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!

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.