Wednesday, December 23, 2009

20th Anniversary of the Democratic Opening in Mongolia

Greetings on behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I congratulate you as you celebrate the 20thanniversary of Mongolian democracy.

The brave young people who gathered on the streets in those cold December days in 1989, including a young man who would one day be elected as your new President, helped pave the way for Mongolia to become a dynamic and durable democracy. All over the world that year, we saw a flowering of freedom. People stood up and walls came down.

Democracy is never easy Americans can attest to that. And Mongolia has faced its share of challenges. But through every challenge, the people of Mongolia have pulled together and have risen to the occasion. You have become a model for emerging democracies everywhere. Whenever I visit a country that is struggling to become more democratic, I say what I said when I was in Mongolia: “Let them come to Mongolia!” Because I will never forget my own visit in 1995 -- the sweeping beauty of the steppe, the warmth and hospitality of the Mongolian people, and the aspirations of a nation committed to progress after decades of totalitarian rule.

In the years since, Mongolia has consolidated those early achievements and strengthened your democracy. Today even, Mongolian troops are serving around the world as peacekeepers, helping to bring stability to troubled lands. Mongolians and Americans are fighting side by side in Afghanistan against violent extremists who threaten peace-loving people everywhere. We honor the service and sacrifice of your citizens, and we reaffirm the broad partnership between our two nations that is helping build a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Please accept my best wishes on this historic occasion. And have a wonderful celebration.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Puppy Deaths?

This blog has been smouldering on the back burner for quite some time. I saw two things and then was reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and some things came together, at least, it seemed to at the time.

The first event was this: walking to school past the city maintenance building and heard yelping/crying of sorts. Not terribly odd on a cold morning but looked around to see where it was coming from. Next to the small white maintenance building was a pile of dogs. Apparently not all of them had been finished off properly... At certain times during the year dogs are shot and disposed of because they likely won't survive the upcoming cold temperatures or are a nuisance. If you want your dog spared you tie something around its neck on those nights and hope the gun carriers notice.

The next day I was walking by the kindergarten again on my way to work. In front of the school was a large crow (a large black bird of some sort, not certain) making quite the noises. Looked over to see that it was on its back trying to flip itself back over, which seemingly wasn't going to happen... Seemed ironic.

Then, like I mentioned, I was reading Suzuki with these things still on my mind. He describes visiting a waterfall. He argues that single existences are like the drops that fall in the waterfall: before the water reaches the falls it doesn't "feel" any discomfort it is just flowing along pleasantly, then it divides as it falls causing "pain" before finally reuniting with its watery friends forming a single unit at the bottom of the falls.


In other news I am in UB having just come back from Darkhan where I helped with a recording of the Secret History of Mongolia. Getting some work done in the city: picking up things for the library in Bayankhongor, recording some more piano pieces, and relaxing (maybe seeing the Nutcracker this evening). Then it's off to Darkhan again for Christmas and the weekend before going to visit family in Javkhlant for New Years!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Audition Recordings!

So, it has been a while! The new school year has been keeping me busy but in a much more controlled and I-know-what-to-expect kind of way than last year. My counterpart is pregnant and has some other family medical concerns so there has been some last-minute solo teaching, which I actually enjoy quite a bit: using only English and the students manage that remarkably well. Next semester my counterpart will be on maternity leave creating an interesting teaching situation. I will likely teach with the high school English teacher from my school and the training manager, but time will tell. Will be an interesting loop, getting acquainted with new teaching styles and personalities during the last semester here.

Crazy! The last semester here, coming before long. While shopping at Mercury market (a place to buy cheese! Yum!) with Leslie we were talking about how different the second year here is feeling: so much more home-like, calm, and enjoyable. The Chamberlains are back from the States and full of stories about delicious foods that they have eaten, it's like listening to Marco Polo after a return journey. Only a Marco Polo with very focused interests: culinary ones. The three of us will be heading back to Bayankhongor tomorrow (Friday) so that I can get home in time for my school's Halloween party (I will be going as a Roman, reusing the white bed sheet I bought last year as a ghost costume).

I seem to be writing this post in a chronologically backwards fashion. I have been in UB/Darkhan working on music school applications. I went to Darkhan and made a recording there with a Mongolian friend of a former volunteer who is extremely helpful and full of creative project ideas, then headed to the capital to the national radio studio to make another recording. Sat down this morning and picked the pieces to submit, made CD's and mailed them. They should arrive in the States by mid November, I sent them with a little buffer time: the deadline is December 1. Feeling relatively good about the recording and thus my chances, but time will tell. School list looks like this:

New England Conservatory
Indiana University Bloomington
University of Nebraska Lincoln
University of Wisconsin Madison

The recording process was a new one for me. Very interesting how differently your mind works depending on whether you are performing for a live audience or making a recording. I found that my "recording" mind is much more critical and analytically involved in the pieces because I know I can go back and do the whole piece again. There's a bit more detachment in that respect. At the same time it's just you and a sound technician in an adjacent room making it more personal than a live performance. I can appreciate Glen Gould's reclusive recording making obsession a bit more now.

