Friday, December 31, 2010

Шинэ Жил! {New Year!}

by Kara

Shin Jil -- pronounced "sheen" (like Charlie Sheen), "jeel" (rhymes with meal), but the "l" on the end of jil has a bit of an l-th sound. Get some saliva rolling around in your mouth and then say it. And the whole thing, шинэ жилийн баярын мэнд хүргае! Shin jillin bayariin mend hurgae! Happy New Year!

The new year celebration is one of the biggest reasons to party here in Mongolia. Every workplace has a party sometime around the new year. The work party usually doesn't include spouses, just the workers. My work didn't have a party last year because the country was freaking out about H1N1 and said we couldn't have parties. My workplace followed this directive, unlike most, but primarily because people were broke and couldn't afford a party. So, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect this year. Here's a bit about it.

I was told the party started at 6:00 so I left home, grabbed a taxi for the second time ever in my town due to the extremely cold weather, and played 20 questions with the driver. He was excited that I spoke Mongolian and during the few minutes in the car he asked me every question he could think of. What do you do here? Where are you from? Are you married? To a Mongolian or American? Do you have children? Which apartment building do you live in? How old are you? America is awesome. Mongolia hasn't developed enough. Do you agree? {Uhhhhh, some parts of America are cool, some are not. Mongolia is cool. Mongolia's development is alright.} Los Angeles. Cool. {Yes, cool.}

So I arrived at the restaurant at 6:20 and was the first one there. The party planning committee from my work arrived shortly after. All of the women finally strolled in around 7:20. I would've shown up late too but I can never tell what I'm supposed to be on time for, what it's okay to be about 15 min late for, and what it's okay to be really late for. But I'm used to it now and it didn't bother me.

Attire and Accessories
Shin jil attire is a big deal, especially for women. I spent one morning last week looking up pictures online of dresses for my coworker who was having a dress made. I used the search terms prom dress and bridesmaid dress. The more sparkles, the shinier, the better. I made sure to warn my coworkers beforehand that I don't have a cool dress and I don't have money to buy one {read: have no desire to buy one}. Fortunately for me, not all women dress up this much.

In addition to fancy clothes, a lot of women also get their hair done at a salon, get their nails done, wear fake eyelashes, apply glitter to their face and body, and adorn themselves with big, fake diamonds. 

Here are some pics of my coworkers:

"One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn't belong... "
Orkhoo, Oyunnaran, Naraa, and Dulmaa

Some men find something fancy to wear too.

Turuu sporting a sparkly bow tie.
Shiny suit!

All my male coworkers.

Food and Drinks
I wasn't looking forward to this portion. They pre-order food for the group so everybody gets the same thing, which I assumed would be something with mutton. However, they surprised me! We had potato salad, a chicken soup with tons of veggies, and baked chicken, rice, delicious potatoes with a bit of BACON, and a little cabbage salad served in three courses. It was delicious.

For drinks, they fill the table with beer, vodka, wine (and by wine I mean a really sweet drink that tastes like alcoholic cough syrup), and champagne. Though, my coworkers don't drink much and I really wasn't pressured to drink too much. We only had to take two shots of vodka over the course of the evening, until the very end when they wanted to finish up a bottle and made us all drink two more whole shots, right before leaving. The vodka is horrible. Horrible.

After being shaken profusely, the champagne went everywhere.
This was taken just as it was starting to explode.

This isn't a party where you just drink, eat, and dance. Oh no. There must be planned activities. Games, raffles, contests, etc. They also gave awards for the best workers of the year. Following that, they surprised ME with a medal! Medals are a BIG deal and it's a huge honor to receive one, a remnant of Soviet times. I think I got it for the work I've done over the past year, primarily helping get our summer camp off the ground and bringing in grant money for it. It was really special and really nice to know they appreciate what I do. 

My director pinning the medal onto my shirt.

I also contributed to the entertainment. (And not just with my bad dancing.) You know those Elf Yourself videos where you put a picture of somebody's face on the body of some goofy, dancing elf? I made these videos with all my coworkers faces as a surprise. I couldn't have predicted such a great response. They were practically rolling on the floor laughing! It's really hard for me to use humor with them because I can't think of witty things in Mongolian fast enough, (and I'm not good at slapstick, physical humor) so it felt good to make them laugh. The highlight was definitely the Chippendales video that had the heads of five of my male coworkers on shirtless Chippendale dancers.

