Saturday, June 6, 2015

What it's like teaching in a Mongolian public high school

No, I'm not an expert. My experience is limited to three short years teaching 9th-11th graders English as a first language and English as a second language. I've been teaching in a Cambridge Laboratory school which just means that we prepare our students to take the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. It was a challenge as I did not have much training in what to expect in the Mongolian classroom. There are many resources about Chinese students so I was taught a lot about what to expect in a classroom in China. Forgive me, but that was a waste of time.

My very first day
The first thing that surprised me (for some stupid reason) was how normal the kids were and how much more they reminded me of my high school days instead of what I'd learned about the Chinese high schools. I had been told that Asian students are very respectful of their teachers and that the classroom would reflect the honor/shame culture of their society. While there was a degree of truth to this, it was not as present as I expected. At first, they were all very respectful but after a while, the bloom was off the rose and they fell into their different roles (from very smart and attentive all the way to this is challenging for me and I don't want to try anymore so I'm going to play) same as my own high school days. Most, however, were fairly respectful, especially for hormone infused teenagers.

Sports Day. Competition is fierce and calls for war paint.

About half of the students I taught were already very familiar with the English speaking culture. They love our music, films, TV shows (I have a friend who credits the show "Friends" with teaching her English) and even those who weren't familiar with our culture knew our basketball teams and players well. Side note, I got into a cab the other day and the driver could barely say two words in English however he was able to start listing all of the basketball teams. Randomly. "Lakers!" "Miami Heat!" "Chicago Bulls!" And when they asked where I'm from and I reply "Dallas", they know where that is and respond with, "Mavericks!!!"

I often brought clips from TV shows, movies, TED talks, etc. into the classroom which they often enjoyed. 
I've looked out of the teacher room window and have seen the little ones playing hopscotch or keep away. Games such as tic-tac-toe, hangman, rock/paper/scissors (they have their own version) and the like were played everyday. Other similarities include having those students who can't seem to keep their eyes open (my teammates and fellow teachers began offering those students coffee which is why I called them "coffee pushers"), students who try to get the teacher off topic, students who know English so well that they are bored to tears and students who don't have a clue what I'm saying. Students who stare off into nowhere, students who doodle on every assignment, students who can't seem to stop poking each other, students who decide to take their pens apart and get ink everywhere, and students who can't sit still to save their lives (Me: What are you DOING?" Student: "Sometimes I just get the desire to flail my arms about.") And of course, we have problems with getting the students to unplug themselves from their smart phones and tablets - it's like pulling teeth, as if we're asking them to tear a member of their bodies off: "I'm so sorry, Teacher! I'll never play with my phone in class again. Pleeeeeeeeeeezzzzzz give it back!" I just look at them and say dryly, "That's what you said yesterday."

There were a few unexpected and lovely differences though. For the most part, they wanted to be friends outside of class. There were many times when I had scolded a student for misbehaving in class but then afterwords, I'd get a "Hi Teacher!" and a smile in the hallway later. Another fun thing is that when I would invite them to my apartment for a pizza and movie party (you can do that here), they would come and have a great time! I don't ever remember wanting to go to one of my teachers houses. Most seem to want a relationship outside of the classroom and I've been honored by some of them as they've entrusted me with information about secret crushes, dreams, frustrations about family, peer pressures, etc.
Christmas cookies. Always a hit.

Here are a few tidbits for anyone thinking about teaching in Mongolia:

  • It's considered rude to point at someone, at least with one finger so if you need to point to one of your students, try to do it with your whole hand.
  • I would have students point to their noses and ask if they could go to the toilet. I later realized that they were going to blow their noses as it's considered gross to do this around others.
  • As is typical with Asian cultures, cheating is seen as helping. They honestly do not see why we think it's so wrong and I was under the impression that the other Mongolian teachers weren't sticklers like we foreign teachers were.
  • Where we say the teacher "gives" the test and the student "takes" the test, it's the opposite here. The student "gives" the test and the teacher "takes" it. This can be confusing: "Teacher. When are you going to take the test?" "I'm not, you are. Oh wait."
  • All students wear uniforms with small differences depending on your school and grade.
  • They just recently added a 12th grade - up until this year (2015) students graduated after 11th.
  • They LOVE performing and at least once a quarter will find a reason to display their talents to each other and the teachers. Singing (both pop and traditional Mongolian songs), dancing (same), acting, and playing instruments (mainly Mongolian instruments).
  • Other huge interests include robot building, chess, sports day, soccer, basketball, anime, Japanese horror films, pizza and chicken.
  • We celebrate "Teacher Appreciation Day" and the students will perform for us and give us hugs and gifts. It's a good day.

