July 22, 2013

I just returned from a 4-day stay with my host family. Though nearly a full year had passed since we said our farewells, at no point was I nervous about our reunion. I was eager to talk to them and see if they understood me, as a way to gauge my improvement in the language. I was looking forward to the quiet times between conversation, just being silent in the kitchen but not feeling awkward about it. I was longing for the greenery and the roaming sheep and goats of Orkhon that redefine free-range. I was not disappointed.

We readily fell into our old routines. They gave me my old room with the bed while they all slept on the floor in the big room. My mom cooked nearly all the meals and I took over the washing up after. They asked about my apartment, my job, my aimag, and my visit with my American Mom in December. I showed them pictures and told stories… they laughed about me wearing the Mongolian boots underneath the pink dress, so I know they understood. Mom showed me the new garden and I asked what crops she was growing and she told me: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and beets. I told them about my upcoming train trip to Russia with Will (whom they know from PST), and that we will stay with “internet friends” which is how I explained couchsurfing to them. My Dad showed me pictures from his time in Moscow and “Leningrad” in about 1985 and I told him I was surprised that they were black-and-white photos.

On my last day, my Mom had cooked my favorite meal and we went to the river. We spread out a picnic blanket and had potato huushuur and sang songs. My Dad had called a friend and spoke enthusiastically: I understood “Boston” and “shar ohun” which translates to “yellow daughter” and I just laughed about that and slugged him on the shoulder.

It was only in hindsight that I thought about the fact that they are no longer obligated to cook for me, or give me a place to stay, or be patient with my minimal (still) Mongolian-language skills; that the Peace Corps contract that we’d signed was what brought us together, but that bond we have is genuine and endures.

I’ll spend a few more days with them after the Russia trip, sharing all the stories from the next three weeks, before I head back to site and begin the next nearly full-year without seeing them.

isolated isolation

July 3, 2013

One might think that with all the ways of keeping in touch these days that people would find an option to suit them and it would be easier than ever to do it. But I know that with all these advantages in communication that there are a lot more demands on our time, both legitimate and mere distraction. I understand that life happens and that some people are more face-to-face communicators. I also know that time passes quickly and before you know it, I’ve been in Mongolia over a year already.

Peace Corps cautions against loneliness as a result of isolation, being away from home while adjusting to a new way of life. During the application process, there were hypothetical questions about how you would deal with it. During PST, the medical staff gave trainings that covered the warning signs of depression, whom to contact if you experienced these symptoms, and how to recognize them in your site-mates. Initially, it was something I dismissed for me—I’m an “older volunteer” years removed from living with family, I’m hyper-conscious of what I’m feeling and experiencing, and to some extent can reason with myself about what’s a normal reaction or by recognizing a situation as temporary. I’d say that by-and-large I haven’t succumbed to the loneliness. But, it is there. The difference between moving to another city or state and moving to a country on the other side of the globe is pretty huge. Intuitively, I knew this, but now, with a year’s experience under my belt, I can quantify it.

Last summer I invested in an internet calling plan, 500 minutes a month for just pennies per minute! However, the 12-hour time difference means that I can only attempt to call home during mornings and evenings, and it’s pretty much limited to weekends since one of us is working during the week. The 15-hour difference to call my mom limits me a little further. Despite the fact that I come from a family of talkers, where hour-plus conversations are standard, I’ve only ever used that full calling plan once. Most often, half of those minutes just expire. Voicemail doesn’t talk back.

Back home, I had a network of people and a variety of activities to occupy my time. I’d spend a weekend with my brother’s family, go hiking with my cousin, or have dinner with a friend. Maybe I didn’t see any one person more than once a month, sometimes once a year, but I had enough good people to fill in my free time. Over the years, I used vacation time to visit people who are important to me. In my alone time, I’d go to the movies or the library, walk around the mall or downtown Boston, maybe I’d see my friend’s band or watch a play, or spend a weekend in New York City. Of course I knew I was leaving behind the people and the places and the activities, but the combined effect of having given it all up at the same time still creeps up on me in ways I hadn’t expected.

The flipside to not having you here with me is me not being there for you. I couldn’t be a shoulder for my friend going through a divorce. I couldn’t express my pride to several graduates when they received their diplomas. And I won’t get to see the new baby of my dear friends—a couple I introduced—for the first year of her life.

To feel all of these missed opportunities so acutely, it is extremely unfair that being so far away doesn’t keep away the family drama. Another layer to that are the frustrations brought on by misunderstandings when trying to communicate with the written word which doesn’t always convey the sarcasm or nuance I intended.

But I can tell you, whether you know me or are reading this because you know someone else who is or will be living far from home, the reason the loneliness is short-lived is because of people like you.

– My cousin committed to writing me a postcard every week and, by golly, she’s doing it. When I walk to the post office, it’s the difference between hope and expectation… knowing something will come, even if it is delayed, is reassuring. She’s also been my biggest champion, faithfully reposting this blog and racking up the most comments, asking questions, sometimes for clarification of what I wrote; it’s like one long conversation. And her home-made postcards and sometimes-quirky stories always make me smile.

– I can count on my sister-in-law for regular email updates (with pictures!) about family and questions about my goings on; writing a reply allows me to share what I’m experiencing in real time, so she’s certainly had the most unfiltered version of my time in the Peace Corps. On more than one of the lonely occasions, her reply was exactly what I needed to hear. She’s even called my Mongolian cell phone just to hear my voice.

– I’ve been fortunate to receive packages from a high school friend, a college roommate, folks at my old job, 3 different cousins, an aunt, my sister-in-law, and my mom. I’ve discovered that I’d rather have a few packages from many people than many packages from a few people. To have so many people vested in me, for them to have gone through the effort, expense and bother (customs forms?!) of shipping a package to Mongolia, is not a small thing.

– I’ve had spontaneous skype calls from my cousin, surprise emails from old co-workers, random facebook messages from long-lost high school friends. Even people I didn’t know well, and a few I’ve never met, have shown their support with an email, a card or by sharing a facebook post about Mongolia.

As for me, I’ve sent 72 pieces of mail in my year here (most of that in the first 7 months at site), because I want you to know that even though I’m the one who left, I did not forget you. And even if you are not one of the people mentioned above, it helps knowing that when next we meet we’ll pick up right where we left off.