Blinding light. The old floodlight, its protective lens missing, illuminated my face and the entire stage. I squinted out into the crowd, their faces lost in the bright white, I knew they were there, the town’s culture center was filled to bursting. All had come to see the teachers perform for Mongolian Independence Day. The holiday itself would fall two days later on Saturday but the town had elected to hold the performance on Thursday, November 24th, Thanksgiving. I swallowed hard and glanced down at the loaned electric guitar I was instructed to play with. “Designed In the USA!” the headstock bragged. I stole another glance at the soundbox to see Damdin, the school’s P.E. teacher and musical efficinato, eyeing me encouragingly. I inched a little closer to the microphone and summoned some Mongolian for the short speech I prepared.
Earlier that month:
My body jerked left and right as the two tailors and one child tugged on the felt belt that held my new Mongolian deel together. Finally when they were satisfied and I felt as though all the air had been squeezed from my lungs they took a step back and held a mirror in front of me. The long flowing robe went town to just past my knees, held together with simple cloth buttons and a felt belt, I was assured by the tailor that the traditional everyday Mongolian wear would be warm and make me look like a proper citizen. I expressed my gratitude for her hard and quick work in making my deel then left to head back to school. Looking for one of my counterparts I wanted to find a way to express my gratitude to the teachers and my director as well. When I was told I needed a deel for the upcoming Mongolian holiday my director promptly had the materials purchased from Ulaanbaatar and brought back to our town. When I offered payment he refused, “It is a gift from our school.” So when I finally ran into Bolormaa, my fellow English teacher I asked her how I should thank everyone. She told me there would be a teacher’s meeting that very night. Perfect.
Two days before concert:
“Angle hel duu!” (English song!) Damdin exclaimed excitedly when I asked him what song I should perform for the concert after just learning it was two days away. After he narrowed it down to three English songs “all Mongolian’s know” I opted out of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, and decided to return to what has slowly been turning into my Peace Corps alma matar. As well as my performance I planned on giving a surprise intro speech to thank the school, as the teacher’s meeting, unsurprisingly never occurred. I had practicing to do and new Mongolian words to learn.
I cleared my throat and laughed nervously looking out over the silent crowd. I started out as planned, thanking my director, the teachers, and the school staff for all chipping in to buy me such a warm and beautiful deel. I carried on to thank the whole town for hosting me, helping me, and being so understanding and generous. For letting me be a part of their lives and always making sure my ger was warm. Unbeknownst to the attentive townspeople I was sharing with them the true meaning of the American holiday they knew nothing about. When I finished they clapped and I looked down to the soundbox at Damdin. He gave me a nod and the man sitting next to him, whom before the show mimed playing a Jimi Hendrix style guitar solo asking if I would play the real thing, gave me a thumbs up. He’s gonna be disappointed, I thought. I strummed a C chord and played.
After the show, me and Dakraa walked home together from the culture center. Within the first several paces of our walk we exhausted the typical idle conversation our language barrier would allow. “How did you like the concert?” “Are you cold?” As we walked in silence I glanced around the dark town, seeing different shades of grey smoke billowing from the tops of gers and houses, to wisp up into a night sky full of stars. In the quiet cold night Dakraa hummed a tune from the concert as we neared our yard. Recognizing it immediately I joined in, together we hummed “Let It Be” as our homes came into view.