Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Once and Always Camp Staff

As the readers who’ve never met me IRL may or may not know, I worked at a Boy Scout Camp in northern Wisconsin for three summers before my adventure in Mongolia. [1] My summers there were a big selling point in my Fulbright application process: I had worked extensively with horses (animals central to Mongolia’s culture); I had experience roughing it and making creative and resourceful use of limited supplies (as I would likely need to do in a non-first-world nation); I knew how to handle unruly teenaged boys unwilling to learn the material I was supposed to be teaching them. But even as I explained the experience and its many contributions to my skill set to my interviewers, I had no idea of the extent to which my years of scout camp would color my experiences in Mongolia.

Some background first: The staff at MaKaJaWan are not sleepaway camp counselors in the typical sense. We don’t sleep in cabins with randomized groups of kids; they come to camp as a troop, with at least two adults leaders to supervise them, and sleep on cots in platform tents. Instead, the staff focus on providing good program. We teach merit badge classes, run afternoon/evening activities, and keep the kids entertained in the dining hall, where we eat and talk with them and lead them in songs.

Yes, you read that right: Songs. It is indeed possible to get teenaged boys to do something as uncool as singing together. Every meal at camp ends with a staff-led song, most of which are ridiculous and all of which have accompanying hand gestures or full-body movements. After-breakfast songs tend to be especially movement-centric: “Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic” has hand motions, “Big Tub of Glue” involves clinging to a partner for balance, “Button Factory” and “The Penguin Song” result in full-body flailing while hopping, nodding, and sticking out your tongue, and “My Bonnie” and “The Grand Old Duke of York” involve copious amounts of high-speed sitting and standing.

I could go on about the lunch and dinner repertoire, but I think you get the point: I have an awful lot of these up my sleeve. And while I somehow managed to work at camp for three summers without once leading a song, I think I more than made up for that in Mongolia. Once I learned of the cultural importance Mongolians attach to singing, this stuff became my bread and butter.

As anyone who’s ever taught knows, songs are great warm-up and review activities, especially when they tie into the subject of your lesson. Teaching parts of the body? “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are classics, the former working especially well if you include nontraditional body parts like elbows, ankles, and so forth. Directions are a perfect time for “The Grand Old York” with MaKaJaWan’s typical side of TPR: stand for the word “up,” sit for “down,” half-squat for “halfway up.”

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up, you’re neither up nor down.

For more basic classes, asked my students to identify the “b” sounds in “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” For every word starting with the letter “b,” I asked them to stand if they were sitting or stand if they were standing. As you can see, the song results in a lot of movement:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me

I was also fond of “The Bear Song” when teaching the past tense. This one’s much longer, so I usually printed out the lyrics with some of the words blanked out, sang it a few times and asked the students to fill in the blanks, and then asked them to identify the verbs in past tense. Not the most creative lesson plan, I’m afraid, but the kids liked the story and it surprise ending, as well as the repeat-after-me format, so I suppose that something. [2] If anyone has suggestions as to a more engaging way to teach this song, I’m all ears!

The other day
I saw a bear
A great big bear
Oh, way out there
The other day I saw a bear,
A great big bear oh way out there

He looked at me
I looked at him
He sized up me
I sized up him
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him

He said to me
Why don’t you run
I see you don’t
Have any gun
He said to me, why don’t you run
I see you don’t have any gun

And so I ran
Away from there
But right behind
Me was that bear
And so I ran away from there
But right behind me was that bear

Ahead of me
I saw a tree
A great, big tree
Oh, glory be!
Ahead of me I saw a tree,
A great big tree, oh, glory be

The lowest branch
Was ten feet up
I’d have to jump
And trust my luck
The lowest branch was ten feet up
I’d have to jump and trust my luck

And so I jumped
Into the air
But I missed that branch
Oh, way up there
And so I jumped into the air
But I missed that branch oh way up there

Now don’t you fret
And don’t you frown
‘Cause I caught that branch
On the way back down
Now don’t you fret and down’t you frown,
‘Cause I caught that branch on the way back down

That’s all there is
There is no more
Unless I meet
That bear once more
That’s all there is, there is no more
Unless I meet that bear once more

And, of course, my favorite song to teach never had anything to do with the curriculum at hand, but the kids enjoyed it because it was just fun to do.

Little cabin in the woods
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at his door
Help me, help me, help!” he cried,
Before the hunter shoots me dead
“Little rabbit, come inside;
Safely you’ll abide.”

