Tuesday, May 22, 2007


One of my students was telling me recently that during the Soviet era, almost no books from other countries were available in Mongolia. The late Russian greats (Dostoevsky, Pushkin, et al.) were represented, but few others. My student mentioned that there were a few books though from America: Did I know "Goodbye to Arsenal"? At first, I did not. Then I realized that was because, while his transliteration was perfect, the novel is better known as Hemingway's 1929 novel, "Farewell to Arms." Another one: "The Little House of Uncle Tom."

In one sense, I was surprised there were any American books in Mongolia then; there are so few now. There is not currently a single real (ie, not used travelers' books) bookstore in Mongolia . Admon, the main publishing house, does have a small bookstore-ish store, but it is mainly textbooks and the like.

Around and on Sukhbaatar Square there are people selling old Mongolian books and a smattering of English texts but, for the most part, there is no way to cultivate a library in Mongolia, in any language. Literacy is high, which suggests that if people had books to read, they might, but poverty and a low population count mean that even if books were available, they'd be too expensive for most, and that Mongolian translations would be rare.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Abuse. Again.

Recently, I was awoken by two dogs barking and what I determined were six men yelling. The ruckus was coming from the small courtyard my bedroom window overlooks. The courtyard, which fits about 12 cars, is enclosed on two sides by my L-shaped building.

I thought the noise would stop after the dogs growled away their typically somewhat imaginary predators, but it didn't. I got up out of bed and looked out my window. There, the six men were kicking, over and over, a person on the ground who was not moving.

"Hey!" I yelled out of my third-story window. "Hey!"

They looked up. Far off, a car turned on its headlights in our direction and looked as though it was going to come our way. The men looked at each other, looked at me, and then dragged the still unmoving person to the arched gateway that leads to the courtyard.

The car turned off in a different direction. The six men actually dragged the person back out into the courtyard and had the audacity to start kicking the person again.

This time, I didn't say anything. I just stood there, in my white tee-shirt watching them, letting them know I was watching them. They dragged the body off again and then I didn't see them anymore.

To me, Mongolian culture plays a significant role in this. Mongolian boys grow up wrestling (re: fighting) one another. No one stops it because it's deemed athletic, no matter how many people end up with black eyes. Alcohol also obviously plays a part. As does the seeming acceptance, or the belief of inevitability, of domestic violence.

Still, that does not make violence okay. And if I heard everything that was going on, so did every single other person who has a window facing that courtyard. Yet not one other light went on, not one other person yelled anything out their window. I know one of the men in the courtyard was wearing a red baseball cap, but that's all I can say with certainty. Had one of my neighbors looked out the window though, I'd bet they could identify the hat-wearer. I bet they know his parents. But my neighbors kept to their beds, seemingly placing their heads under their pillows, hoping the noise would stop so they could get back to sleep.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reason #64 of why I love Mongolia

Because the garbage trucks play the ice cream truck song to let you know that they're coming happily down the street and you should put your trash out.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Recently, one of my students was wearing a pair of jeans with the cuffs rolled up. On the underside of the fabric was the ubiquitous, double-linked Gucci G's. So, somewhat jokingly, I asked her if her jeans were really Gucci. It became clear that she didn't understand the question, and her English communication skills weren't the problem. So few brands in Mongolia are 'real' that the word ceases to have meaning here.

All of the DVD stores sell DVDs fake from China, all of the legit clothing stores sell fake Abercrombie clothes and fake Diesel jeans. There are no 'real' items here. Or maybe they're all real; who knows. I have an Abercrombie sweatshirt I got here that's exactly the same (as far as I can tell) as one they're selling on the Abercrombie website for around $150 dollars. Mine's made in Macau, and, conceivably, the real one's are too. After all, when these companies are having everything made in China, or wherever it's cheap in Asia, what's the difference between a real Abercrombie sweatshirt and a fake one?

I can't even imagine trying to explain to my student that people in America might pay over $1000 for jeans that look exactly the same as hers.

I was reading Harvard Business Review yesterday (I read anything I can get my hands on here) and it was talking about how much people trust the names of brands they know. The researchers discovered that if they put no name peanut butter in a brand name jar, it tasted better to the people in the experiment than it did in its own jar. This occurred in across the board experiments.

While I understand why companies are upset when counterfeit articles of their clothing pop up, no one in Mongolia can afford the real stuff. In my mind, companies should probably just consider these fakes as whetting the appetite of Mongolians for 10 years down the line, when the real stuff finally comes. Then Mongolians too can pay full price for the same clothing they've been getting all along.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Cheating and Karaoke

I've spent the past 10 weeks teaching an advanced English class, mostly at nights, 12 hours a week. The course was at a language institute, which means that my students get certificates, not grades at the end. I taught about 12 people, ranging in age from 16-25, 11 of whom were female.

