Show Me a Peace Corps Volunteer

April 17, 2014

This isn’t mine, but I read each paragraph nodding my head in agreement. So many of my blogs are summed up in this PCV’s single blog entry that I feel it’s worth sharing.

Show Me a Peace Corps Volunteer.

But, you’ve come all this way, I should give you something of my own, too. So, I’ll just say, it’s strange being this close to the end. I actually counted–I have 20 more classroom days. That’s it.

I’ll need to buy dish-washing liquid soon and even if I buy the small bottle, I won’t finish it before I leave.

My ear doctor, and a few of her friends, comprise my newest English club. Due to the nature of their work, these conversations are more intense than the other English clubs. The pediatrician talked about a boy who had been scalded by boiling water. The ear doctor talked about removing a live tick from a patient’s ear canal; she drew a picture–it was HUGE.

Last summer, I accompanied my M22 site-mates on their flight to UB. I was at the airport to witness their entire departments, some 20 people,  come to see them off. It was 7am! There was a milk offering, vodka sipping, gift giving, and speech making. The sincere emotion of it was too much for me and it wasn’t even my goodbye.

In fits and starts, I’m thinking about my return to America. I started to create a LinkedIn profile, which was promptly put on hold on account of my unusual first name. That’s straightened out now, but I’m stuck on how to summarize this experience. Which, I guess, brings me back to this “Show me a Peace Corps Volunteer” blog that I’ve linked above.


staff

April 11, 2014

Twice a year, in the fall and the spring, staff members fan out across the country for Site Visits. This just happened in March, and it was during this visit that I realized that something was missing from this blog and I aim to correct that here.

When I received the invitation to serve in Peace Corps/Mongolia, I didn’t actively think about who I’d be working with. I knew I’d live with a Mongolian host family for PST, and I knew that in my permanent site I’d have Mongolian counterparts. But if I’d been asked to imagine who made up the Peace Corps staff in Mongolia, I’d probably have assumed they were American. Well, I would have been wrong. Key positions—Country Director, Director of Management and Operations, Director of Programming and Training, and our Medical Officers—are staffed by Americans. And they are supported by a staff of amazing, highly skilled, and effective Mongolians.

If you think about it, it makes sense that the staff would be Mongolian because of the language skills and cultural knowledge necessary to interact with the host families when placing new PCTs, HCAs when placing newly minted PCVs, not to mention Immigration, Police, Ministries of Education, Health, etc., and even issues of office space, transportation and lodging for group-wide PC events, and likely many more things I’m not thinking of. But, if I didn’t explicitly say that there’s a Mongolian to American ratio of 3-to-1, I have an idea that you’d think as I thought. But, I don’t just want you to know that there are more Mongolians than Americans on staff; I want you to appreciate them as I (we) do.

We had lots of Safety and Security sessions during PST, and again at IST and MST, and our Director of Safety and Security gives it to us straight. Being a foreigner in Mongolia makes us more noticeable, and could mark us as a target if someone was looking for one. Our DSS breaks down the difference between walking in UB vs. walking in our community or walking alone vs. walking in a group. She reminds us that we are here as representatives of the United States and that, as such, reacting to a situation as we would in the States (e.g., punching a guy in the face) would have serious repercussions for the reputation of Peace Corps in Mongolia. As we are a Peace Corps, first and foremost, we discussed conflict resolution strategies and ways to de-escalate a situation. But, training in itself is not a deterrent to crime, and despite vigilance on the part of most Volunteers, things do happen (I think pick-pocketing, especially in UB, is the most common). When they do, our DSS is the go-to person. One M24’s experience with harassment highlights the capability of the Safety and Security staff.

Besides Site Visits, one of the ways PC keeps informed of our undertakings is through the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF). A few weeks after submitting my VRF in January, my Regional Assistant called me to discuss. Her ideas were specific and plentiful. They were things I hadn’t thought of yet, though they didn’t come from some generic “pool of ideas for PCVs” script; they were specific to my placement (in the Education Department) and my actual site (which schools, people, etc.).

