goodbye Orkhon

June 30, 2014

I’d given my host mom about 2 weeks notice that I was coming. Due to Peace Corps policy about the earliest we are allowed to leave site for COS, I could leave Altai on Thursday morning, and my flight out of Mongolia was the following Wednesday morning. We had a lengthy checklist of things to do to leave Peace Corps (which I’ll write about next) so I had to get stuff done that Thursday and couldn’t leave to my host family’s until Friday around noon. I was hoping I’d have had a day or two longer, but I was also glad I was able to go at all.

The easiest way to get to Orkhon is to take the Erdenet bus from the Dragon Center bus station in UB. So, it’s worth mentioning that Mongolians call it “Dargon” not Dragon. Then, you have to tell the driver that you want to get off at the gas station on the road to Orkhon Soum, and not go all the way to Erdenet. It’s a beautiful 4 hour drive to Orkhon, with plenty of rolling green hills, horses, cows, sheep, and goats along the way.

My host mom arranged for a driver, Will’s host dad from PST, to pick me up. There were 3 others and he dropped them off first; since he is our neighbor it made sense to drop me off last. Riding into Orkhon for the first time in ten months, the first thing I noticed were the streetlights! You couldn’t NOT notice them, towering above everything on the one main street. Development even in this little town of a couple thousand. They didn’t reach as far as my family’s neighborhood, though.

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I arrived around 4:30. It was raining. Mom was at work. My younger host brother immediately began cooking food for me. I’d tell you his name, but when I met him for the first time, his name was too hard for me to pronounce so mom just said to call him “Baga” which I thought was a nickname, but it turns out it just means he is the youngest of the family. Anyway, he made a rice stir fry and didn’t accept my offer to help. While he was chopping and stirring, we chatted. It was so different from those first few weeks. I remember he took me for a walk my first weekend and he tried to teach me to count to five. I could get 1 and 5, which are each one syllable, but 2, 3, and 4 were all slurred together; I just couldn’t hear where one stopped and the next started.

Another story from that first weekend: Baga was asking me for the English names of the foods we were eating. I answered, potato, cabbage, or carrot and he repeated. Then, he held up something I didn’t recognize, because it was sliced and cooked. It was yellow, darker than a potato, but lighter than a carrot. I said that I didn’t know, and sure enough, he repeated, very carefully, “I don’t know” as if that was the name for turnip! In our first two “survival Mongolian” lessons, we’d learned important words like toilet (for the outhouse), toilet paper, meat, fat… we’d also learned the phrases, “What is this?”, “I like…” and “I don’t like…” But, we hadn’t yet learned how to say “I don’t know” in Mongolian. Lost in translation.

When my mom arrived, one of the things she noticed was that I had the same sandals from two summers before, when I lived with them. She said they must be very sturdy. But, I reminded her that I don’t wear them for the 8 months of winter, and I was also able to say that Govi-Altai was very dusty so that I didn’t wear them too much there in the summer, either. I was able to tell her about my summer travel plans and that I wouldn’t have a job after the following Wednesday and that when I returned home I’d be living with my brother’s family while I figured out where to live and work permanently. Then, I heard her repeating all these things when she was talking to my sister or dad or a friend on the phone, so I knew she understood me, and it was great to realize that I understood her.

She saw that I had brought my pillow, my beloved pillow from home, and said that it was nice. I told her I was leaving it with them as a gift, but that I needed to wash it, which I did on Saturday. (I think I wrote that Mongolian pillows aren’t much of a pillow at all…) I also gifted them my Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag; it’s much more appropriate for a Mongolian winter than anywhere I’ll end up. I gave my dad my Swiss army knife, Baga got my Red Sox hat, and my older younger brother, Erka, got my headlamp with fresh batteries. I also had a PST photo album printed when I got back to UB that I had sent back to them.

My visit included enough downtime, enough alone time, to wander the town and say goodbye. I also visited with the M23 PCV who lives there, and met 3 of the PCTs training there. Sunday late morning, my family sent me off with wishes to get married and have a baby when I get home. If either happens, I’ve no doubt that my Mongolian friends and family will be more excited than my American friends and family 🙂 It was a good goodbye. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as the first time, when I was leaving for the unknown.

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Peace Corps cautioned us not to make promises about returning to Mongolia, but I’m so certain I will return, it didn’t seem like a promise, just a telling of my future plans. In three-to-five years, I’ll be back. I never did visit my host family for Tsagaan Sar, and when I realized it could coincide with a trip to the Harbin, China, ice-sculpture festival, the other trip I’d wanted to take from here, well, it seemed like a no-brainer. So, if anyone wants a tour guide to Mongolia, IN WINTER, you know where to find me.


goodbye Altai

June 26, 2014

As you can imagine, my last week in Altai was pretty busy.

