To trust or not to trust?

February 17, 2013

This blog is an example of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal, for Volunteers to give Americans a better understanding of the cultures we serve. This depends on me and I don’t update as regularly as I or some of you would like. But it’s the Second Goal—giving our host country a better understanding of Americans—that happens every day. Some of this is deliberate, as when a holiday coincides with an English club and provides the vocabulary of the lesson. But more often than not, the Second Goal is inferred from our reactions to some chance encounter. That is, our unintentional, unscripted, unfiltered, honest response to all that we take in.

There are certain aspects of what I think of as American culture that I don’t want to share with the Mongolians. This occurred to me this week following a knock on my window. When I pulled back the shade to see who it could be—it was 8pm and long since dark—there stood a family I didn’t know, the mom waving papers. So, I opened my door and led them in, without locking the door behind us, to see what it was they wanted from me from within the warmth of my apartment.

It didn’t take long to understand—the printed email promising lottery winnings scream “scam!” to anyone old enough to remember AOL or young enough to not remember a time before “google it” was a way of life. We weren’t always internet savvy, though—it’s a skill we learned through trial and error—so even if we don’t remember it, it’s easy to understand the vulnerability of people who have little reason to doubt combined with the desire of wanting to believe in a sudden windfall of fortune, wherever they happen to live.

While this was playing out, I was experiencing a sort of PCV-déjà vu. Soon after arriving at site, a fellow M23 experienced this exact scene and wrote about it in his own blog. (When I reread it, the parallels between our experiences in Mongolia are pretty striking.) What I remembered that night is that he found our Peace Corps-provided dictionary lacked the word “scam” so, without bothering to look, I attempted other ways to convey that message. The Mongolian word for “lie” seemed to get it across. My mind racing, I also said, in English, “not true” which the older daughter understood and translated. The mom’s hope vanishing, she looked for reason. “Яагаад (yaa-ghaad)” she asked, maybe rhetorically. I’d recently learned the word ашиглах (ah-shig-lakh), which means to exploit or take advantage of and is somewhat easy to remember, assuming you can remember that ашиг (ah-shig) means profit. But I didn’t think of it in English, so it remains one of many missed speaking opportunities.

The first thing I take from this encounter , and this goes back to what I wrote previously about how strange it is to me that I represent America 24/7—because people are always watching—is that I didn’t know them, but they knew me. At least, they knew that I am an American and that therefore I speak the English of the email, and they knew where I live. I don’t know where they live. Are they my neighbors from across the street who might have watched me putter around my room, unbeknownst to me? Or did they seek me out from across town? Will I see them again? Or will this be the one time our paths cross? I’d like to think I’ll see them again, that we can learn from each other. But as of now, they’ve had this one ten-minute period in which to form their opinion of me, and America, by extension.

That brings me to the second thing I take from this encounter, and the thing I don’t want to share with the Mongolians about American culture: that crime in America is so hyped that we are a nation ever en guard, suspicious of everyone’s ulterior motives, waiting for the proof that we were right not to trust people from the start. It has become a place where the idea of opening your door to a stranger is akin to a hen inviting a fox into her coop. Between our 24-hour media’s “if it bleeds it leads” mindset, and Hollywood’s sensationalized “inspired by true events” stories, we’ve been duped into thinking that shark attacks are likely and twelve-year old boys must follow mom into the women’s room, rather than use the men’s room by themselves.

This preemptive mistrust baffles me. It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet, many of those who wax nostalgic about their carefree youth will repost a negative story with lightning speed or perpetuate a rumor without fact-checking first, keeping everyone on edge indefinitely.

As much as I resisted this thinking at home, our stranger-danger mentality still followed me to Mongolia and I even asked my site-mates whether it was okay to tutor a student in my apartment without getting permission from the mom or even knowing who the mom is. “What are the rules,” I wanted to know. Apparently, as far as interpersonal relationships go, the rule here is trust and not in the you-have-to-earn-it sense.

Suffice it to say that I feel very safe here, in Mongolia in general, and in my aimag in particular, to the point that when this unknown mom and her two unknown daughters were standing around my table looking at this email and my unlocked external door was opened, followed by my unlocked internal door, and this unknown man who was the unknown woman’s husband entered my home, I am proud to say that my instinct was not fear. And as it was the end of Tsagaan Sar—the lunar new year, a major holiday here—the man and I went through the ritual, which involved me placing my outstretched arms beneath his outstretched arms (since he is my elder) and each of us leaning in, nearly touching, first the right cheek, then the left cheek, with a sniff and the traditional greeting. He then passed me his snuff bottle with his right hand, I accepted with my right hand, and raised it to my nose and sniffed each side of the closed bottle.

And I lived to tell about it. The line between naiveté and trust just shifted.


