A Merry Mongolian Holiday Season, Part 1 (Shine Jil All the Way)

The busy holiday season has ended, so I finally have some time to write another post! And it’s a long one, so I decided to split it into two parts.

One of the biggest holidays in Mongolia is Shine Jil, which literally means New Year, although it has adopted the decorations and many other characteristics of Christmas and is celebrated throughout the month of December, not just December 31/January 1. Between mid to late December, there are many Shine Jil parties for all of the workplaces. Everyone dresses up in their nicest, sparkliest dress clothes and gets their hair done for an evening of dancing, games, food, and drink.

First was our health department Shine Jil party.

Cheers!

Cheers!

It was similar to last year’s party, except this time around I was told I had to perform the traditional Mongolian dance that my supervisor and I had learned for a health department “concert” we had about a month earlier (and by “learned” I mean my supervisor suggested we get a dance teacher to teach us a dance all of 3 days before the concert). So after a rushed, exhausting few days of learning my second traditional Mongolian dance, we performed it in front of all our coworkers…absolutely none of whom thought to record it.

I was told I had to perform the dance again (alone this time) at our Shine Jil party, but I didn’t mind because this would give me another chance to have someone record it. I gave my supervisor my camera and showed her how to record video on it, which she (thought she) did. When I checked my camera after the performance, however, all she had managed to capture were two tiny clips, one right before the dance and one right at the end. So because of double-clicking or whatever happened, my second chance of getting video of the dance had failed. Here’s a couple photos another coworker took instead:

And of course I'm looking away from the camera

And of course I’m looking away from the camera

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So although I still had no video of my dance, it was a very enjoyable evening.

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A week later, I went to Shine Jil parties for Bookbridge and the health organizations of Zavkhan. Although I had been asked/told to perform my dance again that evening at the big party for health organizations, to ensure I got a video, I offered to perform the dance at the Bookbridge Shine Jil party and gave my camera to one of the other PCVs. So naturally, my camera (which is honestly a pretty cheap little thing) refused to stay in focus while recording the video, a problem I have had with it before. So once again, all I had were a couple photos, these ones taken by the Bookbridge librarian.

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But there was plenty of food and games, including a game of Jenga that managed to last far beyond what any of us expected:

Especially on a wobbly table surrounded by sugar-fueled kids

Especially on a wobbly table surrounded by sugar-fueled kids

Later that day was a big Shine Jil party for all of the health organizations (hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, etc.) of Zavkhan province, hosted by the health department. We had fancy food,

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a live band,

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a giant Shine Jil/Christmas tree,

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and even Mongolian Santa and his helpers:

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There were also lots of awards given out to the various health professionals and a ton of ballroom dancing. Me being the “interesting foreigner,” I was asked by several Mongolian men to dance, even after it became extremely obvious that I don’t know how to do the Mongolian “waltz” or whatever it was they were doing and kept stepping on the guys’ feet. Seriously, about 70% of the evening was made up of this:

But even though I’m horrible at ballroom dancing, I was able to perform my traditional Mongolian dance for the (hopefully) last time in front of all 200+ people present. It was my last chance to get a video, so instead of trusting my camera to pull through, I asked my supervisor to record the dance with her smart phone that she was familiar with. Luckily, she managed to record the whole performance! Less luckily, it’s from a terrible angle and pretty shaky. But with my luck, this is the best it’s gonna get:

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

Swearing-In Ceremony

In Ulaanbaatar (UB), we stayed in university dorms, way up on the 9th and 10th floors, with only one working elevator, making it really fun for all 87 of us PCTs to drag all our luggage (including our winter bags that they decided to give us back at that very moment) to our rooms.

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Then we split into groups, each lead by one or two current PCVs who knew their way around the city, to go to different restaurants for dinner. My group went to a very yummy Cuban restaurant called Guantanamera. Then we went back to the dorms to try to get some sleep, because we had to wake up early the next morning for the Swearing-In Ceremony.

True to Peace Corps fashion, there was some miscommunication about when exactly we needed to be ready to head over to the PC office, so many of us ended up rushing and not having time to eat breakfast before we had to leave.

Shortly after arriving at the PC office, those of us who were performing dances at the ceremony were taken to the US ambassador’s residence early to prepare. This was the first year the Swearing-In Ceremony was held at the ambassador’s residence, which was a swanky apartment complex with dozens of security guards roaming the premises.

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We had all put on our deels that morning because we assumed there would be time to change into our costumes before we actually performed, since the cultural performances were the last thing on the schedule. But then we were told that we had to go ahead and put on our costumes and wear them during the ceremony. Well, good thing I spent all that money to get a deel made for Swearing-In…

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

Then we were shown the “stage” that we would be performing on, which was much smaller than we were told it would be and had several poles holding up the canopy that we had to maneuver around. Well, we would just need to practice on that stage beforehand, right? Except we weren’t allowed to since people were already arriving. Oh well! Well do it live!