The bolded words all have accompanying hand motions, which the kids know quite well by the time you’ve finished singing: The song is sung not once through, but nine times. The first time you sing the entire thing; the second, you skip the word “cabin,” doing only the hand motion; the third, you sing neither “cabin” nor “window,” and so on, until every bolded word has been replaced by silent gestures. Because competitions always went over well, I often added the rule that everyone had to stand at the beginning, and anyone who sang out of turn would have to sit down. This was, of course, all but impossible to enforce, but as it made the kids  pay closer attention, I considered its purpose served.

In the end, I don’t know how much my students actually learned from these songs. In teaching them, I learned the Mongolian words for “bear,” “hunter,” “rabbit,” “ocean,” “up,” and “down,” so I hope they learned at least that much in English. But I do know that my students were always happier and more engaged when working on songs than the exercises printed in their books, and so I consider that a success. It helped me to combat my own homesickness as well, and I get a kick out of the idea that there are kids in Mongolia who might still remember a few American camp songs.

Fellow English teachers, I’m curious: What are your favorite songs to teach, and how do you work them into your lessons? Non-teachers, what songs are central to your memories of childhood?

[1] IRL friends all know this because I won an entire drawer full of shirts and hoodies bearing the words “MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation,” and wearing any of them invariably causes people either to tell me about their experiences at the camp, or to try and fail miserably at pronouncing the name.

 [2] I do wish I’d been able to team-teach this song with a teacher who spoke better English, so that we could demonstrate, little-kid-copycat fashion, what “repeat after me” meant. Without a collaborator, this was often unexpectedly difficult to explain!


Songs of My Land and Yours

Teachers have their own holiday in Mongolia, and the vocational schools of Erdenet traditionally celebrate it by giving a joint concert. “Concert” being a more loosely-applied term in Mongolian than English, these programs often bear more resemblance to what we might term a “variety show.” The show the schools put on during my stint in Mongolia included a fashion show and several dance acts in addition to the expected assortment of songs. Nearly every teacher participated, even if it was only as part of a large chorus.

I was not exempt.

As you may gather from the costume, I was not singing in English.

The song I performed is called Аяны Шувууд (Ayanii Shuvuud), and it is apparently THE song to teach foreigners; if you’ve learned a Mongolian song, it was probably this one.

I learned it from my school’s director during our language exchange – and by “learned,” of course, I mean “memorized.” I know it’s a love song about migrating birds, and I can pick out a number of the individual words, but I’m far from being able to provide a translation. Happily, an English version of the song already exists.

I was made to perform this song over and over again: the Teacher’s Day concert, the staff Shine Jil party, my friend Nathan’s wedding, the students’ graduation party. The first three, at least, were planned, but the last one was a cold call; I was as surprised as anyone else to hear that I was about to sing for the entire school, especially since my memory of the second and third verses had grown a little fuzzy! After that experience, I kept the notecard on which I’d written out the lyrics in my wallet, just in case. If Mongolians know you can sing, they will ask you to do so on a regular basis – especially if they know you can sing in Mongolian. This wasn’t a case of me singled out as a foreigner, though; I was just being treated like everyone else.

Mongolia is a land of singers. That’s not to say that they’re all gifted with perfect pitch and mellifluous voices; far from it. Believe me, there are plenty of tone deaf, raspy-voiced Mongolians out there. But vocally gifted or not, Mongolians sing all the time. Having or attending a party? You can bet that someone will lift a shot of vodka and croon the opening lines to song. The rest of the group will then join in, and not just for the chorus or the first verse: they’ll sing the whole thing through, after which someone else will likely start the process again. Walking the streets at night? You’re bound to  pass a number of karaoke establishments with music spilling out doors and windows. Even on weeknights, you’re likely to hear voices raised in song from the windows of brightly-lit apartments.

And Mongolians have songs for everything. Songs about love and loss, of course, but also about horses, and teachers, and mothers. Lots of song about mothers. And a song or two for every holiday, at least. When I taught Mongolians about an American holiday, they’d always ask for a song about it. “Sing a Thanksgiving song! An Easter song! A Fourth of July song!” It was hard for me to explain to them that we might have a couple of songs that are likely to be sung on Еaster or the Fourth of July, we don’t really have songs about them. The idea that we don’t have songs for every occasion just didn’t compute.

It wasn’t just in classes that I, and the Americans around me, felt stymied when asked to sing, either; it happened all the time during social outings. A typical scenario ran as follows:

  1. Mongolian person begins a (Mongolian) song.
  2. Other Mongolians in group join in, singing the entire song from memory.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times, with different songs and song-starters each time.
  4. Well-meaning Mongolian, seeing that the foreigners have been left out, turns to the Americans and asks them to sing “an American song.”
  5. Americans look at each other, perplexed and dismayed.

