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.

IMG_8294

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.

IMG_8308

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!

Advertisements

Judge Love

January 14, 2014

One of the most unique things about being a native English speaker in a foreign country is that we are immediately qualified to be judges for English competitions (and there are lots). We don’t have to have a background in education, or even speak perfect English ourselves, because we are expected to intuitively know when we hear correct vs. incorrect speech. And since judges don’t fix the speech, they just evaluate it, being a native speaker might actually be a sufficient qualification. I do, however, have my doubts about the presumed necessary aspect of having native speakers as judges since I think it puts the importance on grammar rather than on communication, and when I think back to how my host family and I could communicate with so few words, well I get frustrated when students are afraid to speak for fear of being wrong. But, that is a tangent for sure since those were not the students we were evaluating. So, here goes the summary of my experience as a judge last month in UB.

There were 15 judges, all Peace Corps Volunteers, for a few hundred students, both high school and college level. I couldn’t begin to break down the various categories and rankings, so I’ll just link you to it here, if you’re interested.

The prizes for this competition were the huge draw (there were 10,000 participants!), first place at 5 million tugricks (about $3,000, which may not sound like much but is really enough to send a kid to college for several years). This particular speaking competition was brand new, so while there were guidelines there were no pre-determined matrices for us to use as a standard across students and, more importantly, across judging pairs. That was our first task.

Our first day was simply informational. The process was explained and all the judges had a chance to have questions answered. The second day is where we really worked out how we would evaluate. Day three was the competition which was a 10-hour day for the judges.

There were two parts to this competition. The first was a written test two weeks prior. Only students who passed that test came to UB for the second part. The second part included 4 components, only 3 of which required the judges. While judges weren’t needed for the listening exercise (with ten questions), I volunteered to record the text so I can tell you that it was difficult! There were two texts for college students and two texts for high-school students. The two I recorded were: the history of the piano, and something about satire (the purpose of…, what defines…, I don’t remember). The questions were very specific so that even with the text in front of me, I couldn’t answer the questions without looking back to the text, yet the students were expected to answer from memory: advantage to the student who already knew in which century the harpsichord was invented.

So, now to the three parts that required the judges. During our second day, we split into groups of five and each group tackled one of the parts; we then presented to the entire group our plan for evaluating that component. My group was in charge of “The Diagram” which meant that we first had to choose two diagrams (from a stack of diagrams), one for the high school group and one for the college group, then come up with what we would look for in a complete answer. It looked something like this:

Pts HS – Life cycle of a frog College – Cycle of abuse  
5 Use all words Use concepts, phrases from each stage Students must complete all stages of the cycle for full credit
5 Ordering words Ordering words Since these were cycles, students must order them (i.e., first, next, then, after, finally)
3 Complete thoughts Complete thoughts Not necessarily sentences, as native speakers often interrupt ourselves, backtrack, or deviate midway through a sentence.
2 That special something That special something Any mention that a cycle means it will happen again, any reference to relevance in Mongolia, any personal knowledge (i.e., not on the page)
5 Speaking quality Speaking quality Including, but not limited to: confidence, delivery, pronunciation

The students had 15 seconds to look over the diagram and 45 seconds to speak about it.

The second component that students were judged on was translation from a Mongolian text (2 or 3 paragraphs) to English. Since the eligibility requirement was that participants be a citizen of Mongolia, and many Mongolian youth who were educated abroad would have an advantage as far as grammar and speaking ability, this translation component was added to level the playing field, the thought being that students educated abroad might not be fluent in Mongolian (especially written Mongolian). In the end, this translation did exactly what it was designed to do. Of course, as we are not fluent in Mongolian, the group assigned the translation evaluation was given an English version of the text. They identified 13 distinct events in the story (which, by the way, was about Chinggis Khan) and assigned them one point each. For example, the text stated that there was a well-thought out plan for battle, but that it failed; the group decided that the fact that the plan failed (not that it was well-thought out) was the key event. The remaining 7 points were discretionary for things like grammar, and the detail of the translation. The students had no preparation time (i.e., had to translate as they read) and had a minute and a half to two minutes (depending on level) to speak.

