Kimberlee in Mongolia: ISP Period

June 11, 2014

We are now at the point of our program where all of us students pick our own topic of interest and research it for a month. Our Independent Study Project (ISP) allows us to go anywhere to study anything for four weeks, and gives us a great deal of independence and control over what we want to learn about Mongolia. At the end of the four weeks, we have a 25-50 page paper and oral presentation due. The other students are researching a variety of topics, including: accessibility for people with disabilities, how climate change affects herders, street cleaning, emergency medicine in the countryside, and the use of the traditional Mongolian characters in modern society.

I first decided to study distance education in Mongolia, but soon decided that the topic was a bit too outdated. The further I researched distance education in Mongolia, the more I realized that most of the projects were conducted from the 1990’s to around 2007. I could continue to research and interview people on these past projects, but I decided to change my topic to technology in the Mongolian education sector. As you might guess, this topic is huge. I’m covering both the formal and informal education sectors, and it ranges from teacher training to e-learning to changes in classroom culture. It’s large, but I find it so interesting and don’t want to cut anything out.

My main research methods have been attending a conference, conducting 26 individual interviews, and observing classrooms. It was pure luck that the day our ISP research began was also the beginning of a 2-day international conference on technology in education in Mongolia. It was great to be able to experience it, and thankfully, most of the slideshows were in English. At the end of the conference, we were given a CD filled with each presenter’s individual Powerpoint or research papers. I don’t think it can get more helpful than that!

One of the best parts of my ISP time is getting to know Ulaanbaatar city on my own terms. I get to make my own schedule and plan what I want to do during my days, and I love having the opportunity to explore during my free time. The longer I live here, the more I realize how much I love it. This is the first time I’ve gone to a new city and explored it thoroughly on my own, and I love knowing the area so well. The city is relatively small (1.5 million people), but big enough to discover new areas! It’s strange to come from a smaller town in Maine and to realize how much I have fallen in love with this city. I never thought I would like to live in a city so much. This is something new that I discovered about myself abroad! I know that I’m going to miss UB when I have to leave.

A cafe where I go so frequently they know me by name! I also walk on this street almost daily.

A cafe where I go so frequently they know me by name! I also walk on this street almost daily.

Another perk of the ISP is getting to interact with locals more. I interviewed around 1-3 people a day, and so I had to engage with Mongolians on a daily basis. I also used university students as my translators, so I had the opportunity to hang out with them between or after interviews. I learned so much from them, and it’s fun to hang out more as friends outside of interviews. I think that if ISP taught me anything, it’s how to begin to really live in UB. The rest of the SIT program was wonderful, but this time period definitely gives me more freedom, independence, and a look into what life here would be like if I didn’t go to university classes.

My friends Kit & Anni at an open mic night we went to as a group.

My friends Kit & Anni at an open mic night we went to as a group.


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Sainshand – Part 2

June 6, 2014

Another great memory I have from Sainshand is visiting all of the amazing museums, monasteries, and historical sites. Sainshand was filled to the brim with exciting sites! And they were made much more dramatic thanks to the desert weather. The wind was always blowing excessive amounts of sand into our faces. Sometimes, you couldn’t even see the color of the sky or the ground a few feet in front of you.

We went to a couple of monasteries filled with beautiful artifacts and statues. We even visited a rare female monastery, and briefly stayed there for a service. At the end of one tour, a monk had us lay down on the ground to meditate for half an hour.

A view of a monastery museum and prayer flags.

A view of a monastery museum and prayer flags.

My favorite part was the offerings we gave to them at some of the sites. In total, we had the option of offering to four different sites. But the catch was that you needed to pay for all of it yourself, or else it didn’t count. Therefore, I decided to only offer at one. The four options I had to offer were: water, candy/cookies, milk, and vodka. At 2 sites, we were instructed to wish for something at the same time. To offer we simply tossed or placed the drinks or foods on a specific part of the site. This was often tricky because of the temperamental wind. We had to face a certain direction while offering, and it sometimes meant that a good amount of the offering ended up on us!

