Untrue. Everybody uses tugriks in Mongolia. Apartment rent and salaries can be in dollars but taxi drivers and grocery store clerks take tugriks.
When you live in a country where English is seldom, every English word that may graze your ear snaps your neck around like a b-movie hit man. It could be a couple of Australian backpackers, a Mongolian student slowly addressing a Korean NGO worker or maybe just an American pop song floating up from someone's cell phone. Still, your head turns instinctively when you hear your native language.
Mere accident of birth turned my language into a gold mine. Because I was born in America, an English-speaking nation that is (10 years ago, inarguably.... now arguably) a world super power, my twanging linguistic abilities will guarantee me a job in Asia. Every weekend the Minister of Ecological Affairs in Mongolia pays me twenty dollars an hour to sit and chat with him. I breeze into his office at three o'clock, shake hands and receive coffee from his secretary. Then we laugh and talk and chat for precisely one hour. It is no real lesson, just a chat. I am paid for it, and paid well.
To give an example of how much the good taxpaying citizens of Mongolia are paying for my services... I was paid 18 dollars one time to work twelve hours giving oral exams to exhausted students at the English Olympics. This is a standard salary for a days work teaching English in a school setting. To be paid forty dollars every weekend for a combined two hours of leisurely chatting and cappuccinos (above and beyond my fee, of course) is very, very good work. I am replacing my friend Alex,... who tutored the minister for a few months. Alex's working contract at Hobby School ended and he returned Britain. I began tutoring.
I sometimes like to flatter myself into thinking that I am the courtesan to a parliament minister. This is nonsense of course. The minister and I have never progressed beyond a handshake, ... and it would be stretching things a bit to say that he is enjoying the company. He is merely paying for my talents as a native English speaker and not for any wit or delightful wordplay I can muster outside of my basic language abilities. Indeed I am aware that the minister often has to carry the brunt of the conversation... and he does so with the ease of a politician. Still, there are kinks and complications that he sometimes asks me to explain.
"How do I compliment a woman at a party, like an Ambassador's wife?" He asked me one time while we were eating cold noodles at a Korean restaurant.
"Just tell her that she's looking very nice."
"Oh no, I can't say that! That means usually she doesn't look nice. Maybe I can say she looks beautiful?"
"No.... that would sound a little strange. It's a bit forward or overly romantic. Just say she looks nice."
"And she won't be offended?"
"No, not at all."
Other times I get urgent texts. "Which is correct: Ecology and Environmental Advisor or Ecological and Environmental Advisor? Please txt back asap." "How glamorous," my friend- a foreign woman- remarked when I showed her the text. "You are a close advisor to a cabinet minister!"
Except it's not glamorous. Mongolians have a very casual attitude towards government officials. When Prime Minister Elbegdorj (tossed out of office in 2006 and re-elected two months ago) addressed the Peace Corps Volunteers I spent forty agonizing minutes beforehand fussing with my dress. My friend Navchaa in the meantime tossed on a pair of tan slacks and sat waiting patiently. She was rather curious about my anxiety. "Why are you worried?"
"Because I'm going to be shaking hands with the Prime Minister, the leader of Mongolia!" I squeaked, "Aren't YOU nervous?"
Navchaa laughed. "No, of course not."
Two years later I sat by Tomor, a Mongolian student at the Beijing International airport. Though currently a student at the University of Minnesota Tomor was heading home for the summer holiday. He described the scene in Mongolia last year when two Mongolian judo Olympic competitors brought home the gold from the Beijing Olympics. The whole country erupted in celebration. "Mongolia had never brought home a gold medal from the Olympics before.... it was amazing. There were bigger celebrations than in 2006 when we celebrated the 800 year anniversary of Chinggis Khaan. I was taking the train from Erdenet to Ulaanbaatar and the Prime Minister was on board. So was the president. They were both utterly, completely drunk.... just staggering around congratulating everybody." Tomor smiled at the memory. "You know, sometimes Mongolia is more like one big family than a country."
Imagine if Obama got lit on the Amtrak from New York to Philadelphia. Youtube would explode.
Finally, killing off my courtesan/geisha fantasy for good, the minister admitted one lesson that he missed having a male tutor. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but it is sometimes more comfortable to talk to a man than a woman."
"How so?" I asked, though I could guess what he meant.
"Well, like asking about bad words in English. Shit, fuck, fuck you..."
I winced and caught myself. "No, no... that's quite understandable."
"But you are very good too."
"So... next Wednesday at 3:00?"
"The Prime Minister's going to Moscow next week so I might have extra time."
The Internet cafe is now empty of English speakers. The con artist/travel agent/ international salesman/ whoever he was has left. Now two boys are playing World of Warcraft. I need to go home and draw some more cartoons.