Teacher Appreciation Day 
This is one of the gifts I received one year! One of my very talented students drew this picture of me.
  • The Mongolian culture is a very touchy-feely one and I often looked up to see students holding hands, arms around friends, playing with each other's hair, sharing the same chair, etc. There were days when I had to say things like, "Jake! Get her hair out of your mouth."
  • They very much believe in things like evolution and global warming and yet I've heard many of them talking about believing in ghosts, aliens, mermaids and the like as well. Sounds like high school to me.
  • They are in the crossroads of not only childhood and adulthood but also in a culture that seems to be rapidly changing. They are choosing whether or not to hold on to their grandparents traditions (only just reclaimed in the last 30 years when Mongolia declared their independence from Russia) and being very attracted to the English speaking culture.
  • The education system here LOVES to give exams and mock exams. At least once a quarter, it seemed like we were giving exams in addition to the regular tests over what we were teaching in class. 
  • Teens can't drive until they turn 18.
  • It's very rare, but teachers are allowed to punish students in a physical way such as hitting them with a belt. 
  • I gave all my classes a point system where they could earn points for good behavior and lose points for bad behavior. Once they hit certain goals, they were rewarded with games, a movie in class day and finally a pizza party. Most responded very well to this system.
Make your own pizza party with some of my 11th graders last year.
  • I don't know this as a fact but I believe that most, if not all, of my students have been exposed to terrible abuse, alcoholism, abortion, incest, abandonment, sex trafficking and more. There are organizations set up and being set up to bring these issues to light and provide help but work like this can be slow going and this culture does not yet embrace sharing difficult personal things. There were many times when my students' pain was obvious and I regret not being able to help more than lend a listening ear. 
  • They all believe that if they learn English well, their future will be better. Many dream of going to an English speaking country for University and then coming back and making Mongolia a better, stronger country. 

Some of our graduates last year. Precious.
A few 12th graders who graduated last year celebrated Christmas with us. Mainly for cookies I think...

Braiding hair.

My 10th grade pizza party this year.

Students in their traditional Mongolian deels playing their traditional Mongolian instruments called Morin Khuurs.
If you are planning on teaching in Mongolia, I will tell you that I found these kids to be very bright, clever, and warm. Things like apologizing for your mistakes, holding them to a standard, allowing them laugh and joke, allowing them to voice their opinions, etc. make a big impression on them. You can actually show them that you care and most of them will respond favorably to that. I'm leaving the Mongolian classroom feeling very lucky and honored to have been a part of it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Back to the 13th Century

Let me just say, I love working for Mongol Aspirations, one of the Bilingual Cambridge International Schools here in UB. Several times a year, they go out of their way to show us how much they appreciate our living on the other side of the world from our families to teach here. A couple of weeks ago, they did it again and took us on a tour of the 13th Century National Park.

The idiot foreigners like to sit in the back of the bus where every bump on the country roads sends us flying into the air and provides several huge laughs from the Mongolians when we scream and grunt. Oyuna, our Mongolian English teacher, was kind enough to sit back there with us.
It's a nice stretch of beautiful Mongolian countryside that holds several attractions that show what life was like in the 13th century when Chinggis Khan was in power.

On the way, we visited the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue (I like calling it "Shiny Chinggis" when I'm by myself). It's the largest statue of a horse in the world and I think it's only fitting that Chinggis would be sitting on it. 
I took this picture at another time I visited (a few summers ago, I think)

The elevator was out (of course it was) and so we had to climb the stairs to the top (this statue is about 131 feet tall btw). The thing is, the staircase got narrower and narrower as we ascended. Not cool.

This is Chinggis hugging us. (See why I call him "Shiny Chinggis"?)
Eric "holding" the gigantic whip that represents the golden whip that Chinggis  supposedly found on this site.

Under the statue is a museum and the biggest Mongolian boot in the world. It's a size 4, 680 and took about 250 squares of cow leather to make.

Our group consisted of our principal and his son, headmasters and their sons, a few office staff and our school bus driver. A very fun group!

In the museum we found a necklace with our favorite symbol on it - many of us wear a similar one around our necks. It's a symbol of a belief that was here in Mongolia about 1,000 years ago. Incredible.

We went to the King Palace and got to dress up and pretend we were Khans (Kings).
Eric and Beth Khan

We caught the Mongolians laughing at us and were told that it looked like Eric had two wives.  When I objected, they changed it to "a wife and a mother-in-law". Whaaaaat...

We went to the Shaman Camp which centers around a tree that was struck by lightning. Those who follow Shamanism believe places where lightning strikes the earth are where the heavens meet the earth and therefore very special places.

The tree had a huge bird's nest in it and had many prayer scarves tied to and around it.

 It had several gers around it for Shamans from all kinds of different tribes. 
This was inside one of the Shaman gers. It had several costumes for the Shaman to wear and drums.

We got to visit an Educational Camp but unfortunately, it was dark by then and pictures really didn't turn out too well. 

We also got to eat dinner in a ger and enjoyed some horhog (pronounced "horhuck") by candlelight. 

We had a great time and felt very fortunate to be with such wonderful people in such a rich and beautiful country.
 If you ever come to Mongolia, you should really visit this place!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hair cutting ceremony

It seems as though there are many cultures that like to commemorate a child's first haircut and the Mongolian culture is no different in this area. While in America, we may go to a barber while our mother takes some pictures and perhaps saves a lock or two, here in Mongolia there is an entire celebration (called a Daah Urgeeh). 

Once a child turns a certain age according to the lunar calendar (even ages for boys like 2 or 4 and odd ages for girls), their parents throw a party celebrating the child's transition from babyhood to childhood. This can be an intimate party just for family members or a big party with lots of guests and usually happens on a special day (a buddhist monk or lama can tell them when is the best time). I was fortunate to be invited to one of these which is really pretty cool as not many foreigners get to be involved (about a year ago - I'm behind on blogging).

This is my principal, Tumuur and his son on the right. They were sitting at the head table along with grandparents, aunts and uncles and other special family members and guests.

As with many Mongolian celebrations (and ours for that matter) there was a TON of great food. Here is a sheep and a tower of biscuit/cookie type things. Later in the evening, my principal cut the sheep and served everyone - it reminded me of the head of the household carving the turkey at Thanksgiving.
One of the courses was this chicken with pineapple and smiley faces. FUN!

What's a Mongolian celebration without entertainment - especially someone playing the horse head fiddle which is a very traditional Mongolian instrument.

 We sat down to eat a really nice meal with several courses and were entertained by singers, dancers and musicians. Once everyone had had a chance to eat and enjoy themselves, the ceremony began with another family member whose hair cutting ceremony was in the same lunar calendar as the boy  (this can be a close friend if no one in the family matches up) taking the first lock of hair. Scissors with a blue scarf (a prayer scarf) attached to them were used and as each lock of hair was cut, it was placed into a little pouch on the boys back. I discovered later that the hair must not be thrown away nor ever touch the ground and will be kept for another ceremony when the child enters adulthood. 

After this, the family members were then allowed to cut and with each cut, the guest gave a gift to the boy (money or toys).  I saw small little tinker toys all the way to child-sized battery powered cars that they can literally get into and drive around (this was a hit) as well as a nice bike. 

His grandfather rolled the hair up and afterwords, placed it in the boys pouch on his back.

A grandmother, very proud, and smiling from ear to ear with some tears in her eyes. So sweet.

Once the family members had their turn, it was time for us other guests to give gifts and cut his locks!

There was a friend helping us - I suppose so we didn't cut too much hair and none would be left for the other guests, haha! They had probably close to 100 people - he got a TON of fun gifts and money!

While he was going around, getting his first haircut, each table stood up and sang for all the guests. Many of the songs were like lullabies or nursery rhymes, songs about kids and/or mothers. My table had a few of us foreigners so we sang "You are my sunshine".

As the ceremony wound down, my principal came around to each table and we toasted to his son's transition into childhood.

As you can imagine, the boys hair looked pretty uneven and choppy after this ceremony but soon after, he got his head shaved and his "new" hair came in (kind of like us losing baby teeth so our adult teeth can come in). After this ceremony, his hair will be kept short.

It was a pretty neat experience to be a part of! And since then I've wondered if I could ever get my friends and family members to give me gifts for the privilege of cutting my hair...

Friday, August 8, 2014

You didn't win but you could still buy it!

The highest bidder was $100!
Thanks so much to everyone who participated and donated!!! You helped me raise money to go back to Mongolia!

CONGRATULATIONS to Kay for winning the quilt!
Yup, my Aunt Nancy actually drew my mother's name out of the box...and I have several witnesses that can testify to the fact that hers was the first ticket pulled - crazy huh?!

However, she has offered to sell the quilt to the highest bidder!
 So, if you are interested in bidding, email me at - it's begun today, Friday, August 8th and will end on Sunday, August 10th at 5pm.
The bid is up to $40 as of August 8th at 1:10pm.
Good Luck!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Want to know more about what I'm doing in Mongolia?

Thank you to all who came to the celebration last night!