I ended up choosing the milk offering site, simply because I thought it was hilarious. The ovoo was in the middle of the desert, and was made of 2 sand breasts. “Ovoo” is a term used by Mongolians to refer to any holy site.

Our monk guide explained that this ovoo was a tribute to celebrate women and encourage fertility. I asked an SIT staff member if there was a deeper meaning and she said “no meaning- just boobs”. I think she was a bit confused as to why I was laughing so hard at that. I also thought it was funny how we were offering milk to 2 giant sand breasts. The men were instructed not to watch while we tried to avoid splashing ourselves with milk and overall enjoyed our time together as women. I would say that I’d prefer to offer milk to a breast ovoo than climb a mountain anyways!

The giant breast ovoo.

The giant breast ovoo.

There were two other memorable events that were unique to the desert environment. First, our monk showed us a dinosaur fossil! It was one of the most interesting things I’d ever seen. I knew that there were many dinosaur fossils in Mongolia, but I didn’t expect to actually see one in person. I even got to hold a piece of its spine! And who would have stopped us? It was just lying out in the open with no fences, guards, or any sort of monitoring device!

It was strange to see a precious dinosaur fossil with no protection. In fact, the monk told us that there used to be a baby dinosaur near it, but it was stolen less than a year beforehand! I can’t imagine a whole community knowing about a dinosaur fossil in the United States and not protecting it or giving it to a museum. It was a difficult concept to wrap my head around.

The other unique experience was the opportunity to visit a camel-herding family in the desert. I got to ride a camel for the first time in my life, and it was amazing. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I definitely wasn’t expecting the camels to be so tall. Or that I would ride them with a carpet saddle. Or that the humps were so soft and bouncy.

They even let us lead each other’s camels, so picture us running as fast as we could to make it fun for the other person. Lucky for me, Kit led my camel, and he ran for the whole time! Thankfully, there were two humps on either side of me that kept me nice and secure. Riding a camel had been on my bucket-list, and I was glad to have finally gotten to ride one.

This is me riding a camel with Kit leading me. To put the size of the camel into perspective, Kit is over 6 feet tall.

This is me riding a camel with Kit leading me. To put the size of the camel into perspective, Kit is over 6 feet tall.


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Sainshand Part 1-Reflection of Our Last Excursion

May 27, 2014

This past week was strange because it was the beginning of the many “lasts” in Mongolia. Although it was exciting to go on an excursion to a desert area in southern Mongolia, I kept remembering that it was the last time that we’d travel as a group. It was in the back of my mind as we went to the countryside, but I had to keep shaking it off because how can I live life with such sadness in the back of my mind? For me, a large component of study abroad is remembering that it is temporary, but continuing to push myself to live in the moment. It was, and is still hard, but I keep telling myself that I need to present in every moment.

However, the great part about it being the last excursion was the fantastic group dynamic. As there were only 8 of us, we were predictably close at the beginning. But I felt that this particular excursion was different than the others. After the trip, many of us talked about how we liked our trip to Sainshand the best out of them all. When I look back in my memory, I remember lots of roadtrips, dumplings, and laughter in those few days.

A view of Sainshand town.

A view of Sainshand town.

Perhaps it was the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere that surrounded our group. Because there wasn’t anything to do in Sainshand at night, we spent our nights laughing at comedy skits on YouTube, watching movies, and just enjoying each other’s company. Just imagine the 8 of us piled on top of a bed watching movies!

I gave countless head massages every night. In general, we had more free time than ever before. We never had to get up that early, so we had breakfasts leisurely in a small restaurant across the street from the hotel. We had large chunks of time to explore the tiny town during the day, and even found a pizza place to order pizzas from later.

A giant dinosaur statue we found and climbed together.

A giant dinosaur statue we found and climbed together.

A big highlight of the trip for me was getting the chance to ride on the train during the day. We rode a train at night to Erdenet, but it was very different during the day. First of all, our program was quite determined to get us to be productive during the train ride. We had both individual presentations and Mongolian language classes, which I thought was hilarious.

