Personally I am not Christian but I have never felt uncomfortable, cramped, harassed or in any way repressed at my place of employ. This is partly due to the fact, of course, that my colleagues, students and superiors are models of gracious, friendly good will. This is also partly due to the fact that laws upholding the separation of church and state are unusually strict in Mongolia, ... certainly far more so than in the US. Even private schools and universities are forbidden to espouse religious views in the classroom during the daytime. Despite the occasional essay about God's plan or Christian Youth Camp hoodie my students maintain a rigorously secular outlook on their studies. Because of this I sometimes get sloppy and assume that my students hold an earthier take on life than they actually do.
One morning, during one of my appallingly early eight o'clock morning classes, I was desperately looking for a funny but applicable anecdote that would perk up the somnolent teenagers seated in front of me. We were all woozy. The brilliant red ball of the sun was rising, turning the coal-smoke choked sky a fiery color. I could see this amazing sight through the classroom windows from my vantage point at the lectern. The students had their backs to the windows and couldn't see this, alas. It was the depth of winter, which was bad this year even for Outer Mongolia. The heat had been turned on full blast in the classrooms just to keep the -30 degree chill at bay. The dramatic change in temperature that came from walking between buildings daily was such that everybody was getting sick and dizzy. Coal smoke clung to hair and clothes. Nobody felt like discussing the essay ("Business Cultures of the East and West") and I was left to natter on in front of the silent classroom until my throat felt raw.
Clearly the lesson needed a kick in the pants.
"Often in Western culture people use humor when they need to deliver a time-worn message in a way that will attract attention."
My students dutifully jotted this down.
"For example, many private and governmental organizations try to talk to young people about protection from diseases. The only problem is that young people hear this so often that their eyes tend to glaze over and they tune out the message. So PSA's (those are Public Service Announcements, by the way) are becoming very creative. I'll give an example. There was this one commercial where a man and his very young son are shopping. The little boy wants candy but his father won't let him take it. The little boy pitches a fit, yelling 'I want candy! I want candy!' He screams and makes a big fuss."
Already my students were starting to laugh. Clearly this was the right way to go... people were paying attention and beginning to feel that English class was not entirely a soul-deadening waste of time. I continued onwards, encouraged by the laughs.
"So the father is feeling very very embarrassed because now the little boy has thrown himself on the floor and is now kicking and screaming. 'I want candy! I want candy!' The father doesn't know what to do. He's utterly mortified because everybody in the store is staring at them."
Many students, most of them Mongolian, were laughing now. Mongolians love children with the sort of affection and celebration that is really very touching to me. Americans love children well enough but we tend to take healthy babies for granted. Our country is well-populated and we all usually rest assured that any baby born in our hospitals will probably make it to his second birthday. Mongolians, on the other hand, know that such a milestone is by no means guaranteed. Babies get sick. Doctors often can't help,... especially if the transportation infrastructure is bad and the community is isolated (as it often is in this country). Babies die. The infant mortality rate for Mongolia is about 45 out of 1,000 live births (and that's after a dramatic decrease in infant deaths over the last ten years) which stands in contrast to the US' 7 out of 1,000. In America, fussy babies are usually considered the bane of all public bystanders. My mother once told me about how she overheard a man mumble "Somebody kill that baby" one time on a flight back in 1982 when I was being extremely difficult.... and I confess that I have indulged in many similer fantasies when stuck next to a crying infant on buses, planes, etc. No one would ever dream of having such a desire in Mongolia. Cranky babies often only attract indulgent smiles here and sometimes comments like "Oh, how cute!" You see, loud babies are usually healthy babies and are thus considered good excuses to be happy.
Going back to my anecdote I was rounding up to the punchline and the class was fully with me here. Enthused, I went in for the kill. "So the kid is going absolutely wild here and the father is just standing helplessly while the child tears apart the store. Then the screen goes black and two words appear: 'Use Condoms.'"
There was a split second as the students quietly translated my words and then I was met with a resounding.... groan. Not the approving groan that Americans sometimes give, saying "Wow, that was totally unexpected! I had absolutely not seen that going there!" but a genuine groan of disgust. A crowd of undisguised irritation faced me as I stood by the lectern, desperately searching for a laughing face. One Mongolia student who had spent most of his life in Los Angeles before moving back to Ulaanbaatar haha-ed politely but nobody else would dignify my anecdote with anything more than strong annoyance.
