Monthly Archives: February 2014

View From the Expat Window


The view from my office

Expat life involves so much learning about your host country. All kinds of basic things that we take for granted at home seem unfamiliar here. I was reminded this morning of how off balance we were our first year in Malaysia, how we never knew when the holidays were. I was working in a round-the-clock NGO, and the husband was working from home, so neither of us was in a 9-to-5 world. Add to that our complete ignorance of Muslim and Hindu holidays, and, well, we were always the losers at the expat parties who had no idea there was a three day weekend coming up. I thought about that this morning when Himself texted to say there was no one in his office and he had no idea why. Oh, here we go again…

In Mongolia we both are in offices with mostly regular schedules, but because of our work, we get quite particular views of the country. The husband is working in local government to improve city services. He knows all about garbage collection, the city’s centralized heating system and how people get water — stuff that most expats and plenty of locals never think about. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR to its friends), and I’ve learned that one of the biggest obstacles for people is that this is a small country. Not small geographically, because another obstacle is having to travel a long way to a clinic, but small-town small. As in: you go in for birth control or some kind of checkup, and the doctor is an old friend of your granny’s and the receptionist dated your brother. It’s VERY awkward for people, especially teenagers. And I find this a fascinating little cultural nugget.

On the other hand, taking taxis is still really stressful for me because I can’t always describe where we live. I’m going to an NGO fundraising event tomorrow night and was actually discouraged from making a donation — huh? Daily office life is full of little surprises because I don’t understand what’s being said around me. And the husband’s office was mysteriously empty this morning.

What we do know is weird stuff.

Here’s another example from working in children’s rights in Malaysia: There’s a Malaysian island called Pulau Ketam (“Crab Island”) that I heard about early on as a notorious drop-off point for human traffickers and as a site where dogs were abandoned. Horrifying, right? It was at least a year later that I found out the island actually is famous as a day excursion for the food — crab, duh. You’d think I’d have picked up the food connection, but I had no idea that normal people just go there to eat.


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IMG_0962It’s definitely colder these days, unusually for February. “Colder” meaning don’t want to go out cold. In December and January people kept saying that it was warmer than usual; now, when it should be getting a little warmer, it’s colder. “Colder” meaning highs in the -20’s C/-10F in the middle of the day, and bits of things freeze on your face. My eyes water, which then causes my eyelashes to form little icicles, and the condensation on my scarf freezes and sticks to wet patches on my face.

We’ve made our home as comfortable as possible to get through the winter, and we have a well-stocked library, pantry, bar and Apple TV. (Just discovered “True Detective” last night — wow.) We make our own bread and yogurt, plus we’re growing herbs from seeds that my mother-in-law very thoughtfully gave us last summer. It’s like “Little House on the Steppe” here with all the DIY projects.

The problem is that staying at home, even for people as physically lazy as we can be, gets old after awhile. I just bundled up to go for a walk around town, and it felt good to move around and get some air. But there’s not much to do. The city set up a little skating rink in the main square, which I tried and won’t do again without some decent skates. And there’s a small ski area about an hour outside the city. Some people go hiking and horse riding, too. Maybe I’m too soft, too lazy or not desperate enough, but being outside for more than, oh, 45 minutes seems really unpleasant.

I guess what I’m saying is that we’ve created such a cosy little interior life that we don’t have much incentive to go out. And so we don’t, much, except for work and running errands. Mongolia has an amazing outdoor life and landscapes, but we’re not hardcore enough to enjoy that during the winter, and the urban life is fine, but fairly limited (I’ll write about some of the arts and performances another time). So, we’re hibernating comfortably and it works, except when I get restless and a bit stir-crazy. You Polar-Vortex sufferers probably know the feeling.

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Pondering Development in Mongolia

IMG_0787“International development” is hard to define, but generally refers to programs funded, and often undertaken by, international organizations to strengthen institutions of a country such that poverty is reduced, health is improved, rule of law is followed, and civil society is strengthened. The government of the country is involved by necessity at least minimally. Ideally, development priorities and programs are established with cooperation and input from international organizations, governments and civil society organizations, so that each perspective is included.

LOTS of international organizations are working here in Mongolia: the UN agencies, such as UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UNFPA; the World Bank; the Asian Development Bank; international NGOs, such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps, The Asia Foundation. In addition, there are government-linked volunteer programs. The Peace Corps is very active here, with up to 140 volunteers placed in towns and rural areas, and there Australian Civilian Corps volunteers working in Ulaanbaatar, many placed in Ministries and departments of the Mongolian government. Aid funding comes from big international donors, such as the EU, USAID, Australian Aid, JICA and KOICA (from Japan and Korea), Swiss Aid, plus small grants from the embassies and consulates here. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, but you get the picture.

(Disclaimer: while both the husband and I are working in the development field, we are relatively new to this work. I don’t pretend to have anything like a full view of what’s happening in Mongolia, nor do I have any idea what development is like in other places. All I’ve seen is a tiny bit of two countries. So, these are just my limited impressions.)