With the 8 students and 2 program staff, we were stuffed inside that tiny train compartment. But it was a fond memory for me because we were able to bond even more. We were also looking forward to the “buffet” our program had promised us, but it just turned out to be a lady serving ramen and sandwiches from a cart. We had fun eating our cheap, unhealthy foods while wrapped up in our blankets on our cots. It’s funny how sometimes the journey can be just as fun as the destination itself.

My friend Mara on the train.

My friend Mara on the train.


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Cashmere Party

May 12, 2014

NOTE: Some parts of this post are graphic and may be disturbing to some readers. Details have been retained to highlight the daily experience of this study abroad student and cultural norms in Mongolia, and a thoughtful cultural reflection on the topic rounds out this post.

One of my favorite memories in the countryside was what I call the “cashmere party” that my host family threw. At first, it started as a regular day. But then, we herded some animals into the pen that we usually only use at night. Tsetseg and my host uncle immediately went in to drag out some specific goats. Of course, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I was supposed to smack the rumps of the stubborn goats. As we brought out each goat, we tied them head-to-head on a rope next to the pen.

Tsetseg with a particularly stubborn goat. Thankfully, it was small enough to pick up.

Tsetseg with a particularly stubborn goat. Thankfully, it was small enough to pick up.

 

Some of the goats that were tied-up.

Some of the goats that were tied-up.

When we had around 15 goats all tied-up, they brought out the metal combs to begin brushing. When a comb was full of cashmere, we would drop it into a giant bucket and resume our work. There were a lot of ticks in the bucket by the end. Each goat took 2 people about 20 minutes to brush. It was hard labor! The coats turned out to be thicker than I expected, and with each tug, the whole body of the goat would rock to the rhythm.

The reason why I call this the “cashmere party” is because 15 minutes into the process, a jeep pulled up and dropped off about 10 members of their extended family. They each grabbed a goat and went at it. It was kind of hilarious. You could tell that they were just making some small talk while vigorously brushing 6 or 7 goats at a time. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “family reunion.”

Some of the extended family brushing goats.

Some of the extended family brushing goats.

The arrival of the family members also meant that they expected to get some fresh meat to bring back to town. So I saw a sheep get slaughtered. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe that I’m 20 years old and have never seen an animal die before! Technically, women aren’t supposed to see the process because an old wives tale states that we’ll become infertile. But I got to see it anyway.

I can’t explain the fear I felt when I saw them drag it up to the ger, and my host mother made a throat-slashing motion. I knew that I had to watch it – both because I was morbidly curious, and also because I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t handle it. It turned out to be less worse than I’d anticipated. They slaughtered it the traditional way, which meant they laid it on its back, sliced its stomach open, and pinched an artery. After it was over, they brought out multiple buckets for the organs. They only threw away a couple of parts, and put everything else into small buckets to take home. I was going to offer to help, but I just couldn’t! Maybe if I was able to wash my hands within the next week of being there.

Still, it was a process that I was “glad” to witness. Not surprisingly, no one, not even the toddlers, gave the process a second glance. I’m guessing it’s normal to have a sheep slaughtered in front of your ger.

I think that the most important lesson I learned from both witnessing this process and my nomadic homestay experience as a whole is that for many Mongolians, their animals are their lives. They rely on them for everything. Their animals’ meat and milk are their main source of food; their skins are for their clothing and home, and their animal products generate their whole income. As you may imagine, there is nothing that goes to waste. Every part of the animals is used as a precious resource, and I say from personal experience that their lives are not taken in vain.

Even with my host family in the city, we’ve eaten every part of the animal because this mentality seems to have continued into the lives of some urban Mongolians. I find this to be an interesting mentality that is different from the culture of most Americans. When I think of mainstream meat at home, I think of miserable animals laced with antibiotics, confined to a factory, and hidden from the public eye. As a society, I think that we often disrespect the lives of animals, and view them as only living to be eaten by us. Even when they are slaughtered, only certain meats are publicly displayed in stores, and we are often disgusted by the thought of eating most parts of the animal like the heart, intestines, and brains. But here in Mongolia, these parts are not thrown away, but used and even cherished in some ways.