The third component was answering a question chosen at random. Sample questions include: Who is a person who influenced you and why? What was your most embarrassing moment? What is your most valuable possession? The students had 15 seconds to prepare/brainstorm their response, and a minute or two (I really forget) to give an answer. The group assigned this component decided that there would be no points for an answer that was off topic. For those that were on topic, we would assign points based on critical thinking (5 pts), intelligibility and flow (3 pts), and grammar (2 pts).

I don’t want to mention any students or identifiable answers in this public forum, so the best I can do here is give an overall impression and some generalizations about the students’ responses. Firstly, I really enjoyed being a part of this activity. As I said, it was a unique experience, especially coming up with the criteria to be evaluated. Also, in addition to seeing some M23 Volunteers I hadn’t seen in months, and meeting some M24s for the first time, I also spent an afternoon talking with some of the Mongolian students (who were not participants) at the English education center.

Now, these are some of the observations that I’ve since taken back to my classrooms in Govi-Altai:

Many students limited their answer to the diagram or question; even if there was time left, they said, “That’s it.” As a judge evaluating a person’s spoken English, I’d strongly encourage students to keep talking: restate the same thing in a different way, add detail, and/or give your opinion of the topic. Don’t let those precious seconds tick by if there is anything else you can add to demonstrate your command of English. One student’s addition to the life-cycle of a frog was completely unexpected!

Many students read from the diagram. Since this was an evaluation of speaking English, this should have been an obvious no-no. Here, I’d encourage the students to put the text into their own words, either initially, or as an explanation of the text. Reading from the text, in addition to not showing English proficiency, did one of two things: it slowed the students down so that they ran out of time and couldn’t finish the diagram, or it caused them to “finish” prematurely (having reached the end, they had nothing else to say).

Many students didn’t take advantage of the brain-storming time allowed for the question; they began their answer immediately. The effect of not planning out their answer meant that many students’ answers were incomplete: to say person X is a wonderful person doesn’t answer the question of how they influenced you. Another result was getting caught up in the details and running out of time, never getting the opportunity to say how person X influenced you.

So, there you have it. Feedback, as always, welcomed and appreciated.

judging_group_shot


Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.


in a rut

November 25, 2013

I was doing pretty good at updating this blog several times a month. That made me happy because, for those of you who read it regularly, I knew you would read it and think of me and it makes me feel less lonely than I might otherwise feel; if that makes any sense.

But lately I find myself not knowing what to write about. I’m not sure if it is because this is my second year, and therefore some of the novelty has worn off. Or maybe it is because, with each turn of the calendar, I find myself counting down the months to my own Close of Service; continually weighing my pre-Peace Corps expectations against what I’ve actually accomplished, and coming to terms with the reality. Of course, it could be the approaching winter that has me mentally hunkering down. So, while I’m awaiting the next unique Mongolian experience, here are some happenings of late that you might be interested in.

Taco night
When our M24, Jerome, received a care package that included taco seasoning, he very generously arranged for a group dinner at his place the following weekend when our soumer, Max, would be visiting. Most Mongolian food doesn’t use much more than salt as far as seasoning goes, so adding flavor is always on our minds when we do our own cooking. Perhaps I’m burying the lede here, because I suspect you are most interested the fact that our tacos had horse meat.

“Well, how was it?” I can hear you asking. It was good! It’s a red meat, very lean, unlike a lot of the mutton we eat. But maybe that’s not fair to the sheep since Mongolians add fat to their food, and since the Americans here don’t buy sheep I’ve never seen it prepared another way. But, back to the horse… This particular horse was not ground meat, which would have been better for tacos. I don’t know if that is the reason it was a bit chewy, or if it needed to marinate or what. The point is that it was good. Especially considering that Jerome purchased the horse meat from the trunk of a car outside of the black market. Maybe it wasn’t strictly cold enough for that yet—this was a few weeks ago—but now that real winter has settled in around us, with temps regularly below freezing, the trunk of a car is better than a freezer because it requires no electricity.

Early Thanksgiving
For those who don’t know, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I simply love that there is a day set aside to acknowledge what we already have; I especially love that there are no gifts exchanged, since gift selection is not among my skills. Maybe that is why Black Friday enrages me so… the early morning hours, the crowds, the frenzy, the prices so low that you have to buy more things because you haven’t spent enough: a five-dollar DVD becomes a stocking stuffer.

