Maintaining Mongolian Culture

Students assimilate without losing their heritage.

By Montie Martin
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
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Mongolian students often learn English at accelerated rates, and their relatively small numbers — 172 students in the Arlington public schools — compound the possibility of losing their unique background. Consequently, Mongolian students must find ways to overcome those challenges and retain their cultural heritage.

"Mongolian students adapt very well, very quickly," said Francesca Reilly-McDonnell, with the Arlington Public School ESOL/HILT program and member of the Mongolian School board. "Because so much of popular culture is in English, music, movies, and TV, it is important to maintain their culture. That’s the purpose of the Mongolian School, to maintain language and culture."

The Mongolian School of the National Capital Area was established in 2007, and currently enrolls 65 students taught by volunteers in the Mongolian community.

Ariel Wyckoff, who served with the Peace Corps in Mongolia from 2000-2002, helped open the Mongolian School with his Mongolian wife as a way to engage the community in Arlington. "We teach 10- to 15-year-olds how to read and write in Mongolia, as well as traditional dancing and martial arts."

The Mongolian presence in Arlington marks only the most recent wave of immigration. Mongolian immigrants began arriving in 1949 to escape political and religious persecution during the communist period. Many of these immigrants established communities in Baltimore, Md., Vineland N.J. as well as Philadelphia, Pa.

In 1990 the communist government was replaced with a democratic system following a student-led revolution. As the borders opened, Mongolians followed the American dream to Arlington, where they believed a sound education could provide the best opportunities for their families.

"The Mongolian community in Virginia was attracted by the high quality of education," said Alicia Campi, president of the U.S.-Mongolia Advisory Group. "These are professionals, urban and sophisticated, not from the countryside."

Tsolmon Uranchimeg, a mortgage broker who came to Arlington five years ago, volunteers at the Mongolian School every Saturday as a dance instructor. "In Mongolia I was not interested in dancing, but then I saw the dance class and I thought it was worth a try."

Uranchimeg, who also hosts a Mongolian language TV show, practices a form of dance known as Bielgee. "Bielgee evokes the countryside lifestyle. It emphasizes flexibility with the upper body, it developed from dancing inside next to a fire."

Mongolians are also noted for their flexibility as language learners. Because of the uniqueness of the Mongolian language, they have traditionally been required to learn another language in order to communicate with the outside world. Russian was taught in class during the communist period, and many families remain tri-lingual.

"My parents speak Russian and Mongolian, in the house I speak Mongolian, out of the house I speak English," said Gwyneth Batdelger, a forth grader at Arlington Science Focus Elementary School.

"I’m teaching American kids Mongolian," said Ragcha Tumendemberu, who worked as a teacher in Mongolia for 10 years before arriving in Arlington. "Teaching in the U.S. is totally different, and so interesting."

While the Mongolian School helps maintain cultural heritage, Mongolian students face unique challenges in terms of assimilating to the public school system.

"The role of homework is almost non-existent in Mongolia. Even at the university level, homework is taught inside the class," said Campi. "You go home to be with family and friends, parents do not necessarily see the importance of homework."

The cultural divide presents a clear need for counselors who understand the language and cultural background of new arrivals.

"If you are five and can ride a horse long distances, consider what is standard for five year olds in the U.S." said Rielly-Donnell. "It would be so nice to have a counselor at the high school level, it’s a goal, but it’s not easy to find someone with the language and the certification."

"As with other cultures, a counselor is important for things related to social integration with the American system," said Campi. "The challenge is that other jobs are higher paying compared to teaching, many educated Mongolians go to the private sector and the pool of teachers is quickly drained."

Nonetheless, Mongolian students tend to succeed, especially in regards to world history, including a sense of pride in Genghis Khan. Although mentioning his name was forbidden during communist rule, today he evokes a sense of pride.

"When we learn about Genghis Kahn in world history I have to smile," said Enkhzaya Nyam-ochir, a sophomore at Yorktown High School. "It makes me proud to be Mongolian."
Source:http://www.connectionnewspapers.com
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