Thursday 8th March
In Mongolia, and I am also assuming throughout the former Soviet Union, today is Women’s Day. This means that there is no school today - yet another holiday which I only found out about at the beginning of the week - a pleasant surprise which has occurred frequently enough to leave me a little disappointed on those Mondays when I discover that I'm expected to put in a full week’s work. Today men and children will do the housework and the chores. Since most other holidays in Mongolia involve throwing a party for which the women have to cater, this might be considered to be the only day’s rest for women in the entire calendar.
Yesterday, my friend and colleague Ganaa suggested that we put on a small party, at my apartment, for the women in the English department. Ganaa is pretty good at coming up with such ideas; they are preceded by him spending some time dropping heavy hints at me to try and get me to suggest what he is thinking. I will do my best not to be corralled in this way, but inevitably I succumb to his charming persistence.
The women were planning on going out to take advantage of the 50% off happy hour(s) at the Rendez-vous restaurant, but were very happy to accept Ganaa and my invitation for ‘afternoon tea’ to start their evening. Ganaa and I slipped out of school early (we didn’t have any lessons anyway) and hurried off to make preparations. For a total cost of about 30,000 T (£14+/-) we were able to serve up a big bowl of sangria (made with red wine, orange juice and a lot of ice and fresh fruit), vodka (of course), some cheap and slightly unpleasant chocolates, a few russian beers, bread, jam, cold sausage, green tea and English tea, and biscuits. The main course was the pride (and absolute limit) of my culinary skills, learnt from my dear friend Rossella in Calabria: spaghetti ‘aglio e olio’ (with olive oil and garlic). It takes about 10 minutes to prepare but is, for all its simplicity, deeply satisfying. There’s some kind of cheese I buy here which is very like Italian Pecorino and goes very well with pasta. Incidentally, there is very little dairy produce in the supermarkets, which runs contrary to what I had expected; perhaps this will change in the summer, or maybe people get their dairy goods from country cousins.
The ladies were very impressed. Initially they were very suspicious of the punch, but I managed to convince them that Ganaa had had no part in its preparation.
We were asked to sing some songs for women. Ganaa did a very good job with two hearty traditional Mongolian tunes. I sang the old English ballad (about the faithlessness of men) ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens’ and then, feeling on a roll, sang a song I wrote myself the other week. Admittedly, the song is a bit on the maudlin side, but I felt the inevitable requests for the deeply dreary ‘Yesterday’ surely justified my trying out, for the first time, a song of my own composition. I’ve sang a lot of old traditional songs, many of which have pretty lame lyrics, and a very large number of which concern the death of parents, etc. Nonetheless, this was the first time that I can recall that a song I’ve sung has provoked a comment about the content. During the song: one of the teachers loudly remarked “What terrible lyrics.” Kind of off-putting, but fair comment perhaps.
Our efforts were well-received: I had to hand it to Ganaa, that in spite of my initial reluctance, he’d had a very good idea. Furthermore, as Men’s Day (well, actually, it’s Soldier’s Day) is only a week off, we have thrown down the gauntlet and feel fairly confident that our generosity will be handsomely repaid.
After the meal Ganaa and I were invited along to join the women teachers at Rendez-Vous. Eating and drinking there was followed by a trip to a nightclub somewhere for dancing and a Mongolian rock band whose name I didn’t learn, but whose songs I’ve heard on the radio, and who were pretty good. All this was courtesy of our principal, who is scrupulous about making sure that the teachers at the school feel valued on these occasions.
I think that slowly I’m getting along better with my colleagues, which is a very happy situation to be in. There are a lot of factors that can create awkwardness between the foreign and Mongolian teachers - not least the huge discrepancy in pay (as I have remarked, I believe that we are paid about four times more than our colleagues) which, however inevitable given the economical incentive needed to attract native speakers, can be a bit of an embarassment. I have discussed it with my colleagues, who certainly don’t express any resentment of the situation. I feebly try to justify it to myself by remembering that I’m losing money by being here - my bills in the UK still need to be paid - but I still feel a bit guilty about the quality of life I’m able to lead (ie - I can eat out whenever I want, buy any of the groceries I feel like getting, etc).
I've had a slow and lazy start to the day, but have at least cleaned up the carnage from yesterday's gathering. Ganaa had offered to send some women round to do the tidying for me, but, given the occasion, I felt that this somehow would not be right.