Thursday, 22 March 2007

Useful Information

I'm conscious, monitoring the traffic to this blog, that I am not always providing the answers that people are looking for when google drops them here. To remedy this, here are the answers to a few recent searches that weren't for Jon Ronson:

1. Who stopped Genghis Khan?
Nobody stopped Genghis Khan! He had a heart attack, or something: in which case it may well be that buuz stopped Genghis Khan. His sons continued to enlarge his empire.

2. Income of a Mongolian teacher
I think it's about $100 a month in state schools (may well be less, especially outside UB) $200 - $400 in private (mostly at lower end). Not a hell of a lot.

3. Listening to mp3 during school hours lower grades
If I have any say in the matter, yes.

4. How much does the fattest dog in the world weigh?
That's a very good question, I hope you found the answer: that kind of question is exactly what the internet is for.

5. What an ESL Teacher should know
See answer to 4 above, then get back to me if you find out, urgently.

6. 11th grade English vocab sheet
They should know it all by now, they certainly claim to. Discombobulate, fractious, defenestrate, nutria, erstwhile, fecund, etc. Better still, make words up: that'll larn 'em.

7. Napoleon ate horse meat
I should imagine so: most obviously because he's French; spent a lot of time on horses (crossing the Alps etc); and horse meat is very good cold and sustains you well.

8.Why I musn't be disruptive in class
This exact same search has hit me four times, from different cities in the US. I am assuming that the student has been set the essay to write as a punishment, and then had the gall to surf the web looking for an essay to cut & paste. What is happening to education? Your details have been entered into an international database of unrepentant plagiarists, shame on you.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

American Questions, Presentations, Grading, Stab Boy

Wed 21st March
The school is hosting an English Olympiad at the weekend in which students from all the schools in the city are invited to compete. I’ve had the American Culture, Society and History questions I set rejected on the grounds of my not being American (rather than because they are all very arsey questions which allow a 33 year old to say “Ha! You didn’t know that? What do you know?” to an annoyed 15 year-old Mongolian honours student). Here are my favourite ones, for your edification: (answers at the bottom of this post, and Wikipedia, presumably)

-Which founding father was a leading figure in the Enlightenment, and among countless other achievements invented bifocal glasses and a peculiar musical instrument which was later rumoured to cause insanity in the listener?

-Who is the current Vice-President of the US?

-Born around 1595, the daughter of a native american chief, which princess reputedly saved the lives of colonials, in 1607, by pleading on their behalf with her father? She died on a visit to England in 1617, and is buried at Gravesend, Kent.

-The citizens of which American city were only given the right to vote in Presidential elections after the 23rd Amendment of the US Constitution in 1963?

My term plan of setting the students to do presentations to lesson my teaching load didn’t really come off, with only a handful of students believing it was worth the effort of trying to improve their grade from a notoriously bollixy teacher. It did inspire me to give the students a lecture on why Hitler wasn’t so great, which I enjoyed and which seemed to provoke some interest from the 11th grade.

I took the opportunity to castigate my students for relying on PowerPoint and the internet (without which I would have had some trouble with my Shackleton presentation, but need I remind you that hypocrisy is a teacher’s prerogative?): a lot of students had one variant or another on ‘the-dog-ate-my-memory-stick’ excuse for not having their work ready to give. All the Power-Pointed presentations that were given ended with a screen proudly saying “Sources :”

Does this happen in the US and UK too? I imagine it does. Whatever happened to the time-honoured tradition of getting one book on a subject from the library, then listing half the bibliography as your source? Is that too much trouble for this generation of cyber-slackers?

I’ve also been sounding-off to my colleagues on the failings of education systems where grades are the only thing that students, parents and schools are interested in.

To be fair to the school, if it was the only thing they were interested in, then they’d have relieved me of my grading duties at the end of last term; and to be fair to Mongolia, the grade-obsession must be near universal, wherever education is practised. Much as I was as a student, I am convinced that as far as teaching and learning go, grading, beyond ‘pass’, ‘fail’ and maybe ‘distinction’, is about 93.4% useless.

The carrot I use to get the 4th grade to hand in work is that I draw them a little cartoon rather than write a score - a carrot or themselves looking stupid if the work was poor, a happy rabbit, or a zombie, or a baby smoking a cigarette, depending on their preference, if the work was good. This has worked surprisingly well - as the poor students are rewarded in as much as they all get a cartoon, but I find they all make more effort with their work even though some of the ‘lazy student’ drawings are better than the rabbits; naturally, though, nothing could be cooler than a baby smoking a cigarette.

