Mongolian Poetry

John DwyerJohn Dwyer is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and blogger for The Good Men Project.  He currently resides in Washington, D.C.

Mongolian Poem - White Mountains

When I went to Mongolia to teach English through Peace Corps, I knew I would come back with at least one more tattoo. The only question was what would be the subject or inspiration? The tattoo I had inked in college combined my faith, friends, and love of Romantic poetry, so the bar was set high for the next one. It took the entire two years of my service to settle that question.

Asian tattoos are dangerous, and that has nothing to do with health regulations. In my travels, I have fallen in and out of love with Chinese characters, Cambodian script, and Japanese kanji. Seeing pictographs that are visual representations of ideas on a level beyond the Western alphabet, or letters that can be said to physically flow unlike the blocky typeset of the Romans, well, that's addictive to a writer. Asian alphabets also attract lonely high school boys, and frankly I would like to believe I put that phase firmly behind me. There are many reasons not to get the words for Warrior Poet inked on your body in Korean, and I would be remiss if I did not include the issue of verification. If you cannot read your own tattoo, maybe it deserves a second thought.

Landing in Mongolia, Chinggis Khaan International Airport greets travelers with three entirely different alphabets. There is English using the Romanized alphabet, Mongolian using Russia's Cyrillic alphabet, and Mongolian again, this time using the traditional script. After decades of suppression by first the Chinese, and then the Russians, Mongolia's traditional script is making a comeback. The traditional script, originally developed by Chinngis (Genghis to the Western World) Khaan so that messengers could write it without having to get off their horses, slides vertically down the page instead of horizontally. It has the utilitarian grace of a hammer or perfectly balanced sword.

It makes sense that many Peace Corps Volunteers are seduced by re-emerging alphabet. American arms and ribcages end up being permanently adorned by the alphabet, but I fought against it. In the community I lived in, I drilled my fourth and fifth graders daily with the ABC's. In my ger, the felt tent I called home, I tweaked tattoo designs based on the soyombo, Mongolia's national symbol that appears on everything from vodka to the flag. I intended to avoid letters completely when getting inked.

After my first year of teaching, I took my design with me to the capital during summer break. I visited a tattoo artist that Volunteers favor because he studied in New York until his visa expired, and possibly a little longer. While holding the tattoo gun against my skin, he quizzed me on the soyombo's meaning. He nodded in approval while I showed off my knowledge about how the circle and crescent were the sun and moon, the vertical lines were for strength and vigilance against neighboring enemies, and the triple flame on top was borrowed from Buddhism. When I thought I had passed the test, I stopped and waited to hear about how well I had studied. However, instead of heaping on accolades, the artist said only: "It's also the letter A."

Turns out the soyombo was the first letter in an alphabet created by Zanabazar, a Mongolian who is considered Asia's version of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. Now venerated as a saint, Zanabazar composed music, contemplated theology, and created an absurdly complex alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism. Look up the soyombo, ye Mighty, and despair at having to use an alphabet with such intricate letters.

Once I realized that despite all my efforts, I had gotten a tattoo that used an alphabet I could not read, I decided to capitulate completely. Mongolian script looks awesome, so why resist the temptation? Yet, I retained one caveat - I wanted to be able to read my tattoo. I returned to my community with all the study materials I could find on learning Mongolian script.

My two greatest resources were a half-transcribed copy of "The Secret History of the Mongols," and a collection of poems. The Secret History was a sizable work attributed to Chinggis Khaan, but would have been worthless to me without the poems which had an assortment of transcriptions for the phonetics, and translations into the Cyrillic alphabet or even occasionally into English.

The poems also lead to one of my favorite English lessons for my 9th grade classes. I had originally asked some of the Mongolian teachers I was closest to for help learning the traditional script. I would sit in the teachers' room, writing and rewriting the alphabet, but could rarely entice anyone to do more than write their name for me. Honestly, I was often extremely angry that no one seemed willing to take the time to help me when I had moved all the way to Mongolia to teach English and live in a community that had literally no other Westerners. Later, I learned about the cultural suppression that only recently ended in the '90s, and felt quite embarrassed over my emotions. Many of my fellow teachers would not have had the opportunity to learn the alphabet that was their own cultural heritage until they were studying at the university, if at all.

In the meantime, I figured that if the teachers wouldn't help me, maybe the students would. I noticed that as early as fifth grade they had textbooks with traditional writing in them. So I made a lesson around a short poem, White Mountains, which I had in Mongolian script and English translation. To be safe, I made the lesson for my oldest students, 9th grade. The poem itself is in the accompanying picture, and a brief summary of the lesson plan follows:

  • Alphabet song (5 min); my students were too cool to do their homework, but rarely too cool to sing.
  • Matching Alphabets (7 min); jumbled columns of Cyrillic and English alphabets were written on the board, students individually wrote them down and matched corresponding letters. The first student to finish correctly had the honor of showing off and matching the letters I had written on the board.
  • Translation of script to Cyrillic (10 min); to my students' endless amusement, I scratched the traditional script on the board and had individual students come up, correct my scrawls, and write English letters that made similar sounds.
  • Teacher aided translation into English (8 min); I actually had a student write the poem on the board for me in script, then as a class, we translated the poem into English.
  • Groups of four, each one picks a season (2 min); students arranged their desks into pods of four, and each group picks a paper at random from a pile. Each piece of paper has a season written on it.
  • Competition to brainstorm associations for the given season (8 min); each season had at least two groups working on it. After five minutes of brainstorming, the groups with the most words per season wrote their lists on the board. If the other groups had words missing from the list, they could add them afterwards.
  • Composition of weather/season poems; homework given for students to write their own poems. Since homework was rarely completed, it was an excuse to continue this lesson at a later point. On a review day, I could go over color and seasonal vocabulary and have students compose poems in class.

As a teacher, this lesson had everything I could desire. Most of the work, especially the writing, was done by the students, and it revolved around a subject I was interested in, poetry. My students were also extra excited by the chance to show off something they knew more about, Mongolian script. I even ended up borrowing one of the writing textbooks for a day, because as my student said, I obviously needed to study more than she did.

By my final summer in Mongolia, I could read almost as well as I could speak the language - which isn't saying much, but it was enough. I finished my soyombo with a healthy spattering of traditional script surrounding it. When people find out that my tattoo is in Mongolian, they inevitably ask what it says. I like to change to translation each time because it doesn't matter so much what it says as how it says it. Like a poem, I find it hard to argue that one interpretation is really more valid than another.

Created on: 
Monday, April 2, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents