May 25, 2014

I know my final language score! But, I’m going to withhold that a bit longer so that I can highlight what I realize is more important: Being able to communicate in a foreign language. Clearly there’s a correlation between official placement on the language continuum and ability to communicate, but I think with language, it’s less clear than with other things that are progressively learned, like math. Meaning that additional grammar, vocabulary, and cultural idioms are obviously going to get your message across more easily, but that absent these things, it is still possible to be understood. But you can’t do algebra without being able to multiply.

Awhile back I had a phone call from my Mongolian mom while I was skyping with my American Mom. Since phone calls with Mongolians tend to be pretty short, I suggested that my mom hang on. She did and while she was waiting, she got to hear me speak in Mongolian. Now, based on this 3 or 4 minutes of eavesdropping, my mom would probably tell you that I’m fluent because that’s the kind of exaggeration that mom’s do, or at least my mom. She has no idea that my host mom and I were merely talking about the weather, work and other rote pleasantries. And she has no idea the number of times I said “I don’t understand” or “say that again.”

Because I can’t communicate in Mongolian with the effortlessness that I would like to, it’s easy to overlook how much I DO know. And that became clear last week. Seven young missionaries are visiting Mongolia (from the US, Canada, South Korea, and Indonesia). These young people graciously attended our English club and allowed our students to interview them. They were patient, spoke clearly and asked questions in return. It was a significant opportunity for our students, for both speaking practice and listening exposure to different native accents, and the non-native but fluent speakers from South Korea and Indonesia.

Following the class, the ten of us (7 visitors and 3 PCVs) went out to dinner at Altai’s 24-hour guanz. We pointed out the chalkboard menu on the wall only to realize that 1) they couldn’t read it and 2) even if they could read it, they wouldn’t understand the words. So, we explained the difference between huushuur and tsuivan and “un-dukh-tai horokh” (a stir fry with egg, which is what I had). It’s amazing the confidence boost you get when you’re in the position where ANY bit of language knowledge is a huge advantage over no knowledge.

Unrelated to language, but to complete the picture for you: They had been in Mongolia for 4 days and had already tried the traditional suu-tai tsai (milk-tea); they didn’t have a taste for it. While they drank their grape or orange fantas or minute maid orange juice, it is an integration WIN that all three of us PCVs had suu-tai tsai with our meals, as I always do when I dine out here.

And, on an even less related-to-communication note, I had Mongolian food 5 consecutive days last week. I’m very aware that my countdown-to-leaving clock is ticking (a month to go) and with every experience I wonder “is this the last time?” Except that I haven’t asked “is this my last huushuur?” which is probably because I know I’ll seek it out before I go, and when it is the last, I’ll know. Maybe I won’t crave it when I’m gone, but maybe I will miss it after all.

Dear M25s

May 18, 2014

Open letter to the M25s,

I could refer you to the letter I wrote to the M24s, but that’s just not good enough now. Not only have I got a year’s more experience, but I’m also finishing my 2 years of service, so what I want to share with you is coming from a different perspective than I had when I wrote their welcome letter just a year ago.

We were invited to write our “Aimag story” for Peace Corps staff to share with you, so maybe you’ve already been sent this as you’ve been preparing for your journey to Mongolia:

“When Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride, said “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up,” he could very well have been talking about Peace Corps service in Mongolia.

I spent last New Year’s Eve with my counterpart and her family. A sketch comedy show was on the TV, but it was more background noise. We’d had a quiet evening, relaxing and talking a bit. Even though I’d arrived after 10PM, they’d fed me the full course meal. We’d followed that with cake and come midnight we were toasting with champagne. In so many ways, it was a traditional New Year’s celebration. On my walk home, I could see fireworks over the square. Fireworks. I remember the thought process went something like, “Ooo, fireworks. Nice. Wait… I’m in Govi-Altai, Mongolia… fireworks? what?” And it hit me. Again. Apparently, I didn’t expect there to be fireworks in Mongolia. Of course, I didn’t know I’d made this assumption until I was looking at what I thought I shouldn’t be.

There is a lot of this checking in with yourself that happens. On the one hand, there are a lot of experiences that were once worthy of a double-take, but over time have become a part of the everyday scenery. And on the other hand, there is a lot of filtering through a new culture things that you never gave a second thought before. The connections with individuals, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences, that moment when you see learning taking place. It can be exhausting. The big things are monumental and the time goes so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all as it’s happening. The best we can do in the moment is sum it up. I saw fireworks.”

