On May 14 at around 5 o’clock, I walked out of my local children’s center feeling like one of the cotton ball clouds in the sky. We’d just torn down the set, stacked up the chairs and closed the doors on the biggest and last of my projects as a Peace Corps Volunteer. For all intents and purposes, I was done with my two year service.
TEDxArvaikheer was a nearly year in the making. I’d first gotten the idea at my Mid-Service Training in August when a fellow volunteer talked about her aimag’s fourth annual TEDx event. While TEDx is pretty well-known in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it was hard to believe that her countryside community had gotten on board and had successfully hosted their own event year after year. I don’t mean to imply that the people in her community were incapable of this; I just mean to point out that in a place that is not familiar with the concept of TED, how do you explain it?
In my experience, I had a really hard time selling the idea of TEDx to my counterparts, all of whom had never heard of it before.
“TEDx is like a lecture series,” I’d say, “but it’s not academic. It’s not boring because you don’t teach. But you can teach … through your ideas. You persuade someone of your idea. It’s all about ideas.”
At this point, people would nod politely and change the subject. I admit I was terrible at giving a good definition, but it was impossible to elucidate the purpose of TED without first showing a TED talk. Moreover, the most confounding part about TED talks for most people was that a speaker could do anything – a poem, a performance, a presentation – but at its core, s/he had be sharing a new and original idea.
I’d read enough essays from my students to know that this concept would be difficult to put to practice. Nearly every essay I’d ever read ended with “Be happy and successful!” or during Write On!, while the creativity was there, the commitment to that creativity was tenuous. It felt like ninety percent of the highly entertaining and fantastical stories ended with “…and then I woke up. It was all a dream.”
So in April, I organized what I called a TEDx Writers’ Workshop for the sole purpose of helping students find their TED-worthy idea. I divided the 33 participants into teams of eleven, each facilitated and led by a Peace Corps volunteer and a Mongolian English teacher. Over the course of three days, I taught the basics of public speaking, speech development and finding an idea while the facilitators guided and gave feedback to their group during the daily breakout sessions.
The pace was unforgiving; using a reflection worksheet and numerous one-on-one consultations, students had to figure out their new, original and interesting idea within a day and a half. They wrote their speeches in Mongolian or English and on the third day, auditioned for one of the six coveted TEDx speaker slots.
Many of the participants were also members of my community ‘Chatty Bunch’ club which I started in October to train up some public speakers for TEDx. We met for three hours every 2-3 weeks and spent the first semester just focused on acting. We covered voice control and body language; we had our own “Whose Line Is It Anyway” performances and in the spring, right before the Writers’ Workshop, finally started writing and presenting speeches.
I mention all of this to say that most of the students at the workshop were proficient enough in public speaking and also knew enough about essay writing that they could do it.
But again and again, the facilitators and I had to send them back to the drawing board for better examples and more specific ideas. We learned quickly that Mongolians are used to basing their opinions on general sweeping axioms like “Work hard and you will succeed” and “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” Honing in on the whys and how comes of their opinions often left students frustrated and diffident. In the words of one of the Mongolian facilitators, Lhama:
The students chose big topics including life-related proverbs, metaphors etc. They were not familiar with simple ones, i.e. their past etc. In Mongolia we are accustomed to using big topics, very big things to express our idea in a formal presentation. So TEDx is 100% different from Mongolian-type presentations. It is a way to express an idea in a very simple and easy way to others in comfortable ways, relating to your past life.
If after the workshop students didn’t completely get it, we at least challenged them to think critically about their beliefs and draw connections between specific life events and their personal scruples.
In the end, after a spectacular round of auditions, we chose our six students speakers – four girls and two boys – and that following weekend, took them to Ulaanbaatar to attend TEDxUEIS at the Elite International School.
The six weeks leading up to TEDxArvaikheer, I met with each speaker every week and battered them with more ‘why’s’ and ‘be more specific,please’ till they probably wanted to slide off their chairs like a noodle and disappear under the table. I am so proud of them though. On the day, each of them presented their speeches with poise and eloquence and left the room reverberating with applause. I hope so much that their ideas resonated with each of their peers in the audience.
Credit for the success of TEDxArvaikheer is also due to the ten wonderful student organizers who went above and beyond with their duties. They printed T-shirts where every organizer was one letter in ‘TEDxArvaikheer’ so that you could only make sense of our shirts when we stood together as a team. They hand-made and cut all the stage decorations (because online shipping isn’t a thing here) and our amazing designer/photographer created the hugely impressive banner that hung in lobby. They sold all our tickets in less than a week. They organized the program and hosted the event. They were the lights and sound and stage. I seriously couldn’t be more impressed with their creativity and work ethic.
Thank you also to my six TEDx Writers’ Workshop facilitators – Perrin, Phoebe, Ian, Lhamaa, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa. You made all three days of the workshop seem like a breeze; I can’t express how grateful I am that you helped make this possible for me.
Special gratitude to World Vision for sponsoring our lunches during the workshop and getting us to Ulaanbaatar for TEDxUEIS.
To Bookbridge for your enthusiastic support and sending Lhamaa all the way from Huvsgul to be a part of my workshop.
To our private donors – Uranchimeg, Undelgur, Munkhtuya and Save the Children – for donating t-shirts, printing, lanyards and gifts.
And to my school, 2nd School, and the Children’s Center for donating their spaces to the cause.
And finally, to my two co-organizers, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa: Thank you. You both are such motivated, hard-working, sharp, zealous and funny women. Everyone who knows you two knows that I won the Peace Corps lottery of counterparts and there simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe how much I have enjoyed working with you these two years. From making money fall like rain (through in-kind donations and sponsorship) to translating everything that came out of my mouth, you two are my super heroines. You will always be a very special part of my time in Mongolia and I am so utterly happy that we could make these memories together.
What a wonderful two years it’s been.