[Check out this wonderful interview with Glen:,
he sums it up nicely when he describes the recording process as both "clinical" and "intimate"]

A bit more work to do on the applications this evening, then out with friends to hear Altan Urag (a terribly enjoyable mix of traditional and contemporary Mongolian music) at Ikh Mongol. Check out their work:

The next big thing: starting new repertoire! Thinking some Satie is in order, possibly the Italian Concerto by Bach as well. Definitely Schubert's D. 946 and John Adam's China Gates.

Be Well!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Marrow, Openings, and the Next Thing

On the way over to the internet cafe this evening (a chilly, windy, four-layers-would-be-delightful kind-of day turning into a I-probably-should-get-some-wood-and-make-a-fire kind-of night) I remembered that I forgot to mention some good news from the NCAV concert. The benefit concert this spring raised 900,000 Tugriks which went to paying for two months of food for women's shelters and also payed for a child's bone marrow transplant, how cool is that!? Already discussions of repeating the idea next spring.

The elephant-sized news of the day is that the BACC opening ceremony came and went without any casualties! Teachers taught mini lessons and the director of Peace Corps Mongolia came to speak. Also a variety of Mongolian performances followed by juice and cookies! With the opening behind us the regular classes will start this week. Volunteers will also be bringing groups of students into the center to show them how to use the DVDs, CDs, browse the books, etc. Lots of books, CDs, and DVDs on the way too, so it's looking like a bright semester for the BACC.

The next big thing will be graduate school recordings. Yes, plural... I will be going in to Darkhan around October 24th to make a recording at the theater there (a friend of a former PCV there offered to record it for free!) followed by a recording in UB at the National Radio Recording Studio. Then lots of listening and shipping!

After that it will be preparation for the spring concert: willing be taking some voice lessons in preparation for doing some pieces by Ben Folds. Also some classical guitar, after January, thinks I.

Went running with Wally this morning. At first this reacquainting with the cold was a little disheartening, soon turned refreshing and am already getting back into my brace-the-cold-with-gusto-and-an-inward-smile mode. After all, June will come soon anyway.

Be well!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Deep Mysteries of the Strawberry Choco Pie

Hung out with my host mom and sister today in UB. The occasion: my sister is starting college in UB (she will study social work, my host mom's occupation). So, after eating some delicious, I argue the best, vegetarian tsuivan in UB we went over to a monestary to see the largest statue of Buddha in the country.

It was, big.

But that wasn't the interesting part. Hundreds of prayer wheels surround the giant statue. People spin the wheels as they circumvent the Buddha in a clockwise manner. Chanting (a recording? possibly monks hidden on the second or third story balcony?) provided a backdrop.

Half way through this circular journey we encountered a small altar with a package of strawberry choco pies placed on top as an offering. Tiny Buddha statues lined the walls. Candy strewn about their little golden crossed legs. I know that I am often appeased by means of candy.

Leaving the temple I ask my mom what the Buddha was holding in his hands: a large pitcher and a silver spherical object. Mom had to think a bit before she (seemingly honestly) replied that the pitcher "contained" holy/pure water. The silver thing: no idea.

Moving on to another temple in the same complex we see some of the lamas chanting. The kid monks (maybe 10-17 years old) look back and forth giggling, some chanting at strange intervals with the leading monks, another text messaging someone on his dinosaur of a Nokia.

Enlightened by the situation, I'm enjoying time with friends in the Peace Corps office to the accompaniment of guitar improv before we leave for home tomorrow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Got off the plane from Bayankhongor yesterday and thought, "Why not take the bus into the city instead of a taxi and save 9,700 tugriks?" Seemed like a brilliant idea. Being a Sunday, lots of people got on the bus at each stop resulting in absolutely no free space. Every time the bus stopped or started we all fell all over each other: I almost killed a little girl ("I can't breath! Please move...").

Anyway, on the way into the city I see this sign: "USE OIL" written in huge block letters with the American flag used as letter filler.

Possibility #1: The letter "e" in Mongolian sometimes sounds like the long english "a". Maybe the attempt was so say USA using half mongolian half english lettering (?).

Possibility #2: This place is just really unabashed about encouraging the use of oil. I guess this shouldn't surprise me: this is their product, they want to sell it, so to promote its consumption makes a lot of sense. The States have simply become concerned enough with oil and its effects that such advertising would work less then wonderfully.

Possibility #3: USED OIL but they forgot the "d"?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gelato; or: The Lack Thereof

Yes friends I was recently reminded of the fact that there is a place (or rather places) where people eat wondrous desserts (or make meals of desserts) for a simple euro per cone. This reminder of what I am currently not experiencing made me think that it is time to present the three things that Peace Corps volunteers discuss. *[Note: there is controversy about whether these items are limited to Bayankhongor volunteers or are universal to all Mongolian PCV's, I feel that the latter may be the case though I have not as yet found conclusive evidence. Working on it, I assure you].

