Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tall Shot of GIN

It was Saturday morning and I was baking cookies.  Freakin' kids.
Back in June two of my favorite students (by which I mean actual favorites, not "You're all my favorites!") came and asked if I would be an advisor for our newly founded Global Issues Network.  They said they were asking me because I'd been in Mongolia for longer than most of the teachers and was involved with the greater community...and because they wanted to use my classroom.  But personally, I think that while the above are good reasons to ask a teacher to be an advisor for your club, the real reason they asked me is the fact that I'm a sucker.  Engrish put it most succinctly when she said, "Like you could say no to them."
Even if it hadn't been those two, I probably would have said yes.  I heard about GIN for the first time at the ACAMIS conference I attended this spring, and was hoping the school would get involved in something similar, if not GIN itself.  When a former classmate attending our rival school came and presented about it, hoping to get our kids involved, the response was overwhelming.
Well, this past Saturday was the commencement of their first project - a kind of Saturday afternoon community center in one of the ger districts.  The issue they are working on is "Education for All," and I was really proud of how they organized everything - from the activities to the games and even the food and drinks for their opening ceremony.  My students had a great time, and I know that the kids they are working with will learn a lot.  I couldn't imagine a better extracurricular activity to be involved with - they are developing a lot of great leadership skills, have done an excellent job of delegating what needs to be done so that everyone is involved...I couldn't be more proud of them if I tried.
I remember, when I was about 13 years old or so, my family went to Kansas City's theme park, Worlds of Fun.  My mom had just finished watching the "Stax of Wax" show in their nice, air conditioned theater, and I was bugging her to buy me something, when she said something that has kind of stuck with me for more than 20 years.  She said, essentially, "When you work as hard as those kids in that show, I'll buy you anything you want."  I look at these kids now - especially my seniors - and I think I understand what my mom meant.  I may be a sucker for them, but it's because they are so damn good.  They're not perfect - hell, there have been a few times I've lost my temper with them - but they have good hearts and strong minds.  They give me hope that all is not lost for us here in this little corner of the universe.

And that's why I'm taking them to Turkey.  My plans for a spring break trip focused on art and history got approved a week ago, and while willingness to take 20 hormonal teenagers to the other end of Asia on my free time may be a mark against my sanity, the admin team approved it anyways. If it weren't for the fact that it will be shortly followed by their graduation I wouldn't be able to wait.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mongolia is Not Boring

We've gotten our whole new crop of newbie teachers in the last month, and I really couldn't care less.  I mentioned this a little more than a week ago.  This probably makes me a terrible person, but tons of them are married and I really haven't had much of a chance to talk to them.  And the fact is, I know that a fair number of them will be whining about Mongolia and/or our school in the next month, if they aren't already.

"Mongolia is boring."

"There's nothing to do in Ulaanbaatar."

Well, those of them who say it - like those who have said it in the past - are wrong.  I would like to call them lazy and stupid, but the fact is that even though it is NOT boring here, it can be a little harder to find out what's going on.  You don't speak Mongolian, so updates on tv and radio probably aren't going to help you get out more.  So today I am bringing your the guide to finding out what the hell there is to do in Ulaanbaatar.

Step 1:  Make friends with Mongolians.
This should be a huge, "WELL, DUH!" but there are plenty of expats (myself sort of included) who live in an expat bubble and don't really talk to Mongolians.  Which is sad, because the Mongolians actually hear about what's going on (them knowing the language and all), besides which they're really nice and funny.  Wild Ass and our driver, Enkhaa, have been a gold mine when it comes to getting out more. 

Step 2: Read the UB Post.
This is a little harder than I would like it to be.  I never seem to be able to find the paper when I want it, but it's worth the effort, because their events page has lots of good stuff, and it's in ENGLISH!

Step 3: Get Connected.
There's this thing called the interwebs and it KNOWS EVERYTHING.  For starters, you can watch Expats in Mongolia on Facebook.  It will require you to ignore a large number of misanthropists who can't let a single thread pass without commenting on how much they hate it here (in spite of having lived here for most of a decade and having married Mongolians), but you'll find - in between those hateful comments - discussion of what's going on.  InfoMongolia is in English and usually posts "Upcoming Weekend Events" every Friday evening, and sometimes even announces events further in advance.  Other groups to connect to - with the added benefit of getting to know other people if (unlike me) you're not 100% satisfied with your awesome group of friends - are IWAM and Internations.

Step 4: Pay attention to your surroundings.
Mongolia has the charmingly outdated tendency to post flyers about events on poles and walls, at bus stops and, well, pretty much everywhere.  Other events may have a huge banner hanging outside the venue or at the central post office.  Most of these banners are in Mongolian, but if you snap a picture with your phone and ask a Mongolian friend or coworker for a little help, that's not really a problem. 