Things usually came to a screeching halt at step five, as all the Americans in the group racked our brains for a song we would all know (a difficult enough task in itself!) that was also in some way evocative of America. What were we supposed to sing, the “Star-Spangled Banner?”

We could have, I suppose, but I don’t know that any of us thought of the national anthem as a song, per se. I never considered it, or any other patriotic song, for a number of reasons. To begin with, they’d sound awfully short to the Mongolians, because we certainly wouldn’t be able to sing them in full. Everyone knows the words to the first verse, but how many people know that the second, third, and fourth even exist? Moreover, patriotic songs are not embedded in the popular psyche of the American people in the way they seemed to be in Mongolia. You don’t hear “America the Beautiful” or “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” to a lot of people) on mainstream radio in America; for that matter, Americans, when’s the last time you even remembered the existence of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or sang any patriotic song outside of a sports event? These are songs most Americans sing only in very specific contexts, and because “sitting and drinking with friends” is not one of them, neither I nor any of my American friends ever thought to suggest them to the group.

So if patriotic anthems are out, what’s left? My next instinct would be to reach for folk and campfire classics like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “When I First Came to this Land,” or even “Yankee Doodle,” but those never felt right either, because they’re associated with childhood. These are songs most of us learned in school or at scouts and sang around campfires before proceeding to forget their existence entirely. I, personally, have quite a few of them at my disposal from my years of working at a scout camp, but in those years I also witnessed firsthand just how few people remember these songs more than a few years after elementary school. And if your average teenage scout camp counselor can’t remember the words to one of these songs, your average adult certainly won’t. So these were out of the running too; a song recognized by everyone but known by no one, however great its historical importance, is probably not that representative of the country’s current people and culture–and is impossible to sing as a group.

By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had settled on a suggestion for these scenarios: “This Land is Your Land.” It’s still a campfire song, and few people know more than the chorus and possibly the first verse, but it’s widely-recognized, explicitly about America, and more recent than most of our patriotic repertoire. It wasn’t being put on the spot and asked to sing that brought this song to mind, however; it didn’t become my go-to until after I did a presentation on American folk music on our outreach trip.

I think it says a lot that it took me until March to come up with an answer to the question of the “American song.” Partially, of course, it’s that the American music industry is much larger than its Mongolian counterpart; sheer diversity makes it difficult to find a song we all know and love. But even so, it’s safe to say that music holds a very different place in the culture of Mongolia than America.

Readers, what songs or genres would you consider quintessentially representative of your country, and why?



Christmas Music

Like many Americans I know, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. I have a number of reasons for this: I want to give Thanksgiving its due as a holiday. I think 24 days is plenty of time to get sick music you’re likely subjected to on an endless and inescapable loop; adding November to the length of that loop is a nauseating thought. I’m a compartmentalist who subdivides files, makes lists to sort out her Facebook friends, and listens to the same children’s books the night of every major holiday, as she has every year since she was a child.

It probably doesn’t help that I hate a lot of the most commonly-played songs.

I despise “Santa Baby.” I can’t tolerate the whiny childish voice of whoever sings “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and that song by Alvin and the Chipmunks gives me a headache – in fact, I would happily canonize anyone who gets chipmunked music banned. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was funny the first time I heard it but has since lost its charm; I can handle “Dominic the Donkey” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” perhaps three times a year.

Lest I spend this entire post Bah Humbug-ing pop-y commercial rubbish, let me hasten to list a few songs I love: “What Child is This?,” “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells.” Carols, in other words – the old religious songs that aren’t about elves or Santa or reindeer. I do love “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” mostly for the line, “you’ve got garlic in your soul,” and that song about fruitcake that the choir at my high school always sang will forever hold a special place in my heart – but aside from that, I’m very much a traditionalist. (Trans-Siberian Orchestra remixes of carols totally count.)

This year, I’m grateful to be able to cleave to my traditions and preferences – in Mongolia, that often wasn’t the case. Mongolia as a whole has very interesting taste in Western music, which is to say that you hear an awful lot of the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and ABBA. They really like their ABBA. And since a lot of Mongolians don’t actually understand the English words in the songs they listen to, Christmas songs are regularly decontextualized. No one bats an eyelash at “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as a July ringtone.