It’s easy to advise you to “have no expectations” but what about those expectations you weren’t aware of. The things that should be but aren’t; the things that shouldn’t be but are. They are going to creep up on you and give you pause. You’re going to spend a significant amount of time thinking about, ruminating over, and processing… So, my advice is more practical: write it down. Keep a journal, keep a blog, send emails/letters/postcards. This blog you are reading contains memories that I’ve already forgotten; sometimes I’ll spend an afternoon reading early entries, reminiscing, and I’m still here. I’m grateful to those who’ve read it, which kept me coming back with new posts. And I’m thankful I’ll have this collection of anecdotes to take me back to this place when I’m gone.

No doubt you’ve heard that Peace Corps service is the “toughest job you’ll ever love” but what does that even mean? And, maybe more importantly, is it true? If “toughest job” only referred to physical labor, then no, that is not (necessarily) Peace Corps service. But if we can expand our idea of the “toughest job” to encompass the loneliness, the hardships, the boredom, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the confusion, the self-discovery, the starts and stops, the very difficult language, the on-call nature of the job, just figuring out the job, then, yes, Peace Corps service has been my toughest job. Make no mistake about it: You are not coming to Mongolia for vacation. Some of you won’t make it through the summer training. Some of you won’t make it through the first year. And some of you may get so close to the end, but not finish.

So, what about the rest of that claim, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Well, I won’t pretend I can speak for all Peace Corps Volunteers, or even for all members of my cohort. But, as for me, I’ve never looked back. From the moment I landed at the Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, I took it all in. But when I look back on my Peace Corps service, more often than not, it probably won’t be the “job” (that is, my position as English Teacher Trainer) that I remember. Instead, it’ll be the host family who gave me space yet included me. It’ll be those unexpected knocks on the door, never knowing how my evening would be occupied. It’ll be the laughter of a Mongolian friend at my kitchen table. It’ll be the sound of the morin huur, the taste of milktea, and the view from a mountaintop. And since we live here, all of that is part of the job of Peace Corps Volunteer. And that’s what they mean when they say “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

As you’re settling in with your host families, I’ll be wrapping up at my permanent site. Two years is a long time. But, the truth is, it’s not long enough. There’s an iconic Peace Corps poster that summarizes this reality: before and after photos of a village, but the photos are identical. There’s insane growth in Mongolia, so your pictures will change. But that doesn’t change the honesty of the poster. Our work here is on a personal level. You may not see the change that your service will bring about. But, I encourage you to see the big picture. Your job is not limited to your position at a school, health department, or hospital. After you are sworn in, your job will be to be the best Peace Corps Volunteer that you can be.

In a Peace Corps information session I attended as I was making the decision to apply, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer told us, “you will be sent to where you are meant to go.” I think I’ve felt that all along. I hope you do to. Welcome to Mongolia.

2nd winter

May 9, 2014

Hello from Ulaanbaatar!

If you think it’s strange to write about winter in May, you don’t know Mongolia. I’d been planning to give an update long before this, in which I was prepared to write about how mild this winter was compared to that memorable first winter, when my toes froze. But, it’s a good thing I waited because now I can update you that we had the snowiest month in Govi-Altai in APRIL. I didn’t see that coming, given last years’ frigid temps but little snow accumulation overall. It was certainly freezing this winter, but it never got to that chilled-to-the-bone point. I was glad about that because my apartment, which was extra hot last year, was only warm enough this year. And, just when I’d decided to stop wearing my winter coat, we had 2 weeks of miserable weather: all manner of precipitation, from the fine flakes that vanish as soon as they hit the ground, to the big fluffy wet snow. There was 4 inches one night! But anywhere that gets the sunshine melted in a day or two. We also had rain and howling winds and lost the power a few times. It wasn’t all bad, actually. Having the wet weather kept the dust storms down, which I’m not sure I ever mentioned but that’s what spring in Altai is like: mini funnel clouds popping up all over town.

But, you  notice I’m writing to you from UB–the capital city, very much not in the desert. We came here for our Close of Service conference (already!), the last time we will all be together. I’ll definitely write about that soon. What’s relevant here is that on our last day of the conference, May 7, 2014, it snowed, in keeping with some ~5 year tradition of snow during COS. And this morning, I woke up to a sloppy white mess–at least three inches had fallen in the city. (I’m sure I’ve seen snow here, but I don’t believe it was fresh.) As with much of Mongolia, UB doesn’t have the best infrastructure and the snow, much of which melted due to a later steady light rain, flooded the streets, sidewalks, patches of grass, parking lots, and basically everywhere.

So, my last winter in Mongolia was even longer than the first, but the trees in UB are already turning green and I’m hopeful that when I get back to site in 2 days, Altai’s few trees will have caught up.

Coming soon to this blog: COS Conference, UB, final language assessment. Until then, here’s hoping your spring is less snowy.