In a lot of ways, a Peace Corps Volunteer has a lot of autonomy on the job. For our day-to-day work, we report to our HCA, and, so far as I know, outside of Site Visits, there is little communication between our HCAs and PC/Mongolia. Additionally, PCVs do work in the community, which may be entirely off our HCA’s radar. For me, along with this autonomy comes the sense of not knowing where I fit in the grand scheme of PC/Mongolia. I know I’m not a “bad” Volunteer, but I often wonder “am I doing enough?” and that’s only sometimes in comparison to other PCV’s accomplishments. Usually, it’s in the context of thinking that I should be using my downtime more effectively and/by integrating into the community more. My Regional Assistant was able to share with me other PCV’s challenges and perceptions so I know I’m not alone in these thoughts.

My Regional Manager visited this past Site Visit (my last Site Visit). Her visit was more conversational; still covering all the bases, but without the checklist. She let me talk, asked follow-up questions, and let me talk some more. I doubt “make PCV feel good about herself” is in her job description, but these talks inevitably have that effect on me.

I can’t emphasize enough that these staff members are not merely translators so that you can communicate with your CPs, etc. They are genuine liaisons who facilitate these conversations. They can give us the cultural perspective that helps us re-frame our experiences. They provide focus when we can’t see the Gobi desert for the grains of sand. They are our advocates, our motivators, our champions.

And that makes sense too, because if we succeed, Mongolia succeeds.


medical

April 1, 2014

Knock on wood; I’ve been a healthy person. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted; many a Thanksgiving my health has topped the list of things for which I am thankful. But, living in a developing country presents new challenges and managing even a run-of-the-mill cold may require more effort here than at home.

The two Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) in UB are responsible for our well-being. During PST, they give numerous trainings covering general health concerns and those specific to Mongolia. Topics covered include: alcohol (including the alcohol content of different drinks, alcoholism, alcohol as a means of escaping or coping), mental health (including the warning signs of depression and the methods of coping), dog bites, healthy eating (to the extent possible in soums with few vegetables), medications (which to use for which symptoms, what’s available in our individual med kits, what’s available by request from the PCMO), and sexual health issues (including sexual assault, alcohol and sex, Sexually Transmissible Infections and how to prevent them, and exploring the reasons people engage in sexual activity). That’s not an exhaustive list. Outside of trainings, our PCMOs also take care of in-country vaccinations, flu shots and annual physicals. When something goes wrong while we are at site, they make the decision to get us to UB so they can examine us in person. And if something goes really wrong, they make the decision to send us to Thailand for treatment. They are available 24/7 via an emergency number; of course, we are advised to troubleshoot non-emergency issues on our own first.

The Health Manual answers basic questions of symptoms and preliminary treatment and allows us to triage the more serious issues to the PCMOs. My first experience with the Health Manual was shortly after my arrival at site. I had an earache which isn’t something that I’m prone to getting. The earache was mild and short-lived so I never bothered with contacting the PCMOs about it. But I learned from the Health Manual that “for some inexplicable reason, a few Volunteers will develop excessive earwax during their time in Mongolia.” And it was true! For a while I was thinking to myself, “where’s all this ear wax coming from?” But since it wasn’t cause for concern, it wasn’t worth mentioning. I imagine it has something to do with the different climate and altitude and it’s probably further proof that I’ve adapted since over the 22 months here (wow!), my earwax has returned to “normal” levels.

The med-kit contains a medley of over-the-counter meds, a pair of rubber gloves, water-purifying tablets, rehydrating salts, condoms, an ace bandage, gauze, generic band-aids, bug spray, sunscreen, well, here’s a picture.

med_kitIf we need a resupply of things, we can request via phone call or email and they’ll mail it to us at site. I’ve gotten PCMO packages in 2 days!

The PC/Mongolia Cook Book I’ve touched on briefly before. But let me highlight the best thing about it, and where it differs from other cook books I’ve owned. This cookbook has recipes which only use ingredients we can get here. Other recipe books wanted fancy ingredients that I didn’t know where to buy or would only use a portion of before the remainder would spoil. This cook book is divided into two sections, Hungry Hudoo (for the Volunteers living in the countryside with fewer options) and Posh Corps (for the Volunteers in UB and those of us who have more variety). What this means is that I can make any of the Hungry Hudoo recipes and many of the Posh Corps recipes (except for the fact that I don’t cook meat or have an oven). But, armed with this cook book, I’ve learned to make: vegetarian chili, ginger tofu, black bean burgers, lentil burgers, any bean falafel, risotto, curry carrot soup, tomato soup, corn chowder, sweet and sour beets, peanut sauce, hummus, tzatziki, tortillas, no-bake cookies, rice cooker cake, and best of all, rice cooker brownies!!!