Alas, the songs they do recognize as pertaining to this season – by which I mean they are played more regularly, but not exclusively, in December – are among my least favorite of all. I’d never heard ABBA’s “Happy New Year” before I lived in Mongolia, and I rather with it had stayed that way. And if I never hear “Last Christmas” again, it will be too soon.

What are your most- and least-favorite Christmas songs? Other languages count – I’d love to hear some traditional Christmas music from other cultures.

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A New Key to the Floodgates

I’ve been told that I make an unusual number of associations between songs and the circumstances in which I heard them, or that I let these memories have too great a hold on me. Whether the extent to which I do so is unusual I can’t rightly say, but it’s certainly true that I strongly link music and memories.

I’ve never “had a song” with any of my ex-boyfriends, per se, but every guy I’ve dated or even had a long-standing crush on has a few songs that I associate with him. “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Would You Go With Me” remind me of one; “Teenage Dream” (the Boyce Avenue cover) and “White Blank Page” another. My first roommate has a song (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), as does the camp at which I’ve spent at least part of the past four summers (“Wagon Wheel”).

Sometimes, the songs even trigger specific memories; the last Dixie Chicks album calls to mind the college visit to Boulder during  which my mother and I listened to the CD on repeat. And because I was also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams at the time, the three are somehow inextricably linked; the Dixie Chicks are the soundtrack to that book, whether I’m actually listening to them at the time or not, and playing the album inevitably calls to mind images of mountains and our old neighborhood in Denver.

I’m sure there are scores of psychology papers documenting and analyzing this phenomenon, but I haven’t read them. All I know is that certain songs have the power either to leave me basking in the glow of happy memories or devastated by my current distance from them. Some could go other way, depending on the other emotional influences at play.

The Playlist of Exes is one I know well, and I can gauge whether certain scones will buy or depress me on a given day and shape my listening habits accordingly. But I hadn’t realized that category of music might have similar effects on me.

An ex of mine, like many of my friends, was perpetually shocked by my lack of musical knowledge – my inability to name most of the biggest rock bands of the past 40 years, to recognize what songs were by AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. But the simple fact is that I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of classic rock. My father favored Sting and Coldplay; my mother, a mix of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Heart, and Bonnie Raitt.

As a child, I never gave much thought to my parents’ music or the way it might have shaped my own musical tastes; it was just background noise, something I heard regularly and without question. But when I went away to college, I found myself missing the music I had grown up listening to. It started as a vague, unidentified longing, and it was a long time before I learned to place it. But in the fall of my sophomore year, I heard a Bonnnie Raitt song on the radio, and the realization came crashing down. I raided my parents’ CD collection on my next trip home and made trips to the library to expand my Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin collections.

With the exception of Patty’s music, without which I would surely lose my sanity, most of what I obtained from my parents remains buried in the rarely-explored depths of my music collection. But a recent taste for Billy Joel and a subsequent Genius playlist brought several of my parents’ favorite artists together. As I sat, listening, I found myself hit with a sudden and inexorable tide of emotion. I was hard-pressed to name which emotion, exactly; it mixed melancholy and nostalgia and longing in ways I haven’t felt since the day of my grandmother’s far-off funeral. It left me open and reeling, vulnerable, so that the later appearance of a song that reminded me of an ex threatened to reduce me to a weepy puddle of mush. I fought the tears I felt prickling at the corners of my eyes; I was at work, and my (shared) office was no place for an emotional meltdown.

I won that battle, but I still eyed iTunes with suspicion for the rest of the day. How could it ambush me like that? What other songs might I need to be wary of? (Anything that played regularly on WXRT during the early 2000s, apparently). A song or two in isolation I can handle, and many of them I’ve grown to enjoy on their own terms, rather than because I grew up listening to them. I always liked Sting’s “Russians,” but it’s particularly poignant now that I have a military brother stationed not too far from a nation threatening to go ballistic. But put too much of this stuff together, especially if you mix both parents’ musical tastes, and I’m useless.

Expats, repast, and other readers – is music an emotional trigger for you too? Are there songs that make you homesick? Is it the vaguely nostalgic, man-I-want-a-real-hamburger kind, or the more crippling kind that leaves you huddled in a corner? How do you handle these associations, and what do you do when they catch you unawares? Enquiring minds want to know.


Outreach Trip, Part V: Otgoo’s Car

March Mongolian roadtripping might have been stressful and time-consuming, but it had its ups as well as downs. Many of the things that contributed to our ongoing difficulty were also the ones that made it interesting and memorable.