In occasional bouts of homesickness I find my way to to read the latest news from the Echo: home of balanced, informative journalism. Today I learned that Liverpool gangs are producing skunk cannabis "one puff of which can cause schizophrenia" (well, we already know it induces paranoia), and was moved by a touching photograph of Stab Boy and his mother, who blames the infamous Chucky movies (source of all juvenile crime in Merseyside for many years now, well, apart from instant-schizophrenia skunk) for her son's recent behavioural problems. Actually, now I have a pseudo-broadband connection I am listening to Radio 4 a lot, so I am well aware that the Echo is making the most of local variants on what seem to be the big stories at the moment in the national press: nonetheless, I admire the particular panache with which those exemplary Echo hacks manage to churn this stuff out. Well done!

American Quiz answers: Ben Franklin, Dick Cheney, Pocahontas, Washington D.C.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Natural Resource Curse, Housing, Waitress!

Tuesday 20th March 2007
A thoughtful article in last week’s UB Post by Arshad Sayed (Country Manager and Resident Representative of the World Bank) entitled “Mongolia’s Natural Resources: A Blessing or a Curse?” Mongolia is rich in certain minerals, particularly gold, copper and uranium, and whether owing to remoteness or a culture which venerated the sacredness of earth and sky, these resources are only really becoming tapped at the present time. March 28, according to an advert in the same Post, “The Mongolia Investment Forum” will be held at The Metropolitan Club, New York, lead sponsors including the major Mongolian banks, the ING bank and Merrill Lynch.

Arshad’s piece talks in the main about the ‘Natural Resources Curse” - a phenomena observed that some of the most resource-rich nations in the world are also the most troubled: ie, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Surinam, Sierra Leone and indeed Russia. The article explores the reasons for this.

The final section is entitled “Can Mongolia avoid the natural resource curse?” What does the author have to say? Er, that the great Chinggis Khaan conquered much of the world, and that his empire was very efficiently run. So, he concludes, surely a “people that managed all these things almost eight hundred years ago [can] manage to overcome the natural resource curse[.]”

Well, hopefully they can, although if so it seems highly unlikely that Mongolians will avoid the curse of spuriously connecting everything back to Chinggis bloody (literally) Khaan.

In my classes I recently brought up the subject of ‘voluntary work’ with my students. After a little prodding they were soon able to come up with names of some of the many international organisations that operate in Mongolia. Why do all these organisations work in Mongolia, I asked? Because Mongolia has a lot of problems and needs help, they replied. Why do so many young European and American volunteers come here? Because they want to help us.

I put it to the classes that the actual motive for most volunteers to come was that they wanted to come to Mongolia itself, regardless of the degree of the problems here: most volunteers are drawn by the nomadic culture, the open steppe and the deep blue skies.

Why should a vast country with abundant natural resources (of a few limited kinds, it’s true, but all rather saleable), with a population of a mere two million and a history of independence and self sufficiency, need any assistance from the outside world at all?

The pressing concern in UB (although, as previously noted, not so pressing that the government can be bothered to fully measure it) is air pollution. Latest statistics put levels of nitrous dioxide, one of the pollutants that is actually measured, at 25 times the safe level in parts of the city. Now that spring has brought the odd breeze, the past few weeks the air has been quite clear: I can see the Zaysan Tolgoy at the foot of Bogdkhan mountain. Still, opening my window last night, which is possible now that the weather is getting warmer, filled the room with a burnt, dusty smell. I assume that what everybody here says is true, and that most of the air pollution comes from the stoves of the thousands of ger that surround the city.

The government has a scheme to build, I think 25,000 new apartments over the next 5 years[Edit: Actually, what I'm referring to here is the "40,000 Homes" project]. The budget for the housing department project is somewhere around $25 million. I am making up the figure off the top of my head, but, assuming that the government has underestimated the demand for apartments (and bearing in mind that the existing buildings aren’t in too great shape: I thought my block was from the late Stalin era maybe - it was built in the 1980s) I think that Mongolia probably needs at least 100,000 new apartments - that 100,000 (say) would solve the current housing problem. These apartments don’t all need to be built in UB either - maybe some of the international mining companies scrambling for contracts here could give some thought to creating housing and employment opportunities in the towns near the mines.