February 7, 2013

The invitation was so casual; I had no idea what I was getting myself into a few weeks ago when my CP asked if I would sing my Mongolian song for Teachers’ Day. Without asking any questions (other than “When?”), I agreed. This would be my third official time singing Аяны Шувууд (Ay-nee Show-whoa), not counting the two wedding parties I never wrote about where, as tradition goes, at one point someone decides it is time to sing and each guest takes turns leading a song.

Not working in a classroom, I wouldn’t be experiencing the Teachers’ Day I’d heard about during PST. How an older student takes over teaching the lesson to her peers and a teacher might wear a student uniform to class. I wanted to be involved in some capacity, so I didn’t hesitate to agree.

The Wednesday before the Sunday performance, I rehearsed the song for the first time. The keyboardist took the song I knew as a ballad and made it double-time with a backing track that had none of the melody I would recognize. We also tried at the speed I was accustomed to, but they were all agreed it should be peppy. So, I went with it.

On Friday morning, I showed up at work as usual when my CP announced we were going to the theater for rehearsals. She and I had just wrapped up a 2-week stretch of working daily with the Govi-Altai Music Ensemble—about 30 singers, dancers and musicians—teaching them an English song for one hour, followed by an English lesson for the second hour. They were such a friendly, eager group to work with; they made my busiest two weeks, my best two weeks. Since they all sang when they were with me, I didn’t realize until that morning that I didn’t know how each of them actually fit into the ensemble. From my seat in the front row, the first dance performance made that clear. Three men, one of whom was the choreographer, took to the stage with moves resembling horse riding, squats-turned-kicks reminiscent of Russian dances, and lots of knee-to-stage impact that made me cringe in awe. It was riveting, and watching the men dance reminded me of my best guy friend in high school who channeled his energy and creativity to become an esteemed choreographer and dancer.

The scale of this performance was becoming clear, and the singers (not just the professionals, but the other laypeople like me) were so vocally gifted that I put my thoughts on being visually interesting to make up for my vocal shortcomings. Always one to move with the music anyway, and this song being made up tempo, I tried to incorporate movements consistent with the lyrics. Since the song is about love across a great distance, I used some from-me-to-you and from-you-to-me hand gestures, including a hug to myself. When I would sing about the traveling bird, I would flutter my left hand across the stage. I tried to keep it simple, partly so that I would be consistent from rehearsal to performance, and partly so that I didn’t too sharply contrast with the Mongolian singers who stood stoically throughout their songs, the better to showcase their voices.

Saturday was the dress rehearsal. With the costumes added to the performances of the day before, I had no doubt I was out of my league. At no point did I reconsider, however, because I could feel that everyone was supportive of my being involved and encouraging me to do my best. Maybe it helped that I had worked with them the past two weeks, but I think it was more their nature that allowed them to welcome this amateur into their folds.

Following the dress rehearsal, the Artistic Director gave feedback to the singers and I could tell it was related to everyone’s wardrobe by the way the man in the black suit looked down at his brown shoes. (Besides, members of the Ensemble wear their performance costumes so they weren’t there for this part.) The director actually called out my name and turned to my CP in the audience with a message, which she explained to me as “you need to wear tights and shoes” (instead of my black workout stretch pants and Mongolian boots). Well, we had already made plans to procure the items, accepting that my dress wasn’t nearly formal enough but it was the dressiest thing I’d brought, but the whole thing ended up being moot. When I arrived on Sunday at noon, I was met by eight Mongolian women and a large pink strapless dress. So, I went with it.

Perhaps it was my theater background that allowed me to undress in the middle of the auditorium with sixteen eyes upon me and the likelihood that more would arrive since they were expected. (Thankfully, that didn’t happen.) After a fair amount of adjusting by several of the women, sometimes me, sometimes the dress, it fit well enough but its length and the very high heels caused me to be unsteady on my feet. To my great surprise, my CP said that if it meant I couldn’t dance then I should wear my boots instead; no one would see them, and they liked my dancing that much! And that’s how Love happened to wear the most formal dress of her life with Mongolian winter boots underneath.


In the green room, one of the singers, whose English is better than my Mongolian, said to me “sometimes, makeup.” So, I went with it. I borrowed some foundation, lipstick and mascara. There were several attempts to teach me the proper way (i.e., the ladylike way) to lift my dress so that I could walk without stepping on it, but that was expecting too much of the girl with the boots on.

The show went off without a hitch. The dancing couple nailed the lift they’d had trouble with in rehearsal. There were no wardrobe malfunctions. No singers were accused of lip-synching. The lights didn’t go out, which would happen at the Super Bowl later that day.

Immediately following the show, the education department whisked the entire staff (about 16 of us) out for dinner in a private karaoke room. They had me sing the bird song again, and a few English songs, too. I tried to sing along to their slower songs by reading the lyrics on the TV. It was an exhausting, but very worthwhile day. There are so many more songs I want to learn, and though not yet at the halfway mark, I already feel that my remaining time is short.

You can see pictures of the Teachers’ Day performances here.