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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transcript

August 21, 2014

I’ve been in America for 2 weeks. How is it? Exactly the same. The family I’ve seen seems pretty much the same. Prices in the grocery story are pretty much the same; gas is less than I remember. I haven’t spent too much time in my city, but what I saw was basically the same. I feel pretty much the same. But I’m not.

In the nearly 2 months since I left Mongolia I can feel it almost slipping away, like I have to work to keep it real. Like, if I asked you, “How was your last two years?” Well, if there wasn’t some monumental event, how would it be different from the last ten years. But, “You were in Mongolia,” I hear you say. And I keep telling you, except for the fact of being in Mongolia, my life was pretty typical.

I’ve written about saying goodbye to my permanent site and my host family, and how they were the best goodbyes I could have asked for. I have a draft of a leaving-Peace Corps blog that I will get to, but I can tell you it was a similarly relaxed departure. The one thing that didn’t go the way I wanted was I never got to see my little sister, Hongor. She’s a college graduate so she’s hardly little, but I am the youngest in my American family so I loved being the oldest in my Mongolian family. She lives in UB now and my time there was pretty busy. Plus, if I’m being honest with myself, I always hesitated to call because of my limited language (it’s much more difficult on the phone) and by the time I got to the point when I couldn’t wait any longer, there was no answer.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled when my little sister reached out to me on facebook about 5 weeks after I left Mongolia. I thought it would be a brief exchange, limited to the “how are you?” realm. And I was a bit nervous that, if it strayed much beyond that, it would quickly be beyond my level of understanding and/or speaking. When you are really invested in the conversation, as I am with my Mongolian family, not understanding can be incredibly frustrating. But to my great delight, that’s not what happened. My sister and I exchanged real information and, my awful grammar and atrocious spelling notwithstanding, I had a surprising amount of confidence as I was thinking in Mongolian. In fact, given that I almost never read Mongolian written in the Roman alphabet, and never wrote in it, I suspect my understanding would have been even better if she had written in the Cyrillic alphabet that I’m used to. I realized I could share it here so that you can really get a feel for my language ability and maybe have insight into our relationship.

Person Transcript Translation (i.e., what I understood, and what I was trying to say) Comments
Sister hi Hi it’s English
Me hi minii duu! Hi, my little sister! Mongolians use the word “duu” to mean younger brother or younger sister.
Sister sain ywj bn uu Are you traveling well?
Me sain. bi chamd sanaj bn. Yes. I miss you.
Sister bi ch bas taniig sanaj ban I miss you too.
uulzaj chadaagvi ywuulsand uuchilaarai Sorry I couldn’t see you when you left.
Me medne. bi mongoloor uzeglexgui I know. I can’t spell in Mongolian. This was a total guess.
Sister yu What? I guess I was wrong.
Me minii hamgiin suuldiin odor chamd utasdsan. utas bas facebook bichij hetsuu bn. I called you my last night. It is difficult to phone or write on facebook.  
Sister oo miniii utas holbogdohgvi bsan ymuu Oh, my phone was… Was what??? I know the word in a different context.
ta hezee mongold ireh beee When will you come to Mongolia?
Me magadgui, 3-5 jiliin daraa. Maybe in 3-5 years.
Sister 😦 tiim vv 😦 Really?
Me mednee. bi ajilax herextai. irne! Minii Mongol ger bul martcaxgui! I know. I have to work. I will come! I won’t forget my Mongolian family!  
  zuragiin tsomog harsan uu? Bi Xongor bagshiin ger buld ongotsnii buudalt ogson. Did you see the photo album? I gave it to teacher Hongoroo’s family at the airport. Whew! This was exhausting, but I’m fairly confident in it.
Sister awsan goe goe zurag zondoo bn leee I got it. Very nice photos… I wish I knew the rest.
 bid 2-iin uulaar ywj bsan zurag ih goe garsan bn lee The picture of the 2 of us at the mountain is the nicest… Again, I wish I knew…
Me good. hotsoroson. bi haramsaj baisan. Good. I’m sorry it was late. Photos printed the day before I left Mongolia!!
  hamgiin suldiin sar ix hurdan tsag… haha! The last month went very quickly… haha! Actually, that says “last month very fast time”
Sister kkkkkkk Haha
mongol-g sanaj bn uuuu Do you miss Mongolia?
odoohondoo gaigvv bn uu So far are you good?
Me Za Yeah.  
  odor bur mongol tuxai canaxdag Every day I think about Mongolia.  oops, not canaxdag… sandag!!!
  bi uneheer uzeglexgui!! I really can’t spell!!
Sister mongol helee martaj bolohgvi shvvv zaaa You can’t forget your Mongolian language, okay?
Me Za. odor bur mongol hel sordag. Yeah. Every day I study Mongolian. It’s true! Even while I was traveling. But studying vocab isn’t the same as speaking.
Sister ok sain bn + Ok, that’s good.
bi english hel surahiig ih hvsej bn I want to learn English. I don’t know this grammar construction but that’s the jist…
daanch surch chadahgvi bn aaa … can’t study…
Me bid hoer “Skype” chadnaa. Bi chamd angli hel tuslan. Chi nadad mongol hel tuslan. We can skype. I can help you with English. You can help me with Mongolian.
Sister za tegeeereei Okay, let’s do that.
миний ажил тарчлаа дараа fc- б таарья. Би гэрлүүгээ явлаа байртай My job is finishing. I’m going home. Goodbye. Yay for Cyrillic alphabet!
Me bayrtai!! Goodbye!!

