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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Respect for Authority

Asia, Mongolia


For most of the 20th century, Mongolia was a socialist state under the strict shadow of the Soviet Union. When the Russian influence and aid ended abruptly in the early 1990s, Mongolia was left to start a market economy on its own from scratch. The adjustment has been slow and painful, but 15 years later, the economy has stabilized and is beginning to grow.

Much of the old bureaucracy, social structures, and norms remain, however. Certain things have been ingrained, and they are difficult to change. My experience with people in Mongolia concerning respect for authority is a prime example. Mongolians follow the orders of their bosses, teachers, and superiors with military precision. When people in authority give orders, what they say is law; there is no criticism. It's easy to see how such a disciplined people built an army that conquered most of the known world 800 years ago. But to someone coming from the United States , this subordination to authority seems more harmful than good in this day and age. As a teacher in an economics university here, I have found that getting students to speak up in class and to hold a discussion is often painfully difficult. Most of the classes my students have had have been lectures where they sit quietly and do not interact.

But in the example that follows, the Mongolian people amazed me—in a positive way—as they have in countless other situations. Recently I was asked to give a talk to a group of Mongolian young people about elections in America. One of my co-workers casually asked me nearly a week in advance to give the talk, an eternity in this culture of spontaneity. He didn't give me any more details than the time and place for the talk. Saturday morning finally rolled around and I made my way across town to the youth center with a work counterpart who could be my translator if I needed one. (My Mongolian vocabulary lacked the technical words for me to give the talk entirely in Mongolian, and few people here speak English.)

I arrived at the old concrete youth center to banners and crowds of people standing outside. After registering and receiving a press packet of information, I learned I was actually at a liberal youth empowerment conference for 200 young people from all over the province. And apparently the definition of youth in Mongolia is anyone between the ages of 18 and 35. With credentials to wear around my neck, I began to realize this was more than an informal speech to grade-school students about elections. The conference program now listed:

10:00 a.m.—Professor Jonathan Phillips from the Economics University . "Issues of young people in America, differences between American and Mongolian youth, and how the Mongolian youth must assert itself in politics."

Although I had ceased being surprised months before by anything that happened to me in Mongolia, the news was slightly alarming, because I realized I was ill-prepared. The word election was listed nowhere, even in the title of the program. And now I was "Professor Jonathan Phillips," a lofty title I would never dream of attaching to my name here. I was usually just Jon bagsha , or Teacher Jon, to my students.

So my translator, Tsogbayar, and I regrouped and went over some new vocabulary I would need, with about 10 minutes before we were supposed to speak. We then stepped to the podium and winged it.

As I looked out at the audience, I recognized many of the smiling faces as students from my school. I smiled back, a little comforted, but secretly thought to myself, "Why didn't you warn me about this?" I talked about issues young people in America faced and they seemed interested. I talked about some differences between American and Mongolian youth and they drifted a bit. I was speaking especially conservatively because I had learned that it was neither culturally appropriate nor my place as a Peace Corps Volunteer to stir up controversy, especially in the sphere of politics. I also considered it rather arrogant and in poor taste to talk up my America as something that was superior, which Mongolia should aspire to. Gradually my speech was getting boring.

Annoyed with the disinterested faces, I switched gears and went into uncharted territory. I talked about Mongolian youth being overly passive. I was briefly interrupted by a smattering of agreeing claps. Those who had dozed off were back. I talked about how the system would never change unless people made themselves heard. Lots of clapping. I said authority needed to be challenged at times. Tsogbayar even pounded the lectern once during the translation. The audience erupted. The atmosphere was approaching that of a pep rally. Figuring I should wrap things up before a revolution started, I reminded people that they now lived in a democracy and it was their duty to be politically active, and then I quickly stepped down from the stage. An ovation followed that included loud, rhythmic clapping that is always used to show special approval or agreement. It's quite an ironic ending, because that coordinated clapping had always reminded me of old Mother Russia for some reason. Some of us in the Peace Corps even called it the "communist clap."

The conference went on to be hugely successful. Issues were debated, the audience asked questions, people criticized the system, ideas were brainstormed on how students would organize, and everyone left that evening feeling motivated. It was a delight to watch democracy in action. I know my speech had little to do with most of the discussions that day, but I felt especially satisfied because I felt I had helped to set the tone for open discussion.

Life here in Mongolia is in rapid transition. I'm fortunate to be involved in it and observe it firsthand. People are discovering more and more that they have a power to initiate change and decide their own futures, as they never had before. Democracy is becoming much more than the obscure, lifeless word it once was.

About the Author

Jonathan Phillips

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in western Mongolia, Jonathan Phillips served as a business and economic development Volunteer.

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