You are invited to come to 
Zera's Coffee Company on 
Thursday, August 7th 
at 6pm 
and let me share with you what I've been doing in Mongolia for the past two years and what I plan on doing this next year. 

I'll show a short presentation with pictures and video and will also be drawing a winner for the Patriotic Heart Quilt! If you would like to donate and get your name in the drawing, please click on the link to the left of this blog - deadline to enter is August 6th.

I would be honored if you came and supported me, whether through finances, uplifting and/or just plain celebrating with me!

Monday, June 30, 2014

UPDATED! Feeling Patriotic? Yet another FABULOUS quilt!

CONGRATULATIONS to Kay for winning the quilt!
Yup, my Aunt Nancy actually drew my mother's name out of the box...and I have several witnesses that can testify to the fact that hers was the first ticket pulled - crazy huh?!
However, she has offered to sell the quilt to the highest bidder! So, if you are interested in bidding, email me at - it's begun today, Friday, August 8th and will end on Sunday, August 10th at 5pm.
The bid is up to $40 as of August 8th at 1:10pm.
Good Luck!


My Aunt has done it again - made another beautiful quilt to help me raise money to stay in Mongolia another year!

This is on a queen sized bed. Notice the adorable heart shape!

The pattern on the right is the border.

The back of the quilt is on the left - little hearts.

I'm planning on drawing a name by the end of the summer and yes, I can have it mailed to you so if you don't live in the Denton, TX area, no problem!

All funds raised will go towards my being able to stay in Mongolia teaching High School students English...and other life saving information.

$5 - 1 entry
$10 - 3 entries
$20 - 10 entries

If you would like to pledge to donate $20 or more a month for a year, I will enter 240 tickets for you!! 
If you are already a monthly supporter, add $20 or more a month to your monthly pledge and I will enter 240 tickets for you!!

If you would like to donate through PayPal, just click on the link to the left of this blog or 
 This method will take longer to show up so please email me and let me know that you have given so I can be sure to put your name in the drawing!
If you would like to pledge to be a monthly supporter, please click here to donate through my organization.

If you would like to know more about what I'm doing here on the other side of the world, please email me your physical address and I will add you to my newsletters!

If you would like a ticket but do not wish to donate, please email me for details on how!

Monday, April 7, 2014

The wrong side of the...culture

Today I have a sinus infection which means that I'm a lovely ball of phlegm. Growing up with allergies, I'm used to my nostrils taking turns mimicking a running faucet and feel quite certain that YOU have experienced this too...especially if you're from Texas and living around Tornado Alley.

The problem is that I'm sitting in the middle of a room, surrounded by my Mongolian teachers (good friends) who believe it to be rude to blow your nose in public. I don't want to offend them, they are all incredibly nice to me and it's not their fault that our cultures have different social expectations, so I'm going to the bathroom every now and then just to blow my nose. It got me to thinking about several of the cultural social differences that I've experienced while living here for the past two years.

 If you're like me, you probably don't think you're as shaped by your culture as you are - then you go to another culture and are slapped in the face by all that is different. It's easy to want to say "Hey! Y'all are all doing this completely wrong." or to be offended no one says "Bless you!" if they don't care that I just sneezed.

However, I need to make it perfectly clear that neither culture is right or wrong or more or less superior. I'm not writing this to complain or shame, just to point out the interesting differences in my North American/Texan culture and my Mongolian culture.

Sneezing, snot rockets and spit envy.
I didn't realize that blowing your nose in public wasn't socially accepted until about a year ago when a fellow American teacher here pointed out a sign that had been posted on our teacher announcement board. It stated something like "If you need to blow your nose, go to the toilet." Out of about 10-12 notices on the board, this sign was the ONLY ONE printed in English as the rest were in Mongolian. At the time, there were only two of us English speaking teachers. No doubt who this notice was for... The funny (cultural difference) thing is, it is perfectly acceptable to do a "snot rocket" (close one side of your nose and blow real hard out of the other - the contents of your nose not going into a tissue or anything, just out and on to the ground) in public. Spitting is also perfectly acceptable and Mongolians are really good at it - read about my Spit envy here.

Wait your turn...but only if you want to.
In Mongolia, waiting your turn is only a suggestion. Lines do form in some fashion, however others see absolutely no problem in jumping ahead of you. Especially when there's a crowd. I've watched as a poor cashier gets three or more different people shoving products and money at him/her. If she/he is really good, they can tell who was first and every now and then will tell the others to wait their turn but that is rare. My first instinct when this happened to me was to give them all dirty looks, then to give the cashier a dirty look for allowing it to happen. But the thing is, it's not considered half as rude as it is in North America so there's really no point. You just have to be bold and try to shove your products and money in the cashiers face before the rest of them...or just take a breath and be incredibly patient.
...I've learned to be more bold...

