Stateside

February 26, 2016

My Mongolian sister is in America!

Back in October I got a message (in Mongolian): What’s the distance between Boston and Chicago? I had known that my host mom had a younger sister in Chicago. Or, at least, I thought I knew that… funny thing about cross-cultural interactions, you think language is the only barrier… that just translating the words will make everything clear. Come to find out, that “younger sister” is an only child! Near as I can figure, Mongolians use the same word for “generic younger family member” as they do for “younger sibling.” Maybe she is a niece or a cousin of my host mom. And, my sister calls her what I thought was “older sister” but maybe it is more like “generic older female family member.” Someday I’ll figure it out.

Back to that text. By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had heard so many people with plans to travel abroad only to have something fall through. So, when I read that my sister had an interview to get her Visa to America, I thought the chances were 50/50 that she’d actually get here. I was cautiously optimistic. I didn’t allow myself to get too excited, but I did promise that if she came to Chicago, I would visit her there (using the future conditional tense in Mongolian for the first time ever!).

In December, I heard from her again. She was coming to Chicago in January. Not knowing the details, I asked how long she would be here, like “how many days will you be in Chicago?” The answer, 2 YEARS! Unbeknownst to me, she was coming here to study English. And I’m immediately thinking that I need to see her as soon as possible. And, then, as often as possible.

Not having seen her in the year before leaving Mongolia, I needed that connection for me. I’ve been missing Mongolia pretty regularly since resettling into life in America… I miss that relaxed pace of life, the friends dropping by unannounced, the semi-legit reason for not hearing from people, and the disconnect from so much pop-culture nonsense. I needed to reaffirm that what mattered so much to me when it was happening wasn’t inflated as time has passed. Also, I was eager to have the chance to speak Mongolian with someone who I knew would be patient and helpful. During these last 20 months out of Mongolia, I have continued to study my Mongolian vocabulary and phrases almost daily, so this visit would be yet another benchmark in my language learning.

A very large part of the reason for me making a visit my priority was to show her that I’m here for her, now that I know firsthand the value of “comforts from home” when you are away from it. Though I am American, our connection is Mongolia. So, though I may not be the obvious friendly face from home, who better than me to put her at ease as she adjusts to life in a foreign land. To my mind, I was the Host Country National and it was my turn to welcome her to America. I didn’t put it into such “Peace Corps speak” at the time, but that was the sentiment I felt. I also wanted to encourage her in her study of English not just for the opportunities it can bring, but also so that our conversations aren’t limited by my Mongolian language ability.

Until that happens though, with all our communication in Mongolian, and me not knowing which questions to ask, there were a few glitches. The family members that she is staying with didn’t know I was coming! But, they still welcomed me in and invited me to stay for the 2 nights. And my long-weekend visit that made so much sense with my 9-5 work schedule was foiled by her Saturday and Sunday class schedule. Still, we made it work. And when she slipped her arm in mine and we began walking in step with one another, I got what I needed.

Sears Tower at sunset.
chicago

No pictures of the three Mongolian meals (made with beef, not mutton) but you’ll just have to take my word, it was all so good.

Brunch with one of my first Peace Corps/Mongolia friends, Vinh, who I remembered at the last moment lives in Chicago and made time to meet us.
 brunch
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Naadam

July 10, 2014

This week is Naadam, Mongolia’s big summer holiday. The winter holiday, Tsagaan Sar, has all the tradition; Naadam simply has fun. I experienced two Naadams while I was in Mongolia. The first was in my training site, Orkhon, during PST. The second was at my permanent site, Govi-Altai. For the most part, the only difference was in scale, Orkhon’s being much smaller, Govi-Altai’s being a bit larger, and neither coming close to the size of the UB Naadam. It seems all soums celebrate their own Naadam and the dates are staggered a bit from the national Naadam and one another.

It’s an official 2-3 day holiday devoted entirely to sport, specifically wrestling, horse-racing, and archery. So, businesses are closed but stores would be open (unlike during Tsagaan Sar). There is music, dance and singing, too, so even if you don’t think you’re interested in the competitions, you could still have a good time. And those are just the events in the stadium. Outside the stadium there were pop-up carnival-type activities like a bean-bag toss and a throw-the-dart-pop-a-balloon game (that one without any safety precautions whatsoever for passersby!). It was the first time that I saw whole families out enjoying the day together, little kids flying kites. Mind you, we had only been in the country for 5 or 6 weeks by the time of that first Naadam, and my soum had only ~2000 people.