Take Otgoo, for instance. I rode in all three of the Embassy vehicles at least once over the course of the week. Dashaa and the other driver (whose name I never got) were both calm and dependable. They handled their vehicles well, drove at a reasonable pace, and spoke enough English to carry on some semblance of a conversation with us.

He doesn't usually look quite this crazy...

He doesn’t usually look quite this crazy… (Photo credit: Lisa)

And then there was Otgoo.

Otgoo blazed along the non-existent  roads as though hoping to flatten a path for us through sheer force and speed. He frequently left the other two cars in the dust as he flew across the steppe – sometimes figuratively, and sometimes, after hitting a large bump, quite literally. I, sitting Indian-style in the front seat, was able to absorb most of the the jolting with my core, a sort of inversion of butt-bouncing on a trampoline (is anyone else familiar with that movement?) But poor Joe, the tallest of us, had the misfortune to be seated in the back seat with the broken seatbelt on several such occasions. He hit the roof more than once before figuring out how to brace himself against my seat.

Thankfully, he sustained no serious head trauma, but even if he had, I think some things would still be burned into his memory. Otgoo’s taste in music, for instance. While the other two cars traveled in silence most of the time, Otgoo had a single CD on repeat the entire trip. Its contents ranged from traditional Mongolian to bhangra, Turkish to Lady Gaga and Brittney Spears. We sang along to “Pokerface” and the “Phantom of the Opera” techno remix and danced our way through many of the numbers in unfamiliar languages. My first stint in this car began shortly after we left Tosontsengel, when Joe tapped out due to musical overload. And so it was that I found myself in Otgoo’s car when we hit our first obstacle of the day.

The road from Tosontsengel to Uliastai, like the one from Tariat to Tosentsengel, took us through mountains and floodplains. We passed hills and valleys and frozen, downward-sloping rivers that bulged oddly, like small glaciers. And then, of course, we reached another stretch of winding, one-lane road blocked by a stuck vehicle.

At least this time the blockage was of a considerably smaller scale. The traffic through this part of the mountains had carved deep ruts into the road, and the pressure of numerous cars had melted the ice within the ruts, while the rest of the road maintained a thick coat of highly compacted ice. The melting snows, meanwhile, had exacerbated the problem; a small river ran across the road, creating deep pools in the trenches before escaping through a tiny breach and continuing its downward journey.

Lodged in the midst of all this was a blue pickup truck, heavily laden with logs. It had followed in the tread of its many predecessors, and now could not escape it: burdened as it was, its tires could no longer reach the bottom of the watery trenches, and it had bottomed out on the icy barrier between them. The truck’s occupants stood on either side of the road, peering at the undercarriage while one man jabbed at the ensnaring ice with a hefty chunk of rebar.

Yep, they're stuck.

Yep, they’re stuck.

There was no way around these folks, or the car trapped on the other side of them would have taken it. So out of the cars we piled. While two of the drivers searched for a rope with which to drag the truck out of the ditches, Lisa and I fell to my fourth-grade recess standby: waterworks. If we could impede the flow of water into the road and widen its egress, we might be able to give it better traction. We set about damming off the inward flow with rocks and chunks of ice, while the third driver took up the abandoned rebar to chip at the ditch walls.

It was at this point that the week’s first reworded song made its appearance. “If I had a shovel,” someone muttered, to which both Joe and I responded – he with the traditional “I’d shovel in the morning,” I with the equally applicable “I’d dig myself a drainage trench.” Alas, there was no shovel to be had.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts. Less successful efforts in the background.

We did succeed in lessening the water’s depth somewhat, but not enough to free the trapped vehicle; our attempt to tow it freed it from the ice upon which it was beached, but settled it in waters too deep for the wheels to do more than spin helplessly. And so it was that the truck’s driver finally unbound his cargo, an act he’d clearly hoped to avoid. Logs fell to either side, throwing up great waves of muddy water. When the remaining load was stable, we approached. Several of the men began laying the logs before the tires to create a sort of boardwalk, and some one had had the bright idea to drive them under the tires using the only mallet available – another log. Mongol ingenuity at its finest.


Alright, let’s give this another shot…

Load lessened and boardwalk in place, with the towing vehicle once more attached, the truck was at last freed from its prison, though not without much spinning of tires and unhappy grinding of gears. It drove onward to the end of the danger zone, a good forty feet beyond the pile of logs left it its wake.