The World Health Organization has been very active in Mongolia in the spreading of AIDS awareness and the various ways people can protect themselves. According to one survey taken in 2008 about 92% of the Mongolian population is aware of the basics of protecting themselves from HIV. Condoms are openly sold at all convenience stores and in general everybody knows the rules. Nevertheless my school does not encourage this policy or distribute pamphlets that encourage anything other than absinency. I had, in my coal-smoke, early-morning mental haze, forgotten this. I was not punished for my anecdote, of course. In fact, most of my students had already forgotten it by the end of the two-hour class. But I was strongly reminded of the fact that it was not just the school that chose the students but the students themselves whose personal values dictated their choices.
But I still think I told a damned funny story!
Before I continue onwards I should say that the next part of my blog entry could be considered somewhat anti-Christian. Though I loathe the Christian right, the use of the cross as political football and the belief that gay marriage is morally more repugnant than the casual acceptance of gross civilian casuality in the name of obtaining reconstruction contracts for political friends, I have nothing but the deepest love for the core tenants of Christianity that involve charity and the duty of doing good work for those who are less fortunate.
The people who have made my high school, college and post-graduate years among the best of my life so far are almost all devout Christians. You know who you all are, if any of you happen to be reading this blog right now. I love you all and I hope you will regard the next few paragraphs as mere musings on my part and not attacks on you. With hugs, love and the most fond rememberance, - Phoebe
Recently (around Christmas to be exact) I saw on the news that an American couple with two kids experienced a "Christmas miracle." The woman, while delivering her third child at a local hospital, suddenly went into cardiac arrest and flat-lined. She was declared clinically dead... as was the baby to whom she was giving birth. The woman was "dead" for thirty minutes before- with no real reason that the doctors could see- both her and the baby were suddenly revived. Their hearts started beating again and they both regained consciousness. Doctors could offer no explanation. As of the time the article went to press, both the woman and the neonate were in "good health." The husband hailed the event as an unalloyed "miracle" that only deepened his already great faith in Jesus Christ. More hard-nosed people might ask why Mr. Christ allowed the woman and baby to go into cardiac arrest in the first place, or why they were ultimately spared while millions of good people around the world are struck by disease and death. Why 250,000 innocent Haitians died horribly while Dick Cheney continues to live etc. etc. but that is merely a road into a well-traveled and ultimately hopeless debate. What caught my attention were a couple of lines near the end of the article. I have paraphrased them.
"When Mrs. ------- was asked if she had had any 'near-death' experiences involving white light, floating or other sensations that people who have been near death have reported, she said no. 'It was just like falling asleep,' Mrs. ------ said, 'I had no idea that anything had happened.'"
In other words, Mrs. --------- appears to have pretty convincing evidence that there really isn't anything after death. No heaven, no afterlife, nothing. I wondered if she was joining her husband in renewing his declaration of faith in Jesus. Was she quietly rethinking her life? Was she wondering now about the moral questions involved in instilling a belief in your children that you yourself do not now entirely hold to be true? Was she feeling nervous now about making very real sacrifices for future rewards that are- in the cold light (or lack of light) of her deathly experience- perhaps not as guaranteed as she had previously believed? Was she thinking about cutting back on her church hours and instead volunteering at a nursing home, developing a new hobby or (considering that she is now the mother of three very small children) simply relaxing? Or was she thinking of her husband who genuinely loved her and had just been through the traumatizing experience of believing he had just lost his wife and child? Would she spare his world further upheavel by continuing to follow through on Christian observances because even though Jesus might have been a bit tardy in a few areas her husband had stuck by her the entire time?
I come from a very Christian state in the US (Indiana) where most of my more religious high school classmates were carrying on the lessons that had been instilled by a staunch, church-going family background. At MIU the reverse is true: most students appear to be carrying on lessons instilled by the Christian church (the Protestant Church I believe, though my theological knowledge about the various stripes of Christianity is terribly meagre) DESPITE a staunch, family background that strongly encouraged a highly different type of life philosophy. Many of my students have suffered great ruptures in their relationships with their families when they converted to Christianity. I remember watching one fresh-faced young girl cheerfully chirping "Praise The Lord" while her friends filmed her for an amateur commercial that would promote MIU. Earlier that day over lunch she had told me, with eerie matter-of-factness, that her family back in Seoul had disowned her when she had decided to convert to Protestantism. She had not gone to Korea for a long time because she really didn't have anyone there anymore. I was reminded of a quote from "A Man for All Seasons" where Sir Thomas More hints, rather obliquely, that the more a person is required to sacrificed for a certain cause the more the person will cling to that cause desperately.