It would be nice, of course, to see Mongolians continue living in ger and herding livestock. I would hope that many would choose to do so. I haven’t met any Mongolians who aren’t fiercely proud of their heritage - yet those who do live in apartments don’t usually hesitate to give good reasons why they prefer their lifestyle for themselves: usually starting, as any westerner would, with the obvious preference for flushing toilets. The ever-growing ger districts of Ulaanbaatar aren’t a charming relic of the past - they’re the homes of desperately poor people surviving as best they can, as close as they can to the tantalising source of Land Cruisers, hi-definition tvs and ipods.

A permanent and immediate solution to Mongolia’s housing and pollution problems would come as a welcome relief for a nation which is going through a particularly troubling time at present as regards the closest current candidate for Chinggisdom - Asashoryu. Unfortunately, he has not done so great in recent sumo matches, leading to some very unkind things being insinuated (here, in the LA Times, for example) in regard to the recent opponent-bribery allegations.

The Japanese themselves have made their own Chinggis Khaan, in Borte Chono Chinggis Khaan(the English title, according to IMDb will be Blue Wolf: to the Ends of the Earth and Sea), a movie filmed in Mongolia last year and just released. One of my night school students had a modest part in the film (actually, for a Mongolian in this very Japanese production, it was quite a substantial part) and showed me some photos of the battle scenes which were absolutely incredible, and next time I see him I will try to remember to beg him to let me post some here. I don’t know if the film has any other merits, but it’s clear from the pictures of thousands of crazed horsemen charging at each other that the action should be pretty spectacular. Critics here have been lukewarm: in the UB Post N Suvdaa said the movie was at least “an improvement on the John Wayne film, The Conqueror”. I haven’t actually seen The Conqueror but I did find some stills and posters online which I actually think look pretty good. A teacher I asked agreed that big John looked pretty damn Mongolian too.

All the big parts in Borte Chono Chinggis Khaan are played by famous Japanese actors, speaking Japanese, of course. According to the Post this led to some sniggers amongst movie-goers here in Ulaanbaatar as Chinggis’ men always refer to him in the film as ‘Leader’. “The phonetic pronunciation of ‘leader’ in Japanese sounds like ’zuugch uu’, which means ‘waiter/waitress’ in the Mongolian language.” (UB Post 8/3/07)

What was that I was saying earlier about everything in this country being spuriously connected back to Genghis?

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Mongolia's 'Third Neighbour', Golden Arches

Saturday 10th March
Another glorious sunny day out there. A fortnight ago we had a freak tropical heatwave in UB - the day time temperature was ABOVE freezing: rumour has it that the thermometer reached +5c. This was followed by snow, and the temperature dropped again; ups and downs, however, have ensured that the snow turned to slush and then ice. There's been markedly less air pollution: presumably because there is some air movement with an icy wind building up now and then. When I arrived in December the cold was steady and constant, and the rule was simple: wrap up as warm as you could. Now I'm forever getting caught out - either wearing too heavy a coat and over-heating, or deciding not to wear long johns and ending up wondering whether I'll make it back home before the arteries in my legs freeze solid.

Mongolia's charismatic and hard-working President N. Enkhbayar (furthermore, Wikipedia informs, a former Leeds University student) has been busy with international diplomacy over the past few weeks. At the end of February he was visiting France, discussing deals for Mongolia to supply France's future uranium needs. France has tabled and supported motions in Mongolia's favour in the European Union: Enkhbayar thanked Jacques Chirac for this support, and called the EU Mongolia's 'Third Neighbour'. Mongolia, of course, is a land-locked nation, with borders with only Russia and China, so the 'Third Neighbour' concept is rather a neat one. Indeed, as last week's UB Post observed, it's such a neat concept that Enkhbayar has also previously described the US as Mongolia's 'Third Neighbour'. Of course, it's easy to mock such self-plagiarism, with the outrage of a heckler who attends a second show on a comedian's tour, only to discover that the performer uses the same witty one-liners which had seemed so brilliantly spontaneous the first time round.