 

So, the one way that I know that Mongolia really happened is that I speak Mongolian. Well, not actively because I don’t need to. And not well. But, it’s in there. And, sometimes, while I’m drifting off to sleep, I’ll recount my day in Mongolian, as if I’m sitting at the kitchen table talking to my Mongolian family. They are another way I know Mongolia really happened.

Hongor and Love


things I might say

July 18, 2014

Last week I was on a tram in Prague and there was this obnoxious American dude, talking loudly about how he hated the city and would never come back. He managed to use the F-word at least once in every sentence. I hate to give someone like that any kind of power, but the truth is that that’s the kind of thing that can color my day. Of course, there’s no talking to someone like that, either. But, then, quite unexpectedly, the best thing happened. My travel buddy, fellow RPCV Kevin, leaned over to me and said, in Mongolian, that the guy was stupid. And I burst out laughing! And I said, in Mongolian, that the guy uses too many bad words! And that was it, though the incident has stuck with me, it has a completely different meaning now. So, in honor of this keeping-Mongolian-alive-outside-of-Mongolia, I present to you a list of things I might say:

зүгээр (pronounced zoo-ger, with a hard G), this is the equivalent of “it’s alright, don’t worry about it, no problem”
тигье (pronounced tig-ee, that’s Tig like Tigger), this means “yeah, let’s do that, sounds good”
идье, идье (pronounced like eat, eat), it means “eat, eat” so you’ll never know, but I will 🙂
за (pronounced za), this word with so many meanings, that I avoided for that first year, ulitmately I use it for “uh-huh, I hear you, okay”

One of my favorite aspects of Mongolian language is this handy shorthand for etcetera. You say the word, then repeat the word using M as the first syllable. Who’s going? Багш магш (bagsh-magsh) meaning teachers and everyone else. What did you eat for breakfast? Өндөг мөндөг (undokh-mundokh) meaning eggs and all that goes with that. You might also hear it in the form of chilli-milli or pizza-mizza.

And here are a list of words that sound like perfectly ordinary English words, but mean something completely different in Mongolian. I include them here because I expect to smile at my inside knowledge when I hear these:
хайр, sounds exactly like “hair” but means LOVE
нэг, sounds like the name Nick, but means ONE
том, sounds like the name Tom, but means BIG
найм, sounds like name, but means EIGHT
арав, sounds like arrow, but means TEN
би, sounds like be, but means I
миний, sounds like mini, but means MY or MINE
нэр, sounds almost like near, but means NAME
тийм, sounds like team, but means YES
юу, sounds like you, but means WHAT
хэн, sounds like hen, but means WHO
вэ, sounds like way, but is the question particle for questions with answers (not yes-no questions)
хэд, sounds like head, but has to do with counting (like how much does something cost)
сандал, sounds like sandal, but means CHAIR
суу, sounds like so or sew, but means SIT
хэл, sounds like hell, but means LANGUAGE or TONGUE
дуу, sounds like doe or dough, but means SONG
ном, sounds like gnome, but means BOOK
нүд, sounds like nude, but means EYE
чих, sounds like cheek, but means EAR
хамар, sounds almost like hammer, but means NOSE

Things I won’t say, but will want to:
нөгөдөөр (pronounced no-go-der), one word for the day after tomorrow
урчигдөр (pronounced oar-chick-der), one word for the day before yesterday


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!

