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.

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Language Update, 1 year later

September 2, 2013

MST gave us the opportunity to have an informal language assessment. All of the language teachers Peace Corps provides are friendly, speak clearly and at a slightly slower pace than normal conversation, and allow us the precious time to finish our thoughts. In that way, these aren’t like regular conversations with everyday Mongolians. I subjected myself to it because I needed validation that my Mongolian language has improved over the last year. Another reason was because I wanted that confirmation to motivate me to redouble my efforts at language study. Without further suspense (insert drumroll here), I advanced by TWO levels!!!—from Novice-High (the minimum proficiency required by Peace Corps) to Intermediate-Mid.

The language assessment was a conversation between me and the tester. We covered the basics: where I’m from, where I live in Mongolia, where I work and what I do. She asked how far I live from work and I told her it was about a 7-minute walk. She asked me to tell her about my apartment and had a follow-up question: what floor do you live on? I didn’t hesitate: Bi neg davxhart amdardag—I live on the first floor. She asked about my hobbies and I said I make hats and she asked, “how many hats did you make?” I wanted to answer “When I was in America, I made…” but I realized I didn’t know that grammar point, so I fumbled my way through but she got the gist (90 vs 15). She asked how many people live in Boston and I answered 500,000—though I’m not sure of the accuracy of that number, it’s what I’ve been using. I told her Boston is a small city (because in my mind it stretches the 3 miles from the North End to The Fenway), then she wanted me to compare it to the million people in UB… I didn’t know how to explain the nuance of “Well, Boston includes Dorchester, Southie, Charlestown, East Boston, JP… so, in fact, it’s much bigger than 3 miles.” But, I understood what she was asking and will leave out the 3-miles bit from now on. At the end, she invited me to ask her questions. I started with “Where are you from?” and expressed surprise that she was born in UB and had lived her whole life there. I asked what languages she speaks and she answered “Of course, Mongolian, also Russian, and a little English.” I asked her if she thought English was difficult. She was emphatic that it was. She wrote the word “light” on a piece of paper and said, in Mongolian, “Why?!” I just shook my head in acknowledgment… the madness of English.

Immediately upon learning of my two-level increase, I realized that if I were to improve another two levels by Close of Service, I will finish Peace Corps service as an Advanced-Low speaker of Mongolian. But, knowing that I put in minimal effort (limited to vocabulary study) this past year, and since I plan to really study and speak more over the next year, my goal is Advanced-High. There it is, in writing, for the world to see. Four more levels—ZA!