Before I get into this, I should preface it with a disclaimer of sorts and that is: I love this stuff. I love getting diverse people together and asking questions (leading or open-ended, it doesn’t matter to me). I love seeing concepts illustrated with images, brainstorming and team-building activities. I love sessions that present something of which I’ve had only an inkling and walking away feeling illuminated. I love hearing what others have to say and especially that moment when I think, “I had no idea. You just blew my mind.” I readily admit they don’t all go this way. But, I also love giving honest, constructive feedback… muah-ha-ha!
Normally, I go to these meetings that I enjoy and take notes that I feel are important and then never look at them again—just one of my idiosyncrasies that bugs me. But, this blog is the perfect excuse (why do I always need an excuse?) to revisit what I felt was worth writing down. If I am right, at the end of reading this, you’ll have some insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Mongolians.
In the “Expectations and Challenges” session, we were asked to recall our expectations when we got to site, then list our current challenges. Note, I’ve cherry-picked these responses to highlight the cultural aspects.
One of the Mongolians’ expectations was that we would become accustomed to living in the Mongolian winter. (One month after my exposure to the frigid UB temps and my big toes are only about 85% normal; strike one for Love.) They also expected that we would be an active member of our schools. Seems fair enough, right?
The PCVs’ expectations included a desire to use our skills other than English (we are more than just TEFL beings) but, at the same time, that our CPs be aware of our limitations (e.g., just because we can read English, does not mean we can fix your computer).
And now, the challenges…
The Mongolians listed “pets” at the very top of their challenges in dealing with American PCVs. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but, as a rule, Mongolians do not have pets, though there are many dogs and some cats throughout the country. The dogs in their hashaa (yard) are guard dogs, and even those are feared. Dogs are the reason our host families wanted us home before dark. (In defense of this reasoning, dog bites are a very common reason for a PCV’s trip to the medical staff in UB.) Cats are seen as evil spirits, as I understand it. So, the PCVs who take in a stray dog or cat are effectively creating a wedge between themselves and their community. Makes it hard to host a dinner, for example.
Another hot-button issue for the Mongolians is the everyday appearance of their PCV. Mongolians, as a rule, are very professional looking. Remember that the average PCV age skews post-college, but even those of us who are outliers likely came from casual workplace environments. Yes, it’s true that we had to pack for 2 years (including all seasons of clothing) and were allowed only 100 pounds of baggage, but this complaint isn’t about the wardrobe, per se. For, even if the Mongolian women wear the same three dresses, they are always clean and presentable. A big sigh to the Americans hand-washing in a tumpun… or not, as it were.
Also on the list of challenges for the Mongolians is their PCV’s Mongolian language skills. Here, I hang my head in embarrassment (strike two for Love.) I had thought my motivation would translate into learning, all by itself. Not to say that I’m not putting in effort, just that by my own standard I am not doing nearly as much studying as I had thought I would and am therefore not nearly where I expected to be after 7 months in the country!!! Please hear me when I say this, it is a two-part message: 1. any foreigner who enters America and works with people who speak their native language (as my CP speaks to me in English) will have great difficulty learning English on their own just by merely living in the culture; 2. any American who ever uttered the words “if I were going to move to a country, I’d learn the language” as if it were the most effortless thing, and held the oft-accompanying belief that not learning the language was a choice made by the individual—is ignorant. Yes, I just said that. My built-in thesaurus gives me these alternatives: unaware, uninformed, rude, impolite, inconsiderate. Any of those will do, too. I’d also add xenophobic. Long before Peace Corps, I was preaching from the learning-a-foreign-language-is-hard soapbox. I’ve always admired those who are conversational in a second language, but only now can I really empathize with those who are struggling with English. Only now do I really champion those who try, especially when they are wrong.
Aaaaand, back to the list. A few other things the Mongolians find challenging when dealing with American PCVs I will group as their concern for our wellbeing: what are they eating? are they eating enough? can they make a fire? are their clothes warm enough? are they missing home? did they remember to lock their door? Some of the PCVs, easily and understandably, misinterpret this as patronizing the helpless American and find it suffocating and even belittling. But not me! Not Love-of-the-frozen-toes! I’d tell you I’d embrace this kind of being cared for, except that I don’t live in a ger (which comes with a hashaa family) so I’m not experiencing the brunt of it. Maybe that’s also why I can see that it comes from a place of concern.
Now for the American challenges living in Mongolia and working with Mongolians: As casual as we Americans are, we love our clocks! We want the Mongolians to make a schedule and stick to it; give us as much notice as possible; not be late for meetings and especially NOT not show up at all. I find this fascinating.
We want the CPs to understand that we have responsibilities to Peace Corps in addition to those of the HCA and when they conflict, the PC expectations win out.
We pointed out that PCVs face the challenges of: “diminishing interest” in our roll over time (my very first Staff English class had about 8 people; since then it is usually 4, and not the same 4, despite their insistence that I am a good English teacher); “lack of specificity/details” in what they’ve asked us to do; differences in school and classroom norms from what we are used to.
Observation 1: I wrote above that the Mongolians expectation was that their PCV would be an active member of the school? Turns out the PCVs would counter with “don’t assume we know what’s going on” event-wise (and, of course, “give us as much notice as possible”).
Observation 2: Juxtaposed to that list of Mongolians concern for our wellbeing are a special set of PCV challenges summarized as “understand our stresses.” This was explained as being away from friends and family, struggling with the language, where to buy warm boots… not exactly parallel lists, but certainly overlapping ones.
It’s a fine line between understanding and assumption. IST was a valuable, eye-opening week for PCV-CP relations, Mongolian-American relations, and Love-PCV peers relations, since none of us is having the same experience in the Peace Corps, in our jobs, or in Mongolia.