Item #1) Food. Discussion begins with one of the following questions:
a) What did you make for dinner last night?
b) When was the last time you ate instant pad thai?
c) How many meals of the aforesaid pad thai have you eaten in succession (current honors go to Fahd with 4).
d) What if we combined X delicious exotic food from a warm place with Y traditional food from Mongolia. Sometimes this results in people making curry cheese...
e) Discussions surrounding what we "will" make this coming year. Take Peder for example who recently bought an oven. The list of "to be made" items is tremendous.

Item #2) Other volunteers. They may live in Bayankhongor, or not, it doesn't really matter. They may even be return Peace Corps volunteers, that's not going to stop us from discussing/judging/wondering/and otherwise commenting on them. We only came to this realization this summer with the arrival of American siblings (three of them between those of us in BH). They all mentioned that this is all we talk about (obviously an untruth as there are TWO other items...).

Item #3) The fact that we have nothing to talk about besides food and other volunteers.

This being said I recently participated in a discussion of the existence or non-existence of universal ethics with two other BH volunteers. This is a reason for hope, enlightenment, and possible social survival for a second year...

Take care,
Eat well,
and discuss something for our sakes.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Countryside and Self

"Only the modern city offers the mind a field in which it can become aware of itself."
-Mr. Hegel

Ran across this quotation (in the Myth of Sisyphus) while I was in the complete opposite of the modern city: the Mongolian countryside. A number of other quotations and ideas sprang to mind which seemed to justify Hegel's position:

1) Heidegger's idea of Dasein. A large part of our existence, (indeed most of it) is spent doing "tasks": laundry, dishes, paperwork, etc. When doing these "tasks" we usually aren't reflecting on the task, rather we are "in" the "task". For example, if we are mopping, we are considering things like the length of the mop, size of the floor, condition of the mop water, etc. We see the mop as a tool used to complete the task and don't ask ourselves metaphysical questions about the mop like: what is the essence of a mop? In the countryside I observed plenty of this form of Dasein. People milking goats, boiling milk, chopping wood, gathering dung, etc. Completely absorbed in their tasks, unaware of their "selves". In the city, nearly every task that I observed in the countryside is done by someone else, somewhere else, allowing more time for contemplation/reflection. [Unrelated note: potential definition of tourism: "observing Dasein"?]

2) Going to combine similar ideas from Goedel, Escher, Bach and Sartre here: other people are essential in creating the "self". Our identity is created (mostly or completely) via our interactions with others: someone tells us that we have x quality, y talent, or z characteristic. Through these interactions we observe others and our own reactions and come to see patterns of behavior. The number of varied encounters, experiences, and opinions that one can gather are limited in the countryside where you will likely see the same 10 (or fewer) people for months at a time. An obvious contrast with city life where, if only for work and the acquisition of daily needs one interacts with a large number of people and is constantly meeting new people.

3) On a similar theme, a Wilde quotation will suffice:

"My dear boy," said Lord Henry, smiling "anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate."

While perhaps a bit harsh and obviously exaggerated, the point is that, from the limited number of people with whom one can interact arises a limited number of experiences and thus decision making both of which help create the "self".

4) One can't leave out Ferdinand Toennies in a discussion like this. The Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction allows for the individuation of the self which arises from awareness of the self in the first place.

The distinction between the city and country is quickly blurring even here. A perfect example is the ger-dwelling family in my yard. In order to be with their children during the school year they move their ger to Bayankhongor. As soon as school is over it's back to the countryside, allowing them time in both spheres. This distinction is also relativistic. Take for example the UB-dweller I met recently who considers Bayankhongor to be "countryside". Or, from the countryside dweller's perspective: usually three or four families live relatively close to each other. This group of usually three or four gers is called: a city.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Perfect Instrument and its Related History in Mongolia

I've been teaching "togoldor xuur" (pronounced like the following English words in succession: toggle - door - whore) i.e. piano at the local children's theater lately and have been working on my Mongolian music vocabulary as a result. I discovered this morning while studying some root words that "togs", the root of the word "togoldor" means perfect/complete and the word "togoldor" used alone has acquired the same meaning. "Xuur" traditional meant a two stringed instrument but is used in combination with a number of prefix words to name a number of other instruments. The idea that the word for piano is "the perfect/complete instrument" juxtaposed with the generally neglected state that most of these instruments are in made me wonder how this instrument got its name...