I’m researching the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Mongolia, which means going through a lot of data. And I’m astonished at the amount and quality of information that’s available, both data and analysis. All the UN agencies and the World Bank produce papers and short overviews describing the areas in which they’re working: the situation for children, economic growth, the environment, human rights, maternal health — you name it. The Mongolian government cooperates in compiling this information, through the National Statistics Office, various Ministries and the universities. Mongolia also has signed on to 40+ international treaties, many of which require regular reporting on implementation.

This is really different from our experience working in Malaysia, where the big international NGOs were basically kicked out in the 1980’s and civil society is weak. The remaining UN agencies keep a very low profile, mostly trying to support local NGOs to do direct service and policy advocacy work. Focusing on the small NGOs means there’s very little good data and analysis, however, because the local NGOs have neither the expertise nor the resource to do that kind of work. It’s good to build capacity, of course, but in the years it takes to build that capacity there is no quality information available.

I look at Mongolian version of reports I, personally and collaboratively, worked on for Malaysia, and the contrast is stunning. Why is UNICEF Mongolia able to produce a comprehensive, 100 page, easy-to-read analysis of juvenile justice — complete with the legal framework, solid statistics, analyses of each component of the process, and actual child participation? Whereas in Malaysia it seemed we just chased our tails, sniped with UNICEF and couldn’t get government to talk to us, much less contribute in any way.

Personal feelings aside, there are bigger questions here. Is this what happens when a government welcomes international assistance? Mongolia has a welcome-all-comers attitude, including “warm” relations with North Korea, whereas Malaysia is very much aligned with Southeast Asian and Islamic countries and chooses friends based on those alliances. How does a country know when it’s had enough help? Because it’s easy to make the wrong decision, relying too heavily and not developing local skills, or relying too little and not developing local skills. And obviously data and analysis are nothing without the leadership and political will to make decisions based on information rather than the temptation of short-term political gains.

I feel like Malaysia has chosen the wrong path at this intersection, and I don’t know how things will progress in Mongolia. Being here now is fascinating because we are watching, and participating in our small ways, real-time choices and progress.

Please do comment if you have experiences or thoughts about the development field (or even if you don’t — we’re welcome-all-comers at this blog, too), especially if you’re Mongolian or have worked in Mongolia. This is a big topic, and I expect to post again about it.

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Tokyo Weekend


Mt. Fuji at sunset from our hotel

Tokyo is a lot of fun. It’s a 24-hour city, full of new experiences — no matter what you think you’ve done before, you will be surprised in Tokyo.

(N.B. You don’t come to this blog for the photography, because my pictures suck. Instead, you should go to my friend Magie Crystal’s blog, where you can see many gorgeous photos and read her thoughtful words about Tokyo. Here’s a good place to start.)

IMG_0977As mentioned in my last post, it was the Tsagaan Sar holiday, celebrating the Lunar New Year in Mongolia. We hadn’t really understood how much would be closed in UB, and it turned out to be a good time to have left town. Amid our neighborhood-exploring, friend-seeing, errand-running and Japanese-food-eating, there were a few highlights. Very reflective of modern, urban Tokyo.

After I got to cuddle with a couple of therapy dogs on the way (no real life photo, but I love that straightforward slogan), we spent Saturday morning at an art space. シケモクUpstairs from a department store, sharing the eighth floor with the neighborhood emergency preparedness center, are galleries, a small museum and a work/lounge space for artists to work and meet — kind of a combination shared office and club for creative people, in a good way. The first gallery had an exhibit up called “Spring Has Cum” that featured erotic woodblock prints and collage versions of well-known Japanese art images. Next to that was a show of small, cheerfully-colored paintings of trees that really had, well, nothing to say after the collage of the woman in an embrace with an octopus… You can imagine.

20140201_123418The museum, d47, features exhibits made by artists and craftspeople from the 47 provinces of Japan. The current show is textiles: woven, embroidered, indigo-dyed, linens, wools, some made into things — clothes, bags, etc. — and others in pieces that you could touch. I feel my mother rolling her eyes from the other side of the globe, but they were beautiful, and it was fun to think of the artists from all over the country. Paired with the museum is a restaurant that serves food from the various provinces, where we had a very healthy lunch of seasonal vegetables and grilled fish.

Which was good, because: dinner.

Tokyo is sort of famous for its subcultures, and that’s part of what I love about it — every obsessive, niche interest has a home here. There are model train bars and cat cafes and clubs for people who want to dress as manga characters or cowboys. So imagine how welcome I felt when we found a cheese bar right near our hotel! This is a tiny, sophisticated place, probably a former sushi bar, that could seat ten comfortably, with a glorious selection of cheeses and the wines and beers to complement them.

Here’s what made it so Japanese: A) The proprietor was playing some kind of collectors-item-double-boxed-set of the Carpenters the whole time we were there. Nonironically, and with no songs repeated over two and a half hours. Did you even know that the Carpenters had covered “Day Tripper”? B) THE PLACE IS OPEN UNTIL 5:00 A.M.

What kind of crazy person crawls in at 4:00 a.m. for one last round of Pont L’Eveque? Who misses the last train home over a slice of Cabrales?

See? Isn’t Tokyo great?

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