Perhaps this is tied to the fact that they are often eating their own herd animals. They watched many of them be born, cared for them as babies, and protected them as adults. And then, they watched them continue the cycle by giving birth as adults. My host family knew each of their animals by heart, and cared for them like their lives depended on them, which they did. I think that because of their reliance on their animals, Mongolians have come to respect their lives in ways that I never could have imagined. I learned from conversations with my host family that because many Mongolians are Buddhist, they believe in the full circle and the connection of all life. A beautiful practice I learned about was how Mongolians traditionally slaughter a goat. Before they begin to cut, they lay a single blade of grass onto its stomach to symbolize that the goat is being returned to nature.

Interestingly, I have met some foreigners who practice vegetarianism everywhere except in Mongolia because of the way animals are raised here. They are often against the cruel treatment of animals in the west, and they tell me they find peace in knowing that the animal is free in nomadic life and is respected with a less painful death. But sometimes I wonder, are the animals really “free”? I personally still struggle with the question of whether or not the relationship between the herders and the animals is symbiotic, or if the animals are not gaining anything substantial in return. After all, at the end of the day, they are being raised to be killed. We explored this topic in a class discussion, and I still wonder about who is benefiting more. Clearly, the herder relies on their animals for everything, but the animals are also gaining protection from predators, guidance to the best rivers and pastures, and even medicine.

I can’t say that I’ve had all of my questions about this topic answered, but I have come to view the lives of animals differently. There is something incredibly special about this historical and relationship, but I personally fear that the trend of globalization will one day reach Mongolia and disturb this way of living. The number of Mongolians moving to the city is increasing every month, and the nation itself is starting to become less flexible for herders. Even seemingly innocent changes, like the development of private property, is making life increasingly difficult for nomadic families. I can only hope that the demand for the animal products they produce will become higher, and will encourage families to continue this ancient lifestyle. I hope that I will never need to wryly tell my grandchildren that I was able to witness nomadic lifestyles before they disappeared from earth.

 


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Nomadic Chores

May 1, 2014

In addition to herding, I had a lot of regular chores that I helped my host family with. In between herding, I would typically: sweep the ger, collect yak dung, cook lunch & dinner, milk the goats, and fetch water at the nearby river. I really liked doing the chores, mostly because they gave me something engaging to do.

Most of them were interesting chores that I could only do at my nomadic homestay. For example, I can’t tell you the next time that I’ll have to collect yak dung to heat a ger. I found this to be the most enjoyable chore. Unlike herding, collecting dung is very straightforward. I can’t imagine that anyone would actually be bad at it, and I was no exception. After sometimes feeling useless in bigger chores like herding, I strove to be the best dung collector in my family!

On short trips, I would usually use the flap of my Mongolian deel as a basket for the dung, but on long expeditions, I brought a large basket to carry on my back. I would use the small rake to scoop up the dung because it was impossible to bend over. That thing was heavy! By the end of a collecting session, I was sometimes worried about straining my back, and would slowly shuffle my way back to the ger entrance.

 

Me with a full dung basket

Me with a full dung basket

Another chore I did was filling containers of water at the nearby river. At first, it was kind of concerning to see how much debris was making it into our water. There was a lot of “seaweed”, 2-inch long plankton/bug-like creatures, and plain old dirt. Of course the buggy creatures freaked me out the most. I would peer inside our jugs and see at least two-dozen swimming around. I asked a staff member about it later, and he said that they would sometimes filter it out “if I was lucky”. He then proceeded to tell me that it was better to drink “live” Mongolian water than “dead” Western water. Fair enough.