And indeed that statement was backed up by some good old-fashioned science. Specifically that statement was backed up by psychology. Six or seven years ago, while suffering through a Psychology 101 class in order to fulfill a science distribution requirement for my wholly humanities-oriented Bachelor's degree, I read a study concerning a science experiment. Twenty students were selected to perform some task that (they were told) would improve hand-eye coordination. Ten students were given a boring and frustrating task that they had to perform over the course of one hour. For this, they were compensated with twenty dollars. Not bad for an hour's work, especially for 1973 which was around the time this experiment was first put forward. The other ten students were given a boring and frustrating task that they had to perform over the course of THREE hours. These students were only compensated with a scant five bucks for the entire three hours of work. When later asked for a personal evaluation of the work, the well-compensated students pulled no punches. "Boring." "Worthless." "An utter waste of time." Fair evaluations since the experiment's architects had hoped for exactly that effect when they first put together the "hand-eye coordination" activity. Oddly, the poorly-compensated students were much kinder in their evaluations. "Calming." "Interesting." "I could feel my hand-eye coordination improving." This baffled the experimenters (or perhaps merely made them stroke their chins and say "Interesting...." since the architects of the experiment probably were already expecting this conclusion when they first started constructing the entire event). Shouldn't, if anything, the poorly-compensated students be even more damning in their evaluations? They had, after all, been the most hurt by it.
Apparently not. Sir Thomas More (or rather, the noble and refined gentleman that Sir Thomas More was portrayed as in "A Man for All Seasons") was right. Nobody wants to be a chump. Nobody wants to look at the yawning black abyss of past mistakes and think: "Oh my God, I've gotten nothing. I've given so much - my life, the love of my family, my belief system about the nature of existence itself, and gotten nothing in return." The more you've sacrificed, the more you refuse to back down. Who will be more tenacious when it comes to retaining religious idealism: my Indiana high school classmates with their tenderly-nurtured Christian roots or my MIU students who turned to Christianity despite their entirely different yet equally well-nurtured roots?
Of course none of my students are much older than eighteen so I find it unlikely that they have heavily sacrificed much of anything since they have not been on earth long enough to do so. Still, being in your late teens in the modern era means being on the cusp of a lot of events and it appears that many of my students are gearing up to dive into the heavy realities of life- as they should. While interviewing one of my students- a delicate, bird-like, bespectacled young man not named Yu-Min- I asked him what his plans were for the next five years.
"Well, I'm a Christian," said Yu-min, rubbing his hands together nervously. This interview would be 20 percent of his final grade for Conversational English. "I believe that the future is determined by God's will. My major here is IT- Information Technology. I want to concentrate specifically on medical equipment. Increased precision and delicacy in the way medical tools are used could really help people. I plan to go to Seoul National University for my graduate degree after I finish MIU... but of course if God has other plans for me then I must obey. I converted to Christianity five years ago. My family is not Christian and this summer will be the first time I will see them since my conversion." Yu-min smiled a small smile.. the smile of a man who knows that he has an uncomfortable and- most likely- unavoidable task in front of him, and said: "I will probably have to bring Christ to them... I know it is my duty."
"Going back to your major," I said, "What are your personal observations about the state of technology today? What, in your opinion, has been the most striking change in information technology over the last twenty years or so?"
"Twenty years?" Yu-min looked at me nervously, "Well, I was only born in 1993 so personally I cannot say but I think from a historical standpoint the most striking...."
I looked at little Yu-min as he continued to explain the various advances in digitalization, fiber optics and the miniaturization of core processors. Though he wasn't quite young enough to be my son I nevertheless found it easy to place myself in the shoes of his mother. What would happen if 104 pounds of teenage bespectacled earnestness explained to his mom that he knew far more about life and the very nature of existence than the woman who had actually brought him into the world? Would she be offended? Would she disown him? Or would she laugh, merely glad to see her son again after five years, and tell him to wash up for dinner after kissing him on the cheek? I desperately hoped for the latter.