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.
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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

Goodbye Peace Corps

September 9, 2014

A week from today I begin my new job… er, my old job… I’ve been invited back to my old department! While my Europe travel buddies were sending resumes and having Skype interviews, and I was staunchly in vacation mode, this gift of full-time employment (with so many lovely people)–that was difficult to walk away from the first time around–was offered to me anew. So, with a new (old?) gig on the horizon, it’s about time I get this Farewell-to-Peace Corps blog out there.

Leaving Peace Corps
As with leaving any job, leaving Peace Corps involved a series of things that had to be completed and then verified by appropriate personnel: returning our Mongolian IDs, Peace Corps property (water filter, smoke detector), having our passport Visa deactivated, and closing our bank accounts. A few of these would be global Peace Corps requirements (though maybe the type of property to be returned depends on the country of service), whereas others were specific to how things are done in Mongolia (maybe not every country issues an ID). In addition to the final VRF that each of us was required to complete, we also had to write a 2-3 page Description of Service (DOS) which is our official summary of our Peace Corps service. But actually leaving Peace Corps was more than checking these things off the list.

So many goodbyes
To PCVs, who once were spread out across Mongolia and would soon be spread out across America and the globe. I spent many hours in the PCV lounge those last few days of service. Mostly I was using the internet but it put me in a central location for catching up with the others going through the COS Checklist. They’re going off to graduate school, law school, staying for a third year in Mongolia, staying in Mongolia to work outside of Peace Corps, staying in Mongolia to travel, traveling their way home (as I would), living abroad… as many different paths as there are people. We were a solid group, the M23s.

To the wonderful PC/Mongolia staff. That checklist required us to meet with people in many positions, including administrative, general services, medical, programming, and a one-on-one exit interview with the Country Director. During the waiting for signatures, I was lucky that other staff members had time to chat with me. What could have been a very frenetic two days was, instead, a very pleasant series of casual conversations that went beyond goodbye. It was very satisfying to have this downtime. It echoed leaving Govi-Altai and my host family in Orkhon.

The Ringing of the Bell
Following receipt of the final signature on our COS checklist, we were officially done. When we were ready, we took this ceremonial bell into the office of the Administrative Assistant so that she could have it broadcast over the intercom while we rang it. Within a few minutes, the entire staff stopped what they were doing and came to the lobby to say a final goodbye and give a final hug and wishes for safe travels. I don’t believe this is standard operating procedure Peace Corps wide, I think it was adopted from one of the senior staff member’s own country of service. I’ve tried to imagine what ending service would have been like without the ringing of the bell. The words that come to mind are: unfinished, incomplete, anticlimactic, sad. Ringing that bell wasn’t merely symbolic. It was a definitive, tangible moment.

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I rang the bell jointly with two people who were important to my Peace Corps service. One was Jason, a site mate of mine during PST. After we each went to our permanent sites, a few times I sent him a card with some Starbucks instant coffee packs that I’d received in a care package. You know how you associate certain people with certain things? Well, for me, Jason = coffee (and running) because our first morning in Mongolia, at the ger camp outside of UB, he shared his coffee with a few of us (after he returned from a run in those sneakers that have toes). Plus, he was in a soum without any sitemates and I was blessed with so many awesome people at my site and we often ate meals together (meals that were enhanced by what was in our care packages)… and, besides, who doesn’t like to receive mail?

The other person was Genni, who I honestly didn’t know well at the time but was about to become my second European travel buddy for three weeks and would therefore forever be inextricably tied to the end of my Peace Corps service. You know how you get a feeling about a person, like you know that the person is really cool and you want to get to know them better, and you’re just waiting for that opportunity to do so to come along? Well, for me, Genni was that kind of person and our Europe trip was that opportunity. So, I was glad that we finished our service nearly simultaneously and were able to ring the bell together, thus kicking off our 3 weeks of bonding.

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By the way, I’m pretty sure it is unusual for RPCVs to waltz into a full-fledged career upon return, especially given that many (e.g., those right out of college) have little pre-Peace Corps work experience. So, while I wasn’t looking forward to the job search, and I was counting on my work history to give me an advantage therein, I was expecting to put in the time…believe me, my good fortune is not lost on me!

