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.