk with incredible patterns and a decorative leather belt. As a good Scotsman, I’m used to wearing dresses and the dell ranks right up there in comfort and fashion with the Kilt as far as I’m concerned.

At two o’clock, we crowded into the gymnasium, students rowdy and excited for the show to start. When I walked into the gym in my dell, the shouts and excitement was tremendous; they absolutely loved my Mongolian makeover, in every direction was somebody giving me the thumbs up.

When I finally went on stage, the crowd was stupendously excited, and they joined me in singing (even though I had a microphone) shortly after the first verse. In some strange twist of karma, the power went out 2/3’s of the way through my song, and despite my relative success, I was pretty happy to get offstage. The power did eventually come back, and we finished the concert with me finally getting to relax for the first time in 48 hours.

Everybody kept lingering after the concert and I couldn’t quite understand why. I was eager to get my Mongolian boots off that were about two sizes too small. I asked one of my friends, “Now, what are we doing?” “Now we are waiting. We do the show for the children, and now we do it again for everyone else.” “I’m sorry, can you say that again slower?” “Now we will do the concert again for the whole town.” What…?

The show at two o’clock was the warm-up, the matinee if you will. And now I had to do the whole damn thing all over again in front of an adult audience including the mayor of my town. No power outages to save me this time, and I was worried about a slightly more critical and discerning audience.

My fears were misplaced though. The rest of the town was just as excited and welcoming to see an American dressed in a dell singing in Mongolian, and they joined me in the tune just like the students had done in the afternoon. I even received an award during the ceremony, having been voted as the “most amusing and entertaining teacher” by the students. I suppose a large factor with that is probably reflected in my novelty value as the American, but who am I to refuse a nice certificate and a prize-bag of candy?

During the teacher’s party after the concert, I wasn’t an observer, there wasn’t any wall between me and Mongolia, and I wasn’t watching everything from a porthole. I was a part of it. I was a teacher, and I was a part of my “educator’s tribe.” The little gem I can carry back to my ger from all of this? If you stick around long enough, the reasons that were about to send you home are the ones that end up making you want to stay.

Happy New Year everybody.

(Some pictures from the concert and the after-party!)


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Erin Kaufmann permalink
    January 1, 2011 5:26 pm

    Happy New Year Rob! We love reading your blog! Keep it up! Love the new wardrobe! Take care, Aunt Erin, Uncle Dick, Will and TJ

  2. Paul Kaufmann permalink
    January 2, 2011 5:18 pm

    Nice outfit. You look like an elf. Seriously, we all misssed you at Christmas. Grandma Meg is doing well. Family is healthy. Hang in there- it will go by faster than you think. Uncle Paul.

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