My sister-in-law and host nephew with our jugs at the river

My sister-in-law and host nephew with our jugs at the river

And of course, there was general animal care that I helped out with. We would herd the goats and sheep in and out every morning and evening. And it wasn’t just “herding.” Depending on the day, it sometimes entailed: splitting male from female, adding or subtracting baby animals, dividing sheep from goats, guiding them into certain pens, or directing them to water sources. Of course, I could never figure out exactly what my family was doing until about halfway through! A couple of times, I made big mistakes with herding. For example, I once brought all of the sheep and goats home instead of just the female goats! I’m surprised I didn’t make more mistakes because of the language barrier. Thankfully, they forgave me.

Other everyday animal-related tasks included milking the goats and giving tick medicine to the baby animals. My family usually milked the goats that didn’t nurse kids because they had either died or had been rejected. However, they did milk the goats that had some milk left over after the kid had had its turn. It was always a big show to tackle a targeted goat and to restrain it during the milking.

However, we had this one goat that was named and would come when called! I still don’t know why it was named. Mongolians don’t even name their beloved horses, and only give names to their dogs. My theory is that this goat was given immunity from a local monk. We heard that some families ask monks to choose a sacred animal that is allowed to live and die a natural death as an offering. Either that, or it was just a really intelligent goat.

Some mornings, we would search through the baby animals and find ones with particularly awful tick infestations. Most of them would have large clumps of big ticks and also thousands of tiny, tiny newborn ticks. It was disgusting! But it was usually fine after spreading medicine onto their infested areas. At first, I thought they were injecting them with the giant needles, but they were only squirting it onto the surface of the skin. Thankfully, I only found a couple of ticks on me during the whole homestay.

Injecting medicine onto the skin

Injecting medicine onto the skin

 

 


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Lessons from my Nomadic Homestay

April 21, 2014

It feels strange to be sitting here at my computer and trying to find a way to explain these past 2 weeks. Each of the over 800 pictures that I took have their own story to tell, and there are a million moments that I want to share. I have to admit that I’ve been putting off writing about my experience because explaining 2 weeks of my nomadic homestay is impossible to condense. How do I accurately describe how it felt to spend my days telling time by the sun? How it felt to sit in the grass and only hear the sound of hundreds of animals chewing? Or what it was like to watch a goat give birth on a mountain?

 

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How can I fully explain how it felt to see this view everyday?

 

I ended up surprising myself with the amount of unexpected lessons that I learned. If you had asked me at the beginning to outline my expected challenges, only half would have been accurate. I probably would have mentioned challenges like: not bathing for 2 weeks, having no internet connection, the Mongolian language barrier, and the food. However, I would say that out of these challenges, the only one that turned out to be true was the language barrier. But even this was not as challenging as I thought. I became an expert mime by the end.

 

The challenges that I ended up having were completely different than I anticipated, which I think is the beauty of this experience. During my lows, I tried to accept these difficulties and get something out of it. The biggest challenge that I dealt with was boredom. The chores were not always exciting. Learning to herd was a beautiful experience, but there were days when 10 hours of herding became less exciting. Sometimes I would make up poems in my head, which made me understand why storytelling and singing are important to Mongolian herding culture. Other times I thought about life and all of it’s complexities (as stereotypical as that sounds). I can’t imagine another time in the near future where I’ll nothing to do but simply think for 2 weeks straight. As our academic director said: “Boredom is starting to become a luxury”.

 

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At least I experienced boredom while looking at this beautiful scenery

Along with boredom, the extreme feeling of isolation was incredibly overwhelming and unexpected. I anticipated isolation in a different way. I thought that being disconnected from the internet would be isolating, but I mostly felt isolated from the group and people who speak the languages that I understand. I wanted to process with someone in words, and yet I had to deal with all of my emotions on my own. This was independence at its most extreme. It was difficult to deal with, but it was completely worth the struggle.

 

One thing I can say for certain is that this homestay was twice as difficult as my rural Ugandan homestay. In Uganda, I had a fellow student as a host sibling, my family spoke English, and our whole group lived in the same village. Here, the closest student to me was at least a 45-minute walk away. It was also only 5 days in Uganda, compared to almost 2 weeks in Mongolia. I didn’t experience any boredom or feelings of isolation, which was my biggest challenge here. But I will say that I think that I got more out of this experience partly because of the unexpected challenges I faced.