My reason for writing on this topic is that over the last 2 weeks I’ve had some experience with the Mongolian hospital in town and realized that I never really posted about our medical care here. So, now that I’ve done that, I’ll recount my experience.

Around the beginning of March I had a cold, nothing serious. The symptoms were a shallow cough, which morphed into a sore throat, before settling into a runny nose accompanied by sneezing a week later. I’m well familiar with Upper Respiratory Infections and back home I’d suffered through far worse symptoms before finally going to my Primary Care doc only to find I’d had walking pneumonia or bronchitis. I wouldn’t say I have a high tolerance for pain or am averse to medical treatment, but just that I procrastinated until I couldn’t any more.

But, with this particular cold, on a Tuesday night after English club, I felt a double earache coming on, the right side worse than the left. And, since I’m less familiar with these than the URIs, I consulted the Health Manual. I learned that earaches after colds could be a middle-ear infection, and that complication included a ruptured eardrum with the possibility of temporary hearing loss. As the pain was getting worse, I started freaking out a little (as much as I can freak out, which, to look at me, maybe you wouldn’t have known). I didn’t call the PCMO emergency number because, I reasoned, there was nothing they could do, or advise me to do, that would help immediately. I decided to call first thing in the morning.

It was a difficult night trying to sleep. The pain was worse when lying down. Sitting up didn’t help much, but it was an improvement. I’d taken Tylenol, which didn’t seem to make a difference, and I was worried about taking too many so I didn’t take any more. It was nearly 3am that I couldn’t stay awake anymore and tried to sleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was that there was no pain. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but it was a 1 or 2 vs. a 5 or 6 (on that 1-10 pain scale) so I was relieved. I could tell there was moisture in my ear, and sure enough, a cotton swab (and my pillow) showed a slightly bloody fluid. I assumed a ruptured eardrum, but my hearing, though muffled, was still there. Big sigh of relief!

Long story short, after gathering the information, the PCMO (who, just a few weeks prior, had visited our very hospital) authorized me to visit the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (which not all hospitals here have). Oyundar, the otolaryngologist, examined my ear, said, in English, “no puncture,” and reported back to an interpreter in UB who relayed the diagnosis to the PCMO. The PCMO then allowed me to be treated by the doc. That first day, when she inserted a 2-inch long strip of gauze, that had been dipped into a solution, into my ear, oh, joy! The remaining pressure I’d felt was relieved. And when I’d removed the strip of gauze 2 hours later, I could hear! It wasn’t permanent, meaning it blocked again when I blew my nose, but it was promising. I noticed that night, while lying in my bed in the absolute silence of night, that there was a bit of high-pitched ringing in my right ear.

Over the last 2 weeks, I have made 8 visits to the hospital. It’s pretty crowded in the lobby, where the registration window is, but I don’t have to register. Registered patients are given laminated, numbered tickets, just like you were at the deli. The ENT’s office is on the second floor, across from a pediatrician’s office, at the end of a corridor. One morning I counted 30 people waiting in the hallway. There are benches to accommodate 8-10 people. I wait alongside them, one day for nearly an hour, but once the doc knows I’ve arrived, she ushers me in and the visits are pretty routine. The door’s two glass panels are covered with opaque film, so waiting patients often poke their heads in to see what’s going on. During the third visit, the otolaryngologist charged me 10,500 tugs (about $6) to cover the total number of visits.

There hasn’t been any ear pain since that first night, and the ringing in the ear is gone (or, at least I can’t hear it anymore). She originally said 5 visits, so for the last 3 visits I’ve been asking, in Mongolian, “tomorrow, I don’t come, right?” But, she kept saying to come. Finally, today she wrote a prescription and we had to get the PCMO on the phone again, along with the translator. Turns out, she wants me to use steroid ear drops for the next three days. The PCMO approved this. She also wanted to give me an aloe injection. The PCMO rejected this. The doc and I were able to communicate using a sort of Mong-lish, and I understood that I am to take 2 drops every 8 hours, and return in 3 days. I took my script to the pharmacy and paid the 7,000 tugs (about $4) and remembered to ask for a receipt, my first time asking in Mongolian, so that Peace Corps can reimburse me.