This past Saturday night, my three site-mates and I joined a few of the other non-Mongolians in Govi-Altai for a Thanksgiving dinner. We had chicken legs rather than turkey but, as one who often opted to fill her plate with all the side dishes and forgo the turkey altogether, that didn’t give me pause. This year, side dishes included mashed potatoes and gravy, an enormous fresh salad (with cabbage), macaroni and cheese, sliced carrots (there are no baby carrots here) cooked in with the chicken. My contribution to the meal was mashed turnips, a first for me, and prepared more out of curiosity. Over dinner, we wondered aloud, again, why are there no yams or sweet potatoes in this country with a bounty of other root vegetables. Also absent were the signature stuffing, cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole.

tgiving

We M23s were looking forward to a trip to UB—conveniently scheduled to coincide with Thanksgiving—for our required flu shot. However, due to the Continuing Resolution (e.g., no new money for Peace Corps), our Thanksgiving in the capital is canceled, and other arrangements are being made to get us vaccinated. What this really means is that we will not see our peer group, as a whole, until our COS Conference in March or April. There are so many really cool people I haven’t gotten to know as well as I’d have liked.

Vocational School Teachers
There have been some ups and downs in my Peace Corps service; I’ll wait to share some of that in another entry because I do want to be balanced. But, for now, I want to shout out to my new group of teachers at the local vocational school. We PCVs got an alcohol-awareness life skills training off the ground in September (it had stalled in the spring, so that it finally happened was exceptionally gratifying). Rather than launching the training at the high schools (maybe why we had difficulty the first time), we went to the vocational school.

After the first planning meeting, the principal asked if we could begin giving English lessons for the staff, not the students. As the TEFL volunteer, I agreed, but not without some private concern that it would fall apart, that people would lose interest or show up but not participate. It’s been two months now and that hasn’t happened. While there certainly isn’t perfect attendance, the teachers, by and large, do come. And they are enthusiastic to speak, to ask and answer questions. Mistakes are made, but no one is embarrassed about them. They want more vocabulary, practice with each other in class, and ask for homework. Those two nights a week that I trek to the other side of the town, I couldn’t be happier. And for that, I am very thankful.


The Others

June 2, 2013

There will inevitably come a time when someone is telling me what a great thing I did serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia and I’ll be a little dismissive of how exceptional it was. I can assure you, this won’t be Love-being-modest or self-deprecating. Here’s what will be going on: my life here has become my life. It isn’t that much different from my life back home, except for in the most obvious ways. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I’ve read the Peace Corps informational email that I’d subscribed to during the application process, my mind went to that place of “oh, someday, I’m gonna do that” before I remembered: I am doing that.

The other piece of this reality check is that there are other non-PCVs/non-Mongolians living in or traveling through Govi-Altai, and I should remind you that Govi-Altai isn’t on the way to anywhere. These encounters have left an impression on me and are as much a part of my experience living in Mongolia, in a way that meeting foreigners in America never was. They’ll be what I’m thinking of when I respond that what I did in Mongolia “wasn’t that big a deal.”

In my first week or so in Govi-Altai, I saw two men in the post office. As they were clearly not Mongolian, and I was clearly not Mongolian, we struck up a conversation. The Romanians explained to me that they were participants of the Mongol Rally, a driving adventure from the UK to UB, Mongolia. So: they pay a fee to participate, make all the arrangements themselves, drive 8-10 thousand miles, crossing maybe a dozen countries. They arrive in three to four weeks, the cars are auctioned off for charity, and then they fly home. Even thinking about it now, I am still astounded.

Last fall, I went to the hospital to meet some Americans who were visiting Govi-Altai. In their words, they were a “volunteer, non-denominational, Christian organization,” that provides screenings of children to identify heart defects. In phase II, a pediatric cardiac surgery team is brought in to treat the young patients and continue to improve the Mongolian cardiac-care system, which the MD-blogger writes is “about thirty to fifty years behind pediatric cardiac surgical care in the U.S.” There is some amount of proselytizing during all this, of course, but, as I understand it, the screenings and surgeries (even those that can’t be done here and require travel to the US) are at no cost to the patients.

In late fall/early winter last year, a young Swiss woman named Daria came through Govi-Altai. She had previously lived in Mongolia for 6 months working on a camel farm, doing camel research. Those of us in town took her to karaoke, and, though she didn’t sing, she chipped in for the room.