But eight people can move a pile of logs pretty quickly, even if two of them are loading rather than hauling and everyone has to pick their steps with care. My ability to shoulder a spar rather than dragging it behind me was met with a, “Ямар хүчтэй вэ!” (How strong!) from the drivers and the inevitable, “Katelin, please be careful!” from the Embassy workers. Never mind that how much time I’ve spent hauling much larger logs over the past four summers; girls can be strong? Who knew?!

At long last, the logs were loaded and the way was clear. We were Uliastai bound, and not even boulders in the road would keep us from getting there.


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Everything I Know Is Wrong: The Story of My Music Lessons

In my last post, I included several pictures of traditional Mongolian instruments. There are many, and unfortunately I don’t know enough about them for Wikipedia to be of much help in naming them. There’s the ятга, which is held leaning up against the body so that it’s partially on one’s lap, and plucked; there’s the ёчинwhich is like a piano without a keyboard – you hit the strings with mallets as you would the bars of a xylophone. There are pan-pipes and flutes and a stringed instrument you strum like a guitar. But most notably, there’s the morin huur.

The morin huur, which my word processor keeps trying to turn into ‘moron’ huur, hyuk hyuk, is the most famous of the Mongolian instruments, and it seems to be the one most strongly associated with traditional music. No surprises there; it’s an instrument whose bow and strings are both traditionally made of horse tailhair, with a carving of a horse’s head atop the neck, where the scroll would be on a cello. Small wonder that it resonates with a people whose ancestors were, or whose relatives still are, nomadic herders.

A Mongolian “orchestra” uses all of these instruments to create music quite unlike the classical compositions to which we Westerners are accustomed. I’m not always a huge fan of the singing that often accompanies it (that will have to be the subject of a different post), but I love the instrumental music. It’s dynamic; it’s compelling; it speaks of open spaces and open skies, of people on the move and hoofbeats across the steppe.

(The video above, assuming it embeds properly, is a quick taste; for something a little more extensive, check out this concert. Long, but well worth the time.)

I was in the orchestra from fourth to twelfth grade, so learning to play a Mongolian instrument was high on the list of things I hoped to accomplish during my time here.  And since I’m a horsewoman who played violin for eight years, my choice of instruments was obvious.

I’ve only had a handful of lessons so far, but let me state the obvious: morin huur is hard. Beginners at any instrument usually spend their first few months sounding as though they’re strangling a cat, and this seems to be no exception. To make things harder, my teacher knows about as much English as I do Russian: he can say yes and no, hello and goodbye, good and bad – and that’s about it. I’m still working on the most basic mechanics of playing, and I can’t understand when he says to sit up straighter, or to tilt the huur more, or to press harder or softer, or not to drop my elbow on the downbow stroke. These are all things he can demonstrate, but it takes time to reposition my grip or show me whether we’re playing the scale with a ta ti-ti or ti-ti ta (elementary school music class, anyone?) pattern this time. Thank heavens he’s so patient with me. There’s a whole list of words I need to learn from him: half/quarter/eighth note, bow, string, and so on. I learned flat (би моль), sharp (диез), downbow (татах, which also means pull and smoke, if I’m not mistaken), and upbow (түлхэх, which I think is also push), but those are only the tip of the iceberg.

At least I can read music, so I’m not starting completely from square one. The lowest note on a morin huur is an F, one note below the lowest on a violin, so the range is one I’m mostly familiar with, and I can read the signs for up- and downbow as motions, rather than having to search for the word in an unfamiliar language.

But that’s the only way in which violin has helped me so far. In most ways, it’s actually a hindrance; I get lulled into a false sense of familiarity and revert to what I know instead of what I’m supposed to be learning. I default to the wrong hand position, the wrong assumptions about which strings produce which notes. Everything I know is wrong.

For instance: you create pitches by pressing your fingers sideways against the string instead of curling them over and pressing down. That finger position where your main knuckle is bent but one closest to your fingertip is locked, the one you are absolutely not supposed to do with your left hand when playing violin? Apparently it’s much easier to do by accident than on purpose.

For instance: I’m used to the lower strings being on the right. Which they would be, if I was holding the huur as I would a violin. But you old it on your lap, facing away from you, which puts the lower strings on the left. Had I played the cello, this wouldn’t be nearly so confusing. But I didn’t play the cello. I played the violin.

For instance: the notes of the lowest major scale you can play on a morin huur are called fa, soe (like ‘soy’ with an elongated diphthong), ya, si, do, re, and mi, in that order. Sounds familiar, right? It sounds like solfège. But it’s not, or at least, not quite. Solfège as I know it is moveable, and a major scale starts on do; that’s just how it works. Thus, in the key of D, do is D; in the key of F, it’s F.

