September 12, 2009

Second year in Mongolia

I've been living and working in Mongolia for a year now. It seems like just yesterday that Tsetsgee picked me up at the airport and drive me through Ulaanbaatar to the FPMT Buddhist Meditation Center. That was on September 5th, 2008, a Friday. I didn't have much time to adjust because I started teaching my very first English class two days later on Monday. Here's what I wrote after my first week:

First, I couldn't be happier with everyone here at Shendrup Ling, the Buddhist meditation center where I live and teach. Everyone from the director to the guards have been so welcoming. Tsetsgee, who teaches the Beginner English level classes has done a lot to help me fit into my role as a teacher. This place has such a great energy about it. But that's not to say it's like Shangrila here, the needs of the community are so great that sometimes it seems overwhelming what should be done to help and that can be very stressful for all involved. In only a few days, I have already been approached to expand my English teaching to include even more people. Even if I was ten people, I wouldn't be able to scratch the surface of the need. For now though, I'm content to do the best job I can with my current students and let the future take care of itself when it arrives.

After a year I can say that the staff at Shedrup Ling but also those at Dolma Ling are more my family than my co-workers. It is such a joy to work with 'family'. Yes, the work is important, but we're in this together and life doesn't follow a time-clock. Besides hearing "How's your work?" I get just as many "How is  your family? How is your mother?"

And, if anything, the work seems just as intense now as it was in the beginning. Besides my teaching, there seem to be an un-ending "honey do's" around here that don't fall under my job description. I'm the graphic art guy, the computer guy, the tsa-tsa guy, the plant guy, etc. Sometimes I get multiple requests almost simultaneously - "Jim can you do this...?" I do my best to help all that ask, which isn't easy and sometimes I forget because there are too many needs. But I guess I've reached that part in my life where I don't worry so much about 'me' and put much more effort into 'others'. I don't go out much, I don't have many friends outside of the center, but then again, my life is pretty darn rich right here, right now.

Now that the teaching is easier, I've tried to do more to help the staff and especially the nuns at the Dolma Ling nunnery. Gardening is almost an unknown art here in Mongolia. So, once a week I spend a few hours working on the neglected grounds of the nunnery. It's a daunting task for just one guy. And anyone who works with plants knows that it is an job without end - things always keep growing, even when you don't want them too. But at least it gets me outside and away from this computer. [smile]

I have to be honest, my first day of teaching was exhausting, mainly because I was so anxious. Each day brought highs and lows but by the end of the week I think I can see that I can really make a difference and that I have the ability to 'do this job.' My students range in age from 8 to 49, they are pretty evenly spread out from high school through college to professionals. I even have a few medical doctors in my classes and a few monks too. Some students actually have a great grasp of English, both in speaking and in writing. Sometimes my exercises really bomb (my textbook is British and written almost 20 years ago) but at other times the students really get into what we are doing. I know that as I go through each lesson, I will learn more about my students and what works best for them to learn the best English.

Well, eventually got rid of that old British text and replaced it with a conversation-based series. And now, it's my students who energize me. No matter how bad a day I've had, or how tired I am, when I come into the classroom, the students smiles and enthusiasm are the nectar of the gods - making me feel like a million bucks.

Originally I agreed to teach for 12-months. But the job is so rewarding, my students so grateful, and the community has such a need, that I've agreed to stay at least one more year or more. As long as I feel I'm needed, I'll stay and help.

I could tell you some of the highlights of the last year, but maybe you should read them yourselves. With the modern communication tool like the internet, I'm never really far from home. At least information-wise. So, even though I'm almost half-way around the world, I still hear all the news fit to print, including the health care issues in the US.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Even at it's worst, the American healthcare system is still light years ahead of many parts of the world. Let me tell you a story:

Enkhmaa is a tall, seemingly shy university student who just happens to be president of Mongolia's largest Buddhist Students Association. Despite her heavy class-load, she organized almost monthly service projects for their association. I was amazed at her energy and drive. In May, she graduated with a journalism degree, but by the end of the summer, still didn't have a job. You see, unemployment is over 30% here in Mongolia. Davaa, our director, has ties to summer tour businesses and helped Enkhmaa get a job as a guide/translator because of her excellent English.

There are very few roads in Mongolia, so travel is of the 4-wheel variety, especially for tourist in the countryside. But anyone who saw my video of my trip can appreciate that it could also be dangerous. And, that's just what happened - Enkhmaa was involved in a serious crash. But, remember, there are no roads. It took three days to organize a airlift by helicopter to get her to medical care in Ulaanbaatar. One reason it took so long was the $10,000 for the helicopter had to be paid up front. Some of the tourists involved in the accident helped pay most of it, but Davaa herself put up a $1000, three months of her salary, to make it happen.

Once in hospital in Ulaanbaatar, tests revealed that Enkhmaa's spinal cord was still intact and shouldn't suffer any paralysis. That was great news for everyone. But she still needs surgery to repair many of her broken bones. So, now, she sits in a hospital bed while family and friends try to find the money to pay for the surgery because it won't be done unless the money is paid first.

And forget Rehab. Once she leaves the hospital, she's on her own, with just her family to help. Who knows how this is going to physically effect this young 20-something woman for the rest of her life. She has a spirit that will turn adversity into something positive, I just know it. But, her experience with a serious injury in a developing country should give many people in other parts of the world a new appreciation for how thankful they should be for any type of healthcare receive.

Okay, enough of my soapbox. I hope many of you like the new website as I thought it needed a facelift. I still have to do a little work on making it as functional as the old webpages but it's still very usable. I hope that you will all continue to come back every week to see what's new for me in Mongolia. It still amazes and humbles me to know how many people visit these ramblings every month. I will try to keep bringing you wonderful news from Mongolia in the next year too.