As it turns out, my favorite of the three “manly” sports was the wrestling. Tradition oozes out of every aspect of the sport, from the moment the men (only men wrestle) come onto the field wearing their summer deels and Mongol malgai (malgai = hat), it really is captivating to watch. Once the match is over, the winner does a sort of dance inspired by eagles in flight. And after, the two competitors come together and the winner raises his arms over the other. It’s really hard to explain with words without it sounding clunky because you know they’re not thinking “now I have to do the eagle dance… now I have to honor my competitor.” It’s just what they do.

Naadam is also the time you’re likely to be offered airag, the traditional fermented mare’s milk. I had it at the first Naadam in Orkhon, where there was an entire ger devoted only to airag. They also set up gers to sell huushuur, the official food of Naadam. My first year it was made with geddis (the stomach, etc), not my favorite, and those gers get mighty hot because of the non-stop deep frying inside.

My second year, in Govi-Altai, my Counterpart said that I should wear my Mongolian summer deel (dress) to the stadium at 9am. What she didn’t say was that the entire Education Department would march around the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies. There isn’t actually a lot of status with that, many groups in the aimag did it, but it is just one of those examples where I was given the least amount of information possible 🙂 Oh, Mongolia…

I wish I could post pictures for you here but it is difficult since I am on the move. Eventually, it will happen. Happy Naadam, everyone!


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.


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.


communication

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.


medical

April 1, 2014

Knock on wood; I’ve been a healthy person. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted; many a Thanksgiving my health has topped the list of things for which I am thankful. But, living in a developing country presents new challenges and managing even a run-of-the-mill cold may require more effort here than at home.

The two Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) in UB are responsible for our well-being. During PST, they give numerous trainings covering general health concerns and those specific to Mongolia. Topics covered include: alcohol (including the alcohol content of different drinks, alcoholism, alcohol as a means of escaping or coping), mental health (including the warning signs of depression and the methods of coping), dog bites, healthy eating (to the extent possible in soums with few vegetables), medications (which to use for which symptoms, what’s available in our individual med kits, what’s available by request from the PCMO), and sexual health issues (including sexual assault, alcohol and sex, Sexually Transmissible Infections and how to prevent them, and exploring the reasons people engage in sexual activity). That’s not an exhaustive list. Outside of trainings, our PCMOs also take care of in-country vaccinations, flu shots and annual physicals. When something goes wrong while we are at site, they make the decision to get us to UB so they can examine us in person. And if something goes really wrong, they make the decision to send us to Thailand for treatment. They are available 24/7 via an emergency number; of course, we are advised to troubleshoot non-emergency issues on our own first.

The Health Manual answers basic questions of symptoms and preliminary treatment and allows us to triage the more serious issues to the PCMOs. My first experience with the Health Manual was shortly after my arrival at site. I had an earache which isn’t something that I’m prone to getting. The earache was mild and short-lived so I never bothered with contacting the PCMOs about it. But I learned from the Health Manual that “for some inexplicable reason, a few Volunteers will develop excessive earwax during their time in Mongolia.” And it was true! For a while I was thinking to myself, “where’s all this ear wax coming from?” But since it wasn’t cause for concern, it wasn’t worth mentioning. I imagine it has something to do with the different climate and altitude and it’s probably further proof that I’ve adapted since over the 22 months here (wow!), my earwax has returned to “normal” levels.

The med-kit contains a medley of over-the-counter meds, a pair of rubber gloves, water-purifying tablets, rehydrating salts, condoms, an ace bandage, gauze, generic band-aids, bug spray, sunscreen, well, here’s a picture.

med_kitIf we need a resupply of things, we can request via phone call or email and they’ll mail it to us at site. I’ve gotten PCMO packages in 2 days!

The PC/Mongolia Cook Book I’ve touched on briefly before. But let me highlight the best thing about it, and where it differs from other cook books I’ve owned. This cookbook has recipes which only use ingredients we can get here. Other recipe books wanted fancy ingredients that I didn’t know where to buy or would only use a portion of before the remainder would spoil. This cook book is divided into two sections, Hungry Hudoo (for the Volunteers living in the countryside with fewer options) and Posh Corps (for the Volunteers in UB and those of us who have more variety). What this means is that I can make any of the Hungry Hudoo recipes and many of the Posh Corps recipes (except for the fact that I don’t cook meat or have an oven). But, armed with this cook book, I’ve learned to make: vegetarian chili, ginger tofu, black bean burgers, lentil burgers, any bean falafel, risotto, curry carrot soup, tomato soup, corn chowder, sweet and sour beets, peanut sauce, hummus, tzatziki, tortillas, no-bake cookies, rice cooker cake, and best of all, rice cooker brownies!!!