The ceremony consisted of speeches by the PC Mongolia Country Director:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

The US Ambassador in Mongolia:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

And Mongolia’s Vice Minister of Health:

(plus English translator)

(plus English translator)

Then we said the oath of service (making us official Peace Corps Volunteers!) and were called one by one to go up and receive our certificates. After everyone had been called, the cultural performances began. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photos or videos of the performances before ours since I had to stay “backstage.” First was another group’s dance:

Well ,here they are before the ceremony

Well, here they are before the ceremony

Then two people sang a Mongolian song. Finally, our group performed our dance. I’m told people got video of all the performances, so I’ll try to snag those when I can. Overall, I think our performance went well, especially considering our lack of practice with the stage we were given (or at least people said we did very well).

After the official ceremony we mingled with our supervisors and the other guests, ate the food being served, and snapped more photos.

Healthies with our certificates

Healthies with our certificates

My director and I

My director and I

I did end up changing back into my deel soon after the performance because I was really hot in the long-sleeve costume and because I bought it for the ceremony dammit!

Oh, and the ceremony was featured on the Mongolian news that evening! And there was also an article about the ceremony on the US Embassy in Mongolia’s website (which is a thing).

Later that day we wandered around UB looking to buy any last minute items we knew we wouldn’t be able to get at our sites. Some people left for their sites that day, but I think most people, including myself, left the next day.

UPDATE: I did finally get a video someone had taken of our dance. It–along with some other videos–are up on my new YouTube channel.

Learning a Traditional Mongolian Dance

Near the end of July, our Cross-Cultural trainers told us that Peace Corps would be selecting a few cultural performances by PCTs for the Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s compound, so a few of us in my group decided to learn a traditional Mongolian dance. It turns out that one of the students who had just graduated from the school where we have our classes is a dancer who had performed during our Orientation and during the opening ceremony at Naadam. Our LCFs knew her and were able to convince her to teach us that dance. The only problem was that she was on vacation with her family almost the entire week before the audition videos were due, so we couldn’t get her to come teach us until the day before we had to turn in the video (yes, Peace Corps was only going to give us a week and a half to throw together a cultural performance). So a group of 5 of us (including myself) stayed after class that Thursday to quickly learn the beginning of the dance.

Lovely bruised knee from the very first day of practice (there's a few parts where I have to do kneeling stuff), which still hasn't healed almost a month later because it kept getting worse every time we practiced

Lovely bruised knee from the very first day of practice (there’s a few parts where I have to do kneeling stuff), which still hasn’t healed almost a month later because it kept getting worse every time we practiced

I was chosen to be the lead female dancer who dances with the guy, and unfortunately most of our parts were different from the other 3 girls’ parts, so we had to take turns with the teacher showing us the steps, which definitely slowed us down. After almost 3 hours, we had learned the first third of the dance, which we videotaped us performing to show the judges that we were at least learning something. The next day we tried to turn in the video to our Technical trainers, but they told us that Peace Corps had decided to extend the video deadline for another week (nice of them to realize at the very last minute that we were not given enough notice of the whole cultural performance thing).

So we practiced literally every day that week for 2 to 3 hours, as we soon found out there were other groups learning dances too, and that competition would be fierce because they didn’t want just any old fools to perform in front of the ambassador. The dance teacher was even able to get us costumes to rent for the video and (if we were chosen) for the actual performance.

Dress rehearsal with our dance teacher

Dress rehearsal with our dance teacher

We did have to pay 5,000 tugriks each (which is less than $3—really breaking the bank there!) to rent the costumes, and we decided to each give the teacher 5,000 tugriks for taking so much of her time to teach us. We finally managed to learn the entire 3 ½ minute dance, but then the day we were supposed to videotape it, one of the girls was sick, so she couldn’t come. But the video was due the next day, so we had to do it without her, which required us to change around the formations a lot at the last minute. After a few practice runs, we finally started to videotape, but we could not get a single shot where none of us messed up at least once. We did at least 5 takes, and on each one, we did some parts perfectly and at least one part we screwed up horribly, but it was different parts each time. If only we could have stitched together the good parts from each of the videos, we would have had a solid performance. But after nearly 3 hours, we were exhausted, sweaty (it was like 90 degrees in the freakin’ gym we were dancing in, and we were wearing costumes with long sleeves), and losing daylight. We decided to go with the final take because it had the least mistakes, and submitted it the next day.

On Wednesday of the next week (the week before Final Center Days), we found out that we had been chosen to perform! Yay! So we got back into our routine of practicing every day, because now that we were set to perform at the Swearing-In Ceremony, they wanted us to be perfect. The girl who hadn’t been able to make it to the videotaping session ended up dropping out of the whole dance, so that was a bummer. And then Peace Corps told us that we needed to cut down the time of our dance to between 2 and 3 minutes, so we ended up just cutting out the first section of the dance where just the other girls perform, which they were happy about as it lessened their stress about the whole thing.

Note: The Swearing-In Ceremony, including our dance performance, was earlier today, but I will have a whole post later on about that ceremony.