For all these chance encounters, there are some reliable ones too. In Govi-Altai, there are 2 European women (from the Netherlands and Switzerland) who’ve twenty years here between them and speak impressive Mongolian. There’s an Australian woman and an American couple who live here 6 months of the year. Though they are here as missionaries on behalf of JCS (Joint Christian Services), some have day jobs in the community, including working with disabled children or teaching handicrafts at the felt workshop so local women can have a sustainable means of support. I don’t see them regularly, but as the collective foreigners, there is a definite sense that we can turn to one another. The Iowans gave me a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with chicken in lieu of turkey) when all my site mates were out of town during my favorite holiday. I’ve spent the past two weeks cat-sitting for the Swiss woman; it would have been a most unwelcome request of her Mongolian neighbor. As compensation, I receive much love and affection from Mimosa, the purr-monster, and full use of the apartment amenities, most notably the fully automatic washing machine.

The latest person to roll through Govi-Altai left this morning, on his bicycle. By the time he got to me, he had put 1,000 km behind him. Maxime, a Frenchman, living and working in Germany, is still at the beginning of a solo bike-trek from UB, through China, a few of the ‘stans, ending his journey in Iran. It was by PCV word-of-mouth that he found me here and his impressive undertaking was so momentous that I needed to help him in any way I could: use of my rice-cooker, a share in my load of laundry, a safe place to store his bike, a bed for the night (an especially easy offer since I was staying at the cat house). I was even able to give him an English-speaking contact for his next soum. From my perspective, my contribution to Maxime’s trip was so small, but the way he thanked me, you’d think I was some bicycle-trip savior.

For better or worse, my whole life my mom has been “taking in strays,” which I guess isn’t a nice way to refer to people who need help, but doing so is an effective way to teach your kids about helping others in need. So long as you can identify their need.

This weekend marks my one year anniversary in Mongolia! To all my peeps, and especially my new friend Maxime, may the wind always be at your back.


IST Challenges

January 3, 2013

IST – In-Service Training

Before I get into this, I should preface it with a disclaimer of sorts and that is: I love this stuff. I love getting diverse people together and asking questions (leading or open-ended, it doesn’t matter to me). I love seeing concepts illustrated with images, brainstorming and team-building activities. I love sessions that present something of which I’ve had only an inkling and walking away feeling illuminated. I love hearing what others have to say and especially that moment when I think, “I had no idea. You just blew my mind.” I readily admit they don’t all go this way. But, I also love giving honest, constructive feedback… muah-ha-ha!

Normally, I go to these meetings that I enjoy and take notes that I feel are important and then never look at them again—just one of my idiosyncrasies that bugs me. But, this blog is the perfect excuse (why do I always need an excuse?) to revisit what I felt was worth writing down. If I am right, at the end of reading this, you’ll have some insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Mongolians.

In the “Expectations and Challenges” session, we were asked to recall our expectations when we got to site, then list our current challenges. Note, I’ve cherry-picked these responses to highlight the cultural aspects.

One of the Mongolians’ expectations was that we would become accustomed to living in the Mongolian winter. (One month after my exposure to the frigid UB temps and my big toes are only about 85% normal; strike one for Love.) They also expected that we would be an active member of our schools. Seems fair enough, right?

The PCVs’ expectations included a desire to use our skills other than English (we are more than just TEFL beings) but, at the same time, that our CPs be aware of our limitations (e.g., just because we can read English, does not mean we can fix your computer).

And now, the challenges
The Mongolians listed “pets” at the very top of their challenges in dealing with American PCVs. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but, as a rule, Mongolians do not have pets, though there are many dogs and some cats throughout the country. The dogs in their hashaa (yard) are guard dogs, and even those are feared. Dogs are the reason our host families wanted us home before dark. (In defense of this reasoning, dog bites are a very common reason for a PCV’s trip to the medical staff in UB.) Cats are seen as evil spirits, as I understand it. So, the PCVs who take in a stray dog or cat are effectively creating a wedge between themselves and their community. Makes it hard to host a dinner, for example.