My reason for writing on this topic is that over the last 2 weeks I’ve had some experience with the Mongolian hospital in town and realized that I never really posted about our medical care here. So, now that I’ve done that, I’ll recount my experience.

Around the beginning of March I had a cold, nothing serious. The symptoms were a shallow cough, which morphed into a sore throat, before settling into a runny nose accompanied by sneezing a week later. I’m well familiar with Upper Respiratory Infections and back home I’d suffered through far worse symptoms before finally going to my Primary Care doc only to find I’d had walking pneumonia or bronchitis. I wouldn’t say I have a high tolerance for pain or am averse to medical treatment, but just that I procrastinated until I couldn’t any more.

But, with this particular cold, on a Tuesday night after English club, I felt a double earache coming on, the right side worse than the left. And, since I’m less familiar with these than the URIs, I consulted the Health Manual. I learned that earaches after colds could be a middle-ear infection, and that complication included a ruptured eardrum with the possibility of temporary hearing loss. As the pain was getting worse, I started freaking out a little (as much as I can freak out, which, to look at me, maybe you wouldn’t have known). I didn’t call the PCMO emergency number because, I reasoned, there was nothing they could do, or advise me to do, that would help immediately. I decided to call first thing in the morning.

It was a difficult night trying to sleep. The pain was worse when lying down. Sitting up didn’t help much, but it was an improvement. I’d taken Tylenol, which didn’t seem to make a difference, and I was worried about taking too many so I didn’t take any more. It was nearly 3am that I couldn’t stay awake anymore and tried to sleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was that there was no pain. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but it was a 1 or 2 vs. a 5 or 6 (on that 1-10 pain scale) so I was relieved. I could tell there was moisture in my ear, and sure enough, a cotton swab (and my pillow) showed a slightly bloody fluid. I assumed a ruptured eardrum, but my hearing, though muffled, was still there. Big sigh of relief!

Long story short, after gathering the information, the PCMO (who, just a few weeks prior, had visited our very hospital) authorized me to visit the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (which not all hospitals here have). Oyundar, the otolaryngologist, examined my ear, said, in English, “no puncture,” and reported back to an interpreter in UB who relayed the diagnosis to the PCMO. The PCMO then allowed me to be treated by the doc. That first day, when she inserted a 2-inch long strip of gauze, that had been dipped into a solution, into my ear, oh, joy! The remaining pressure I’d felt was relieved. And when I’d removed the strip of gauze 2 hours later, I could hear! It wasn’t permanent, meaning it blocked again when I blew my nose, but it was promising. I noticed that night, while lying in my bed in the absolute silence of night, that there was a bit of high-pitched ringing in my right ear.

Over the last 2 weeks, I have made 8 visits to the hospital. It’s pretty crowded in the lobby, where the registration window is, but I don’t have to register. Registered patients are given laminated, numbered tickets, just like you were at the deli. The ENT’s office is on the second floor, across from a pediatrician’s office, at the end of a corridor. One morning I counted 30 people waiting in the hallway. There are benches to accommodate 8-10 people. I wait alongside them, one day for nearly an hour, but once the doc knows I’ve arrived, she ushers me in and the visits are pretty routine. The door’s two glass panels are covered with opaque film, so waiting patients often poke their heads in to see what’s going on. During the third visit, the otolaryngologist charged me 10,500 tugs (about $6) to cover the total number of visits.

There hasn’t been any ear pain since that first night, and the ringing in the ear is gone (or, at least I can’t hear it anymore). She originally said 5 visits, so for the last 3 visits I’ve been asking, in Mongolian, “tomorrow, I don’t come, right?” But, she kept saying to come. Finally, today she wrote a prescription and we had to get the PCMO on the phone again, along with the translator. Turns out, she wants me to use steroid ear drops for the next three days. The PCMO approved this. She also wanted to give me an aloe injection. The PCMO rejected this. The doc and I were able to communicate using a sort of Mong-lish, and I understood that I am to take 2 drops every 8 hours, and return in 3 days. I took my script to the pharmacy and paid the 7,000 tugs (about $4) and remembered to ask for a receipt, my first time asking in Mongolian, so that Peace Corps can reimburse me.

I’ll be home in ~3 months and I look forward to hearing your voices in person!


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.