Thursday, April 24, 2014

LeRoy man teaching science in Mongolia

LeRoy native Craig Draper-Johnson wasn't comfortable simply being comfortable, so he decided to add some challenges to his life.

Draper-Johnson, 25, graduated from Pine River High School in 2006 and in 2011 earned a degree in elementary education with a science specialty from Southwest Minnesota State University.

After he received his degree, Draper-Johnson began looking for a job that would allow him to teach and coach wrestling, a sport that has been one of his biggest passions since high school.

For the next few years, he taught high school students and coached wrestling in Minnesota.

Before too long, however, his mind began to wander.

"I had moved from small town, to small town, to small town, and wanted something new," Draper-Johnson wrote in an email to the Cadillac News.

"Both schools I was at in Minnesota were and still could be great fits for me to settle down in, teaching and coaching until I retire (ultimately what I believe I will end up doing). I just wasn't ready to settle down at 25."

Thus began Draper-Johnson's efforts to completely change the surroundings of his life.

"I applied all over the world through a few (websites) dedicated to bringing teachers and international schools in contact with one another," he said. "I avoided places in Europe and North America, because I felt like adjusting to those places would be too easy, and wouldn't be the challenge/change I was looking for."

Eventually, the American School of Ulaanbaatar, located in the largest city in the Asian country of Mongolia, expressed interest in hiring Draper-Johnson as an elementary science teacher. Administrators also wanted him to start a program for wrestling, which is a very popular sport in Mongolia.

"After a little research, I decided Mongolia would be more than enough of a challenge, and so far I've been right," Draper-Johnson said. "This year has been very interesting, stressful, enjoyable, and rewarding."

How is Mongolia different than America?

Being from a small town, Draper-Johnson is used to saying "hello" to complete strangers, which is a custom in many places in America.

He said strangers in Mongolia, however, are not very friendly at first glance. "Most Mongolians come off very cold or distant until you get to know them," he said. "After I've gotten to know some Mongolians, both in and out of school, they are incredibly nice. They take pride in being very hospitable, especially during Tsagaan Tsar, their new years celebration. It stems from when Mongolians were very nomadic, and this was their time to travel and see their relatives that they rarely saw."

Draper-Johnson said another one of the main differences between America and Mongolia is the traffic.

Because there are too many cars in Ulaanbaatar, only certain license numbers can drive on certain days — a measure to cut down on traffic volume.

“It doesn't help everyone drives as if they were riding horses in the countryside, going wherever they feel, whenever they feel, especially if there is an opening,” Draper-Johnson said.

In terms of how Mongolians perceive Americans, Draper-Johnson said most are very welcoming, although among a small number of men, animosity exists toward the idea of an American man dating a Mongolian woman.

“Mongolian men dating foreign women is fine,” he said. “The thought process is that to be a Mongolian, it is passed down from the father. But people with this thought are few and far between and often drunk. I've been on a handful of dates and never had a problem. Acquaintances have though.”

As for similarities between American and Mongolian culture, Draper-Johnson said students from both countries are in many ways identical.

“The students at ASU are well behaved and respectful,” he said. “In general, there are very few problems with behavior issues. It has been interesting to me how similar students are here to students in the states. They still play on their phones, they still forgot their homework, they are still kids just the same as kids anywhere else. Worried about Facebook, twitter, boyfriends and girlfriends...etc.”

Mongolia rests between Russian and China on the map — a relatively stable area with little chance for terrorism or kidnappings, Draper-Johnson said.

“The further you get from the city center, you don't go to pubs or night clubs,” he said. “There is also a 'black market' where they sell odds and ends. It's basically a big flea market, but pickpocketting can be an issue there. Other than that, I haven't had much trouble at all.”

Economy-wise, Draper-Johnson said he sees a lot of very poor people and a lot of very rich people, but not many in between.

During his time in Mongolia, some of Draper-Johnson's proudest moments outside the classroom have come on the wrestling mat, where he had the opportunity to compete with some of the best grapplers in the country.

“I am hoping to watch and possibly compete in Naadam, which is a large festival in the summer,” he said.

After he finishes a two year contract teaching in Mongolia, Draper-Johnson said he plans to look for more international teaching jobs.

"I want to see a few more places, possibly Southeast Asia, South America, or possibly Europe," he said. "We'll see. Sooner or later, I'll return to either Michigan or Minnesota to teach and coach wrestling."

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