Last February, a few months after receiving my Peace Corps invitation, I started to tell people about my plans to live in Mongolia. Most people were incredibly happy for me and wildly supportive. That is so great, they’d say. Of course you’re joining the Peace Corps, I can totally see you doing that. It’s gonna be amazing. I’m so proud of you.
But one person’s response surprised me. It was only one word. She looked me dead in the eye, grimaced a little, and asked, Why? She was completely puzzled, and I was unprepared for that. I’d been looking forward to telling her, because I thought she’d be one of the people who’d instantly get it, who’d jump around the room celebrating with me. But she didn’t. For whatever reason (we never really talked about what it was), she just wasn’t feelin’ me. At all.
I of course had an answer for why: I’d been wanting to make a change for a while, blah blah. Been studying anthropology, blah blah blah. Wanted to learn about development, explore a new direction in my career, blah blah blah blah blah. The answer I gave her was the one I’d written in my Peace Corps aspiration statement, the one I’d been sharing with friends who wanted to understand my journey better, and the one I thought I believed myself.
At some point I was going to write an entire blog post on that answer. But I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. Because as much as my answer was tru(ish), I can see now that it was also sort of bullshit. If I had been as self-aware as I thought I was at the time, my answer would have been something more like:
After nearly 20 years of going to work every day and living in my e-mail and bouncing from one deadline to the next, and never really taking time to do the things I think I really want to do, I can’t take it anymore. I’m starved for meaning. I’ll do just about anything to get out. I realize I’m never going to be the person who invents the next-big-thing at Microsoft, and I’m afraid I’m going to die without ever having done anything adventurous or epic in my life. Honestly, I think I may be having a mid-life crisis, and have even asked my therapist if he thought as much. He doesn’t think that’s what this is. He doesn’t seem to have doubts, but I have doubts….
Of course, that’s not what I said, to anyone. I didn’t want to be that person: the one who runs away and joins the Peace Corps to find themselves. And I do have to give myself some credit. That really isn’t who I think I am. I do think I’m in Mongolia for the right reasons…to feel like I’m doing what I can to serve the world in some useful way, to learn about people I might not otherwise have the chance to meet, and yes, to learn more about myself and what makes me happy. OK, so maybe it is a little bit about finding myself.
But here’s the funny thing about this journey: there are some days when life in Mongolia is just as routine and mundane as it was in Redmond, Washington. In between the ger visits and the camel rides and the beautiful children in their traditional Mongolian clothes, I go to work. I make lesson plans. I shop for groceries and I cook. I clean. Some days are just me getting up in my 10’ x 20’ room and doing the same thing I did the day before. No fireworks, no major epiphanies to speak of. Although the Peace Corps gig does theoretically come with Meaningful Activities built in, I don’t necessarily wake up every morning feeling a huge sense of meaning and purpose.
Which is funny. When I was at Microsoft, someone would use the phrase ‘changing the world’ every other second. So much so that I sometimes thought the phrase had lost all meaning: just one more overused cliché. Ironically, one of the things Peace Corps tells prospective volunteers right off the bat is, ‘Don’t join the Peace Corps because you think you’re going to change the world.’ In fact, there’s apparently a well-known Peace Corps poster that purports to show before- and after- photos of a volunteer site. The pictures are exactly the same. The message, and the point of the organization’s advice to volunteers is that real change doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes you will feel like absolutely nothing is happening. Sometimes, you won’t know if you’ve made an impact or not. That’s the nature of development. That’s the nature of change. That’s human nature.
And so, some days I go to school and realize that if I weren’t here, life wouldn’t necessarily be all that different for the teachers and kids with whom I work. I hope I’m adding a little bit to their lives, but they’d be OK without me too.
Sometimes that leads me down a discouraging path. One that says, Wait, why am I here again? Is this all really worth it?
Like last week at 4 AM when I was walking to the outhouse in the snow with a headlamp on, thinking, Remember when you could pee inside? Or, after seeing my fourth Facebook friend in a month—yes, fourth, you all know who you are—post pictures of beachside cocktails from Kauai. (Aww, hell, I thought to myself. Why didn’t you just go there?) Or, even better, after months of watching all the twenty-something PCVs in our group hook up, finding myself grateful to have a thirty-something year-old teacher at my school flirt with me. (You know, actually…he’s kind of cute. So what if he doesn’t speak a word of English? Language is over-rated anyway…)
But there are other days.
A few weeks ago, I went to run an errand at lunchtime. When I came back, the primary school kids were at recess and I heard someone yell, Joanna! But not to me; it was as if they were signaling to others. Moments later I was surrounded by twenty of my fifth-grade English students who just wanted to give me a hug and say hello before going back inside. I’m telling you, if you want to feel loved—and I’m talking Justin Timberlake in a crowd of teenage girls loved—come teach in Mongolia, where simply being an American seems to give you celebrity status.
Or another day when one of my eleventh graders shared with me how kids are unkind to her at school, and I had the chance to tell her how shy and bookish I was in junior high, and how kids were mean to me too—but that it most definitely got better and how I eventually found people just like me, who love me, and that she would too.
Or the days when a seventh-grader shows up at my office to practice her ABCs. It turns out that none of my English teachers know her. They don’t think she’s actually taking English, but might instead be coming to my office for the candy, because she hasn’t eaten and is hungry. So I’ve decided to start bringing oranges and cashews to my office too.
These are the amazing opportunities, the moments that make me want to stay here. But you know what? I didn’t have to come to Mongolia to find any of them. Being here doesn’t make me more ‘legit.’ Living far from home and without a few minor conveniences doesn’t inherently imbue my life with purpose. A sense of meaning isn’t something you find, after all. It’s something you cultivate, day by day. I could have had very similar experiences in the States—in Redmond no less—if only I’d have taken the time.
More than twenty years ago, I read a book called Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby. Blackaby talked about how God is always actively at work around us, but that it’s up to us to recognize and join in with that work. My religious beliefs have changed a lot since I read that but I still remember it and believe it to be true. The problem was, in the States I was so busy making a living, I didn’t have the room—in my head or in my life—to see what was happening around me or how I could join in. That room is the gift that Mongolia is giving me.
So now, even on the days when it seems like nothing much is happening, I try to reassure myself that things are. I try to protect the quiet sense that even if the world looks exactly the same as it did when I touched down in Mongolia last May, that the universe is indeed shifting just a little bit, just because I’ve stayed here one more day. If nothing else, I suspect that I’m being changed, in ways that I might not even notice until I’m back home in the States.
A bunch of my friends started new chapters in their lives last week, after being laid off by Microsoft. I’m thinking of you all as I write this. On the one hand I’m so sorry to hear the news. It can’t have been a pleasant thing to go through and I don’t envy any of you the prospect of looking for a job when you weren’t expecting to have to do so. At the same time, I could not be more thrilled and excited for you. I hope that after so many years at the factory, you have a little time to breathe, even if it’s only for a month or two—to decompress and take stock of where you are in life, and to think about what you really want to do next. I know amazing adventures await you, whether a world away, or right where you are.