Another hot-button issue for the Mongolians is the everyday appearance of their PCV. Mongolians, as a rule, are very professional looking. Remember that the average PCV age skews post-college, but even those of us who are outliers likely came from casual workplace environments. Yes, it’s true that we had to pack for 2 years (including all seasons of clothing) and were allowed only 100 pounds of baggage, but this complaint isn’t about the wardrobe, per se. For, even if the Mongolian women wear the same three dresses, they are always clean and presentable. A big sigh to the Americans hand-washing in a tumpun… or not, as it were.

Also on the list of challenges for the Mongolians is their PCV’s Mongolian language skills. Here, I hang my head in embarrassment (strike two for Love.) I had thought my motivation would translate into learning, all by itself. Not to say that I’m not putting in effort, just that by my own standard I am not doing nearly as much studying as I had thought I would and am therefore not nearly where I expected to be after 7 months in the country!!! Please hear me when I say this, it is a two-part message: 1. any foreigner who enters America and works with people who speak their native language (as my CP speaks to me in English) will have great difficulty learning English on their own just by merely living in the culture; 2. any American who ever uttered the words “if I were going to move to a country, I’d learn the language” as if it were the most effortless thing, and held the oft-accompanying belief that not learning the language was a choice made by the individual—is ignorant. Yes, I just said that. My built-in thesaurus gives me these alternatives: unaware, uninformed, rude, impolite, inconsiderate. Any of those will do, too. I’d also add xenophobic. Long before Peace Corps, I was preaching from the learning-a-foreign-language-is-hard soapbox. I’ve always admired those who are conversational in a second language, but only now can I really empathize with those who are struggling with English. Only now do I really champion those who try, especially when they are wrong.

Aaaaand, back to the list.  A few other things the Mongolians find challenging when dealing with American PCVs I will group as their concern for our wellbeing: what are they eating? are they eating enough? can they make a fire? are their clothes warm enough? are they missing home? did they remember to lock their door? Some of the PCVs, easily and understandably, misinterpret this as patronizing the helpless American and find it suffocating and even belittling. But not me! Not Love-of-the-frozen-toes! I’d tell you I’d embrace this kind of being cared for, except that I don’t live in a ger (which comes with a hashaa family) so I’m not experiencing the brunt of it. Maybe that’s also why I can see that it comes from a place of concern.

Now for the American challenges living in Mongolia and working with Mongolians: As casual as we Americans are, we love our clocks! We want the Mongolians to make a schedule and stick to it; give us as much notice as possible; not be late for meetings and especially NOT not show up at all. I find this fascinating.

We want the CPs to understand that we have responsibilities to Peace Corps in addition to those of the HCA and when they conflict, the PC expectations win out.

We pointed out that PCVs face the challenges of: “diminishing interest” in our roll over time (my very first Staff English class had about 8 people; since then it is usually 4, and not the same 4, despite their insistence that I am a good English teacher); “lack of specificity/details” in what they’ve asked us to do; differences in school and classroom norms from what we are used to.

Observation 1: I wrote above that the Mongolians expectation was that their PCV would be an active member of the school? Turns out the PCVs would counter with “don’t assume we know what’s going on” event-wise (and, of course, “give us as much notice as possible”).

Observation 2: Juxtaposed to that list of Mongolians concern for our wellbeing are a special set of PCV challenges summarized as “understand our stresses.” This was explained as being away from friends and family, struggling with the language, where to buy warm boots… not exactly parallel lists, but certainly overlapping ones.

It’s a fine line between understanding and assumption. IST was a valuable, eye-opening week for PCV-CP relations, Mongolian-American relations, and Love-PCV peers relations, since none of us is having the same experience in the Peace Corps, in our jobs, or in Mongolia.


frozen toes

December 18, 2012

For the past 12 days I haven’t been able to feel my toes. Okay, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration… they feel swollen even though they look normal sized and touching the toes gives sort of a dull sensation, almost as if Novocain is wearing off, though I can move them normally and walking isn’t a problem.

