I stood in front of Tsentuya’s English class at School 23 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia as she explained that I was a teacher visiting from the United States. After the quick introduction, I asked the students if they had any questions. A boy seated at the back of the room raised his hand, tilted his head, and inquired: “Before you came to Mongolia, what did you know about Mongolia?”
I laughed. He knew my story…
I apologized and admitted that before visiting the country, I had imagined camel-riding nomads living in gers, eking out a life for their families in the unrelenting Gobi Desert. The student grinned. So I asked, “What would you like me to teach my students about Mongolia?”
“That we are METROPOLITAN!” a young female student declared.
It is so true. Although the nomadic lifestyle still exists, certainly one of the last remaining in the world, the capital of Ulaanbaatar is a thriving city of juxtapositions. Due in part to the discovery of the massive Tulvan Tolgia coal mine (It is estimated that Mongolia could mine coal from this site for 10,000 years!), there is a new affluence rising in Mongolia. iPhones and North Face adorn the young urbanites. Landrovers and Mercedes jam the city streets. In 2009, Louis Vuitton opened a store in the Central Tower on Sukhbaatar Square, the heart of the city and only two blocks from the temple of the Choijin Lama monastery, built in 1904-1908. Chinese, Russian, American and European corporations are jockeying for positioning in this emerging economy, while the Mongolian government and people best prepare for their approaching 20th Anniversary of Democratic rule.
Mongolian teachers are posed with the same questions that we all ask ourselves? How do we prepare our students for this new global economy? How do we help our students retain a strong national identity while still engaging in the global world? “Our students, at times, are skeptical about foreigners,” one of the School Directors explained to me. It was precisely this skepticism with which the student had asked me about my perception of Mongolia. They are eager to shed the stereotype of being a nation that is not keeping up with the modern world. They want to assure the world that they are as advanced as everybody else. And quite capable.
I split my three weeks in Mongolia equally between Ulaanbaatar and the “countryside”. With an introduction by UNESCO director Badarch Dendev, I was fortunate to spend time with Schools 23 and 37 in the city. While driving through the Gobi Desert, we stopped in the small town of Guchinus and found our way to the pre-school. All three schools taught me more about the Mongolian society, infrastructure and the next generation. Please click on the MONGOLIAN SCHOOL link to read more about each school.
THE “METROPOLITAN” MONGOLIA PHOTO GALLERY