I had a goodbye dinner with 2 ladies from the medical college. I never wrote about Jargal. That woman is hysterical! She has us write down everything, “Please, write.” Always wanting to sound more natural, she studies English idioms… but in one conversation she’ll use more than you’ve ever heard. Some obscure. Some not quite right. Some British, so who the heck knows if they’re right. It’s great to see someone so enthusiastic about learning English.

Between the packing and reorganizing and sorting, I continued to have my daily Drs. conversation club almost to the end. The week before I left, they wanted to learn a song; I taught them What a Wonderful World. It’s a great song for English-language learners because it is slow and there are few words. It also has a great message that they could understand with little translation. How happy was I to discover a few days later that one of them made the song her cell phone ringtone! They also arranged to take me and my couchsurfers (below) to see the hydro-power plant in a neighboring soum, and have a picnic. It was great to spend time with them outside, but I was astounded that they had their backs to the water–an enormous reservoir–while we were eating! I was curious how I would adjust to living in this land-locked country after having only ever lived on the coasts of America. Obviously, I managed, but now I know my preference is to be near the water, wherever I end up.

I hosted two French couchsurfers (my first time as host!) for 3 nights. Due to the fact that I was leaving my apartment, you’d think, as I did, that this was bad timing. But they were biking across Mongolia, one small part of an unbelievable round-the-world journey (usually by foot), and since I was the only host in Govi-Altai, I didn’t want to say no. Originally, they were to arrive Sunday and leave Tuesday. Since I was flying out Thursday morning, I thought this would give me enough down time to get my stuff done when they’d left. But due to a storm, they arrived late and asked to stay later. It was pretty clear that they were legit travelers who would appreciate staying but would obviously leave if I asked them to. But, again, I wasn’t about to impede their efforts. In the end, she offered to help with cleaning my apartment, which of course I took her up on, and she did a phenomenal job with very little direction. They ended up being a big help, instead of being in the way. Plus, I think having them there was a bit of a distraction from the emotional toll of leaving and saying goodbye. You can follow her journey here, and even if you don’t read French, there’s lots of photos and video.

The dates for my final project, a teachers’ English camp outside of Altai, shifted just slightly enough for me to be unable to participate, except insofar as I helped create the weeks worth of lessons with another PCV, Heath. He arrived on my last day and was also a big help, and distraction from the finality of it all. I spent my last day getting photographs of my two years together for an album to give to my co-workers. In addition to the album, I printed separate copies for the individuals in the pictures. Sorting all these photos ended up being a much bigger project than I anticipated, and that’s where Heath came in. By the time the album was finished, it was after the office should have been closed and I thought I’d slink in there and leave the album on the main table and leave each person’s photos on their desks, thus avoiding the goodbyes. But no. Little did I know that the entire office was waiting to give me a gift, a cashmere dress designed to look like a Mongolian deel. It’s a gorgeous baby blue, with an overlay that has the pattern in royal blue. They also gave me a photo album with photos that someone had lifted from my facebook, many of the pictures are not of work events, and some of the pictures aren’t even from Altai! But it is very special.

With Heath sorting pictures, and the couchsurfers occupied with their own packing, I was able to spend time with visitors and actually sit and have tea. I gave one of them, my student Dolgormaa, a sweater that she had previously admired, and even though she won’t wear it for a few more months, she was super appreciative. I also visited my non-PCV American friends and had a leisurely mid-day snack without feeling rushed. And, finally, my site-mate Eva cooked a delicious dinner for Heath and me.

It was the best last day, the best series of goodbyes, I could have asked for. I think it helped knowing that I’ll be able to see Eva right after I return home and my CP (who will study abroad in Seattle!) soon after. I’m very lucky.

Note: I’m officially not a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore. My last day was June 25, 2014. I’m now an RPCV 😀 Also, I’m not in Mongolia anymore. We left about 36 hours ago and I am on my way home via about a month in Europe. Maybe these last entries won’t mean as much to you in that case, but this blog is also my record of my time in Peace Corps and in Mongolia, so I’ll continue to document over the next few weeks and maybe longer if things come up. I’ll add pictures of the above events when I’m able. In the meantime, as always, thanks for reading.

Coming soon: Goodbye Orkhon (host family visit!), UB, COS-ing…


COS

June 6, 2014

I’m within two weeks of leaving site, three weeks of leaving Peace Corps and Mongolia. At times, my chest is tight. My chin quivers, unexpectedly, and my throat doesn’t swallow easily.

Though we arrived en masse to Mongolia, Close of Service marks the last time my cohort, the M23s, will have been together. Though a handful will stay for a third year, the majority will depart the country in staggered waves, some going directly home while others travel our way back. Some of us will keep in touch. Some of us will want to keep in touch but will, perhaps inevitably, drift apart. And some of us may move on to the next phase of life without looking back. Though, I believe that even this group will hold a special place in their hearts for those who were a part of this Peace Corps/Mongolia experience.