Classical music really wasn't around Mongolia before the 1920's. During that time Mongolia, with the assistance of Russia, drove Chinese troops out of the country. After the successful revolution the Russians didn't leave. In fact they did the opposite of leaving: they organized the government and infrastructure of the country, implemented a public education system, sought to get rid of organized religion, among other things. Because of all these reforms UB (the capital) grew enough to allow an entertainment and arts culture to develop. The Russian residents had an opera/ballet house, symphony orchestra hall, and other cultural building constructed. And with them came, naturally, the neccessary instruments.

Seems to me that this must be where the instrument got its name: they certainly weren't around before that time. Perhaps someone reading this that knows more about the Russian side of the story can inform us on this.

When the Russians left in the late 80's/early 90's they left their instruments behind, but without the educational infrastructure to support it. As a result many of these things fell into disrepair: I cite the requisite broken down piano in every soum (village) center (see also the blogs about trying to get the piano here in Bayankhongor ready for last May's concert). Another example: one of my piano students studies music at the national school of music. Her piano teacher Russia of course.

When we played the classical music concert this May it was the first classical music experience for many in the audience. Talking to some of Leslie's counterparts at the theater it seems that Mongolians, in general (dare I use such terminology!?) dislike or are indifferent to classical music. And unsurprisingly so! Imagine Mongolians running the States for about 60 years and bringing with them their traditional music. While it would certainly get some attention from citizens, it probably wouldn't be on the top 10 list. Similar deal here it seems.

Need not be this way. And to some extent, it isn't. The opera and ballet company is still performing though orchestra hall was burned in the July 2008 riots (what does that tell you? A political riot that involves burning orchestra hall...). I think that a lot of the apathy results from unfamiliarity. People simply haven't heard classical music. And if they have it is a small slice of what is out there.

Which leads us back to Bayankhongor and the 15 or so students studying both Mamu Nash Ir (folk songs) and Bach (even someone working on Chopin!):

The only person at the local theater that could theoretically be a piano teacher can't read music (this person hold a Bachelor's degree in music). So, what happens after I leave next year? A serious sustainability issue, that's what happens. My current thought is this: I have a handful of adult students and some very promising teenage students. If they can get far enough in the next year, they could teach after I leave.

In unrelated news the BACC received Wheat Grant funding this week with funds arriving in the back account next week: this means general happiness and lots of work to get done before the grand opening in September.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Camus and Goats

Lest I fail to provide an opportunity for my fellow Bayankhongorians to comment on the excessive citation of awesome French people I will now relate what I did in the countryside for two and a half days. Right.

My family and friends are always talking about going to the countryside and its glories so I will admit that I had high expectations.

Here's the skinny on countryside "activities":

1) People milk animals (twice a day).
Turns out that this is not one of my most impressive skills. I was quickly asked to "go drink some milk tea."

2) People watch TV. But intermittently because they are run on solar power.
It was Naadam in UB when I was in the countryside so guess what we watched? People wrestling. Again, and again...

3) People catch up on news: Bayankhongor happenings, family, the latest terrible that China "sent" here.
At least, that's what I think they talked about.

Since it was one year since I first read The Myth of Sisyphus I thought it would be acceptable to take a break from Goedel, Escher, Bach for a while (sorry Julie). Reading is not terribly commonplace here and is usually associated with EXTREME loneliness or boredom. Needless to say I was asked approximately 629 times, "Are you bored? Do you want to go home? Is everything ok?" etc. Yes, everything is ok, no we can stay here, and no, I'm not bored. In fact, reading by a beautiful and clean river is actually something I enjoy and is not a sign of impending suicide.

Soccer was played (at about 10:30 at night which means we really just kicked a ball around aimlessly and often into the river). No vegetable or fruit was eaten (except maybe my secret stash that I brought along). Gave the family I stayed with pudding and showed them how to make it: the kids ate it up in record time. Jello company: you owe me.

Despite my protests against the thesis that I was bored out of my skull my family insisted that we leave early. Assuming that they weren't happy about this series of events I made them apple crisp with Russian ice cream when we got to Bayankhongor. This seemed to smooth things over a bit. Apple crisp: always a winner.

Check out the pictures for the equivalent of ~95,000 words.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

June and promises

Was is really over a month ago since I posted an update? My apologies. Summer is naturally whizzing right along and the list of things I hoped to accomplish lies miserably uncompleted on my serving table with an occasional trip to my rather unused desk.

June can be characterized by: bus trips. My poor sister Nikki visited and saw far too much of this rather unfriendly means of transportation. Upon my third arrival in Bayankhongor in less than 20 days I promised my family that I would not go to the capital again until August, and then by plane (thank you Peace Corps: medical check up and Mid-service training!).

I think I understand now the plaque that my elementary school teacher had on her kitchen wall: "There are three reasons for being a teacher: June, July, and August" (or something close to that, doesn't quite ring right does it?). Indeed, the freedom that summer has provided, while perhaps not as productive as I had hoped is a form of glory.