A quick perusal of the dictionary informs me that I’m used to the “moveable do” or “tonic sol-fa” system, whereas the Mongolians use the “fixed do” system, in which each pitch takes the name it would have in the key of C. This means that fa is the pitch I know as F, which is convenient and easy to remember. But do is C, not D, and that never fails to throw me for a loop.

If this goes over your head, I apologize; frankly, a lot of it goes over my head too. I’ve never taken a class in music theory, so my knowledge is limited to what you really can’t miss after eight years in an orchestra. I know what a fifth is, and I know the difference between natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales. I don’t know the relative minor of each major key off the top of my head, but I know the pattern well enough to work it out pretty quickly. I can say, “What do you call two violas playing in unison? A minor second,” and then explain why it’s funny, and why it’s mean. (Viola jokes – sure sign of an orch dork right there.)

But I am not very well-versed in solfège, for the simple reason that I never had much occasion to use it. Singers use it all the time; violinists, not so much (unless they do a lot of transposition – my skills at which, unsurprisingly, are abysmal). So I’m sort of glad that this isn’t the solfège I know, because I don’t really “know” it, even in English. But it’s a different system with the same names, and that causes all manner of confusion.

Thus, I spend a good part of my lessons struggling to remember that the second note of the scale is not re, but soe; re is what I would think of as la, and what I want to call sol is now do. Holy interference, Batman! And when I’m not mixing up the names of the notes, I’m fumbling at the finger positions and placements and failing to keep my elbows in the right places. My lessons are, in short, a train wreck.

I’m struggling to come up with the right terms for this disaster; if I were learning a new language, I’d call it L1 interference, but I’m not. Music is supposed to be a universal language, right? Right? And yet it’s not; we think about it and write it in culturally dependent ways, and it’s really hard to retrain your brain when things so much more similar than they actually are. My subconscious keeps insisting that the term I want is “cognitive dissonance,” but that’s probably me misremembering terms from cognitive psych, since I’ve suppressed most of the memories of that class anyway.

Perhaps comparisons will serve me better: it’s like a ballerina trying to do hip hop, a Lindy hopper trying to do West Coast, a potter trying to knead bread. The instincts and muscle memory are there, trying hard to take over – but they’re all wrong. Between the confusion and the inept squawking, I usually leave with a headache.

But I’ve only had five lessons so far, and I’m not about to give up. Maybe after another fifty or so, this will all start to make sense.

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Outreach Trip, Part II: Tsetserleg, Land of TV Interviews

Image courtesy of Lisa D.

Welcome to Tsetserleg City!

We arrived in Arkhangai’s mountainous capital a little after 5 pm, which gave us a little bit of time to settle in and get our bearings before our next commitment. The guesthouse and even the town surpassed all my expectations. Tsetserleg was beautifully sited, with mountains overlooking it from every direction and a neat ger district and monastery perched on neighboring hills. There were apartment buildings and paved streets and even stop lights – a seemingly minor detail, until you consider that even Erdenet, the second most populous city in the country, has only two of them.

I ought not to have been surprised at the picturesque surroundings; tsetserleg is Mongolian for “garden,” after all. Mongolia is by no means lush even at the best of times, and it’s certainly not at its best in late March, which is by turns snowy, muddy, windy, and generally brown. But the landscape possesses a harsh and rugged beauty regardless of season and weather, and Tsetserleg had that in abundance.

The roads outside Tsetserleg.

The roads outside Tsetserleg

Tsetserleg ger district

Tsetserleg ger district

As an aimag center, it also offered a few creature comforts like apartments and guesthouses with running water. Hot water, even, which my hotel in UB had lacked. The furnishings were comfortable, if a little sparse, and the sheets were clean. What more could we ask for?

Well, breathing time, for one thing. There was no chance to explore the town; within half an hour of our arrival, we were expected at the local TV station to give an interview. We pulled on our nicer work clothes and headed out, expecting to be interviewed at the station itself. Instead, they took us to local teacher’s college and taped the interview outdoors, which sort of negated the point of our dressing up (hard to see what you’re wearing under a coat!).

The interview was largely directed at Phil: What brought the US Embassy Public Affairs Officer to Tsetserleg? What did the Embassy have to say to Arkhangai residents? But some of the questions were pointed at us as well: What were our names, and where were we from? What were we doing in Mongolia? What did we think of Mongolia, and of the Mongolian education system?