The COS Conference we had in May was necessary for disseminating information we needed to know in order “to leave Peace Corps and to leave Mongolia.” One PCV said it required more paperwork to get out than to get in. Practical things were covered, such as closing our bank accounts, deactivating our visa, and post-PC healthcare options; helpful things such as networking and resume tips; cautionary things such as “readjustment” to life in America; and the delicate, easily overlooked topic of saying goodbye to our communities was addressed.

There was a panel of mostly RPCVs assembled for us to ask our life-after-Peace Corps questions. One man, now working at the American Embassy in UB, was an M2, the second group of Volunteers in Mongolia. We gave him a round of applause in recognition of how different, how more difficult, it must have been for him. One woman, who finished service ~10 years ago, had never stopped improving her Mongolian language and is now a document translator based in Mongolia. Another woman, a recent RPCV, is now at PCHQ in DC. I’m within three weeks of leaving Peace Corps, so I am within three weeks of being unemployed. Where on earth will I be a year from now? What will I be doing? It’s still too soon for me to think about.

During our evenings at the conference there were organized group activities (trivia, dance, bananagrams) and intimate groupings that formed organically. On the last day, we had lunch with the US Ambassador to Mongolia. We had many photos taken, including with our PST groups. My personal highlight: our beloved Safety and Security Manager sang us out while playing “Country Roads” on guitar. After our two years of trying to integrate into the Mongolian culture, it was super meaningful to have a Mongolian take on an American folk song. This cherished memory is heavy on my heart if I think about it too long, so I’d better move on.

Our last night in UB, many of us gathered for an unofficial wedding ceremony for my PST site-mate and our language teacher. They’ll do it for real in the States, and I plan to be there, but I was glad they thought to do something here while so many of us were together. Afterward, we danced in the club until closing time. As the night wore on, more and more goodbyes were said during a tight embrace. The honesty, the raw emotion, the respect were all palpable. I looked around the crowded room and saw it time and time again, history being acknowledged with a nod or a grin, private moments unfolding around me, thinking “I need to start my own goodbyes, but I’m not ready.” Ready or not, they came to me.

I’m lucky to have had some solid groups in my past which gave me a support network at the time, life-long friends since, and a shared identity that allows us to pick up where we left off no matter the time that has passed: my band friends from high school (even jr. high), my fellow cast members from “images: Theater for Young Hearts and Minds” (a peer education group), my one college roommate (the one person I’m in touch with 15 years later), colleagues from my two hospital jobs who were more than mere co-workers.

To this esteemed collection of groups, I add my Peace Corps family. This includes the other M23s, of course, and the M21s, M22s, M24s and M25s I’ve gotten to know. I hope it goes without saying that my host family, my CP, and our PC staff, American and Mongolian, are in there too. But it also includes the Peace Corps/Mongolia PCVs before and after, nearly all of whom I will never meet, and the Peace Corps Volunteers from any other country ever. Why? Because this shared experience is that meaningful to me. There’s a knowingness, a tacit understanding, that can’t be captured in a blog. And just as I’ve had to say goodbye to being a member of the other groups in my life, but never said goodbye to the people, so, too, must I say goodbye to being a PCV. What’s really neat, though, is that I move from being a PCV to an RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. And that’s something I’ll be forever.


Final language

June 4, 2014

Despite my personal challenge of “four more levels” after last summer’s informal assessment, I went into my LPI just hoping for any improvement at all in my Mongolian language. The last year, language-wise, felt different than the first. I’m much more comfortable in the rote phrases and conversations: introductions, asking permission, and using the correct question particle (different for yes/no questions vs. the “W” questions), and I understand more of what is said between Mongolians, but “more than nothing” isn’t much to brag about. When I recount my LPI below you’ll no doubt be impressed at what I could communicate, as I certainly was. But, I’ll just remind you now that what I describe, though I’ll use complete sentences for your benefit, actually happened in a very broken Mongolian.

Okay, here it is without any further suspense: Intermediate-High. That’s my final language assessment rank after almost 2 full years of living in Mongolia. To remind you, I finished PST as a Novice-High speaker of Mongolian and after one year I had advanced to Intermediate-Mid. Though I fell short of my goal of Advanced-High, in hindsight I realize that was super ambitious for a few reasons… the first is that my reasoning was flawed: to think that I would automatically advance two levels in one year just because I had advanced two levels over the previous year was absurd. That’s not how language learning works.