First off, I get to make my own schedule. No directors, coworkers, etc telling me that I will teach so and so at this certain time. Summer here means: evacuate the cities for the countryside and fewer people means fewer requests to do this that and the other things (namely, teaching English). Strangely, piano students are popping out of the woodwork and I can't say no to them without killing part of my soul. Only teaching one class of English (only two people, terribly manageable).

Besides those few obligations I am practicing up a storm at the piano/keyboard, cooking, and trying to study Mongolian on a daily basis. Also playing Phase Ten dice with my 11 year old brother who beats me about 99% of the time.

I have a few stories in the bag but need to run and teach a lesson. Friday-Sunday will be in the countryside with my family.

A full report upon return, I promise.

PS: posted some photos that I discovered gathering dust on my camera. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

One year past

We M-19's will have been in Mongolia one year as of June 2, 2009 (I believe that's the day we got in, perhaps it was the first). Because so many things about being in Mongolia seem so normal now, it feels like I've been here much longer than a year. I feel like I've forgotten a lot about life in the States (though I'm sure it will come back to me quickly upon arrival).

My recent travels to Kharkhorin, Khinti, and now, UB have reminded me that I have acclimated more to Bayankhongor than to Mongolia. In Bayankhongor I know where most things can be found, I have friends and family there, and my ger really feels like home. Being away from that feels like starting all over again. Or, at the very least, always feels so temporary and destroys my routines and patterns that I enjoy so much.

This really hit me the other day when I was walking home from the Peace Corps office here in UB. I had just discovered that a concert had been postponed, that our BACC grant will require further revision, and that I will have to come back to this city on the 27th of this month for another concert. Brooding over these things as I crossed a plaza someone decided that they should try to steal my water bottle out of my backpack. They succeeded in knocking it out of my backpack but didn't manage to grab it. It rolled across the plaza with a mumbling American following it. As if that weren't enough, a group of people decided that they would yell out, "Hey, that's mine." Clearly an untruth that I did not really want to deal with.

Made me miss home.

Discussing this feeling of temporality with some other volunteers the comment was made that while at times it certainly does feel as though we have been here forever, we are also always thinking about our close of service. So sometimes we end up in this strange place in between the knowledge that this will most certainly end and the feeling that it has been going on forever.

Second year goes faster say some, slower say others. I can understand where work may feel slower. You know the drill, and perhaps start the countdown school calender. On the other hand since everyday life will certainly feel more routine, time may move faster.

Bayankhongor will get three more volunteers this year, and that should help spice up our lives a bit. May keep us from cynicism or push us over its edge.

My sister Nikki will be here soon and the schedule of events looks something like this:
1) Hang out in UB for a few days and rest.
2) Go to Javkhlant and ride some camels, visit and swim in the beautiful river there.
3) Back to UB and then on to Bayankhongor.
4) Back to UB to greet the new volunteers and do some shopping before Nikki heads home again.

Summer will go by even faster than I thought, I think... Lots of practicing to do before I make grad school recordings sometime in October. Still have some pieces to memorize and Mongolian music to learn for another concert in October (again in UB, please please please let these two events coincide lest I go to that city twice in one month).

Fourteen months to go. My bets are on a fast second year. Will keep you posted.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The second concert

So you may have read Nathan's most recent posting concerning the glorious Bayankhongor Classical music concert. A wild success, wild I tell you.

Rather than rehash what Nathan's dumbfounding writing skills have already entered into the historical record I will write a small review of the concert that recently occurred in Xarxurin (XX) on May 18, 2009.

We (Leslie and I with another volunteer who desired to watch what was about to go down) rolled into town in our van-thingy the day before our concert. Two days were spent in the near-by aimag center trying desperately to get to XX. One day we were thwarted by a closed market, another day by a drunk man who likes to throw glass and call women rather indecent names in Russian.

Putting that all behind us we were off to the theater to rehearse as soon as we arrived in the green and mountainy beauty that is XX. The school brought in their lovely casio with 61 keys (key number 61 unfortunately was out of commission) and no pedal. Once into the theater the school director asks me to take a look at the piano they have. I now know better than to get excited about these offers, alas. Wearing an excited face we go off to the piano room and discover that the piano has ringing keys, keys that don't work, and no functioning pedal. Last predicted tuning: 1980's.

"Sadly, no."

What do I see when I turn to leave the piano? A 71 key Yamaha! Aha!

"Can we use THIS?"
"Yes you can."

Grand! We drag it onto the stage and begin rehearsal. There are two dilemmas before us.
1) What pieces can we still play from the BH concert now that we have only 71 keys and still no pedal?
2) What......setting....yes, setting... will we use? There are options like dual, strings, drum kits, choirs, and about 200 more.

The first question is easy for my solo works: Baroque or nothing. Turns out that all the vocal pieces are doable. Great. The second question is the really traumatizing one. One is forced to deal with the fact that you are about to claim to be doing a performance of western classical music on an electronic instrument...(At this point if there are any music professors of mine, former or future, reading this, I pray that you turn away, forgive, and forget what was done here).

