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.