Here’s what happened: From my Aimag, flights to the capital are only available Tuesdays and Fridays. That meant that I had to arrive in UB Friday for the Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST) for TEFLs, which began the following Monday. (I found the training super informative and I plan to write about it in the next few days.) The background info is that buses in UB are 400 togrogs, whereas a taxi ride from the airport would be at least 15,000. That enormous difference in transportation cost partially explains my decision to brave the bus, but generally speaking, I am a proponent of public transportation and taking taxis is something I seldom do, wherever I happen to be. Additionally, the Mongolian “taxis” are often simply people who own cars… you flag them down and they take you where you want to go and charge you, but there are no regulations. I have no qualms about couchsurfing or hostels, yet I can’t put into words why this car-sharing makes me uncomfortable. Furthermore, my site mate with a year more living-in-Mongolia experience drew me a map with walking directions to the bus stop and assured me it was “the only way to do it.”

The two-hour flight from my Aimag was uneventful and I found the bus stop with little trouble. However, on the ten-minute walk there I could see that I was just missing a bus and found myself waiting in -35°C temps wearing two layers of socks and hiking boots. After about 20 minutes I got on the first bus that came, even though it wasn’t the most direct bus, just to get out of the cold. That ended up not mattering much because, as it turns out, this time of year the UB city buses are equivalent to an ice-box with a sheet of frost on the inside of every window—obscuring the view from all but the windshield. (I thought it curious that they would paint the windows white; it wasn’t until I saw that someone had scraped a treble clef into the frost that I understood what I was looking at.) Unfortunately, there is no picture of this because removing my mittened hands from my pockets, and then removing the hands from the mittens, and then unzipping my coat where my camera was around my neck (to keep it from freezing), and then unzipping the camera case, each seemed either unsafe for my fingers or requiring more finger dexterity than I had.

I like to think of myself as a methodical and reasoning individual, but one trait that surprises even me, and that I continually exhibit, is impulsiveness. On this Friday night it reappeared when I got off the bus because everyone else was getting off the bus. Of course, having gotten off the bus, and not recognizing anything, I then decided that I needed to walk in a random direction in the hopes of seeing something that looked familiar, in a city that accommodates over a million people, in which I had spent only 5 days, three months before. I trudged along with my large suitcase rolling behind me, following a woman who didn’t know she was my guide. It was a good twenty minutes before I reconsidered and turned back to the bus stop, another twenty or so minutes waiting at the bus stop before asking which one gets me to Sukhbaatar Square and being told that I am on the wrong side of the street. Another ride in the ice-box-on-wheels, just 3 or 4 stops, and I was there! Almost. I couldn’t find the hostel, which didn’t matter because we (the entire training site gang) were actually staying somewhere else. A few phone calls made with frozen fingers and someone came to fetch me and take me to the room.

Saturday morning, I was surprised to find my three big toes still numb. After breakfast, I stayed inside a full 30 hours, forgoing the plans I had to see a movie and eat popcorn, willing my feet to thaw.

On Sunday morning, once again I awoke with numb-ish toes. This time, I soaked them in warm water as the medical staff instructed us during summer training. I also rested them against the radiator which felt good but didn’t make a difference. When I did get out in the afternoon, I picked up some camel wool socks since everyone swears by them… while they might keep the cold out, I can tell you they don’t take the cold out once it’s in.

Monday was our first day of IST, which was in a beautiful part of UB—surrounded by pine trees—about 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown. We would stay for 5 days and 4 nights and with all meals provided there was no reason for me to venture out until Friday afternoon when the buses came to take us back to the city.

Though I’d soaked my feet in the hotel tub a few times, they felt far from normal so many days after exposure that by Wednesday I was concerned enough to ask the medical staff to take a look. They were concerned that my toes looked white, but then I always look more pale than not being one who avoids the sun. With a few pokes, the tiniest bit of color came into the toes. And since I could move them and had sensation when touched, even though it was dull, it was a good indication that, while damage was clearly done, it wouldn’t be permanent.

Today is a full week after that, and still my toes feel thick and dull. I’ve been soaking in warm water once or twice a day for the past 4 days. Yesterday I thought my middle toes were much better, leaving just the two big toes of each foot feeling thick and dull. If I had to quantify it, I’d say maybe 50% sensation in the two big toes, 80% in the middle toes, and the two small toes are 95%.

It was a hard lesson to learn. At so many points I could have turned things around by making better, indeed smarter and safer, decisions. I didn’t know the temperature in UB that Friday night, but I didn’t need to to know what I was feeling in my feet. There is an entire Mongolian winter ahead of me, so perhaps this scare was necessary for me to understand first-hand how easy it is to take such risks. I already know how easy it is to avoid them.