As I wrote before, I have a few more Mongolia topics in the works so this blog isn’t done yet. To those of you still reading, thanks!


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.


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.

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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.


a third year

February 24, 2014

There are many opportunities for PCVs to take on additional roles during our 27-month commitment. We can offer ourselves for consideration as a VAC member (voted in by our PCV peers), representing our region as a liaison between Volunteers and Peace Corps/Mongolia staff. There are various task forces (e.g., disabilities, alcohol) to join and other projects (monthly newsletter, cookbook revision) to take on. We can apply for non-Peace Corps projects (such as judging an English competition or leading a summer camp). We can apply to attend, with a counterpart, PDM (Project Design and Management, I think), an optional training/seminar about half-way through the first and/or second year. We can apply to be a PST trainer for the incoming class of Trainees, after our first or second year. Any of these ad-ons is what really makes each PCVs service unique. Additionally, we can apply to be a PCVL (L for Leader) in a third year, with time split between a Host Country Agency and PC responsibilities (In-Service Training, Mid-Service Training, etc.). And, finally, we can apply for an extension of our current position (or with a new HCA) for 3 months to a year.

A third year is something we discuss within our different circles (PST site mates, permanent site mates, project group members, friends), maybe beginning after the first year. From the beginning, I hadn’t considered a third year. To my mind, I came to the Peace Corps for the Peace Corps experience and after these two years are up, I will have gotten it. I came to Mongolia for the living abroad experience and I have gotten that. By coming here, I paused my life-in-America and I was eager to restart it with this new experience chronologically behind me but forever a part of me. So, when I say that I hadn’t considered a third year, I literally mean I hadn’t considered it.

Recently, my friend asked me if returning home was the default option. Meaning that, since I’ve now lived abroad, is it something I would like to continue to do (in Mongolia or elsewhere). Now, if this thought didn’t occur to you, maybe it springs from her living in Singapore for 4 years, because, the truth is, yes, returning home is the default option. Now that I’ve lived outside of America, I really would like to continue living abroad, or to do it again in the future. Some TEFL volunteers go this route post service, using their Peace Corps experience as a stepping stone to continue teaching English abroad. As for me (my own worst critic), I don’t feel my particular classroom experience has given me this confidence. I’ve no doubt, however, that many volunteers finish well prepared for the tasks of lesson planning, classroom management and teaching the four aspects of language. So, despite the fact that I would indeed like to continue living abroad, I really don’t know how I would go about it, absent the TEFL angle. I suppose another option would have been to apply to an international graduate school, but I didn’t get my act together enough to apply to any school, which precludes the international school altogether. Basically, I am preparing to return home to nothing… not to dismiss all you lovely people awaiting my return, but I don’t have a plan for a job or even where I will live (and the two cities on the table are not remotely close).

I got the email from the Country Director announcing the possible Close of Service dates. It was very exciting to begin the countdown. But sitting right next to that in my inbox was the lengthy email with information for a third year. Though I hadn’t been considering it, I read the email. It sounded exciting, rewarding, and meaningful. I thought of the projects that are just now getting underway and how amazing it would be to see them through. I thought of my opportunity for language improvement and deepening my friendships with my Mongolian friends and my PCV site mates. Part of me thought, “well, I don’t have a plan anyway, so why not?” Within all these rapid fire thoughts, and entirely unexpectedly, I found myself considering a third year of Peace Corps Service in Mongolia. With a very uncertain frame of mind, I sought guidance for this decision from my mom and sister-in-law, both of whom were completely supportive of either decision, which was really no help at all! I also discussed with my site mate her reasons for applying for a third year.

Well, this blog post isn’t building up to an announcement. Ultimately, I have decided not to pursue a third year. But, I want you to know that the decision was not easy. And, for the record, at no point while I was making this decision did I consider the extreme winters, the scarcity of produce, or the once weekly shower as reasons for leaving. I’ve just come to see that the feeling that “there’s so much more to do” goes hand in hand with working in a developing country. So, instead of thinking of what I will miss by leaving as scheduled, I’m going to try and focus on what I’ve done, and what I’ve still to do, as these last few months tick by.


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.