Interspersed in between eating the various courses of food was a lot of dancing. With this group there was a lot of waltzing. I ended up having to dance with a really drunk old man with horrible breath a couple of times who kept speaking Russian to me. He was from the other group who was a construction company that we shared the restaurant with.

When we weren't waltzing we were dancing to weird techno music that sounds like it'd be playing in a dark, sketchy Russian dance club in the 90s. One thing I really appreciate though is that most Mongolians - of all ages - aren't afraid to dance. They're not necessarily good dancers, but it doesn't matter. I swear I've danced more in the last 18 months here than any other time in my life. The only thing I do NOT like about dancing with Mongolians is that they almost always dance in a big circle. I inevitably had to the be awkward one pushed out into the middle of the circle a few times. Fun. But I'm pretty used to looking and sounding like an idiot here most of the time, so it doesn't phase me as much anymore.

Overall, the party exceeded my expectations. I remember how little I understood of what was going on a year ago, and I appreciated that I can understand and speak more Mongolian now. I also enjoyed just relaxing and having fun with my coworkers - until 3:00am!

Oyunnaran and I. She's one of my faves.
Orkhoo, another fav. I swear, she doesn't hate me, she just doesn't smile in photos.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Our Second Very Gery Christmas

This year we celebrated Christmas Eve at our friend Tim's apartment and Christmas Day at Sarah's. At Tim's it was all of us PCVs here in town, one visiting PCV, and our good friend Ochgo. At Sarah's we were joined by a Korean woman who is also a volunteer and who teaches art at Sarah's school. Sarah's ger is in the yard of  very sweet Mongolian family and the woman from that family also joined us. Also, another Mongolian friend who is also named Saraa joined us. Here are some pics!

That's me, with the Old Man Winter snow sculpture.
Or maybe it's Chinggis Khan dressed as Santa. I'm not quite sure.

Mark and Ochgo at Tim's apartment on Christmas Eve decorating cookies.

Mark and Tim in Sarah's ger on Christmas.

Mark and Saraa

Eun-Joo and Anhaa

Saraa and Tim

Dinner: steamed broccoli with parmesan cheese, focaccia bread, green bean casserole, beef tenderloin with a yummy sauce, and pumpkin gnocchi! Not pictured are the appetizers: crab cakes and bacon and water chestnut wraps!

Dessert: pumpkin pie, apple pie, Christmas cookies, and chocolate cake with peppermint icing!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A reminder to be grateful...

by Mark

This holiday season we are constantly reminded of who we love, why we love them, and how we're "supposed" to show them we care.  The weeks surrounding Christmas are full of giving and receiving in many forms.  Today I was reminded of how much impact a gift can have...and that we should always be grateful of our blessings in life.  This reminder came in the form of a note titled "Long Distance Parents from Heaven".  I was tasked to edit (after my translator changed the text from Mongolian to English) this note written by a World Vision staff member who interviewed a young boy involved in the World Vision Partnership Program.

I talked for a few minutes to a boy who is too small for his age and whose maturity is beyond his years.  He said that there were originally 6 in his family.  His parents died when he was really young.  Now he lives with his brother and sister, and his other sister has her own family.

After his parents died their life became very difficult; they always had problems with buying food and clothes.  When he was 2, he became involved in the World Vision Sponsorship Program and he thought God gave him second parents who lived in Korea - which is far away.  They send him money twice a year.  When he receives the presents he buys his favorite meals and clothes like other kids who have parents.  He promises to repay their favor and be a good person.  World Vision is the only organization which has ever helped him and his family.  He and his siblings are very grateful for that.  He wishes all the best to the World Vision Staff and hopes their humanitarian actions be always be sacred and holy. 

We have so much to be grateful for, and so much to give.  Show someone how much you care this holiday season.  And don't forget to "repay their favor and be a good person"...  

Merry Christmas from Kara and Mark!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Shiin Jil setup

by Mark

It's that time of year again.  Shiin Jil (translation: New Year): a combination of everything Christmas,  New Years, and a bit of 4th of July thrown in.  Though the parties have not yet begun, we here at Mercy Corps in Arkhangai felt like getting into the spirit.  So we "decorated".  This year has been nothing short of spectacular in terms of decorations - it looks like a clown just walked in to our office and shot off the equivalent of a confetti-packed potato gun.  Streamers, balloons, and tinsel are everywhere.  We spent about 3 hours putting together this beautiful chaos, and we now get to smile whenever we see the faces of the people that walk in for the first time!  I hope it does the same for you.