Finally, be proactive.  If you heard of something happening in years past, keep an eye out for it.  Somebody knows about it somewhere; you just have to figure out who, and get the information from them.  By now you should have figured out that you're an adult (at least I hope you're an adult - I swear and rely on crude humor too much for this to be a child-friendly blog) and nobody is responsible for making you happy but yourself.  If you want to sit at home and be miserable, nobody's going to stop you.  If you want to spend every weekend getting hammered and picking fights with Mongolians (aforementioned misanthropists on Expats in Mongolia, I'm looking at you), go for it.  It just means there will be more elbow room for me and mine when we go to the circus, the ballet, lantern lightings, awesome musical performances, fashion shows, and the other events we've been enjoying over the last two years.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

When Animals Attack

Cats are better than dogs, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a jackass (unless they are one of my students, in which case, they are merely misinformed).  Reason #1,000,001 is that cats feel no need to prove they are dominant.  They are confident in the fact that they are superior.  How can you tell?  Because you can look a stray cat in the eye without it going postal on you.

I've lived in Mongolia for two years now without facing down the #1 public safety threat - wild dogs.  I've always wondered what I would do if I was in a situation with a wild animal.  My father taught us from a very young age that you should never approach the babies, because their moms won't be far away and they will NOT be happy with you.  And growing up with Shaggy there were inevitably stories of how you should try to make yourself taller with this animal, or not to climb a tree with that animal, because they'll just follow you.  But none of that was applicable this morning.

When I went out today for my 6 a.m. hike up Zaisan (fourth day in a row!), I made the mistake of making eye contact with one of the dogs that lives in the street beside the school.  He started barking.  I stopped looking at him and kept walking, not slowly, but not quickly.  I'm no animal expert, but I know better than to run from a predator. However, this didn't do the trick.  He kept barking, and came over to follow me.  I could tell by his noise level that he was getting closer and closer, and finally I felt the tug of teeth on the back of my pants.

Thats's right.  I got nipped in the butt.

I stopped and gave him a death glare.  It was not, exactly, super effective.  It made him move away a little, but his incessant barking called one of his buddies over, who also started barking.  I don't consider myself a particularly logical person, but in a situation like this my first instinct is to think it out, and my options briefly flashed through my mind...the gate of the school was around the corner and up the street, but I am NOT a runner.  I could climb over the fence - I've done it once and this time I wasn't carrying snacks for a school party...

My glance briefly slid over a Mongolian man walking toward me, and I can only imagine that I must have looked panicked.  He, however, was not.  He must have been the Mongolian equivalent of a Boy Scout, because he was prepared with a rock in hand, which he lobbed it at my two attackers.  They were, no doubt, discussing in their stupid doggy barks the best way to team up against this slow, fat human and which part of me would taste best, because they failed to notice that the rock didn't come anywhere near them.  They didn't look to see that the guy only had one rock, and that I had none.  They just ran for it.

Which is reason #1,000,002 that dogs are inferior to cats: they're cowards (and stupid, but that's reason #1).  Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for it in this instance, and after giving the man the most heartfelt bayrlalaa I've ever said, I picked up my own rock.  It turns out that's how you deal with a wild dog (along with not making eye contact in the first place unless they are chained up on the other side of a fence). 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2014

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving." 

I read Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky in 2006 when I was doing my short, second stint in Korea.  It ends with the above quote, and even though I wasn't planning on moving home then (and haven't really been on planning on it since), I fell in love with it, because to me, it meant that "coming back" wasn't a failure or an ending...just a new chapter.

Of course, it doesn't prepare you for how hard coming back can be, and it definitely doesn't make it easier when you leave again.  The thing is that when you see people every day, they don't seem to change much, but when you come home twice a year (or less) the little differences add up.  And while you may get used to how your parents and siblings change after one year, niblings grow up quick.  The Princess (in Mongolian mode this summer thanks to Aunt Becky the Great) turns five this fall.  Five!  I have this fear that they'll forget me before I come home again, and this is probably why I've noticed that the leaving has become increasingly difficult in the last several years.  (Not that this means I'm going to stop, Mom...)
What I mean to say with all this babbling is that my "ten-years-an-expat" countdown ends tonight back where I started - in Missouri.  I was really looking forward to coming home and seeing the family, and through email we planned to come down to Shaggy's farmhouse (it has a pool in its favor!)  The only person who couldn't make it was...Gameboy (I just realized I've never given my other brother a code name!  How lame am I?!?)...who had to work, which was a bummer, but, you know what's going to win in a battle between true family togetherness and a pool.
Once your parents become grandparents, it's all over for the spinster aunts and uncles.  Nothing you do ever was or ever will be as cute as what your niblings will do.  Luckily for me, in my family the niblings are actually as cute and smart as my mom tells her Lunch Bunch buddies, and although it's kind of weird (even after five years) to watch my parents be grandparents, it's good to know they are enjoying their retirement years.
Last spring I had one of my darling juniors (now seniors!  I'm not ready to start thinking about them graduating!!!) tell me I'd make a great mom.  Since her statement was provoked by my suggestion that she use a better pair of scissors to cut the legs off her pants, I had to laugh and tell her I make a much better aunt.  Not only because my advice was somewhat dubious (maybe she shouldn't have been cutting the legs off her pants), but because I know what great moms look like.  Exhibit A:  Abby, my sister-in-law.  Sticky floors and happy children (except without the sticky floors).  Exhibit B:  My Mom - hell, she's gotta be great if she raised me!  Finally, Exhibit C:  Babysis.  My Babysis can be - how can I put it delicately?  I probably can't, so we'll leave it at, "Takes one to know one."  That said, I pity the person who messes with Bunny.  Babysis is organized and determined, and she would do anything for Bunny.  She's also a helluva cook and gorgeous - it's a good thing I'm the older sister or I might have an inferiority complex (the size of Canada's).

