Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mixed Buisness

Quick Note to Friends and Family: The University E-mail Server has been suffering "severe performance problems" and has pretty much unavailable to me for the last week. I’m hoping to shift my e-mail address as soon as possible, but for now, if you wish to get a hold of me, leave a note on my blog.

So another day with temperatures around 60 degrees has our current teacher, a conservation biologist, touting theories of global warming, but everyone in our group is pretty happy to be out of our sweaters and into short sleeves. Overall I’d say it’s a pretty good day in Mongolia.
I have just come from an afternoon discussion with several students and two professors from the American Studies Program (Amerik Suglolyin Tuv) of the Mongolian National University here in Ulaan Bataar. Both teachers from the American Studies department and three of the approximately 50 students in the University’s program joined our group for about an hour of really nice, relatively unstructured conversation about comparative values between our two nations. My personal highlight from the meeting was how excited the Mongolian Students got when I mentioned I was from Oklahoma; apparently the Great Plains is going to be covered in class next week. My only caveat is to think that they condense all the greatness that is the Mid-West down to a single week.

I think this discussion highlights one of the most important travel skills (nay-life skills) I’ve learned during my time, and that is being able to balance "Keeping it Real" and "Playing it Cool." In Asia, it is often a cultural value to let those you’re dealing with "save face" or avoid embarrassment, and thus oftentimes it is best to "play it cool." For example during our conversation, one of the professors was obviously very diplomatic in her speech and her choice of topics, while the other, near the end of our time together, tended to point conversation towards America’s duplicity of values. So, while he was pointing out the contradiction between our love of liberty and democracy and our actions in Vietnam and Iraq, and our love of equality and American Jim Crow laws, I made a wise choice to "Play it Cool." I could have mentioned there are periods in each country’s history when the values of the people are not congruent with the actions of the state, such as the Communist Purges that ransacked Mongolia during the late 1930’s. I could have mentioned, when the same professor was touting Mongolia’s pride in it’s untouched natural landscapes, the Mongolian tendency towards throwing trash and broken glass anywhere and everywhere. Instead, I chose to play it cool, and let the conversation shift towards other topics.

In other situations, however, the need to "keep it real" supplants the ideal of "playing it cool." For example, on my way to the university, I hitched a ride to the main square in town. I noticed that the person who picked me up for some reason, while not being a cabby, had a taximeter in his car. I also noticed this meter tended to count about twice as many kilometers than what I remembered the distance being to the main square in town. Now, at the end of the trip, when he was asking for about twice the fair price, I decided know would probably be a good time to "keep it real." I could have just "played it cool" and paid him what he was asking; it would have been easier, he didn’t speak English, it wasn’t that much money and it would’ve avoided a potential conflict. But I decided to keep it real and send the message that he couldn’t simply cheat all the white tourist who didn’t speak the language and save some of my money. Thus, when the cab got to Sukh Bataar Square I just gave him what I considered the fair price for the ride, the price I paid numerous other times.

Sometimes, however, "Keeping it Real" goes wrong. In this case, after handing the Cabby 500 less Tugrugs than he was expecting, while he was protesting the price I turned to leave and found that the passenger-side door was missing it’s handle- I had no way of getting out. So now, instead of making a smooth exit, I was stuck trying to explain to the cabby, in rather mediocre sign language, I did not wish to pay him the price he was asking. Eventually, his patience wore out, he reached over and thumbed a level inside the door to let me out. Rob is getting the hang of Mongolia.

Keepin’ it Real

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hollaback Girl

Last week at around this time, the first snow of the season still covered the sidewalks and roofs of Ulaan Bataar. Yesterday I wandered around town in shorts and a tee-shirt. Alas it is fall in Mongolia. It's another sort of lazy day with no agenda, the last of its kind for a while as our schedule appears to be picking up for our last two weeks in the country. This friday we will have the final examination for our first class, Biodivirsityand Conservation in Mongolia. So far the class has been very laid back, which I beleive everyone has very much appreciated for the chances it has given us to explore Mongolia on our own. To commerate our time here our class is having a good-bye party for our profressor, Barry Rosenbaum, at his downtown apartment. Then later this week, we are having one more final get together with a man we simply come to know as "The Abbot." The man, as you might have guessed, is an Abbot at the Lamrim Buddhist Monestary here in UB. He is the man who organized our 11 day field trip up to the country around Lake Hovsgol at the beggining of the trip and during our entire time here has shown nothing but the utmost of generosity and care to our group. Just this last weekend the Abbot invited our group to spend a night at a nearby Buddhist Meditation retreat center to the East by Southeast of UB. The entire site was fairly amazing, a ornate newly build and good condition Tibetan style Buddhist temple set up in the mountains of UB. The Abbot also took the opportunity to lead our group in a relatively (45 minute) mediation session, because, hey, what else would you do in the mountains of central Mongolia. To facilitate a study in contrast, we went out to a birthday party for Sarah, one of the Mongolian cooks who works for the Abbot and has helped keep our group fed during our trips outside UB. Sarah is a recent University graduate who has taken quite a few english classes, so hanging out with her is always rather interesting. Her choice for her birthday, however, was to visit the very European Disco "Medusa" in downtown UB. A few hours there is always amazing for both the similarities and differences in culture that are on display among Asia's youth.