Thursday, 3 May 2007

Supermarket English, Taxi Mongolian, F Grades, Poetry

Thursday 3rd May
There's now a very languid heat throughout the day and warm night breezes, but still no green shoots appearing: as yet there's been no rain. Thursday afternoon is now the calm lull in my week - no lessons at school and no evening classes either. I've just started a job teaching the managers of a supermarket chain basic English three nights a week. It's the first class that I've been left entirely to my own devices to devise and run, which I am slightly surprised to find is coming as an almost welcome challenge rather than a dreaded chore. It's strangely enjoyable trying to work a supermarket twist into every lesson plan - suggestions are welcome, folks. So far the students seem very happy with the class - although admittedly I've only taught two classes so far, so there's plenty of scope for disillusionment to settle in before my contracted month is over.

The lessons are at the supermarket's HQ, which is at the very western edge of the city. In conversation I'm frequently challenging the way that my fellow expats criticise the driving here, countering that it's certainly no worse than London even if the lane-changing and light-jumping is somewhat colourfully individualistic. It now occurs to me that my experience of Ulaanbaatar's traffic has been fairly limited, my opinions, some might say, coming from a sheltered viewpoint - spending most of my time around the city centre and only usually getting a cab late at night when the streets are mostly empty. The experience is a bit more enterrorficating on the ring roads at rush hour, particularly at the big junctions. My admiration goes out to the traffic cops who stand in the middle of the tornadoes of steel and rubber, permanently blowing on their whistles and vigorously waving their batons as ton after ton of painful death speeds by them with mere inches to spare, or screams to a juddering stop and reluctanctly concedes his authority.

I can now ask "How much?" and count to nineteen, whilst also knowing the words for hundred and thousand - an achievement I am very proud of in spite of the fact that it has taken me five months to attain. Combined with "Yakshtay?!" ("Are you taking the piss, mate?") this means that I am rising to a level of mastery of taxi-driver Mongolian hitherto only dreamed of. No longer do I settle for tourist rates! No longer do I accept a charge of 40p when I know damn well it should be 15p! In outrage I will complain "Bi bagsh, bi bagsh" ("Me teacher, me teacher") - I guess that once I can say "I am not a tourist" then I'll have learnt everything I need to know. I can give the number of my district, and have an impressively accurate mental GPS of the city, although this isn't guaranteed reliable after 2am/five pints. There's a sizable degree of confidence that arises from conquering this sphere of daily life.

Incidentally, as I don't think I've mentioned this before, in UB every car is a potential taxi - one just stands at the edge of the sidewalk (a more appropriate term than pavement as it simply indicates where pedestrians are found, rather than any expected degree of surfacing) and waits for the first fume-belching, exhaust-rattling vehicle to pull over. This is how everybody who gets around by taxi manages it, and there doesn't appear to be a level of risk to the activity worth worrying about. In fact (very much contrary to the advice given by hotels etc all over the city) in my experience it's generally only in the licensed cabs with meters that a really concerted effort is made to rip-off foreigners: every single time I've got into one on my own the meter has either been switched off or else it climbs at an astronomical rate. I had a fairly heated exchange with one driver who was trying to charge me about ten dollars (enough to get you to the moon and back) which might have turned ugly were it not broad daylight and outside a fancy hotel. Private citizens have always been far more modest when they've tried to overcharge me - only doubling the fare rather than asking for 5 or 10 times the going rate.

My job at the school, as I have previously remarked, is now drawing to a close. Final exams are underway or approaching for all the grades. I am being magnanimous in my scoring, only partly because my departmental senior has politely and cautiously informed me that F grades are not given in Mongolia. They're built into the school's grading software of course, but they have to be creatively avoided. Sometimes I'm reluctant to play along with this - such as today stopping the 10th grade (advanced class) student who can neither speak, read nor write a word of English, from transcribing the essay his neighbour had generously scribbled out for him. I have been given the freedom to teach my classes however I liked so this a bit spoil-sportish of me, I know, and will doubtless gamely give him a D when the time comes, but I do kind of enjoy the exasperated "he-just-doesn't-get-it" looks from students when I insist on their not copying work in exams. Looking at the results as far as their essays and this terms creative writing go, I allow myself the luxury of shaking my head and concluding that they just don't get, because a lot of the work that I've insisted they do for themselves has actually been fresh, original and a pleasure to read. The classrooms and walls of the school are plastered with the students' poetry and prose. This is because the Mongolian teachers get a cut in their pay if the walls aren't plastered with the "students'" work. Almost every single word so neatly printed out in curly fonts is lifted from a 1950s rock and roll song or is just direct from Wikipedia, complete with all the link words still underlined. And yet, when I force my students at a metaphorical gun point to write a poem in 10 minutes or less if they don't want an F grade this term, I get charming results like


Spring is beginning of
something new
In Spring we saw
new herbs, vegetables
In Spring it
rains very first time
of the new year
That rain brings love
all living things
will fall in love
That's the beginning of

which may not be Keats but it's refreshing indeed to read after marking 20 essays about "A Mongolian who has made a great contribution to this country" - which proved, surprise, surprise, to be 20 identi-kit potted bios of guess-which plucky young son of the steppe, visions of oceans united in his merciless eyes? I particularly liked the inclusion of the word "vegetables", which has an earthy and prosaic rhythm that takes the poem away from mere cliche.