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!


deel video

February 7, 2014

Mentioning my M22 site-mate, Brittany, at the end of my Tsagaan Sar post was supposed to remind me to include a link to this video that she made last spring. It’s a collection of images of people in various stages of putting on the traditional Mongolian deel (totally G-rated!), set to the song The Hardest Button to Button. In the case of the deel, that likely refers to the button under the armpit but can also be those pesky buttons at the neck. It closes with an image of a water tank with some surprising graffiti: “Welcome to My Hood” written in English. The video is just under two minutes long, and, yes, you can catch a few glimpses of me, but I recommend you watch it because Britt put a lot of work into it and it deserves a wider audience.

And as long as I’m promoting videos, here‘s another one that was put together from some Mongolia PCVs the year before. This one is a straight up dance video (>3 min) showcasing Mongolians and Volunteers from the city of Erdenet. Such fun! I watched it multiple times before coming and each time I focused on something else: the clothes, the weather, the buildings, the snow, the cows, the people. Then, I met some of those people during PST… they were awesome.

Enjoy!


Tsagaan Sar

February 5, 2014

Tsagaan Sar (meaning both white month and white moon) is Mongolia’s most revered holiday. It coincides with what Americans might refer to as Chinese New Year, though the Mongolians I mentioned that to didn’t like it one bit, and rightfully so, I think. Since they are celebrated completely differently, Mongolians should get the recognition of their own holiday for the Lunar New Year, which is a big deal here. I am the Year of the Dragon, as are my host mom and dad (they are 12 years older), which is why I wanted my new deel to have dragons.  🙂

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

Whereas Naadam is all fun and games, Tsagaan Sar is full of tradition and custom. The American equivalent to Tsagaan Sar would be if you took the food of Thanksgiving (not the actual food, of course, but that food is the centerpiece), the gift giving of Christmas (according to the Mongolian rules of gift giving), the fanciness of a formal New Year’s Eve gala (not that I ever attended one), combined the expense of those three holidays, and threw in some serious spring cleaning.

During the week or two prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians spend hours upon hours cleaning their homes in preparation for visits from family and friends. They go shopping for gifts to give those who come to their home. They prepare bite-sized, meat-filled dumplings (bansh, buuz) by the thousands to feed those who come to their home. Little work-work happens during this time, especially that week prior to Tsagaan Sar.

This year, I was able to help two friends with their bansh making. In both instances, all the preparation (rolling out the dough, filling the dough with meat, pinching it closed) took place on the floor. Very curious to me, given that this is such a musical culture, was that there was no music. I think of painting parties or such back home and there’s often music to occupy our minds while we do the task at hand. But here, in each home, the tv was on as background noise but what was on didn’t seem to matter. For all intents and purposes, bansh making was a very quiet affair.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat's worth of bansh.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat’s worth of bansh.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

The first morning of Tsagaan Sar some families watch the sunrise and circle the ovoo 3 times and give a milk offering. I was invited by Oyuna, one of my medical college ladies, to join her and her husband, who is one of my students at the vocational school. This time of year, in this part of the country, sunrise is about 9am. Unfortunately, the morning of Tsagaan Sar was overcast and cloudy, but at around the time of the sunrise, people around me raised their hands toward the sun. (It was the closest thing to religion I’ve seen here, apart from visiting a monastery during PST.) During the wait for the sun to rise, I’d entertained fantasies of returning home and taking a nap, since the first day of Tsagaan Sar is family day. At this point, I didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Now, I’ve just explained that Tsagaan Sar is a time to visit families, but I’m going to spell this out for you because I didn’t fully understand what that meant until I was a part of it. I went with Oyuna and her husband to Oyuna’s oldest family member’s home, then to Oyuna’s home. I was starting to question whether I should stay, or rather, whether I was supposed to go (being very aware of my gadaad hun (outside person) status, I wasn’t sure if my still being there was appropriate). So I asked and Oyuna said that I should stay with them because otherwise I would be alone and I shouldn’t be alone. I didn’t have a problem with being alone, but neither did I have a problem with accompanying her and experiencing Tsagaan Sar to the fullest.

So, here was my revelation: IT WAS THE SAME PEOPLE. I visited 4 apartments and 5 or so gers before I lost count. Oyuna later told me it was 13 homes altogether. You know how, in America, individuals host the big holiday and everyone gathers in that home, probably relieved that they could skip hosting this year? Yeah, that is not Tsagaan Sar. At Oyuna’s, the second stop, I recognized some people, either the people themselves or their fancy deels or hats, and dismissed it thinking, “well, of course they’d be here, they’re family.” But at the 3rd, 4th, and 5th homes, I finally understood. Everyone hosts everyone. It’s a wacky idea that they each take very seriously.

That morning, at the first home wearing our deels and hats, getting in a line from oldest to youngest, we did the formal greeting (zolgokh). This was done only once, and later in the day as newcomers (who’d been visiting spouse’s families?) arrived. But everything else was repeated at each home: the milk-tea, the plate of ham and pickles, the host presenting the tower of bread and candy or aruul and saying “eat, eat” (well, the Mongolian equivalent which sounds exactly the same!), the formal presenting of the snuff bottles, the bansh, the vodka, the gifts (10 hours later, I had 20,000 worth of crisp tugs, an assortment of chocolates, and a shampoo/conditioner set). By my estimate, I ate between 30-40 bansh that first day—nowhere near the PCV record of 130—and I was super proud of myself at this assimilation even as I longed to go home and floss.

Zolgokh. Elder's arms above, younger's below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Zolgokh. Elder’s arms above, younger’s below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true... someone was watching).

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true… someone was watching).

As Tsagaan Sar lasts 3 days officially, this scene played out a handful more times over the next two days, with me visiting a few friend’s and a few student’s homes. I’ve written 1000 words already, and included pictures, yet I feel I can’t really capture “what it was like” for you. During this time, and having little to do with how the Mongolians treated me, my emotions ran an intense gamut, including: being in awe (faced with the deep-seated tradition that I always found lacking in America), impatient (when will she call to invite me?), annoyed (at the short notice, “please come now”), overconfident (look at my shiny new deel!, as if that’s all it takes to fit in), shy (the only way I can reason not having taken advantage of this opportunity to speak Mongolian), frustrated (that I couldn’t be in control of my own food, especially the intake, “eat!”), incredulous (the snuff bottles, again? You just did that!), jaded (another sheep carcass on the table), exhausted. Was I a guest? An intruder? Is it possible to be at once ignored and the center of attention? Did I just sum up life as a PCV?

Last year, my M22 site-mate, Brittany, observed that, with a 27-month commitment, Peace Corps service gives you “a first time and a last time” to experience most of the holidays. As overwhelmed as I was, it is a bittersweet thought that I will not be here for the next Tsagaan Sar. Happy Year of the Horse!

Because I can't have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.

Because I can’t have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.