***********************************************************

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.


observations

April 25, 2014

I’ve given several examples of the Peace Corps cultural training that was brought to life by the Mongolians I have encountered: the students on the playground who put their backpacks on the bench, not on the ground; my host mom rolling down her sleeves before accepting a gift. I’ve often wondered if I would have picked up on these subtle cultural cues if they weren’t pointed out to me beforehand. But I’m starting to think I would have, eventually, because of the sheer number of other observations I’ve made.

Many years ago, I went to Italy with my mom. It was her first time abroad and she was shocked that there would be graffiti juxtaposed with the breathtaking architecture. Well, the buildings aren’t as nice to begin with but Mongolia has graffiti, too. What I’ve noticed, though, is that it isn’t where you’d expect it to be. In schools, there are great big murals in high traffic corridors and in secluded stairwells. There are no mustaches drawn on the people, no defacing of the landscapes, no initials carved into the paint. Is it Mongolian national pride that prevents these kids from leaving their mark? Is it respect for creativity? Is it just because I’m in a small town? I don’t know. But it continually impresses me.

IMG_7140

I have mentioned more than once that Mongolians delight in eating fat. What I haven’t mentioned is that, though Mongolians are on the short side, they otherwise come in all shapes and sizes.

So far as I know, I don’t know any Americans with kidney disease. Americans tend to be more private about chronic health problems, so it’s possible that I just don’t know this information about the Americans I know and have met. But I’ve had at least 6 Mongolians tell me they were receiving treatment for kidney disease. Honestly, I don’t know anything about it. Is it genetic? Environmental? A more broad diagnosis encompassing many ailments? I don’t know.

I’ve mentioned that personal space isn’t a thing here: people regularly hold hands or link arms while walking, rest their hand on your knee or thigh while sitting next to you, or reach across you to plug in or unplug their phone (rather than ask you to do it). In the workplace, I’ve mentioned how patients poke their heads in the doctor’s office to see what’s happening. And on a regular basis, I’ve had coworkers enter my office and come around to look at my computer screen while asking “what are you doing?” It’s less of an issue here since they likely can’t read English, but it’s a behavior that would never fly in my previous hospital jobs.

In America, there are all kinds of native accents; I lost my Boston accent after moving to San Diego at 13. Additionally, speakers of certain foreign languages (Russian, Italian, etc.) give us an accented English that is readily identifiable with their native language. Here’s something that I find very curious: I can’t hear a Mongolian accent. When Mongolians speak to me in English, it is clear that it isn’t their native language but that’s all I know. My M22 site-mate said that it was probably because we are in Mongolia and that when we meet Mongolians living abroad, we’ll be able to parse out their Mongolian accent, at least better than folks who’ve never lived in Mongolia. I’ll have to report back on that.

One observation that was particularly striking (haha!) is how Mongolians strike a match. Of course, we need candles for when the power goes out, which has happened 3 times last week. I should also explain that Mongolians often light incense and light candles when someone dies. (Just a few weeks after arriving at my site, there was a memorial to someone who had passed away. When I saw the dozens of tea-light candles on a table, unattended, in the Education Department corridor, I instinctively thought “Fire! Danger!” As far as I know, there is no fire department in Govi-Altai.) On such an occasion, Mongolians might give to their friends/co-workers a gift bag, including milk, incense, and a box of matches. The practice seems to be that when you receive matches, you promptly light one (be it in the office or the teacher’s lounge) and let it burn down as far as you can.

Now, it never occurred to me that there would be cultural variation in how one strikes a match so if I don’t explain it, you’d likely imagine it’s done the way you do it. First, it’s important that these are wooden matches, because this wouldn’t work with a match from a matchbook. Okay, so you have your wooden match, hold it from the end and hold the box in the other hand so that there is about a 30 degree angle between them, each 15 degrees from the vertical line, then strike down. Then you let it burn out, often rotating it to ensure the flame doesn’t extinguish prematurely.

I mentioned this observation to my CP and she asked how I strike a match. So, I demonstrated holding the box parallel to the floor so that I can strike away from me, and then I put my forefinger over the tip of the match and placed it on the strike surface. It was at that moment that she gasped. And it was at that moment when I realized my fingertip is where the flame would be in a fraction of a second and I totally and completely understood her fear on behalf of my finger. So, I’d never given it thought before, but now I realize that using a matchbook match requires the pressure of the fingertip on the match tip to create the friction necessary to ignite the match. This isn’t true with a wooden match and those are the only kind I’ve seen here, but since that’s how I learned to strike a match, that’s what I continue to do.