Most of these questions were answered with Uyanga E’s help; she translated the Mongolian questions to us and our English answers back into Mongolian for the interviewers. But Joe and I made use of what Mongolian we possessed to introduce ourselves. This interview was the first appearance of an introduction I would repeat time and again during our trip: “Мимий нэр Кэйтлин. Би Чикагогаас ирсэн. Би одоо Эрдэнэтэд амьдардаг, Хөдөө Аж Ахуйн МСУТ-д англи хэл заадаг.” (“My name is Katelin. I’m from Chicago. Now I live in Erdenet and teach English at the Vocational Training Center of Agriculture.”

We soon developed a habit of asking Joe to introduce himself last, as his Mongolian knowledge far surpassed everyone else’s. In addition to the advantage of some tutelage prior to arriving in Mongolia, he’s also the only one of us to be taking formal lessons. My few (and highly simplistic) sentences sounded awfully pathetic next to his superior grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It was better for him to go last so that we built up to him, rather than being overshadowed.

After the interview, we headed back to our guesthouse, where we met the local Peace Corps Volunteers for dinner. This was to be a recurrent event; there were PCVs stationed at three of our four overnight stops, and the Embassy made sure to connect us to all of them. Bryce and Sierra, the two in Tsetserleg, were both in their second year of service. They were the ones who had recommended the guesthouses restaurant, since it’s the only place in town that serves western food. The steak sandwich was pretty good, but the real star of the meal was the fresh-baked bread. They had a carrot bread with garlic and rosemary that I will have to attempt to recreate in the near future.

And then, after dinner – surprise! – we weren’t done yet. The news station had asked us to return for a sit-down interview. So we trooped back over to the station and seated ourselves in a semi-circle in front of some ungodly bright lights – even Uyanga commented on how bright it was in that room. This interview was more in-depth, with questions like, “you’re not that much older than your students – how has traveling affected you as young people, and what would you say about it to our young people?” and “what do you find most interesting or enjoyable about life in Mongolia?”

Thank goodness for Uyanga, who did an amazing job as translator; as Joe put it, “she translated the sh*t out of that interview.” The rest of us lacked the language skills to listen for mistakes or omissions on her part, but from what he could tell, she had made none.

Our surprise evening talk show-style interview. Photo courtesy of Amraa, who is therefore not in it.

Our surprise evening talk show-style interview. Photo courtesy of Amraa, who is therefore not in it.

We were up bright and early the next morning for our first round of presentations. We were to give two simultaneous presentations at each school: one on life in America, for the younger kids, and one on American colleges, for the 10th and 11th graders. We visited two schools at Tsetserleg, so I got to do both presentations – and after presentation at the second school, Lisa D and Uyanga and I got to do another TV interview. Yeesh. How many times were they going to ask us the same questions?

Lisa, Amraa, and me after our first presentation on life in America. Image courtesy of Amraa.

Lisa and me after our first presentation on life in America. Image courtesy of Amraa.

After lunch, we were off to visit the old monastery, now mostly a museum. The architecture itself was fascinating enough, and it was interesting to compare the two wings; the eastern one had been restored and repainted in the 1980’s, while the western one had been left as it was.

Gladys checking out the base of the wolf statue

Gladys checking out the base of the wolf statue

The exhibits inside showed many of the same things we’d seen at other museums: a partially assembled ger that allowed visitors to examine its construction; traditional dress for monks and the nobility; shagai and other traditional games. The most interesting exhibit was that of musical instruments. We were all familiar with the morin huur, or horsehead fiddle, and the panpipes, but a number of these were new to us. They also had a swan huur and other intricately carved string instruments reminiscent of the guitar and mandolin, all of which, we were told, were native to this aimag. They also had an instrument known to me a as a zither, though the Mongolians have a different name for it. Apparently the one on display was the oldest such instrument in the country.

Our duties in Tsetserleg were not quite finished: we still had two more presentations to deliver at the youth/cultural center. I had prepared the presentation on American folk music, and Joe was a music major, so the two of us delivered it while the Lisas gave yet another interview. I had found examples of Cajun, Appalachian, and Blues music, to which the kids appeared to listen with interest, and we concluded by singing “This Land is Your Land” for them – with harmony, even. We were supposed to do another presentation on famous American chess players, but that one was scrapped at the last minute, as the cultural center had presentations to show us. In addition to a lengthy slide show detailing the many classes and events they organize, we were also treated to a traditional song and dance by some of their participants.

I was unable to get a video of the dance at the time, but I’ll post other dances at a later date. Mongolian dances are intricate and beautiful, and the pictures below don’t do them the least bit of justice.