Pamela MacNaughtan


Student: “You have Justin Bieber on your iPod?”

Me: “Umm, no. I don’t listen to a lot of Pop music.”

Student “But he is very good, yes?”

Me: “Oh yes, very good.”

That’s the part where my Pinocchio nose would have sprouted and grown into a bloody forest. However, I was not in North America where my response would have been thick with sarcasm. I was in Mongolia. Thousands and thousands of miles away from mass media influences and public perceptions. In this way, Mongolia seems young and innocent. Untouched.

When I arrived in Mongolia I was struck down with a nasty cold. Traveling from the heat of Thailand to a country with temperatures of -20c was not the wisest decision. I spent about a week in and out of bed and I rarely went outside. However, once I was feeling a little better, I started to ask the owners about volunteer opportunities.

I originally asked if there was an orphanage I could go to. The owners were not sure of anything available at the time but said they would ask around. A few days later I was walking upstairs after my shower when the owner called me over to the desk.

“I have a lady on the phone. She runs a school, teaching English. She was looking for volunteers to come over today and talk with the students. Do you want to go?”

“Sure. I’ll quickly get dressed. What time?”

“She come and get you in 15 minutes.”


With that, I ran to my room, threw on some warm-ish clothes (which consisted of a scarf, woolen hat, mittens and my yoga jacket), put on my boots and mentally prepared myself for the bitter cold outside.

Odontuya was a super nice girl. As we drove to the school she explained that the school belonged to her Mother and that she was running it while her Mother was away. The school teaches English to kids as young as 7 years old and goes up in age from there.

The class I would be interacting with were adults.

The classroom was small but cozy. At the front of the classroom was a large whiteboard, along with a small TV and CD player. The outside wall was all windows and the back of the room displayed charts and posters. In the center were a few tables and chairs. As I walked into the room I was greeted by the stares of 6 students. 5 boys and 1 woman. I smiled, took off my scarf and hat and took a seat. The teacher introduced me and promptly left the room.

Eeeek! Um, where was he going? He was going to come back, right?! This was my first time in a foreign classroom setting. These students were not children I could be goofy with, these students were adults. Crap. What do I do now?! I had a slight mental panic attack before asking the students for their names.

Similar to young adult students in most of Asia, most of these students had given themselves an English name. However, there were a few who had not. Which meant I ended up repeating their names over and over again and butchering their name every time I’d say it. Thankfully, my attempt to pronounce a Mongolian name received some laughter and I was able to calm down a little more.

For the next hour, we sat and talked. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. I had had conversational English experiences in China, but clearly, these students were on a lower level. I needed to talk as if I were interacting with young children, but it was hard when the students were in University to become Engineers or working as mechanics.

The oldest student and probably one of the newer students was a Mother. With the help of the guy sitting next to her, she explained that she wanted to learn English so she could get a better job. Her children were grown now and she wanted to work to keep herself busy. I was impressed. Not many older adults would take the time to learn an entirely new (and somewhat complicated) language. As I spoke with the group, I tried to include her. However, she would get nervous, flip through her English workbook and then end up speaking Mongolian to the guy next to her, who would then translate.

Our conversation topics covered everything from music (Justin Bieber) to what it’s like to live in Canada. I also answered several questions about why I was in Mongolia, why I chose to come to Ulaanbaatar, what I was doing there and when I would come back.

Time flew by quickly, and before I knew it one of the brighter students announced that it was time to go. Ummm, ok then. I stood up with the others, grabbed my scarf and walked into the office to thanks Odontuya for allowing me to come over before getting bundled up and walking back to the guesthouse.

Volunteering a couple hours of my time to have conversational English was not a huge effort, but it was totally worth it. At the end of the experience, I had a better understanding of Mongolia and its people and a few Mongolians knew more about Justin Bieber, pop music, and Canada.

What was the result of my volunteer experience?

The walk back to the guesthouse was longer and a lot colder than I had anticipated, but I spent that time reflecting on the people and culture of Mongolia. Any bitterness I had due to being sick left me and I had a stronger desire to learn more. When I finally arrived back at the guesthouse, I sought out the owner and asked if there was a group tour leaving within the next few days. There was. I signed up, forked over the money and spent 3 days traveling with 5 other backpackers and staying with local families in their Gers.


  • Ceri

    March 6, 2011

    Thank you for that wonderful post. I’m currently applying to schools in Central/South America to study to become an English Language teacher. Your post made me think about how much fun it’ll be to interact with people from other cultures. I think us Brits have a very dry sense of humour so that’ll be one thing I’ll have to drop .. I can imagine it would be so hard to get that across.


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