We settle on the settings and decide that it would be nice to practice a little more but it is far too cold in the theater and it is getting late. So we borrowed the keyboard and planned to take it to the local volunteer's ger. Got it to the school before I decided that I was too ill to continue the preparation festivities and needed a good rest. Knocked myself out with Benedril and drank 3 liters of water.

The Day of the Concert
French toast. coffee. Off to school to practice a bit. Sleep. And it's go time!

We knew that we would be sharing this concert with some performances by the local school kids. Midafternoon we hear that there is a hip-hop-dancing, accordian-playing, energy-healing monk in town who just walked here from the Gobi. What a cool addition to the program! At 5 o'clock about 300 first and second graders flood the theater. Turns out they will be our audience. That changes things just a wee bit. We had 30+ minutes of music which we quickly wittled down to a no-repeats 15 minute set broken into two for attention span reasons. The show begins with singing and dancing, then comes: THE FASHION SHOW. That's correct. Then us. More singing and dancing. MORE FASHION SHOW! Us again. And...FASHION SHOW one more time. No monk. Not sure what happened to him. Perhaps he realized that this was not exactly his venue.

Trauma: childhood arts competition at the county fair. Little Tysen with his adapted version of Grieg's piano concerto crushed by the pink costumed dancing 3rd grader. This time I was able to deal with the situation much better.

Post concert. Everyone in shock. A "I don't think we'll ever see anything like that again" kind of shock.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Concert Tour of sorts

The concert in Bayankhongor with countless frustrations along the way ended up going well. Yeah. Then began the grand plan to take the concert on tour: three cities, one week. We are down to one this week and another sometime this summer. The culprit? Upcoming presidential elections. Which leaves certain people feeling a little frustrated.

Took the bus half way to UB and it killed me. Yanaa (oh dear). Not looking forward to the rest of the busing activity this summer...I knew there was a reason I stayed in BH (Bayankhongor) so much. Can't wait to be back home: building a greenhouse outside my ger with another volunteer, teacher English, German, and piano privately, and getting the BACC ready for the grand opening in September.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Attempting to concertize

Here: enjoy this first: the mass email announcing the concert coming up on May 8...hopefully

I know what you are thinking:

“I haven’t heard a good art song IN A MINUTE!”

“Gee, I always thought Webber’s Phantom was completely overrated! Give me Yeston’s version any day!”

“Philip Glass?! I LOVE Philip Glass!”

“What I wouldn’t do to see some decent ballet!”

Faure is so rarely recognized for his remarkable vocal lines!”

“I’d do anything to get my peepers on some good old fashioned musical theatre, or my name isn’t Evan Buffington!”

Well, pine no longer friends! You can have all of that and more! Join us:

Dwan Adams, dance

Julia Cannon, voice

Leslie Ann Shaffer Chamberlain, voice and guitar

Tysen Dauer, piano

With special appearances by: Nathan Chamberlain!

MAY 8TH at the Bayankhongor Drama & Music Theater

Come for all your favorites like:

· Bach

· Weill

· Quilter

· Schwartz

· Beethoven

· Lerner & Loewe

· Some other dead guys…

And stay for the “life size” dinosaurS!

So it turns out that getting a concert in Mongolia (or more correctly Bayankhongor) to happen is more difficult than my previous experiences. First I thought I had won the war when the pedal on the concert piano got fixed. Then I rediscovered that some of the keys don't work period. Some bass keys ring incessantly. I tried not to cry. Turns out we need to get someone in from UB to fix this situation and some powers that be are less than excited about doing that...we don't have time to lose...two weeks now and need to do rehearsals next week.

Also the season of English Olympics which means angry teachers and students sending you hate messages, and the traumatizing realization that your college students are a little behind the fifth graders at speaking English. Yanaa ("Oh dear" my phrase of the month).

School searches are going well though I heard back from a few schools that I was hoping would cut me slack with the live audition requirements. Turns out they won't. Which is exciting.

BACC grant got pushed back a month because the grant sources dried up...temporarily. Maybe starting to televise the current classes at the BACC on Monday. Yeah!

How could I forget! Mr. Molon Khaan was neutered today. Turns out he only had one external testicle which the local French vet and her Mongolian assistant removed with the warning that the internal testicle may be fertile. Yanaa again. Said they didn't want money so I made them cookies and gave them the last of my walnuts. Molon is currently sleeping and hasn't moved in about 5 hours.

That's the news from Bayankhongor. Going to eat some huushuurs with the Chamberlains and Peder, do some laundry, and hit the sack early to get rid of a sore throat. Ah, tea with excessive amounts of honey!

Sunday, April 5, 2009


One of the most noticeable differences between Americans and Mongolians who I have known is their level of publicly-expressed nationalism. Almost every Mongolian I know is very patriotic of their country and culture making sideways comments about excessive fat in one's buuz an occasion for muttering and negatively flavored eye-contact.