The second is my level of effort. Though I continued (and still continue!) to study vocabulary nearly every day, I seldom went beyond that. I know a LOT of Mongolian words but don’t always know the correct pronunciation, or various forms it can take because of the endings that may be tacked onto them. And my grammar is probably limited to the main four tenses (past/present/future simple and present continuous). I’ve only recently dabbled in conditionals (if statements) and I’m not confident in them. Though I told my students if they want to be English speakers, they have to speak English, I seldom took my own advice. I wouldn’t say I avoided speaking opportunities, that’s going too far, but I certainly didn’t take advantage of the ones that came along (e.g., Tsagaan Sar).

Additionally, Advanced-High was achieved by only a few of my cohort of PCVs and some of the most talented Mongolian speakers in my group fell short of that, though their spoken Mongolian is far more fluent than mine. (By the way, there is a whole other category beyond advanced. I think it is Expert, or something like that.)

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Language Proficiency Interview
I’ll use a dialogue format for easier reading, reminding you once again that this is not a transcript of the LPI. The interviewer’s part is what I understood. My part is what I was trying to say, with a little commentary thrown in.

Interviewer: Hello, how are you? Please sit down. Tell me about yourself.
Love: My name is Love. I came to Mongolia 2 years ago from Boston. I will leave Mongolia in June. I might not live in Boston. My mom lives in San Diego and she is retired. I might live there since she is alone. This year she will be 70.
Interviewer: Tell me about your job.
Love: I work in Govi-Altai as an English Teacher for teachers. But I am not a professional teacher. In America, I worked in a cancer hospital.
Interviewer: Why do you think there is a lot of cancer in Mongolia?
Love: (what did she just ask me?!) I don’t know that there is.
Interviewer: I know. There is. Why do you think that is so?
Love: Well, in UB there is a lot of air pollution, especially in the winter. (I couldn’t think of “lung” cancer, so I mimed a lot here.) People can’t breathe well.
Interviewer: What about people in the countryside?
Love: Well, they have few vegetables.
Interviewer: What kind of food do you eat?
Love: In Govi-Altai I cook American food, Indian food, and Mexican food. And I eat Mongolian food when I go out to eat. In UB, I don’t eat Mongolian food because there is more variety. Also, I don’t cook meat.
Interviewer: You don’t cook meat. What do you eat?
Love: (haha!) I eat meat, but I don’t cook it. I eat tuna and tofu and beans.
Interviewer: How do you cook beans? They are very hard in the bag. Mongolians don’t know how to cook them.
Love: Put the beans in water for 8 hours or one night. Then boil them for 3 hours. You can eat them alone or add rice or spices.
Interviewer: Tell me about your home.
Love: I have one big room and a bathroom. I have a bed/couch, bookcase, stove (the Russian word), refrigerator. The apartment was very warm last winter. Govi-Altai is warmer than UB. Last winter I froze my toes in UB.

Scenario—renting an apartment
Interviewer: Now we will do a scenario. Please read this card and begin when you are ready.
Love: I need to rent an apartment.
Interviewer: I have a one-room apartment and a two-room apartment. Which do you want to see?
Love: I will see both. Is crime a problem here? Are there drunk people?
Interviewer: No. No. It is very safe?
Love: Who are the people who live nearby?
Interviewer: Foreigners and Mongolian families.
Love: It doesn’t concern me if they are foreigners or Mongolians. I just want nice people. What is in the apartment?
Interviewer: Tell me what you need?
Love: Refrigerator, stove… Is there hot water?
Interviewer: Yes, we have all that?
Love: It’s close to work, but where can I take a taxi in bad weather?
Interviewer: In front of the building.
Love: When can I move in?
Interviewer: Anytime. It is ready now.
Love: What is the rent per month?
Interviewer: 500,000 tugrugs. (twice my G-A rent)
Love: Wow! We are not in Govi-Altai anymore!

After the official interview, we had some small talk in Mongolian. I told her that my host family was in Orkhon Soum and asked if she had been. She hadn’t. I told her it was nice and that I miss them. She asked me if I knew a Swiss woman in Altai, who makes jewelry. She had been the Swiss woman’s Mongolian-language teacher. I told her I did know her but that she isn’t in Altai anymore. She got married last Friday to an American man. I watched their wedding on the internet!

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I honestly believe had I been sent to a Spanish-speaking country, with 4 years of formal study and a lifetime of exposure to the sounds and rhythm of the language behind me, that I would be fluent by now. When all is said and done, though I didn’t achieve the level I had set for myself, I am very proud of my accomplishment in what is known to be a very difficult language. That is accomplishment both in terms of official LPI ranking and in the communication that continues to happen, however “broken” it may be. Though I neither speak nor understand Mongolian with ease, I remain motivated to maintain what I’ve achieved. More and more, the shyness is wearing away. I have a final visit with my host family planned for my last weekend in Mongolia. For me, that will be the ultimate test.