I’ll be home in ~3 months and I look forward to hearing your voices in person!


downtime

March 15, 2014

I remember that back during PST I made a daily schedule blog post. I never did that in my permanent site and I realize now why that’s been the case: things were so structured during PST that sharing my day-to-day life was possible. The reality in Govi-Altai varies greatly from week to week because there’s stuff that’s supposed to happen that doesn’t (or at least not when it’s supposed to) and there’s stuff that’s seemingly spontaneous (though I often think I’m just the last to find out and it happens to be at the last minute).

According to my schedule at my permanent site, I work 40 hours a week. I think this is unusual among Peace Corps Volunteers, but since I came from a 40-hour-a-week job, this part doesn’t faze me (except insofar as Peace Corps service was meant to be a break from the 9-5 life). Four mornings a week are spent in classrooms, so that eats up a chunk of that time. The rest of the time is divided up into teaching special classes, prepping for classes, or waiting to do one or the other. Currently, my CP and I are giving two-hour, daily English lessons to workers at the Courthouse, as we’ve done in the past for the Music Ensemble and the Power Station workers. I’ve also been giving sessions on creative writing (the students do little, if any, writing at all) for a competition that will happen next week.

Between the things that are happening, there’s a lot of waiting for things to happen. I can’t say whether that’s definitively true Peace Corps-wide, but I have a sense that it is. I’d make the case that this “wait time” isn’t really downtime, though, because we are always anticipating (even if history doesn’t give us cause) the next interruption. What this means is that after an afternoon at the office, having “accomplished” nothing, I feel mentally taxed. It’s not the same kind of waiting that you do at the Registry (DMV) because, when your name is called, you have no idea what’s coming.

I wrote before about leaving behind the comforts of home and how the cumulative effect leaves one feeling out of sorts. While that was mostly in the context of loneliness, I think the sheer number of hours that we have to fill (whatever our work commitment, after all, we live here full time) is what makes the absence of all that so prominent. We find ourselves with a lot of downtime to fill.

So, here’s a list of the ways I’ve filled my thousands of hours of downtime these last two years.

extra lessons – Perhaps the most obvious, especially for a TEFL Volunteer. We have regular Tuesday night English club, Thursday night movie club, and Saturday morning conversation club with the medical college ladies. I’m still going to the Vocational School two nights a week. In addition, there’s often an unexpected knock on the door, what Seinfeld would call a pop-in. I usually make time for them. Last year, one of these girls became a regular, showing up several nights a week for several months.

language study – I continue to study vocabulary every day. However, I’m sorry to say, my spoken Mongolian remains average. Clearly, I can manage with the day-to-day but I tend not to put myself in unfamiliar situations. And I never got a tutor. How did that happen? Well, I tried initially with my Mongolian English-teacher friend but we often reverted to English. Just as the students don’t learn English in translation, I couldn’t learn Mongolian in translation. Why I never got a Mongolian-language teacher, or just a non-English-speaking Mongolian, I can’t say. It sounds silly, but I didn’t even realize it was missing until these last few months.

socialization – either with other PCVs or with Mongolians. Here’s something that has surprised me: I expected to come to Mongolia and do a lot of socializing with Mongolians. I do some, of course, but not nearly what I thought I would. Now, given that I lived in my Boston apartment for 11 years and didn’t know any of my neighbors, apparently I was counting on some personality transformation to have occurred simply by being in Mongolia. But, just as I seldom invited guests to my home back home, I’ve not done it here. I have an open-door policy, to the point that I shared my dinner with a man whom I’m still not sure who he was or how he knew me, but those pop-ins, while more common here than in America, are still not so common (once or twice a month). And to be honest, since my days are pretty full, even the days that are full of waiting, I’m content to not have more frequent visitors.

blog – it would be a great oversight for me to not state the obvious. This is my 63rd blog post. Some of these take up quite a bit of that downtime.

books – at this point, I’ve lost track. But I know it’s somewhere in the 60-ish range. That’s a mixture of e-books and the real thing. It’s also a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, classics, contemporary, pop-culture autobiographies, a few trashy romance novels, and a few books set in Mongolia.

crochet – this won’t be on the average PCVs things-to-do list, but then maybe there isn’t an “average” PCV. Thanks to some yarn contributions from folks at home, and a score at the black market, I’ve been able to make about 40 handmade hats. I also taught my sitemate, Jerome, how to do it and a day later he had his own hat. Next up, teaching some Mongolians.