Most of this isn't terribly upsetting though I don't completely sympathize with it. This sort of moderate nationalism exists side by side with more illogical kinds. A number of political groups have formed here that echo all kinds of been there, heard that nationalistic and even racist ideology. This week at the city wide advanced conversation class we will discuss nationalism's pros and cons. After providing a short preview of the topic at last week's class I was told that it would "start a fire".

I tried to set up this upcoming discussion by talking about good and bad reasons to dislike things (food, people, etc.) last week. Some interesting positions resulted including some people advocating a benefit analysis process for creating and maintaining relationships!

Check out the following UB Post article about right wing nationalistic groups here in Mongolia and their strange links with Third Reich ideology and iconography:

Wiffle ball season is upon us. Grant writing for the BACC in full swing and the recital preparation moving steadily along. Take care and let's hope that the long underwear can stay packed away...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Police Stations are Fun!

Yes indeed. Especially when you get to be there until three thirty-ish in the morning after having stayed up the night before until four-ish attempting to have a serious conversation about the philosophy of voting. Don't worry! I am not currently under investigation.

The Peace Corps volunteers of Bayankhongor went to get free food courtesy of some American students at a local hotel who are staying here in Mongolia for a few months. After dinner at their hotel dancing was necessary. Strolled over to a disco club. As we get ready to leave (around 12:30) someone discovers that their coat has been stolen. Chat with the owners of the club. Police come. "Interrogations" ensue. One volunteer tells me that she was once at a restaurant that was held up at gun point. The questioning for that event took less time than our two and a half hour date with the Bayankhongorian police authorities.

In other news: concert is officially happening. May 8 at 8PM. The theater tells me they will get the piano fixed and tuned for the event. Proceeds going to the local Disabled Children's Center. What part of my soul did I have to sell to these people to make this happen you ask? I will be teaching piano lessons at the theater and school number 2 starting...soon. The program will, hopefully, look something like this:

Beethoven Op. 101 (Tysen)
Chopin Ballad #2

Se florindo e fedele
Les berceaux
What Good Would the Moon Be
Mein Herr Marquis (Leslie and Tysen)

Mongolian music (Leslie, Zulaa [playing the yoochin] and Tysen)

[More about the Yoochin and other Mongolian instruments at:]

All in all about an hour of music.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tsagaan Sar

This blog is being posted for two, perhaps unequally important reasons:

1) For the general education of the American populous concerning a unique custom of the Mongolian people.


2) The repudiation of accusations that this blog is sometimes something less than informative.

Tsagaan Sar means, White Month. It is, in essence, the Mongolian New Year. Why is this month so very white? Because one must (insert a modal verb of your choice[?]) eat white food on this holiday. What is white food you ask? The answer is as obvious as you think it is. Yes, rice is white food. Buuz (see one of the previous blogs for the recipe) are also white (if you steam them long enough). And, forget thee not those white, sugar covered nuts which Tysen has only recently discovered. But let us not restrict ourselves only to food lest we leave out the white drinks: fermented mare's milk, milk tea, vodka (?), etc.

The celebration goes on for three days during which time people visit each other's homes. Upon entering a home the following procedure occurs without fail and always in this order:

1) Hold out a hadag (blue cloth) and say: "Amar baina uu?" or "Amar sain uu?" The person you are greeting may sniff your cheeks (like an Italian but no kissing).
2) Drink your milk tea. (Other drinks will be offered - take what you please but be warned that one shot is never enough, at least three if you start that monkey business...).
3) Have a snuff bottle handed to you. Be asked, "Are you newing well?" Say, "yes," and ask them the same when you hand back the bottle. You could take a bit and snort it if you want.
4) Eat buuz. Every time you want to be done eating your host will tell you to eat more buuz. "Id, id, id, id, id!" (Which sounds just like the command "eat" only with a "d" instead of a "t" at the end).
5) Have presents handed to you. If you are close to this person it may be something like a shirt and candy, if not...well, be happy with chocolate (I am currently the proud own of 6 choco pies).

Repeat this process as many times as you want/can. Do not let regurgitating buuz stop you. One volunteer ate 100 in a day. No lie. Check out the pictures.

"Against Happiness" (Book Review)

Against Happiness
In Praise of Melancholy
Eric G. Wilson

Americans have lost their appreciation of melancholy, argues Mr. Wilson in his somewhat poorly titled work (it is more in praise of melancholy than against happiness. Shock value, anyone?). Mr. Wilson believes that American culture is overly absorbed with being happy, and our forefathers better understood that life needs both happiness and melancholy to be truly meaningful. The author argues that one cannot help but be melancholy when one meditates on the human condition. The thrust of his argument is summarized well by the author's citation of Henri Frederic Amil:

"Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night envelopes the universe."