Here's how it all came together:

It started innocently enough with tinsel cut into letters to form the phrase Happy New Year.  I was thinking "how cute".  And then came the swirly balloons.

My director Dashga decided to have some fun with the crazy balloons.  I think he was trying to tell me he's a reindeer.

Next came the tinsel streamers that were each individually hung from a thin piece of scotch tape that was probably 12 feet long.  We made 3 sets of these.
We decided to string the thin tinsel like a chandelier.  Turned out kinda cool actually.

Then we decided it would be cool to make a tree shape on the window.  It's not the prettiest thing in the world, but it adds to the impressive overall display.

Getting closer to being finished.  We've got tinsel everywhere, balloons hanging from the ceiling, and we've added the years to the wall.  Can you see the little white puffs of cotton hanging every 8 inches or so?  That's supposed to be snow. Balls of snow the size of golf balls.  We were going for realistic.

This is the view you get immediately upon walking into our office.

And one from the opposite end of the room for good measure.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Healthy Lifestyles Project

by Kara

I just thought I'd let you all know about an opportunity to support a project I'm working on. The project is the Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Project (I believe I mentioned it in a previous post). We received funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation but we are seeking some additional funds for part of the project. You can learn a little more about the project HERE. And if you feel called to, you can also donate to the project on that site as well. By donating through Peace Corps your donation is tax-deductible. (Donation FAQs)


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

by Kara

Last week we went to Ulaanbaatar for flu shots, for my GRE, and to celebrate Thanksgiving with Peace Corps Staff and Volunteers. We also snuck up to Erdenet for a few days and saw some friends who live there. Erdenet is the third largest city in Mongolia and has most of the benefits of a big city – of primary importance for me, availability of a diversity of food. They even have home pizza delivery! You don’t even have to call – you just send them a text message. And this is also possible because they have relevant addresses! I know, pretty amazing. 

Here are some photos of Erdenet:

There's a huge Soviet and Russian influence in Erdenet, exemplified by the images of Marx and Lenin. I think this something about how Marx's teachings are the best and most powerful. I could be wrong though.
Though you can't exactly tell because we're all bundled up (it was FREEZING that day), that's Mark and I at the friendship monument. (Showing the friendship between Russia and Mongolia. Awwww.)
Erdenet, in its all glory.

After we got the flu shots, the GRE, and travels to Erdenet out of the way (Erdenet was good, but still required another 13 hours on a bus, a few of which were spent with the girl next to me playing with my hair), we got to enjoy more time with friends in UB. Peace Corps brought in all the volunteers from our group for shots, so it was a nice little reunion for all of us. Overall the trip left us happy, but broke (UB is expensive!).

Here are some photos of our great Thanksgiving celebration:
This was the meal we ate on Thanksgiving (our big Thanksgiving meal with everybody was on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, because having it on a Saturday is more convenient). We decided on Indian food - really, really good Indian food. I was really excited in this photo because the restaurant brought out a free little snack for us while we were waiting for our friends to arrive. That's very fancy for a restaurant here.
The friends we ate Thanksgiving dinner with.
The real Thanksgiving feast! This was taken far before all of the food had arrived. The table towards the back was JUST turkey! It was awesome.
My (first) plate of food.
The married ladies of Peace Corps Mongolia

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Quick Update

by Kara

Since it's been nearly a month since we've posted any updates I just wanted to let it be known that we're alive and doing well! Life has just been moving ahead somewhat normally this past month. We've both been busy working on projects at work and I've been busy studying for the GRE in my spare time. We're headed to UB (the capital) soon for the GRE, to get flu shots, and to celebrate Thanksgiving with about 150 people (all PCVs and staff). We're also taking a short trip up to Erdenet, a town north of UB and the third biggest city in Mongolia. My friend who lives there says it's "better than Paris" in fact. We're looking forward to seeing another part of Mongolia, seeing friends, and doing some work while we're there too.

We wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Alcohol Awareness Week

Some of the planning committee with the Alcohol Awareness Week sign

by Kara

One of the coolest things I've been a part of in Mongolia...