The hat that started it all.

The hat that started it all.

the mundane – certainly, just as at home, we have to bathe, do laundry and grocery shop. It’s only worth mentioning because we never know how much of our downtime these things will occupy. Will the shower house have an hour’s wait? If so, would I rather wash in my tumpun? Will I find what I want at 2 stores or 5? Knowing that I may visit 5 and still not have found what I wanted. Ger dwellers could add chopping wood and fetching water to this list.

a 6000-piece puzzle – I’m quite proud of this one. This time last year I gave up my floor for a site-mate puzzle party. Little did I know that it would take 2 months to complete. It was worth it, though.

IMG_3869

sporcle – I almost wish I was never introduced to this quiz website. How many times have I said “just one more” only to realize it was one in the morning? I’ve wasted a lot of time doing really stupid quizzes, just for something to do. BUT, I’ve also learned all the countries of the world, so there’s that.

TV shows, movies, podcasts, music – I do more of this media consumption than I would probably like. Sometimes I can multi-task with one of these while I prepare dinner or make hats or write blogs. But sometimes it’s a solitary, sedentary activity. Ho-hum.

exercise videos, a la P90X – I probably should have started this sooner since I’ve gained back about half of that PST weight loss. We had a rather mild (for Mongolia) winter, and there are some hikes in our future.

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

instrument – I really wish I thought to do this. Mongolia has some really interesting traditional instruments that are alive and well. Why did I never consider learning the morin huur?

creating videos, poems, songs, etc. – this is another that falls into the category of things I didn’t do with my downtime. But, other PCVs have and I’d like to share a few with you.

  • If you’re curious about ger life, and I know I am, I’d recommend this 2-minute video from a current M24.
  • For a PCV twist on an American anthem, an anonymous volunteer re-wrote the lyrics to American Pie. Incidentally, that’s my site-mate Jerome’s blog; for those of you who will miss my Mongolian chronicles, I can recommend his for a good chuckle.
  • If poetry is your thing, I point you to a current M23 who alternates poetry along with prose on a regular schedule.

I leave you with the thought that I’m somewhere around the 100-day countdown to my Close of Service. How will I spend it?


it’s British to me

March 8, 2014

Even though I knew the English textbooks in Mongolia were in British English, I’d only ever planned to teach my students American English, since that’s what I speak. Of course, I’d explain that both versions are correct; I’d never “fix” accurate British English just so a student or teacher sounded like me. With all the exceptions that any version of English already has, I never considered the added complication of learning different vocabulary and grammar as you are trying to learn the language. But, the real assumption was that I’d have no trouble understanding the textbooks and making the distinctions in the first place, let alone be able to point out the differences to my students.

I should have known better. Several years ago, in the Glasgow airport, I had a taste of what it is like to be aware that you must understand the words, and yet have no sense of the meaning.

Here’s what happened when I’d ordered a coffee:
Scottish barista: two sitor too tay quay?
Me: pardon me?
Scottish barista: tosit orto takeway?
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Scottish barista: to sit or to take ’way?
Me: OH! To take away. Thank you.

You’d think the context would have clued me in, and maybe I was lost in a traveler’s fog or succumbing to jet-lag, but I literally had no idea what she was asking. In my defense, some gestures on her part would have done a lot to clarify the meaning on my part. It wasn’t merely the Scottish inflection that threw me but the phrasing as well; in my part of America, we’d ask “for here or to go?”

Back in the classroom, what began as an absent-minded activity, “translating” words (torch=flashlight, post=mail, maths=math, football=soccer, cloakroom=coatroom) in my head, morphed into a sometimes frustrating attempt to decipher my mother tongue. On more than one occasion I assumed something to be a typo rather than one of the ways American and British English differ. “Have you got a brother?” Who talks like that? I didn’t know that a “jumper” was a sweater. I straight out told a teacher that the book was wrong because “sledging” is not a word. Turns out, it’s what you do when you go “sledding” in the U.K. And, apparently, a “zebra crossing” is what I’d call a cross-walk.

Early on, I wrote about the absence of prepositions in Mongolian. If we were only dealing with “on holiday” vs “on vacation” perhaps there’d be no confusion. Alas, these textbooks teach “at the weekend” which I can’t bring myself to say naturally, preferring “on weekends” or “this weekend” depending on the situation. And why do they have “at THE weekend” but “in hospital” when I’d say “in THE hospital.”