Understanding the temporal nature of, well, everything, leads the thinker from abstract, theoretical knowledge to personal experience. At this point Mr. Wilson brings in the big guns, quoting Blake: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledge [does not exist, while] Singular and Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime."

Following Blake's cue, Mr. Wilson goes on to argue that this understanding doesn't end in a perpetual state of melancholy. Rather, this mindset frees the thinker from a trite existence and both allows us to enjoy the whole spectrum of emotions/states of being and forces humans into action (a rather blatant Camus rip-off).

His final message to his readers is one of encouragement: stand strong melancholy souls of America! "We want to be left alone so that we can brood for as long as we want. We want this because we feel most alive, most vital, when we suffer this confusion over the things of the universe."

By citing some of literature's most mentally disturbed character's Mr. Wilson's arguments unintentionally glorify artistic creativity over mental health, most readers will likely find this disturbing. Besides this, the author does little in the way of new argumentation. Rather he sums up modern thought concerning "meaningful" existence and throws in contemporary and personal examples to fill out these rather old ideas.

Friday, February 20, 2009

February Update

Oyuntugs and I are working with the other volunteers in the aimag to create an English language resource library here in Bayankhongor. Right now we are working on getting books, movies, music, and furniture for the room. The government has given us two rooms in the government center! We hope to set up our library during the summer and open this September.

Other news: Molon Khaan (my cat) almost died about 700 times last night. He ate one of my buuz so I put him outside. Our dog (Bombor) found him and chased him into the neighbor's hashaa. Molon waited on top of a shed and would not come down, even when I offered him a chunk of beef that I had just bought (it smells terrible in the meat "market" if you were wondering). This was the state of things at midnight. I gave up, tired from making about 150 buuz, and went to bed. At almost exactly 4 AM I woke up to the sounds of Molon and Bombor duking it out...on top of my ger. With my ceiling shaking and threatening to collapse, I went outside hoping to rescue Mr. Molon. By the time I got outside Molon had been chased back onto the neighbors shed. I grabbed my chair and broom and scooped him up, ran into my ger before Bombor could break in and gave Molon some well deserved fish. Realized at about 9:30 AM this morning that I failed to bring the rescue equipment (aka the chair) into the ger. Dogoo (an early riser) no doubt wonders what the hell I was doing outside with a chair last night.

The recipe for buuz for those of you who wish to celebrate Tsagaan Sar (see Nathan and Leslie's blog for real cultural information...).

First: Boil and mash whatever you want to put into the buuz: "real" buuz are meat (sheep or beef, though tempting do NOT use camel or horse meat, I am told that this is unseemly). I use vegetables. My Mexican buuz this morning consist of: peppers, garlic, onions, turnips, potatoes, carrots, and a TON of spices. After mashing it I put it outside to cool, tonight I will finish the process...

Second: make dough. Easy, friends, easy: flour, salt, and warm water. Shouldn't be super sticky. Roll it out and use a circle cookie cutter (whatever size you like) to cut...circles of dough...

Thirdly (hehe): put a dab of your (now cold) mash onto one of your circles of dough. Pinch the thing shut in any number of ways (experiment, it will be fun, or, more likely, frustrating...).

Number the fourth: Steam those little suckers for about 20 minutes and eat! If you have leftovers be sure NOT to re-warm them. Instead dip them in milk tea and pretend that they are tasty this way!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Molon Khan.

Walking home from work Oyuntugs and I were talking about pets. Namely that Mongolians don't really have pets and Americans generally go gaga over them. Specifically I mentioned cats, as I noticed that no one here seems to like them. "It would be nice to have a pet," I mentioned.

A meowing noise was heard while I was tutoring the "ger English kids" (gEk?). Living in a ger, I assumed that whatever was making the noise had a 99% chance of actually being in my ger. We looked around: found nought. Mamu went outside to check the premises and came back in with a cat. The other two students were less than pleased about this (most Mongolians hate cats), so I told him to put it back outside.

Mr. cat decided that chilling out on top of my ger was the best of all possible worlds. When gEk left, the cat came in. "Oh, drat" said I, with all sincerity. The feeding of the cat was started immediately. My landlady came in and jumped approximately 3 feet when she saw the thing. Not terribly pleased. I asked in every way I know how (didn't take long) if it really was ok to keep it.

The naming process went as follows:
1) Mongolian name or other? Mongolian.
2) Normal Mongolian name or odd? Odd.
3) A Khan name (consult the calender with all the khans on it that Dogo lent to me).
4) The strangest names were written on pieces of paper by Mamu.
5) They were placed face down on the floor.
6) The cat was placed on the floor near the papers and we waited for him to step on one.
7) He chose: Molon Khan who ruled Mongolia from 1456-1462.

The next day saw Tysen buying meat in Mongolia for the first time. The cat was greatly pleased with his choice cut of beef. Milk was also purchased. A giant metal tumpin with sand serves as the bathroom and is cleaned daily I can assure you.

Pictures are forthcoming.