Finally, a shoutout to my Greek friends. Why? Because Yanni is HUGE in Mongolia. His 20-year-old inspirational instrumental ballads are a staple at awards ceremonies and celebrations. Weird, yet comforting.


staff

April 11, 2014

Twice a year, in the fall and the spring, staff members fan out across the country for Site Visits. This just happened in March, and it was during this visit that I realized that something was missing from this blog and I aim to correct that here.

When I received the invitation to serve in Peace Corps/Mongolia, I didn’t actively think about who I’d be working with. I knew I’d live with a Mongolian host family for PST, and I knew that in my permanent site I’d have Mongolian counterparts. But if I’d been asked to imagine who made up the Peace Corps staff in Mongolia, I’d probably have assumed they were American. Well, I would have been wrong. Key positions—Country Director, Director of Management and Operations, Director of Programming and Training, and our Medical Officers—are staffed by Americans. And they are supported by a staff of amazing, highly skilled, and effective Mongolians.

If you think about it, it makes sense that the staff would be Mongolian because of the language skills and cultural knowledge necessary to interact with the host families when placing new PCTs, HCAs when placing newly minted PCVs, not to mention Immigration, Police, Ministries of Education, Health, etc., and even issues of office space, transportation and lodging for group-wide PC events, and likely many more things I’m not thinking of. But, if I didn’t explicitly say that there’s a Mongolian to American ratio of 3-to-1, I have an idea that you’d think as I thought. But, I don’t just want you to know that there are more Mongolians than Americans on staff; I want you to appreciate them as I (we) do.

We had lots of Safety and Security sessions during PST, and again at IST and MST, and our Safety and Security Manager gives it to us straight. Being a foreigner in Mongolia makes us more noticeable, and could mark us as a target if someone was looking for one. Our DSS breaks down the difference between walking in UB vs. walking in our community or walking alone vs. walking in a group. She reminds us that we are here as representatives of the United States and that, as such, reacting to a situation as we would in the States (e.g., punching a guy in the face) would have serious repercussions for the reputation of Peace Corps in Mongolia. As we are a Peace Corps, first and foremost, we discussed conflict resolution strategies and ways to de-escalate a situation. But, training in itself is not a deterrent to crime, and despite vigilance on the part of most Volunteers, things do happen (I think pick-pocketing, especially in UB, is the most common). When they do, our DSS is the go-to person. One M24’s experience with harassment highlights the capability of the Safety and Security staff.

Besides Site Visits, one of the ways PC keeps informed of our undertakings is through the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF). A few weeks after submitting my VRF in January, my Regional Assistant called me to discuss. Her ideas were specific and plentiful. They were things I hadn’t thought of yet, though they didn’t come from some generic “pool of ideas for PCVs” script; they were specific to my placement (in the Education Department) and my actual site (which schools, people, etc.).

In a lot of ways, a Peace Corps Volunteer has a lot of autonomy on the job. For our day-to-day work, we report to our HCA, and, so far as I know, outside of Site Visits, there is little communication between our HCAs and PC/Mongolia. Additionally, PCVs do work in the community, which may be entirely off our HCA’s radar. For me, along with this autonomy comes the sense of not knowing where I fit in the grand scheme of PC/Mongolia. I know I’m not a “bad” Volunteer, but I often wonder “am I doing enough?” and that’s only sometimes in comparison to other PCV’s accomplishments. Usually, it’s in the context of thinking that I should be using my downtime more effectively and/by integrating into the community more. My Regional Assistant was able to share with me other PCV’s challenges and perceptions so I know I’m not alone in these thoughts.

My Regional Manager visited this past Site Visit (my last Site Visit). Her visit was more conversational; still covering all the bases, but without the checklist. She let me talk, asked follow-up questions, and let me talk some more. I doubt “make PCV feel good about herself” is in her job description, but these talks inevitably have that effect on me.

I can’t emphasize enough that these staff members are not merely translators so that you can communicate with your CPs, etc. They are genuine liaisons who facilitate these conversations. They can give us the cultural perspective that helps us re-frame our experiences. They provide focus when we can’t see the Gobi desert for the grains of sand. They are our advocates, our motivators, our champions.

And that makes sense too, because if we succeed, Mongolia succeeds.