If I—a native English speaker—can suffer such confusion, what must it be like for my students?


a third year

February 24, 2014

There are many opportunities for PCVs to take on additional roles during our 27-month commitment. We can offer ourselves for consideration as a VAC member (voted in by our PCV peers), representing our region as a liaison between Volunteers and Peace Corps/Mongolia staff. There are various task forces (e.g., disabilities, alcohol) to join and other projects (monthly newsletter, cookbook revision) to take on. We can apply for non-Peace Corps projects (such as judging an English competition or leading a summer camp). We can apply to attend, with a counterpart, PDM (Project Design and Management, I think), an optional training/seminar about half-way through the first and/or second year. We can apply to be a PST trainer for the incoming class of Trainees, after our first or second year. Any of these ad-ons is what really makes each PCVs service unique. Additionally, we can apply to be a PCVL (L for Leader) in a third year, with time split between a Host Country Agency and PC responsibilities (In-Service Training, Mid-Service Training, etc.). And, finally, we can apply for an extension of our current position (or with a new HCA) for 3 months to a year.

A third year is something we discuss within our different circles (PST site mates, permanent site mates, project group members, friends), maybe beginning after the first year. From the beginning, I hadn’t considered a third year. To my mind, I came to the Peace Corps for the Peace Corps experience and after these two years are up, I will have gotten it. I came to Mongolia for the living abroad experience and I have gotten that. By coming here, I paused my life-in-America and I was eager to restart it with this new experience chronologically behind me but forever a part of me. So, when I say that I hadn’t considered a third year, I literally mean I hadn’t considered it.

Recently, my friend asked me if returning home was the default option. Meaning that, since I’ve now lived abroad, is it something I would like to continue to do (in Mongolia or elsewhere). Now, if this thought didn’t occur to you, maybe it springs from her living in Singapore for 4 years, because, the truth is, yes, returning home is the default option. Now that I’ve lived outside of America, I really would like to continue living abroad, or to do it again in the future. Some TEFL volunteers go this route post service, using their Peace Corps experience as a stepping stone to continue teaching English abroad. As for me (my own worst critic), I don’t feel my particular classroom experience has given me this confidence. I’ve no doubt, however, that many volunteers finish well prepared for the tasks of lesson planning, classroom management and teaching the four aspects of language. So, despite the fact that I would indeed like to continue living abroad, I really don’t know how I would go about it, absent the TEFL angle. I suppose another option would have been to apply to an international graduate school, but I didn’t get my act together enough to apply to any school, which precludes the international school altogether. Basically, I am preparing to return home to nothing… not to dismiss all you lovely people awaiting my return, but I don’t have a plan for a job or even where I will live (and the two cities on the table are not remotely close).

I got the email from the Country Director announcing the possible Close of Service dates. It was very exciting to begin the countdown. But sitting right next to that in my inbox was the lengthy email with information for a third year. Though I hadn’t been considering it, I read the email. It sounded exciting, rewarding, and meaningful. I thought of the projects that are just now getting underway and how amazing it would be to see them through. I thought of my opportunity for language improvement and deepening my friendships with my Mongolian friends and my PCV site mates. Part of me thought, “well, I don’t have a plan anyway, so why not?” Within all these rapid fire thoughts, and entirely unexpectedly, I found myself considering a third year of Peace Corps Service in Mongolia. With a very uncertain frame of mind, I sought guidance for this decision from my mom and sister-in-law, both of whom were completely supportive of either decision, which was really no help at all! I also discussed with my site mate her reasons for applying for a third year.

Well, this blog post isn’t building up to an announcement. Ultimately, I have decided not to pursue a third year. But, I want you to know that the decision was not easy. And, for the record, at no point while I was making this decision did I consider the extreme winters, the scarcity of produce, or the once weekly shower as reasons for leaving. I’ve just come to see that the feeling that “there’s so much more to do” goes hand in hand with working in a developing country. So, instead of thinking of what I will miss by leaving as scheduled, I’m going to try and focus on what I’ve done, and what I’ve still to do, as these last few months tick by.