All that said, in spite of how hard it is to leave them, not only do I make a better aunt, I think I like it more.  You have the lack of full-time responsibility (like a grandparent) but you're young enough to have fun with your niblings (like a parent).  It's the best of both least until I buy Dirt Devil his first bow and arrow.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2013

The absolute worst part of this rock and roll lifestyle is, without a doubt, saying goodbye.  This is part of the reason I am in no rush to leave Mongolia.  When I left Korea, each and every time, it ripped a big fucking hole out of me.  I left behind beloved friends and students every damn time, and it's really embarrassing to cry in the pension office.  And on the bus to the airport.  And in the bloody immigration line.  Right now I have such a great group of friends that I really don't give a fig about the new teachers.  I'm sure they're very nice, but I lack nothing in the social department.  As for my students, well, I finally got to teach them again today, and it made everything right with the world.

That said, just over a year ago I couldn't imagine how life in Mongolia was going to go on.  I was losing Domestic Goddess, Fire Marshall, and Five, all in one fell swoop.  Mongolia was just "okay" until Domestic Goddess invited me over for dinner and strong-armed me into bringing them into Grub Club.  With the addition of them (and occasionally Goddess and Marshall's son), magically somehow things became different.
As the end of the school year got closer, we all spent more and more time together.  In the last three, student-free days, someone brought up the fact that we never had made our own Apples to Apples deck, and since they had nothing better to do, Domestic Goddess and Five got that done.

We ate at the Moose for the last time, and one game stretched into two.   I don't think Apples has ever been as funny as it was that night.  Even our "saintlier" friends (I've been known to call Five "Mother Teresa" and Engrish the "Dalai Lama" because of how nice and even tempered they are...I, on the other hand, proclaimed myself Stalin last year after a couple of run-ins with a staff member who apparently thought her coworkers should respond to her craziness with warm fuzzies) couldn't help chortling at some of the card combinations that came up.

The next night Domestic Goddess and Fire Marshall were leaving.  Five wouldn't leave until after summer camp, but I would all but miss her, since my flight back from Nepal got in just before she shipped off to Canada.  We dragged it out as long as we could.  When we were finally free to leave school, we headed to California for drinks.

It was hell.  I wouldn't trade it for the world.

I don't do well with goodbyes.  I get a look on my face like someone just killed my kitten, and while I try to limit the waterworks to the very end, I'm pretty sure I don't make things easier for anyone else.  This is the lowest low of the roller coaster I talked about yesterday, but on the other hand...well, I think Bronte said it best when I left Korea the second time.  I'm paraphrasing, but basically she told me that it was worth the pain of saying goodbye, because it meant that you had lived fully in those moments, those relationships, that you had put all of yourself into them, because otherwise it wouldn't hurt.  I've known expats who basically live the same lives they had back home, just long-distance.  They might be in a different country, but they don't immerse themselves in where they are.  Oh sure, they go out for drinks, but their primary relationships are with their family or even friends back home.  Their standard of living doesn't change - they don't take buses or trains, but instead take taxis (or drive themselves, if they can get away with it).  And that begs the question: what's the point?  When I visited Chengdu last March, the Traffic Inn had a note in their bathroom that said if you ignore a place's customs, avoid its people, reject the food, etc, you'd be better off staying home, that you are like a stone thrown into water.  You get wet on the outside, but don't become part of the water. 

Sometimes it hurts like hell, but I'm proud to be part of the water.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2012

I was so done by Shanghai by February of 2012, for so many reasons, but I was still thinking about staying on for another year.  Considering I had more "China days" than non-China days, this was not a good idea, but it took my Chinese principal's refusal to let me go to the Evil One's wedding to nail the lid on that coffin.  As always, I ended up missing my friends most of all, but even that was in a state of transition in early 2012, and I was struggling to adjust.  It was a season of change, and I've never been one to embrace it, but I've also never been one to stick my head in the sand and let life pass me by.  So even though I felt like life was kind of shitty around that time, I put on my big girl underpants and went to the "World Chocolate Wonderland" that was taking place just down the street from where I went to church every week.