I started giving weekly quizzes at a certain point, which I stated clearly were only mock exams -- I never put grades on top, I just put checks next to correct answers and wrote the right answers next to incorrect ones. Still, the amount of cheating (a word I had to teach them) was amazing. People were always passing their papers back and forth, whispering answers in Mongolian and writing cheat sheets on their hands -- this for a class without grades!

I was talking to one of my friends who teaches at the University of Humanities here, and there, apparently, cheating is also rampant. And blatant. Students, when asked to write a paper, will rip whole paragraphs of the internet, and not even bother to change the font so it matches that of the rest of the paper.

There is this sense of needing to get good grades, but it's not really based on anything. It's fairly impossible to fail out of a Mongolian university -- if you keep paying tuition, you can keep taking classes. And, at my school, there aren't even grades to strive for.

Still, I gave my students their final exam on Wednesday evening, and, when I walked in at six, several of my students were huddled around a table, studying. They said they'd been there since three. What's more, they all did incredibly well, without any of them cheating (that I could tell, and I usually can).

They did so well that last night, to celebrate, we snuck out of the school and did three hours of karaoke. NB -- Britney Spears is stellar for non-native English speakers.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Winter in Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia

Because I'm used to Fahrenheit, rather than Celsius, I tend not to understand the irregular temperature reports I receive, but I recently checked online and found that this week has a high of 6 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of -20. Tomorrow, the high is one degree, or -17 Celsius.

I could have told you it was cold. Obviously it is cold. I have a ten minute walk to work and by the time I arrive at my office each morning, the hair sticking out of my hood is frozen white. This is dry hair. Taking a shower in the morning here would be suicidal.

But because everyone warned me about the freakishly cold Mongolian winters, I came prepared. Patagonia's long underwear has been my savior, as it has for many other people I know here. I also wear a super warm coat, a scarf, a hat and mittens, beyond my regular attire. And all of the houses in Mongolia are heated nationally by the government, so there's nothing to worry about once inside.

All this means that it's actually hard to tell how cold it is here. Once you get below freezing, it's hard to distinguish one level of cold from the next, especially when you're wearing clothing covering every part of your body except for a narrow swath across the face.

So while I'm fine, the sewer children and "lost dogs" of the city are not.

While there is apparently a law in Mongolia against kicking anyone out of their home between December and March, even if they don't pay the rent, due to the cold, there are innumerable people, particularly children, who never had a home in the first place.

They tend to live in the sewers, next to the pipes shooting heat into apartments like mine. Occasionally, people are burned by the pipes, but, for the most part, they offer the best way to survive the winter here.

The dogs of the city have fewer options. For a while I was counting the number of dogs I saw loping around the city, and the number of dead dogs I saw strewn around haphazardly, but both were too depressing.

One of my friends was saying that Mongolia needs to learn about spaying animals. Another countered that until social problems are fixed, people have more important things to worry about than their pets. She suggested that the dead dogs, sad as it is, are probably better off dead, as life on the street is rather bleak. (On a side note, I recently learned that you have to register your pets with the local council and pay a fee of approximately $2 per month per dog, and $1 per month per cat.)

Two puppies have recently begun living outside my building. Someone put an old coat out there for them to sleep on, and a lot of us give them food, and, at night, people take the puppies inside out of the cold. I try to save meat for the puppies whenever I can, and I started taking in the little puppy, who looked about four weeks old, on Christmas Eve, pitying the poor thing as it mourned the cold outside.

I say this because I tend not to give any money to the sewer children I see daily on the street. I'm not exactly sure why that is. In part, I think, it's because of how aggressive the children can be, surrounding me and saying, "money, money, money," and then cursing at me and calling me "Russian" if I don't give them anything. In part, it's because Lonely Planet suggests that I shouldn't, saying it will only cause children to see begging as a viable solution, and in part, I think, because, awfully, they are not as cute as puppies.

Several of my friends volunteer at the orphanages here, and bring back horror stories of children chained to beds, but it is a wonderful service they are doing.

I'm not sure what I think is the best way for me to help. Is feeding two dogs scraps helping anyone? Is feeding two children food helping anyone? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Reason #23 of why Mongolia is Mongolia

Because somehow I ended up dressed as snow girl at my work New Year's party, because that led me to writing an article about New Year's celebrations for the Mongol Messenger, and so a picture of me as a snow girl is in Mongolia's first English language newspaper, and because today, two weeks later, I received a text from a Mongolian boy I don't know saying, "Alexa, I think I love you. I know you are a snow girl."

Here I am on stage.

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