Friday, May 20, 2016

What Green May Come

            On my way to work today, I was reading my notes on Mongolian and had just arrived at the weather chapter when I read the phrase, “Харин 5-н сараас жаахан дулаарч өвс, ногоон ургаж эхэлдэг.” (But in May it gets a little warm and green plants start to grow.) As I read this passage, I took my eyes off of  my paper and glanced about. I had been walking through a field with two trees and an abandoned school building which might have once been a courtyard. The field was broken up in unofficial dirt roads where cars had taken shortcuts to get to other buildings or roads. Between the dirt roads on the drifts of sand, a fine growth of green grass was striving, and the trees were finally budding. The color was so fine, so fresh and new that it seemed almost iridescent. After months of walking through the snow in this field and then some more months of just dusty sand, it seemed like spring had finally come.

            Work seems to be picking up and going well in these final days before the summer break. I started helping Sally teach a class at the education department to the English teachers of our city. The teachers seem really excited to learn new methods to improve their English. I have also had the opportunity to present an anti-smoking demonstration to a number of students and classes at my school. This side project is my final push before the summer; the idea being to reach as many students as possible to help them understand the risk and danger of smoking. The World Health Organization has statistics for smoking in Mongolia. 20% of boys age 13-15 smoke; 49% of men ages 15-64. 8% of girls smoke with 5% of women. With these numbers, it becomes obvious that the main risk is boys smoking, and that this habit once started will lead to almost 50% of men smoking.  Mongolia has a population of about 3 million people.  Over 4000 die each year from smoking related diseases. How does this compare with America? I was actually surprised to find the tobacco usage in America is about 25% of both men and women, so if we assume the sexes are close to equal than the smoking rate is the close to the same as Mongolia! More than 480,000 people die each year in America from smoking related diseases. It remains the single highest preventable death rate in our country…

            This year marks the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps in Mongolia. To celebrate this success, our national office asked that the volunteers in aimag centers organize a tree planting event with 25 trees. Kyra took the lead on this project and worked hard with local organizations to purchase the trees and arrange for the place to plant them. Once she had established a day for the event, I went to work recruiting volunteers. My biggest fear was to arrive at the event with only 6 PCVs and 25 holes to dig. Fortunately, the event was a big success. On Saturday morning, I arrived at my school with Sally and Dylan to meet the volunteers. Naturally with Mongolian Standard Time, it wasn’t until two hours after we were supposed to meet that everyone arrived to help out.  One becomes accustomed to this, and I was deeply pleased to see that 25 teachers and students came to help. The students were from the schools’ scout club and also from one of my English teacher’s home room. With the help of some teachers with cars, we managed to get the students out to the planting site at the edge of town. There, the project inertia took on a mind of its own. My students (mainly the testosterone filled boys) seemed to really enjoy seeing who could dig holes the fastest. Not 30 minutes passed before I was rushing to slow them down. They had dug 27 holes. The volunteers were helpful and the project moved so quickly that before we knew it 27 trees had also been planted. Our best guess is that two of these are dead saplings, since we only had 25 live trees!

            After a quick hour of work, we were done. Overall seven Khentii PCVs helped with the event in collaboration with the students and teachers from my school. We even ended up on the local news station! However, Saturday was a cold windy day, and the small saplings seem so minute in the vastness of the Mongolian steppe. I can’t help wondering if they will be able to take root and fortify themselves for the winter that will surely come.

            A word on Mongolian culture: First, Mongolians follow many traditional Buddhist views. One of these is that the act of planting trees is good for one’s soul in a sense that reincarnation may be more positive because of this. Secondly, Sally and I have mentioned in other posts that Mongolians have a different view on feet and foot-to-foot contact. If you step or touch someone’s foot, it is important to apologize and shake hands with the person whose foot you have touched.

            Sometime during the tree planting, I realized that a 10 year-old boy in a scouts uniform was following me around saying “Уучлаарай Багшаа, би ....” (“I’m sorry my teacher, I…” rapid fire Mongolian that I couldn’t understand.) I located my English CP who translated that the poor boy had stepped on my foot earlier in the project and was eager to apologize and receive my forgiveness. I had no recollection of this, but I quickly removed my glove and shook his hand with a reassuring “Зүгээрээ” (no worries/problem). Because of the wind on my hearing aids, it is hard to say how long this child had been following me around begging for forgiveness…
Khentii PCVs at the Tree Planting

            Last weekend was also a sports competition for all the teachers in all the schools in the aimag. I had been enlisted last Thursday for the tug-of-war competition. I like to think that this seemed like a sport that I could do the least amount of damage too and was selected for this reason. I didn’t know it, but the team practiced every night of the preceding week, because they were eager to get first place. I made it to the Thursday night practice where I pulled on ropes anchored to basketball poles. At one point, the gym teacher, a large broad man, and I found ourselves competing against thirteen 12 year-old boys. We held our own for a while, before slowly losing ground. 

            The competition on Sunday started at 11, but I was called to come to the field at 9:30 for reasons that are still unclear. From there, my team played against seven other teams before being declared the first place winners. I was allowed to participate in two of the matches. I don’t mind that I was benched for the other five, since I didn’t come to practices that I didn’t know about and have only a fraction of the competitive spirit of my colleagues. These seemingly unimportant festivities are actually a really big deal in the prestige of a school. For cultural reasons that seem alien to non-Mongolians, it is vitally important that schools teachers can beat other school teachers in tests of agility and strength. I certainly didn’t want to be placed in the final match up only to possibly lose.

Perhaps the most epic moment of the tug-of-war competition was when a large Mongolian man with a sumo wrestler build managed to single-handily win a match. He was the lead for his team, and had been dragged to a point where his foot was level with the crack in the pavement that marked the deciding line. Aware of his situation he tensed his massive arms and dug his trunk like legs into the ground. The tension was palpable. This large Mongolian man pulled with all his weight, and for a moment it seemed like he was the only person against the team of eight men and women. Slowly the rope began to move in his favor, and he shuffled his feet back in an oddly delicate toe to heel manner. The other team, who had been so close to success, realized with despair that the psychological and physical triumph was no longer in their favor and found themselves pulled swiftly over the crack in the pavement. As I sat on the ground in the sun with my team, I looked down at my feet and saw the light green of sage sprouting through the sandy soil.


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