 

Once I was able to bond well with my family, I immediately found a great amount of joy. When I look back in my memory, I first think of my positive experiences: playing cards, brushing goats for cashmere, playing with the toddler, seeing the sunset while herding, and catching baby goats. Even though I had lots of lows, it was well worth my time and energy to work through them by myself. The whole time I lived there, I never felt like I’d made a better decision than coming here to Mongolia.

 

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When I look back at my time there, this is what I see in my mind


Kimberlee in Mongolia: Blending In

April 17, 2014

My biggest surprise since coming to Mongolia is this: many Mongolian people assume that I’m Mongolian. I find this surprising because most Asians can immediately tell that I’m not full Asian, and not a local in their country. Besides the shape and look of my face, I think that it’s fairly obvious with the way I walk, dress, and conduct myself. When I’m in South Korea and Japan, people always speak to me in English and stare at me because I look like a foreigner.

 

So naturally, I expected similar treatment from local Mongolians. But in the month that I’ve been here, I’ve had less stares and more random conversations with Mongolians. I’ve had people on buses, sidewalks, and stores try and strike up a conversation with me in Mongolian. The kicker is that even when I tell them that I can’t speak Mongolian well, they keep chattering away as if I’m deceiving them by “pretending” to be a foreigner! This unexpected finding has turned out to be a great personal learning experience- both with understanding my position in the world as a biracial person, and also with understanding how Mongolians expect other ethnicities to look like.

 

What I find most interesting is that Mongolians are always boasting that they can immediately tell if a person is not a Mongolian. I’ve asked at least two-dozen Mongolians if they can spot a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean on the street, and they always insist that they can! But when it comes to me, almost everyone is fooled. The only time that I get more stares and squints is when I wear my glasses. I’m guessing that it highlights the shape of my eyes or changes the shape of my face. Either way, it’s been an interesting experiment to see when people treat me as a foreigner or as a local.

 

I think that the main reason that people assume I’m Mongolian is because Mongolians are incredibly diverse in the way they look. I realize that all Asians are diverse in different ways, but Mongolians are at a whole different level. We’ve had Mongolian speakers on our program that could pass as Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian. There have been some that I assumed were also foreigners until they told us that they could only speak Mongolian and needed a translator.

 

Many Mongolians have told me that people are so diverse because of the multiple tribes that have historically existed in Mongolia. In fact, Mongolian and Turkish cultures have striking similarities because they coexisted in Mongolian territory for a long time. Although most Turkish tribes made their way to modern day Turkey, there were some that stayed. This has always been the explanation for the existence of Mongolian people with green, hazel, and light brown eyes who are otherwise “Mongolian”. The existence of these more Caucasian features explains why I can pass for Mongolian. Additionally, there is a large Kazakh minority that exists in Mongolia, diversifying the nation even more.

 

Even though I still find it strange to blend in, it’s been mostly positive. I feel safer walking in the streets because hardly anyone looks at me twice, or thinks that I’m rich. It’s great not to have people always staring at me or studying my face to try and box me in with a specific ethnicity. Also, an increasing number of people seem to distrust and dislike foreigners because they’re associated with the mining companies, and it’s nice to be separated from that stigma.

 

The only negative that I can say is that I feel pressure to adhere to the cultural norms that I haven’t quite figured out yet! I got a lot of strange looks when I ate in the streets until I finally figured out that it’s rude to eat while walking. Once I wrote something important on my hand, and someone yelled at me. I found out later that writing on the body is culturally inappropriate because they write prayers and messages on the bodies of the deceased. But at the end of the day, I get to understand the culture and embody it in a unique way. It makes me more observant and aware of how other Mongolians act, which helps me become even more engaged with the culture. Overall, I find that it enriches me in a way that I never would have expected when I first came here.

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My host nephew’s hair color is a good example of the variation in Mongolian genes


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