President Enkhbayar has just returned from a 5 day tour of Japan, where, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he has been discussing strengthening business ties between Mongolia and Japan; the two nations also promising to continue working together within the UN, especially concerning their commitment to 'maintain the nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation international regime' (UB Post, 8/3/07). Student exchanges, financial aid and much else will all increase. The UB Post further reports that in gratitude Enkhbayar said that "because Japan assisted Mongolia, extending a friend's hand when our country had difficult times and because Japan is an important partner which can help to fasten Mongolia's development and to strengthen our country's position in the international arena, we consider Japan as the 'third neighbour' of our country."

Elswhere in this week's Post the news is not so good for Mongolia's standing in the international community. After a survey team were sent out in the early part of the year, McDonalds have concluded that they sadly won't be opening a franchise of their delightful cultural and culinary embassies in Ulaanbaatar, owing mainly to the limited size of the population here.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Women's Day

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.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Chicken, Cossackbilly

Saturday 3rd March
Mongolians do not eat a lot of chicken. I have been asking about this, and one possible explanation may be related to the Mongolian taboo against eating young animals. Being informed that in England we almost exclusively eat lamb rather than mutton, Mongolians tend to adopt a rather dismayed and disapproving expression, which is somewhat touching coming from such a legendarily blood-thirsty people. "We do not eat baby animals," I am informed. Certainly, fond memories aside of tender cutlets and chops served by barbecuiste extraordinaire Graham 'Little Blue Boat' Stopforth on the Weaver last summer, I could happily forgo lamb for mutton: mutton does not taste so bad. As far as chicken goes, I am not yet won over. From the few leathery scraps of stewed bird I've eaten in the school canteen, it seems that the Mongolian taboo also applies to poultry, and a hen that has lived a full and productive life gets thrown into the pot only when it has died peacefully in its sleep from extreme age. Unfortunately, they do not make great eating.

It’s semi-official (ie, not official) folks: Bluegrass music now has a home in Mongolia, at the Meal Ody (wonderful pun) Jazz Club and Restaurant. Resident jazz combo 'U Bop' have for some mysterious and possibly sinister reason encouraged me to provide some musical contrast either between or before their Friday night set and I am very happy to oblige. Last night they played another blistering set, of which it was somewhat daunting to step up on stage during the interval. I was joined by a very amiable Ukrainian fellow, Vadik, on the harmonica. Vadik had borrowed a friend’s harmonica, which was happily a C harp (ie, perfect for blues in G). I played “Fireball Mail” and he got straight in there with some great bluesy blowing, and a very entertaining Cossack interpretation of flat-footing. Vadik carried on to hold “Mountain Dew” together whilst I bellowed the song at the clientele - making the most of the initial shock-factor that my particular approach to singing tends to create. Being on a roll, I then demonstrated my versatility and range by singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (which of course shares the same chord structure and has mostly the same melody as “Mountain Dew”). We then quit while we were ahead and let the musicians get back to work, whilst we proceeded to celebrate our success somewhat disproportionately to our achievement.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Joseph Conrad

I'm slowly working my way through "Chance" by Joseph Conrad (downloaded from the Gutenberg Project). Conrad can be a bit heavy going at times. After a promising start with an entertaining depiction of a newly qualified First Mate getting a commission, Conrad then gives us Marlow - the narrator of "Lord Jim" and "Heart of Darkness" - telling at great length about a rather unengaging domestic drama. He does have this to say, however, on the subject of Blogging:

"[...]She did not answer me for a time, and as I waited I thought that there's nothing like a confession to make one look mad; and that of all confessions a written one is the most detrimental all round. Never confess! Never, never! An untimely joke is a source of bitter regret always. Sometimes it may ruin a man; not because it is a joke, but because it is untimely. And a confession of whatever sort is always untimely. The only thing which makes it supportable for a while is curiosity. You smile? Ah, but it is so, or else people would be sent to the rightabout at the second sentence. How many sympathetic souls can you reckon on in the world? One in ten, one in a hundred--in a thousand--in ten thousand? Ah! What a sell these confessions are! What a horrible sell! You seek sympathy, and all you get is the most evanescent sense of relief--if you get that much. For a confession, whatever it may be, stirs the secret depths of the hearer's character. Often depths that he himself is but dimly aware of. And so the righteous triumph secretly, the lucky are amused, the strong are disgusted, the weak either upset or irritated with you according to the measure of their sincerity with themselves. And all of them in their hearts brand you for either mad or impudent . . . "