Sunday, May 8, 2016

Foreign Language Competition and Birthday Stuff

            A few weeks ago my English teachers and I had a foreign language competition at our school. My role in the competition was to judge various events. It was a fun week. I got to watch six graders put together small plays on English fairytales. The innovation and sass of the Cinderella’s wicked sisters was hilarious and enjoyable. On another day we had two spelling-bees for 9th and 10th graders. The 9th graders went first, and suffered because of it. I was asked to officiate the spelling-bees as a native speaker, and it wasn’t until I had taken out 6 students in a row with words starting with “F”, that I realize they were not used to hearing “F” pronounced the way I spoke it.  On the final day was the singing competition where students in all grades competed in foreign language. The highlights of the event was an 11th grader’s rendition of a popular Russian song that I still can’t get out of my head, and another high school groups’ performance of “Uptown Funk” with choreographed dance routines that were just awesome.
My teachers and I handing out an awards for the a spelling bee.
Some of the Russian food that students prepared.
One of the high school bands for the singing competition. 
            My teachers and I celebrated the competitions success with slices of Mongolian style sausage and beer. It is possible that this or the Russian food competition that the students prepared earlier in the day gave me my first true Mongolian food poisoning. The luck of the draw was that Sally was also sick with a sinus infection during this time. The next few days were pitiful for us. I don’t regret the food poisoning. It was bound to happen, and I am lucky to have only really had it once thus far. Still… it will be awhile before I can stomach the sausage.

            The following weekend was my birthday. I had invited Dylan to join us for the weekend, because I planned a trip into the countryside to Ondorkhan Mountain. (Check out the post from February titled Өндөрхан Уул.) It took a great deal of work to arrange transportation, but eventually we were able to go with a Mongolian friend whom Sally and I had been helping with English.
Dylan and I 

            The morning started joyfully with Sally, Kyra, Feebee, and Dylan serenading me with whatever song happened to be the whim of the moment. It was great to be bouncing across the Mongolian countryside on a pleasant spring day, when winter seems a distant thing of the past. The immensity of earth is ever present in Mongolia, where one can easily see 30 miles into the distance.

            As we drove into the valley where the trail to the top of the mountain started, we noticed that there was one other car present. Two women brewed some sort of meal in a pot that was resting on a tripod of rocks over a small fire. When we joyously climbed out of our car, the women shouted to us in Mongolian. They wanted us to know that women cannot summit the mountain. I had been aware of the traditions regarding this mountain which was considered sacred to our city, but we had planned on not seeing anyone on the mountain and thought it would be okay to climb most of the way to the top.
            Still the prompt, if busy bodied, warning started our trek off on the wrong footing. We climbed up the slope to a nice midway point where we could eat and wait for the men of that group to descend the mountain. Eventually we saw them leave, and continued our journey. The Овоо (sacred site) on top of the mountain had been such a neat experience for me when I had climbed it with some teachers in February. Now it was exclusive. Dylan and I climbed to the site to take pictures, while Sally and the others waited a hundred yards downslope. I couldn’t shake the bad taste from my mouth or conscious. As PCVs it is our duty to respect culture and tradition, but here was an instance where the sexism of this particular tradition dampened the joy of our journey. We spent only a few minutes at the овоо before descending to a lower summit to enjoy the air and eat a pleasant lunch of PB&J. 

The Овоо

            We had been respectful of the Mongolian traditions. None of our female members approached the sacred site or summit. Still the shadow of wrongness continued to haunt us as we descended the mountain. For me this feeling, loss of joy because of an inhibition of liberty, is a feeling that I haven’t had much. I have never felt cheated out of civil rights or freedoms. As an upper middle class, college educated, white male, I have rarely felt discriminated against. The irony is that even now the discrimination wasn’t directed at me, but at my wife and friends.
            I have nothing but deep respect for Mongolian culture and am not condemning any part of it, nor would I have you believe that my birthday was unenjoyable. The trip to the mountain was great, and I would happily repeat the experience. Still this sensation that haunted me for several days is worth analyzing.
            I sum it up as this. Anytime any group of individuals is denied any sort of right, then any experience related to that right is sapped free of joy. One cannot just reach out and claim the experience or right without the sanction of social powers for then it is still joyless. Only by acceptance from the community at large through laws and integration that provide civil liberties can the slighted individual hope to regain joy in previously denied right.
            Sometimes as an ethnic/racial/sexual majority it is easy to scoff at a group that is demanding something that might seem trivial. The reality is that until this slighted group can gain equality will they continually be haunted by the shadow of wrongness or just a nasty taste in the back of their throat that constantly reminds them of their disadvantage.
            Later that evening, we all went out to the local Chinese restaurant and enjoyed good food and fellowship. I had invited my English teachers to join us. They surprised me at the meal by giving me a snuff bottle. Snuff bottles are a common traditional accessory that men carry around during festive times or at social gathers. Usually the bottle is presented to everyone present, and the guest can chose to either take a small pinch of snuff (finely ground tobacco) or merely sniff the bottle politely. There are nuances of how to present and hand the snuff bottle in a traditional fashion. During holidays like Цагаан Сар, it is not uncommon for multiple bottles to be passed around for                                                                                               everyone present.
            Snuff bottles are also hand carved from stone making them expensive and delicate. I had planned on buying a snuff bottle, but to receive one as a gift is even better. Overall, between the wind, the mountain, good food, and good friends, it was a really nice birthday celebration.

P.S. The content of this post in no way express political opinions or condemn thousands of years of tradition. Merely it is an attempt to understand discrimination.  

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