I envisioned a wealth of chocolate samples, and maybe some incredible demonstrations that I'd be able to use in my teaching somehow (hey, stranger things have happened!)  And actually I only remembered the chocolate fashions (as seen above) as I was going through photos for this post, but I might have to pull them out when we start Junk2Punk next spring as an example of how different materials can be used (so there, ye of little faith).
The demonstrations, however, weren't as cool as I thought they would be.  They used a heat gun to help melt it, and scooped the chocolate into molds.  It was kind of disappointing.
There were a few different samples, but not what I was imagining in my fevered chocolate dreams.  When I saw these, though, I decided I had to buy some.  These figures were directly lifted from the erotic temples at Khajuraho, and Evil (who went there with me) was getting married four months later.  You can imagine my disappointment when I got to the vendors at the end, Pralinor Chocolate informed me they didn't have any for sale there - I'd have to either go to their shop or buy them on Taobao.  As one of the poor unfortunates that never did figure out how to use Taobao, that left visiting the shop, and although I tried on more than one occasion, I never did get them. 

I guess some things are just not meant to be.
One part that did live up to my expectations was the display of chocolate terracotta warriors.  I still hadn't been to Xi'an at that point, and seeing the soldiers lined up in row after delicious row...well, you might say it whetted my appetite for the real thing.
One thing you may count on in the far east (whether you want to or not!) is the presence of dancing costumed characters.  I'm pretty sure these were supposed to be chocolate beans, but they were disturbing as only dancing costumed characters can be!
World Chocolate Wonderland was, actually, supposed to be international, and to this end there were displays representing different countries.  Italy, for example, had a chocolate vespa.  The best part, in my eyes, was this poster about Germany's chocolate - not because it was super awesome, but because of where they located Germany on their world map.

It was an interesting experience, to say the least, and I stuck a handful of cacao beans in my pocket before I left, because that day it had become one of my top 10 favorite smells.  I put them in a ziploc baggie when I got home and pulled them out every once in a while to inhale the smell of concentrated chocolate (usually when the stench of too many people in too small a space overwhelmed me).  But sadly, the World Chocolate Wonderland kind of mirrored much of my second year in China, in that it was disappointing.  But no one ever said living overseas was one big party after the next, and if they do, there's a good chance they are stoned.  Or drunk.  Or mentally incompetent.  Or all three.  Expat life is more like a roller coaster - it has its ups, and its downs, and its moments that make you scream, and occasionally moments that make you puke.  In my opinion, in China it's even more extreme, but still worth experiencing.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2011

There is no place in all of Shanghai I love as well as Tianzifang.  My first year there was more than half over the first time I went there, which was for a friend's birthday.  JoAnn was with me - hell, pretty much all of my friends except her husband were there, and we felt the need to remedy the fact that he hadn't come with us about two weeks later.  We ate dinner at the same restaurant, Bali Bali; the food was okay, but we were more charmed by the building. 

Tianzifang is partly known for this architecture, which I had to look up to find the name...shikumen.  Between these 2-3 story structures are narrow alleys, along which are galleries and shops, some selling communist kitsch, others selling stationery with mangled English.  The narrow alleys are hellish on a Saturday afternoon,  but I've braved them more than once. 
On the night I went back with JoAnn and Michael, however, it was cool and rainy.  We wandered into the museum this fountain is attached to and saw the most incredible glass art.  The prices were pretty steep, but I fell in love with a necklace that I went back for after payday, and never felt buyer's remorse!
Of all the art in this art heavy district, this was one of my two favorites.  This guy makes paintings of traditional Chinese landscapes with ink, but does away with all the fancy brushes...he uses his fingers to get the job done.  It kind of shocked me to see what he could do.  (The other favorite was work by a surrealist/printmaker/illustrator.  I'm still wishing I'd found a way to afford the print of the girl riding the tiger made out of rabbits.  It was cool).
Another favorite was the place that sold ocarinas.  In a former life I was a flutist, and I own more than a couple of these clay whistles.  It was incredible to see them in so many shapes and sizes.
The variety of restaurants was another draw for me, and led to more than one guilty post-church Sunday afternoon side trip (not my fault that a:I was starving when church got out, b: it was right on my metro ride, and c: I was still a ridiculous distance from home!)  Some of them are better than others.  Yes, the sign says Teddy Bear Thailand Restaurant.  No, I never ate there.  I went back to Bali Bali a number of times and was a fan of Lotus Land Indian restaurant, too - but probably would have passed them both by if the New York Style Pizza had ever been open after I finally discovered their Brooklyn.