Last week was Alcohol Awareness Week in Mongolia. This is an initiative that was started by Peace Corps Volunteers this year. It was started to raise awareness about the effects and consequences that alcohol use has on people's lives and on their community as a whole. Mongolia is fortunate to have almost no problems with drugs other than tobacco and alcohol; "hard" drugs are virtually non-existent. However, alcohol abuse is rampant here. We just wanted to take a week to get people thinking about the role alcohol plays in their life, in their family, and in their community.

PCVs in towns across the country planned events. In our town my sitemate Sarah led the effort, but all of the volunteers were involved. My counterparts (coworkers) got especially involved which was really awesome. Altogether the week was planned by PCVs, Government officials, the Police Department, the Children’s Center, and the Health Department. The week’s activities included (but were not limited to) a poster and essay contest for children, lessons about alcohol use from the Health Department at all of the schools, and a survey about alcohol for students (my counterparts and I did that!). To publicize the week’s events the planning committee was interviewed by the local TV station!

The most exciting part of the week was the rally on Friday. This video that Mark made explains it best:

One of the posters that was entered into the poster contest. It's even 3D!

Click on this to see a bigger version - it shows ALL the students who attended the rally!

A class with the poster they made. They even made matching badges for the event. (The little yellow circles on their shirts.)

Bonus points were awarded for Japanimation style posters. (Not really)

The parade!

More signs

"Архи" (the word on the sign) means alcohol

For Your Information: Statistics About Alcohol Use in Mongolia*

  • There is one store selling alcohol for every 273 people in Mongolia.
  • 22% scored positive on AUDIT (8% F; 39% M) meaning they drink at a hazardous level.
  • 13.6% are alcohol dependent (5% F; 22% M) based on the Composite Informational Diagnostic Interview (CIDI).
  • 7.7% of males age 15-19 drink more than 60 grams of alcohol a day
  • 18.6% have been in serious fights with injuries due to alcohol
  • 15% have been arrested due to alcohol
  • 20% regularly spend money on alcohol that they need for food and other essentials
  • 10% have significant marital problems due to alcohol consumption
  • The average male spends more than 32,000 tugrugs a month on alcohol (that's about 30% of a minimum wage salary or 16% of my salary which I think is an average salary)
  • 18.6% will be admitted to the hospital due to alcohol or alcohol related injuries.
Drinkers are:
  • Twice as likely to have depression
  • Twice as likely to have excessive stress
  • Three times as likely to have a heart attack
  • Four times as likely to have a serious head injury
  • Five times as likely to have cirrhosis of the liver
*All statistics were taken from the Epidemiological Study on the Prevalence of Alcohol Consumption, Alcohol Drinking Patterns, and Alcohol Related Harms in Mongolia published by the Mongolian Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, 2006.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Circus

by Mark

Last weekend the circus came through town.  Our first thought (well my first thought anyway!) was "Are there going to be animals?!"  No.  However, there were acrobats, jugglers, clowns, a contortionist, and all manner of "circus-like" music.

We managed to get front-row seating due to our Mongolian friend Ochgo telling the front door man that we were foreigners and we needed to get in early to get good seats!  We love her.  And we were happy to use our "foreigner" status this time.  It wasn't long before there were another 75 kids crowding around us to watch.

Not only did we feel like we were mere meters from the acrobatics, myself and our sitemate Tim actually did get involved.  Tim was asked to participate twice.  Once to assist in swinging the large jump rope, and another time he was in charge of clashing a large cymbal to the floor as part of a random collection of sounds performed by people in the crowd.  This was also the "event" I took part in (oh there are pictures below!).  My role was to hold an old abacus (yes, the ancient calculator using beads) above my head and shake it, and my butt, as fast as I could.

Overall the evening was entertaining.  Enjoy the pics!

There are 7 guys involved, 2 ropes, 5 jumpers!

Click on the pic to enlarge it, that is 1 larger guy with two guys on his shoulders and one wrapped around his waist - and he's still managing to jumprope!!

Uh yes, 3 guys jumping simultaneously to jumprope!

Does anyone else think it looks like her head is coming up through the table? 

She is balancing on a pole with a bite rag - yes, just her teeth are touching anything!

Tim attempting to show the clowns that he knows how to swing a jumprope properly.

Me shakin' my "abacus" - oh and you can see Tim in the corner waiting to slam his cymbal into the floor!

Check out the high-flyin' antics of this crew...and note the outfits and hair-do's...these guys were serious!  Oh and there definitely weren't any safety nets or harnesses.  Like I said...serious.