Movie theater rumblings
The first movie I saw in Mongolia was Ghost Rider 2. Aside from the terrible movie, I was in for a bit of culture shock when the mob of movie goers tried to all crowd into the theater at once (see the above cultural difference about waiting in line), the movie started early, no previews, phones went off throughout the movie - and people ANSWERED them in their regular speaking voice volume, and there was always a rumbling like conversations were going on throughout the movie. We get mad when people text during a movie but here, that's NOTHING. I've seen many more movies (good ones) and 9 times out of 10, people wait in line to get in, the movie starts on time, there are previews (my favorite part of the movie) and most people are quiet. I've actually gotten to the point where I don't mind the rumblings as much.

Did your mother ever teach you about staring?
Being a foreigner means I stand out. I shouldn't stand out that much - after all, this country was filled with Russians from 1921 to 1992 so it's not like Mongolians have never seen "white people". UB is FILLED with foreigners from all over the world: Russians, Chinese, Germans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, French, etc. so most of the people living here are very used to foreigners. Unfortunately, many people still stare - most don't mean anything by it, they are just curious and if you give them a friendly Texas smile, they'll smile back. However, there are days when I'm wrestling with insecurity and I don't want to be stared at - my North American culture buzzer goes off and I just want to yell at people to "STOP STARING! Don't you know that's rude?!" It's really not rude here.

Meeting time = TBD
So if you make plans in North America and set a time, we expect each other to be fairly punctual. Not so here. Now there are exceptions of course, you can't be late for school or work but when it comes to other things, it's totally acceptable to be several hours late. The Mongolian people see spending time with people to be a priority so if they are with friends/family and they are not ready to leave yet, they won't. Even if you have been waiting for two or three hours. They will show you the same affection though, once they get to your house, they will spend as much time as possible with you. It may be inconvenient but they are genuinely very warm and friendly.

An open invitation
To go along with the previous one, if you just show up at someones house, whether you know them or not, they will drop EVERYTHING and cook for you! You will get their finest drinks and entrees and will be welcome to stay for as long as you want. Their hospitality is unprecedented and a HUGE part of their traditions. I went over to my neighbors apartment the other day to drop something off and the husband immediately started making this HUGE beautiful omelet for me - I mean it must have been made from about ten eggs, literally. Just for me. Of course, I had just eaten and had to turn most of it away which I hated doing. This is definitely one of the many things I find beautiful about the Mongolian culture. If someone just shows up at my door in Texas unannounced, you're lucky if I even ANSWER the door, let alone let you in and wait on you!! Most likely, I'll give you a dirty look too...unless you're bringing me my nephew or a puppy.

Dinner is served! But just for you for now
Something I found surprising at first was how meals were served at restaurants. Whichever meal is ready first, comes to the table first. This can be awkward if you're out with several friends and only one or two actually have their meal, the others coming seemingly sporadically. Do you eat? Do you wait? If so, do you wait for everyone to get their meal or just most? Mongolians dig in whenever they get their meal - after all, why let it get cold? So that's what we do also - no guilt for starting in early, no worries for being the last one to finish. Nice.

Everyone is a taxi

If you need a taxi, just stick out your hand and one of the thousands of cars on the road will stop for you. In North America, it's considered dangerous and ill-advised to just get into a strangers car but here, not at all. Anyone wanting to earn a little extra money will pick up passengers and drive them wherever they need to go. The going rate is about 60 cents per kilometer but as a foreigner, I usually get charged a dollar or so. I don't mind because usually when I take a taxi, I'm too cold, too sick or too tired to care about getting over charged. Plus, I've had some fun conversations and met some neat people by doing this. It's strange but the truth is, it really is safe here and you can always wave them off if you get a strange vibe from them. I've only heard of one person who got hurt doing this and it's a "friend of a friend of a friend" type of story.

I kicked your foot
I love this one too! If you accidentally kick someones foot, you shake hands. Whether you're on the bus, or walking down the street, whether you kicked a complete stranger's foot or your best friend's foot, you shake their hand! It's so fun - it's like a little "oops, I'm sorry I kicked your foot, let's still be friends and shake hands." thing. I've done it on accident many times and I always wait for a hand to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes they see that I'm foreign and take their hand back like they don't expect me to know what to do about it. But when I offer my hand to shake, I get a little spark of appreciation look.

There are many more cultural differences but those are the ones that really stand out at the moment. Nothing like living in another culture to teach you humility and patience!

Time to go to the toilet to blow my nose again.