love

February 14, 2014

Last spring, a few of us Govi-Altai PCVs (the ladies) were invited to speak at a Young Families Conference. Fifty couples, married 2-5 years, participated in this conference. Topics covered included: family planning in the context of marriage, children’s rights, nutrition (including breast feeding), domestic violence, alcoholism, and financial planning. We were there to show that there is great variety in American families, so that these Mongolian families can recognize that they have choices. The information for the first part of this blog comes from our meeting with the Director of the Department for Children and Family Development. These were my notes taken during an informal session and I take responsibility for anything mis-heard or misunderstood.

love (lower-case L) in Mongolia
- average age for first baby: 22-25
- parents encourage marriage after completing university
- average age for marriage: 25
- more common to marry baby’s father
- divorce is common after a few years marriage
- variety of family-planning methods available: pill, condom, IUD, shot
- men may think pregnancy prevention is not their responsibility
- both parents are financially responsible
- women are more highly educated, so expenses mostly fall to them
- belief that if a woman has an abortion at the first pregnancy, she will never become pregnant again
- belief that giving birth is more difficult after 30
- women generally want a baby, even if they don’t have a husband
- high-risk women who don’t have children “find it difficult”
- average number of children per woman: 2-3

Love and love
Of course, I did the math before I even applied to the Peace Corps. If I started at 36, I’d finish at 38. It would be 2014, the year of my 20-year high school reunion. I mention it because the thought had crossed my mind that, with Peace Corps service, I’d be taking myself out of the dating pool and that maybe I’d miss out on meeting someone. But, the likelihood of that seemed so remote, that it was hardly a deterrent.

My single status is not something I think a lot about. I’m comfortable with where I am in life and never really put much effort into “finding someone,” outside of a few half-hearted craigslist posts over the years. But, when I do think about it (usually having nothing to do with February 14), to be perfectly honest, I find it kind of crazy. I’m a catch, man! I could rattle off my good qualities, and think my bad qualities are pretty insignificant to a relationship. But, no love for Love.

Love and love in Mongolia
After name and nationality, rounding out the top 5 most commonly asked questions in Mongolia are age, marital status and children. (Mongolians are very direct about these things; these questions aren’t considered rude. Also, they all guess that I’m ten years younger than I am :) ) Common follow-up questions to my being single and childless are, “Why?” and “When will you get married?” During PST, we were taught to view such forward questions as an opportunity for a cultural exchange, rather than take offense to them. For example, I can explain that most people in America don’t get married in their early 20s. But, that doesn’t really answer the question of why I’m still single, does it? In fact, these questions sting more than the reality because they remind me that my single status isn’t my choice. Not being a mom isn’t my choice; it would have been a conversation to have, if there was someone to have it with. But there’s not. This here is the best I can do to answer these questions in English. In Mongolian, all I have is “bi medexgui” (I don’t know).

While it may seem improper to share these thoughts with such a wide audience, they are a part of what goes into making the decision to apply to the Peace Corps when you’re a single woman in your mid-30s. Yet, in all my pre-Peace Corps research, I didn’t find anyone else speaking from this perspective. So, I’m assuming that role for the other 30-something single ladies who want to apply to the Peace Corps but are hesitating because they are 30-something and single. I had wanted this Peace Corps experience for a long time, but I wasn’t ready in my 20s. Just like many people (at any age) who get married and have children (in some order) aren’t ready for those responsibilities. In that way, I’m kind of lucky that I didn’t have kids when I was ready to serve in the Peace Corps.

love (lower case L) in the Peace Corps
Despite the fact that I’m single, Peace Corps romances are pretty common. In our group of 60 or so volunteers, there are lots of couples and the cynic in me wonders if they would have paired off under different circumstances. Not that it matters. They’ve got someone to comfort them during these two years away from home, someone who (merely by being a PCV) probably shares some core values, someone who can understand their day-to-day challenges, and I bet that’s worth a lot to them. Of course, there are occasionally Volunteers who find love in a Host-Country National (HCN, in Peace Corps speak) and my little group has those, too; two engagements (that I know of)! I’d love to see their pictures in the Peace Corps marriages photo album.

And, finally, to reinforce that I have a sense of humor about my single status, here is a list of the reasons to date a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), which will be me in just a few months!

PS, responses welcomed, but, in case it needs to be said, please refrain from any of that “you’ll find someone” type of encouragement since the point of this post is that, whether my being single is by choice or not, I’m content with my life the way it is. Which isn’t to say that I’ve “given up on love” or ruled it out for my future, but just that I’m someone who lives in the “what is” and not the “what if.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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